How Manchester United can use 3-1-4-2 formation from Sampdoria and Chelsea matches to nullify Real Madrid

Pre-season is finally over, and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United look readier than ever to start a second campaign that should be the best since Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford. However, the most difficult match of the season could be the very first, as United are pitted against double-reigning Champions League victors Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

While the Super Cup isn’t the biggest match in football, it is a very good trophy to win, and with United playing against one of the best sides in the world after a few seasons of mediocrity, this is as good of a chance as ever for Mourinho to show that his team are ready to rise back to the top of the beautiful game.

Against Sampdoria, United deployed a 3-1-4-2 system against Sampdoria’s 4-4-2 diamond and reigned successful, as Mourinho’s formation of choice gave United an extra defender at the back, an even match on the wing, and near-equality in midfield.

Mourinho famously utilized a similar system to beat Chelsea at Old Trafford, in a match where United fielded what was largely a second-string side and won 2-0 as Ander Herrera marked Eden Hazard out of the game. Like Sampdoria on Wednesday, Real Madrid have mainly deployed a 4-4-2 diamond formation in recent months.

More importantly, though, the 4-4-2 diamond shares similarities with Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation, as both feature a front three, three central figures at the back, and just two wide players. Real’s system focuses more on midfield, whereas Chelsea prefer box-to-box wingbacks, but these can be adjusted for in Mourinho’s potentially intricately tweaked tactics for the night.

Elements of the System that beat Chelsea

United’s successes against Chelsea were entirely predicated upon the effectiveness of a man-marking system. Mourinho’s back three man-marked Chelsea’s front three, the midfield duo marked Chelsea’s midfield duo, and Jesse Lingard worked hard to get between the lines and pull players out of position for Marcus Rashford to expose gaps in Chelsea’s back three.

Most importantly, though, Ander Herrera was assigned as an extra man to mark Eden Hazard in Chelsea’s front three, with Eric Bailly left as the extra man in the defence for cover while Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian expertly played Diego Costa and Pedro out of the game, respectively.

Marouane Fellaini didn’t give new United man Nemanja Matic a moment of rest on the day, but Matic still escaped the match with more dignity than N’Golo Kante, who was played off the park by Paul Pogba. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were directly matched with wing backs Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta, too, not allowing Chelsea to gain an attacking advantage anywhere on the pitch.

How can this be applied to Real Madrid?

The problem with Real Madrid is their added effectiveness in possession compared to Chelsea, and Mourinho is likely to combat this with Ander Herrera man-marking Real Madrid’s vital Luka Modric. Nemanja Matic, Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling, and Daley Blind will be responsible for Real Madrid’s likely front three of Isco, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema.

Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia showed tireless energy against Sampdoria and will attempt to nullify Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, two of the best fullbacks in the world, and with Herrera on Modric, Paul Pogba will most likely be on his equally talented accomplice, Toni Kroos. Kroos tends to roam less than Modric, who Herrera could be instructed to follow everywhere while Pogba limits Kroos’ effectiveness.

Jesse Lingard effectively made it difficult for David Luiz to control the game for Chelsea at the back, and against Real Madrid, it could be Henrikh Mkhitaryan who presses Casemiro on the ball while Romelu Lukaku attempts to get the best of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane at the back.

Mourinho could also use Marcus Rashford, but Lukaku scores a higher percentage of his chances, and he started against Sampdoria, much like every player listed above barring Herrera, who should replace Andreas Pereira in the side.

The result?

Against Chelsea, United’s nullification of the Blues’ individual players countered the fact that their players combined to nullify each other’s weaknesses, but against Real Madrid, the Red Devils will be up against it regardless of how Mourinho approaches the match.

The plan will be to man-mark Real Madrid with an extra man to relieve danger, and the resulting disadvantage for this extra man will occur as Lukaku is matched up with two defenders.

An early goal could change the match in favour of either side, but Real Madrid scored in every match last season and United’s second-string defence will likely need to bury at least two unless Mourinho plans on having his players take spot-kicks. If any system has a chance of containing Real and scoring goals, though, this could very well be the one.

Written by Aaron Moniz


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