Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 3-1 Real Madrid

Manchester United lined up in the 3-5-2 formation that has now become familiar under Louis van Gaal, with a strong line-up against Real Madrid that included Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera. Once again Darren Fletcher captained the side.

For the fourth tour match running, the performance from United was an improvement from the last game, and was most definitely the best performance on the tour so far. It is not difficult to reason that the performances have improved as the players have become more accustomed to their roles within the new 3-5-2 system, and therefore against Real Madrid the team was able to operate at a really high level and come away with a comfortable victory.

The first United goal this evening epitomised everything that works with this system. Having three centre backs allows the team to be in comfortable possession at the back while the wing-backs move forward and impose themselves further up the pitch. This then creates a scenario where United can play through the middle using Herrera, Fletcher and Mata, or go out wide and use the wing-backs, who can be supplemented by either forward pulling out to the wings and creating two versus one situations. For the first goal, Fletcher’s break through the middle allows the midfield to feed the forward line, and because of the presence in the middle of the park, the defenders are drawn across leaving Ashley Young, the left wing-back as an attacking outlet in the penalty area. It is interesting to see how the positioning of this system allows United to control possession in advanced areas of the pitch, whilst remaining safe from the counter attack due to the three centre backs.

After beating Inter Milan on penalties, I wrote that it was his willingness to learn from the manager and adapt to a new role within the new system that may give him a platform to save his United career and take his impressive pre-season form into the new season. Young himself has admitted that he is enjoying the new role, and his confidence is showing in his form so far. He has featured very competently as a wing-back, and offered an offensive threat as well against Real Madrid. His resurgence is very impressive, and a confident Ashley Young will be a real asset to van Gaal and United this season.


Much has been said about the impressive form of Mata, Rooney and Herrera on this tour, but the second half against Real Madrid indicated that there are other members of the squad who will benefit from this new system, and will be able to take advantage of it. Although many of the changes were not made right after half time, this is the line up that played for the majority of the second period.

Although many of the changes were not made right after half time, this is the line up that played for the majority of the second period.

Marginalised under David Moyes, Javier Hernandez will feel he has a point to prove this year. In the 3-5-2, he will no longer be isolated as a lone striker, but more importantly the build up play and supply lines in this system suits his poaching instinct well. As I have already alluded to, this system can be exploited by playing through the middle and through the lines of the opposition, or using the support of the wing-backs in the wide areas. Against Real Madrid, Chicharito benefitted from both and reminded everyone what kind of threat he can be. His pace and movement meant he could link up with the ‘number 10’, in this case, Shinji Kagawa, with short vertical passes in behind the defence for the Mexican to latch onto. He almost scored from one or two, and did get his head to a fantastic pass from Shinji Kagawa to score United’s third. Additionally, he almost got on to the end of a cross from Jesse Lingard, demonstrating the advantage that can be gained from exploiting the wide areas correctly.

Just like Ashley Young has proved, many of this United squad are willing and capable of adapting to new roles within this system. Lingard, Blackett and Michael Keane are three youngsters who have proved themselves as perfectly capable members of the Manchester United squad, despite being played out of position or in a system that is unfamiliar to them. Louis van Gaal’s assessment of the squad and selection of the 3-5-2 system seems spot on so far, and the squad are improving game by game. With just two weeks to go until the season starts, and hopefully further additions to the squad in the pipeline, Louis van Gaal and Manchester United look set to impress in the Premier League in the coming months and return to the summit of English football.


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