The grounds at the Skopje Philip II Arena situated in the heart of FYR Macedonia were ready for the 2017 European Super Cup — a clash between two of the most storied clubs in European history. Manchester United sported a slightly different look as high profile acquisitions in Lukaku and Matic were in the starting line-up. On other fronts (especially defensively), they fielded a number of secondary players due to the absences of key men because of suspensions and injury.
The European Champions — recently whole again as Ronaldo, the only player still on vacation as of last week, rejoined the camp in the leadup to the match. Fresh off the unprecedented success of back-to-back Champions Leagues, Real Madrid were looking to pick up where they left off in 2016-17. Zidane played what could be assumed to be his preferred XI (with the exception of Ronaldo who didn’t start as a result of not completing the full pre-season preparations) showing the importance of officially kicking off 2017-18 on a good note.
United and Real trade soft blows
Jose Mourinho’s team adopted a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation flanked by Valencia and Lingard acting in wing back roles. Real Madrid were in their now standard 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 hybrid that the team tends to be in when Isco is on the field. The early parts of the game were defined by United’s sharpness in possession as they looked to inspire vertical actions with steady passing play when possible. This led to a few occasions including Mkhitaryan’s 1v1 against Ramos where the former dribbled past the defender just outside of the box but couldn’t stay on his feet.
Real Madrid started more patiently as the defenders and midfielders looked to configure a feasible passing structure. United’s pressure restricted the ability of the full backs to support buildup play from the back forcing the center backs and Navas into clearances and direct deliveries to the midfield line. The Europa league winners tightly marked Bale and Benzema cutting off channels and passing lanes which required Isco to drop a little deeper and use movement to create spaces for progressive ball possession.
Mourinho’s men regress and Los Blancos dominate possession
Following a period of strong intensity in pressing actions and overall play, United’s shape began to slowly recede into a more clearly visible deeply positioned 5-3-2. Consequently, Real Madrid exerted more control and influence over proceedings as they saw a much larger share of the ball. Isco and Casemiro employed an interesting switch to facilitate this where the Brazilian pushed up quite high in possession while Isco would retreat to the defensive line to support Varane, Ramos, and Kroos in initiation and resetting.
Modric, in contrast to Kroos, played much more dynamically and freely moving in between lines in midfield to provide openings and pass options as well as establish a link between defense and offense. This was supplemented by Carvajal and Marcelo’s aggressive positioning which saw them stationed close to half. Once Modric (along with any advanced midfielders) or the fullbacks received the ball with space and time, they would attempt to engage the forwards with directed through-balls that looked to capitalize on Bale’s (and Benzema secondarily) speed mistmatch against Lindelof. The forwards’ movements and positioning was fluid which helped create some welcome unpredictability.
That being said, United’s back three anticipated the searching balls from midfield well and proactively dealt with them. Matic’s presence was especially key as his defensive quality as well as movement into the defensive line enabled Lindelof and Darmian to contest 1v1 situations. Real Madrid combated their opposition’s defensive solidity and compactness by utilizing adept ball circulation to create time on the wings for Marcelo and Carvajal to deliver crosses.
United’s couterattacking and height dangerous weapons
United’s offense could be split into two phases. The first phase, which was the case until the beginning of the second half, revolved around counter-attacking and relied on the speed and pace of Mkhitaryan, Lingard, and Lukaku. The chances were sporadic but if not for poor decision-making and execution should have tested Real Madrid and Navas more. Real’s transitional defense was fairly solid and aided by Varane and Ramos’ sublime recovery but was sometimes exposed when Marcelo and Carvajal moved higher up the pitch — there were several occasions where United had a numerical superiority which they failed to take advantage of.
Mourinho reacted to the score by bringing on Rashford at half and Fellaini ten minutes later. These two changes were vital in reinvigorating the Red Devil’s tempo. Rashford’s direct running, pace, and dribbling had an immediate impact as he diplayed great skill to beat Carvajal almost as soon as he entered the fray. He also stretched the defense by staying wide in transition which if not for the same issues noted above could have caused Zidane’s men serious problems.
The second aspect or phase of United’s offense was the intelligent use of their physical advantage to create positive mismatches and challenge Real Madrid’s defense aerially. There were clear initial signs throughout the match that this was part of Mourinho’s gameplan but it became more explicit once Fellaini was introduced. Whereas Ramos and Varane were previously able to focus their attention on Lukaku (who was very infrequently supported by Pogba as an option in the air), Fellaini and Pogba — who now pushed into the box more consistently — successfully combined with the Belgian to manufacture chances and destabilize the defense.
This tactic was evident in United’s goal as Fellaini used his phsical presence to win Valencia’s cross. He played the ball back to Rashford who passed to Matic. The Serbian fired a low drive that Navas spilled and Lukaku made no mistake with the rebound.
Fellaini was also the architect of United’s best chance of the second half in the 81st minute as he brought the ball down with his chest after a lobbed pass from Darmian and released it to Mkhitaryan who played in Rashford for a 1-on-1 chance.
Spectacular interplay and combinations win the game
Real Madrid exhibited some of their classic and wonderful interplay in the buildup to the second goal and the fantastic Bale chance that came off the bar. For the former, Benzema, Isco, and Bale showed great composure to creatively fashion an excellent opportunity.
This strategy was more fruitful given United’s relaxed defensive intensity and compactness as a result of chasing the game. When Benzema received the pass prior to Bale and Isco’s 1-2 that led to the goal, United were transitioning into defense. Pogba and Herrrera in fact were not actively participants in defending the play which contrasted starkly with their committed role in the first half.
For Bale’s chance, Casemiro and Benzema pulled Herrera and Darmian out of position leaving Bale free for a great look at goal.
Asensio, Vazquez, and Ronaldo came on as substitutes as Zidane looked to close the game. The subsitutes helped replaced tired legs and inject more energy into the game to exploit United’s loose structure. The substitutes did just that and almost managed to add another goal.
An assured Real Madrid performance granted them victory in the first official competitive fixture of the 2017-18 season. The dominance wasn’t to the extent suggested by the possession and overall shot numbers but it was certainly far from even. The quality of chances created by Los Merengues was higher than United’s.
Zidane’s use of the diamond midfield continues to bear fruit and proves to be an effective alternative formula to the standard 4-3-3. Manchester United’s physicality and speed of attack presented interesting challenges that the team met boldly. Casemiro, Isco, and Varane were standout performers on the night.