In one of the most historic European encounters on record, Manchester United beat Real Madrid 4-3 at Old Trafford. The recently retired Ronaldo was given a standing ovation off the field because, despite winning at home, United went out of Europe on away goals. That was the match that showed Ferguson that the triumph of 1999 was not going to be repeated with gung-ho tactics.
From a tactical point of view, watching Manchester United through the knock-out stages in the 00’s has been fascinating. Experiments with everything from 4-4-2 through 4-5-1 to 4-6-0 have been tried in an attempt to become champions again. Finally the manager has settled on a flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation which alters depending on possession. When out of possession the team becomes compact and narrow but immediately shifts wide and counter-attacks after regaining the ball.
United might not be associated with a possession obsession in the same way as Barcelona and Arsenal but Ferguson is as aware as anyone that games turn on midfield battles. This has necessitated the evolution of the European triumvirate in order to try and dominate the middle of the pitch. Furthermore, it explains why Ji-Sung Park is so often selected for tight matches.
In the build-up to the Marseille game, both sides have injury worries. For Ferguson, the fact that Didier Deschamps is without Andre-Pierre Gignac and possibly Mathieu Valbuena and Loric Remy, both of whom face fitness tests, does not compensate for the loss of Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Anderson and Park. At the highest level, particularly when playing away from home, it is crucial to retain shape and defensive posture. With Anderson unavailable, Carrick will have to rediscover his composure in Europe. Utterly bypassed in the 2009 final and bullied by Bayern Munich last season, the former Spurs player will need to be on form tonight if United are to return to Old Trafford in a favourable position.
With so few options available on the wing, the likelihood is that Ferguson will switch Wayne Rooney to the left and let Dimitar Berbatov operate as the forward pivot. This presents both positives and negatives. The down-side is that Berbatov does not possess the lightening pace of Rooney or Nani and therefore the counter-attacking style that Ferguson so favours (see Arsenal in 2009) will be more difficult to engineer. However, the Bulgarian is better at holding the ball further up the pitch and relieving pressure on the defence. It seems counter-intuitive but Berbatov played an instrumental role in United’s record-breaking clean sheet run last season because of his technical excellent in retaining the ball. Whatever happens at the Velodrome Stadium, the tactical dilemma posed by injuries will be an intriguing sub-plot to the tie.