Further prepare yourself for Wednesday's tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid with this Q&A from 'Managing Madrid' -- our second exchange with them in this two-part series.
In case you missed it, here's the first Q&A we did with Managing Madrid -- SB Nation's Real Madrid community -- ahead of Wednesday's tie in Spain. Lucas Navarrete, their editor-in-chief, has been kind enough to do a second one for us. Here it is:
TBB: Let's talk some tactics. I found this comment by Real Betis manager Felipe Mel interesting after his side defeated Madrid in December:
"Against this Madrid you have the ball and you think that you're dominating. Suddenly, wallop. In three plays they have created six chances. They play openly on the break and it works well for them. They have no problem doing that because they know that when they do that they are the best. We tried to let them have the ball."
It seems like the best way to play against Madrid is to deny them space to break into. Would you agree with this? When sides park the proverbial bus against Madrid, what sort of adjustments does Jose Mourinho make? Is this perhaps why Luka Modric was brought to the Bernabeu -- a central-midfielder there to provide more patient creativity?
MM: Pepe Mel is basically right. But he'd be right about every team. That's the best way to defend against almost every team. Some teams attack better than us against tight defenses, like Barcelona, for example, but I don't think Real Madrid has done badly here. I believe it is all about mentality. Players like Di María, Callejón and Higuaín aren't great with that kind of defense in front of them, but Modric, Özil and Benzema are able to break through and find some space. A player like Modric can certainly help more than Di María in those kind of situations, so I would go with a Ronaldo-Modric-Özil trio in the offensive line, with Benzema, of course. That way, Khedira's physical presence would still be an important factor.
It's obvious that the team is more comfortable playing with counterattacks, but they're still capable of scoring when the defense is tight. If Di María was smarter on the pitch, he would destroy the opposition's tight defense in a blink of an eye with his dribbles and long shots. Mourinho needs to find a good balance between defensive work (Di María is a beast there) and ability to play against that kind of defense. Only if Özil had Di María's workrate...
TBB: The key battleground in this match may be Madrid's left-side versus United's right-side. This is somewhat obvious because Cristiano Ronaldo is on that flank. He's obviously a force going forward (and that doesn't begin to do him justice) but because he plays so high and positions himself so aggressively in attack, he's prone to letting a right-back get forward. Rafael has the test of his life with Ronnie but is there any worry about United breaking forward for 2 v 1 overloads on that flank when Madrid lose possession? Is this simply a brave dare to say we'll create more chances by pushing Cristiano high than we'll concede? I'm sure this usually works in Madrid's favor but are there examples when it hasn't?
MM: Absolutely. Cristiano Ronaldo isn't a pure left winger, first of all. He tends to play in the center a lot, and some teams have created a lot of opportunities through that side because of the 2v1 chances you mention. I'm confident on Coentrao's chances, though. He's a more defensive-minded leftback than Marcelo, so I think it will be enough to have Xabi Alonso helping the Portuguese left back in order to stop United's right wing. Alonso is brilliant defensively, so it would be very risky for Manchester United to charge through that side and leave space open for Ronaldo on the counterattacks, especially against Ferdinand or Vidic.
Cristiano might play more in the wing against United to leave more space in the middle for Özil, but that's something that we simply don't know yet. Making Rafael worry more about defending than about attacking might be the key to this tie, since I don't think the Brazilian can keep up physically with Ronaldo.
TBB: A few years back, Sir Alex Ferguson -- during ties with Chelsea -- astutely dared right-back Branislav Ivanovic forward because he didn't deem his attacking ability nor his crossing as adequate. In this tie at the Bernabeu, it's very possible the gaffer reinforces United's right-side by denying space there and he could dare Alvaro Arbeola forward -- this also was a tactic many Euro 2012 sides used against Spain last summer. Can you talk a bit about your (anticipated) right-back? He's very solid defensively, but can he make United pay if he's given space to get forward into?
MM: Arbeloa is mediocre offensively, that's for sure, but he will start the match if fit. I don't think United would be risking much by following that strategy. But Khedira and Özil/Di María like to play in that side and Evra could feel like he's been left on his own against two of those players. Khedira's offensive contribution is something Fergunson and his men should pay attention to. His helps to Real Madrid's right winger are something very valuable for the team, and he understands Özil's moves to perfection. If Özil is the chosen one to play there (he and Di María will be fighting for the spot until the last training session) Real Madrid will have a very dangerous right side combination with him and Khedira.
TBB: Which striker do you anticipate to start -- Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema? Can you talk about their strengths and weaknesses? What is their form like at the moment? Which player would you prefer? When Benzema's on the right, what kind of player is he out there?
MM: I like Benzema better. I'm a huge Benzema fan, but he's form this year has been simply terrible. He's just scored six goals for the team in La Liga, when he should be around 10 or 11. Higuaín has been even worse, though. He has no skills with the ball whatsoever and he's been almost useless against tight defensive lines. It's true that he still has the killer instinct that allows him to score a good bunch of goals per season, but I don't think he should be in the club next year. He had surgery two years ago and never recovered the mobility to create spaces for his teammates. That's Benzema's main strenghth. Real Madrid is lacking an striker in good form. So far, when Benzema wasn't playing well Higuaín delivered and viceversa. That's not happening this season and I see Higuaín walking away from the Bernabéu at the end of the season to leave some room for Cavani or Falcao. Benzema knows how to play upfront, whether that's on the left, right or in the center doesn't matter to him. He's very smart and understands the game so well, and that's why he's more of a second striker rather than a pure killer. It'd be weird to play him on the right against United, though, but you never know with Mourinho.
TBB: How's Diego Lopez looking? Can you tell us a bit about him -- how's his shot-stopping, command of his box, how good is he off his line, and how good is he with the ball at his feet?
MM: He's been doing fairly well. López had to stop some chances in the game against Sevilla and he looked confident and ready to step it up for his team. He's much bigger than Casillas, so his physical presence in set-pieces and commanding is much better. He doesn't have Casillas' "magic", that's for sure, but I think he is quite reliable. He tends not to leave the line much, and that's something most teams can take profit from. His play with the ball is certainly much better than Casillas' (that's one of the two weaknesses the #1 has), and I believe he could launch some good counterattacks with his skills on the ball. He's been a fairly decent signing for us so far, but the time is now for him.
TBB: What are your thoughts on UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations -- specifically, how might this affect Real Madrid? Is there any worry at all that your club won't be able to comply? Do you feel this might limit your ability to spend? How will this affect La Liga in general? Malaga already seem to be example that UEFA isn't taking this lightly.
MM: I believe Mourinho has been quite smart about this since he took over. I mean, look at the team's investments in the past three years. Bought Khedira for about 15M, Özil for the same amount, Modric for 30/35M when we also sold Lass, Gago, Altintop, Carvajal, Joselu. Mourinho has spent the money quite wisely, and Real Madrid looks perfectly ready for the Financial Fair Play to take over. It's true that Florentino might want to spend some more money this next summer, but the team has been getting a 40M€ net income every year. The team's financial health looks stable.
The situation in La Liga is different, and many teams will now be forced to respond for their recent mistakes. Valencia, for example, had to sell Silva, Mata and Villa because of their disastrous signings in the mid 00's. It will be interesting to see how teams like PSG, Manchester City and so on react to this new rule.