These two managerial masterminds have won between them 22 top tier domestic titles, 33 domestic cups, and 9 European cups – and for very good reasons, no less – they are the two sharpest tacticians and practitioners in the game.
But, of the two, who has the edge? We won’t have to wait long to find out – Real Madrid will host Manchester United at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night.
Many commentators especially English ones seem to be under the misconception that the best tacticians are all foreign and, subsequently, Sir Alex Ferguson is often overlooked on that basis.
However, some may remember that he was in fact one of the first British managers to employ a sweeper system before Italia 90’s revelations and he was one of the first managers to be labeled a ‘tinkerman’ by United’s own fans for his squad rotation. In the past, Ferguson’s United have been more attack-minded than anything else.
When he had the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke within his ranks, Ferguson’s United set themselves out early on in European clashes to overwhelm the opposition with constant waves of attack that eventually shell-shocked the opposition into almost complete paralysis, putting out fires for 90 minutes, too fatigued to launch on the counter.
That’s not all that dissimilar to the way Barcelona and Spain now set themselves up – their system of keeping possession and coming back in wave after wave of attack completely demoralizes the other team who rarely mount a reply of great substance as a result.
It wasn’t until the 1999/2000 season in which Madrid co-incidentally knocked United out and went on to win the Champion’s League under current Spanish national team boss Vicente del Bosque. After United’s 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford to Real, Ferguson conceded that he had been too slow to react to Real’s change of formation during the game. He admitted:
"If I had altered the team early to a 4-3-3 … I am sure we could have won handily. I know that, and could kick myself for delaying the change."
Real’s swift shift to a 3-3-2-2 completely dismayed United who, at that time in the Premier League, mostly faced 4-4-2 formations week in week out. They simply couldn’t compute it mentally and lost the game as a result.
After that defeat, Ferguson responded in following seasons by taking a much more cautious approach in Europe. He often asks for a lot more discipline and restraint from his players now, especially in the first legs of crucial ties.
The team are now well-drilled at sitting back and soaking up pressure, as they did this season in the Premier League against Manchester City. They pounce on the counter-attack away from home and I’m inclined to suggest that is exactly what they’ll do on Wednesday evening.
They have the quality up front that only requires one chance to score and they can afford to take their time and dig their heels in at the back in the first leg. He will have been preparing his players to organize into two solid banks of four when they haven’t got the ball, much like Chelsea did last season against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
As soon as they have possession, Ferguson’s United will re-shuffle into a 4-2-3-1 with Wayne Rooney working behind Robin van Persie and the two wide men stretching the play on the flanks. When they haven't got the ball, they'll play narrow and compact to squeeze the space and force Madrid into wide areas.
Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho is no slouch when it comes to tactical nous. He has, after all, won the Champion’s League with two different clubs. He knows exactly how to go about winning a tie over two legs.
When he won the competition with Inter Milan in 2010 against Bayern Munich, it was one of the most controlled and composed performances I’ve ever seen from a football team. They had the likes of Lucio, Maicon, and Walter Samuel at the back who were simply super-human on the night but it was his very simple and effective tactics that won the game.
They, again, like Chelsea, sat back and absorbed an onslaught of Bayern pressure and then caught them on the break. It worked in the first half when Diego Milito scored just before half time so Mourinho stuck with it in the second. In fact, if anything, they parked the bus, and didn’t move it until Milito scored the second, 20 minutes from time.
Against United, Mourinho will be faced with a tactical dilemma though. He has, especially with the first leg being at home, got to get his players out of the blocks fast. He’ll be looking for Cristiano Ronaldo to open them up as early as possible and really test David De Gea who he knows is not exactly riding high on confidence presently.
He knows United will want to avoid defeat at the Bernabeu and will be looking to sit back, take their time, and catch Real on the break. Mourinho knows his team has to win at home and, if possible, by a decent margin to take with them to Old Trafford for the return leg.
He will set his side out to overwhelm United from the offset but he could be found out if they don’t keep their discipline. Rooney and van Persie only need one chance on goal and if Real play too open, that’s exactly what they’ll get.
In many respects, the first leg is Real Madrid’s and Mourinho’s to lose. United will be looking to break up the play and frustrate them in front of their home fans. They'll try to make it a scrappy game with lots of cards and confusion to unsettle the home side and upset their rhythm. If Ferguson’s side comes in at half-time with a clean sheet, he’ll consider it a job well done and tell them to keep it up, keep calm and carry on.
Ferguson's worst nightmare will be an early Madrid goal. That will completely throw his game-plan out the window. If United are forced to mount a comeback, that'll open the game right up and play directly into Mourinho's hands.
A panicking, aggressive and wounded Manchester United beast will actually be easy prey for Real and, if Madrid get the first goal, Ferguson would be wise to shut up shop for the night, play damage limitations and wait for the return leg at Old Trafford. It is, after all, a two-legged affair.
image: © jansolo09