It was a game of two halves in Skopje as Real Madrid beat Manchester United 2-1 in the UEFA Super Cup.
Madrid were superhumanly dominant in the opening half, looking like they were on a different planet. But a tactical switch at half-time allowed United back into the game, but Los Blancos held on to their advantage to retain the UEFA Super Cup! What did we learn?
1. Isco is the diamond standard
Last season Gareth Bale’s injury, while a tragedy for the Welshman, was a blessing for Real Madrid. It allowed Isco to come into the side and facilitated a shift to the 4-3-1-2 formation that allowed them to power over everyone at home and abroad.
Against United, Isco was at the point of the diamond once again and the Red Devils couldn’t get anywhere near him. In fairness to them that’s because he had no fixed position and roamed wherever he could find space and then drove at United with elegant ease.
So when he roamed off the left early in the second half and fizzed the ball into Gareth Bale, no United player was really ready to mark him. Bale dropped a simple pass back into Isco’s path and the glorious Spaniard slotted Madrid into a 2-0 lead. He went off after 74 minutes, comfortably the best player on the park for every single one of those (and Madrid got markedly worse in his absence).
2. Matic proves his worth
José Mourinho fought so hard to get Nemanja Matic. All transfer window he insisted that the Serbian was his guy at defensive midfield, ignoring palpably superior players like Monaco’s Fabinho. Many people questioned his wisdom, especially for the £40m fee.
But the UEFA Super Cup showed exactly why Mourinho pushed for Matic. The Serbian was immense against Los Blancos, in the first half he was United’s only great player against the ceaseless tides of Madrid attack. He was everywhere, tackling, intercepting, moving the ball forward.
He even went on a couple of quality runs forward, driving by opponents. And of course it was his rasping shot on the hour mark that Keylor Navas spilled out for Romelu Lukaku to tap home and give United a way back into the match.
3. Mourinho’s tactical confusion
José Mourinho plays 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Occasionally he’ll do something wild, like his 2-2-4-2 man-marking system against Chelsea last year. But otherwise, his teams play a simple way. For some reason, Mourinho sent United into the Super Cup in a weird 3-5-2 hybrid formation that only helped one team: Real Madrid.
Shorn of a wing presence high up the field, United left themselves vulnerable to constant full-back overloads from Los Blancos. Moreover by pulling Jesse Lingard so narrow he gave Paul Pogba, his best player, too much work to do defensively and not enough support offensively.
It was a disastrous formation that saw Madrid coast to a first half lead and a level of dominance that could be barely believed. Mourinho corrected things by bringing on Marcus Rashford for Lingard at the half and switching back to a 4-3-3. That United competed so much more in the second half, with Rashford in particular looking a constant threat, only served to highlight Mourinho’s mistake
4. Marouane Fellaini is a weapon
He’s regarded by many a liability or a joke. Many of the tweets when he was brought on tonight were of the mind that Mourinho was “giving up” on the match by bringing the Belgian on, or trying to prove to his board that he needs another attacking signing.
In actuality what Mourinho was doing was bringing on his most unique weapon. Marouane Fellaini is a mighty attacking force, a peerless aerial presence that no one could get anywhere near. Sure, you may beat him in an aerial duel but he will be such a disruptive force that your entire defensive gameplan will be out of the window. And if he wins the duel? Forget about it.
There’s just no one like Fellaini in world football, so why not use him as a game-changing weapon? the instant he came on, United became the better side. And the way he dragged the ball down out of the sky and fight off Dani Carvajal an hour into the game is exactly why Romelu Lukaku ended up scoring less than a minute later.
Fellaini is a game-changing weapon and had his edge not been blunted by busting himself open on Sergio Ramos’ ridiculous top-knot, then he could have actually managed to drag United fully back into the game. As it is, he simply gave a scene-stealing cameo.
5. Casemiro is the ghost in the machine
It’s forgotten now, but Casemiro scored the opening goal in the Super Cup against United. He also scored the pivotal third goal in the Champions League finals. In both instances he was able to wander into a shooting position free of almost any marking.
When Toni Kroos or Luka Modric holds midfield, Casemiro is free to ghost forward. When Isco is added to Madrid’s midfield ranks there’s even more chances for the Brazilian to move forward unmarked. With all the galaxy of stars for defenders to pay attention to, a tackle-merchant like Casemiro just doesn’t figure into their thinking.
That’s why he keeps on hurting teams. Tonight against United he actually had several chances, including hitting the bar from a corner, before he ghosted behind the Manchester United defence and slid home Dani Carvajal’s superb cross. Yeah he was offside, but his timing and technique was wonderful and once again made the difference for Los Blancos. Ignore him at your peril.