How Manchester United Should Set Up to Beat Braga in the Champions League
It's Week 4 of the Champions League, and after the shock two-goal giveaway in the first leg, everybody will be intrigued to see how Sir Alex Ferguson sets up Manchester United in Braga.
United never play for a draw, and this will be no exception. The manager has already had one big disappointment, with his selected side unable to hold on to a 3-2 lead for eight seconds against Chelsea last Wednesday.
His priority this year is simply to win his group. Nothing less will do. That has been clear from the off regarding his team selection.
Last year's campaign was a massive shock. His team were far too complacent, and the results against Benfica and Basel wrecked United's chances of qualifying, let alone winning the group.
Apart from the obvious prestige and bragging rights, why is it important to win the group?
Firstly, to get a better draw in the knockout stages; second, because he can play the remaining two games with youngsters and players needing European experience.
Sir Alex may seem to imply that merely qualifying is important, which it is, but after last year's debacle, nothing less than cruising through will do.
In this respect, he has had a timely reminder to shove down the players' throats, after the dreadfully half-paced walkover against Arsenal on Saturday. Okay, so that match said a lot about how far Arsenal have to go to catch up, but it should have been a pasting, and goal difference is paramount this season.
So you can bet that Ferguson will be laying it on with a trowel as to how angry he was on Saturday, also reminding the players of their pathetic performance in what should have been an easy group last season.
He showed on Saturday that he is prepared to rotate less than in recent years to get the right results against difficult opposition, keeping the same team from the Chelsea EPL match.
There have already been more than enough hints that he will continue to play a strong team until qualification is certain in the Champions League.
There have been a couple of other significant markers laid down about this season in the last week or so.
MUTV ran a new programme last week entitled "Emerging Talent." Sir Alex will have approved the selection of players personally, because he likes to encourage future talent, but also wants to keep players' feet firmly on the ground.
The six players featured were: Marnick Vermijl, Scott Wootton, Michele Fornasier, Michael Keane, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Jesse Lingard.
There have been other markers: Vermijl, Wootton, Keane, Powell, Brady and Tunnicliffe were used in the Newcastle Capital One match; and in addition, Macheda was brought on as sub in the Chelsea leg. In the squad for both matches were Lingard, Brady and Johnstone, in addition to those mentioned above.
That means that the following have been retained as possible inclusions in tomorrow night's squad, or for the remaining two matches if United win the Group tomorrow.
Therefore, the young players who could get a run in the final two Champions League matches or possibly be in the squad tomorrow are: Vermijl, Wootton, Fornasier, Tunnicliffe, Powell and Johnstone.
Plus, there are others who could come into contention, including King, Macheda and Cole.
However, the importance of the match suggests they will have to wait a week or two.
So before we consider how Manchester United should set up against Braga tomorrow, let's look at the possible squad.
Possible Squad Against Braga
Could these two Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes be saying goodbye to full-time football at the end of this season?
There seems little doubt that Sir Alex would retain their player registrations.
Ryan Giggs' contract will not be discussed before the end of the season, so both sides could then have an objective view.
It would not, however, be a surprise if Scholes had said to Sir Alex "I'll give you one more season to tide you over until the next generation," after his premature retirement last year.
For whatever reason, both have been getting significantly fewer matches and the penny seems to have dropped with Sir Alex. He knows he needs pace throughout the squad to cope with modern systems and fitness level, and 12 kilometres seems to be the norm nowadays.
Ryan Giggs was at his very best against Chelsea last week, but neither he nor Scholes can play two high-intensity games in a week, and Paul has showed signs of struggling to complete 90 minutes.
I remain of the view, however, that Giggs, Scholes and Fletcher have a role to play in the FA Cup, nurturing younger players. They would almost certainly be used in some capacity in the last two group matches, if United qualify tomorrow.
With Sir Alex wanting to play strong teams in Europe and the majority of Premier League matches, he will have to rotate his core of senior players. These are:
De Gea, Lindegaard, Rafael, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evans, Smalling, Jones, Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Cleverley, Anderson, Valencia, Young, Nani, Kagawa, Rooney, Hernandez, Welbeck and Van Persie.
While the interchanging style of attack gives Sir Alex greater flexibility (with, for example, Rooney and Welbeck able to start from the wing and Valencia at right back), he will be without Jones, Vidic and Kagawa tomorrow night, due to injury.
Powell, Buttner and Macheda can be considered to be on the fringes of the First Team and will be used as necessary as the season unfolds.
The "development" players were named on the first slide. They will be added to the European match-day squad as needed or for experience, but only if United qualify. (Wootton may be the exception).
Tomorrow, however, is not a match in which to take chances. United have Aston Villa away on Saturday, for which Scholes and Giggs could come into consideration, for example.
Sir Alex keeps dropping hints about Anderson, who was arguably Man of the Match against Chelsea last Wednesday (although Giggs came close) and made an immediate impact when he came on against Arsenal.
The travelling squad against Braga is:
De Gea, Lindegaard, Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Buttner, Smalling, Evra, Cleverley, Giggs, Anderson, Nani, Valencia, Carrick, Young, Powell, Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Van Persie.
Smalling has travelled but will probably be on the bench and saved for Saturday.
This is a squad capable of putting the group to bed. Rather like the Chelsea EPL match, United will set up to try and win, but certainly avoiding defeat at all costs.
Braga's Possible Team and Formation
Braga seem to have all their players fully fit. As the Old Trafford leg showed, they are dangerous.
So you can be sure Sir Alex won't be putting Michael Carrick through more unnecessary torture by playing him at centre-back with the marauding Alan steaming towards him. (Actually Michael had an excellent game, once he got over being left stranded for one of the goals).
Braga are likely to set up with a similar style and formation, because it worked well at Old Trafford.
They played a 4-2-3-1 in that match, with Alan having a free role behind Eder, the striker. The full-backs and the two wider midfield players also revelled in the space that Ferguson's diamond gave them, which is why he had to change it at halftime.
So how will United set up this time?
United's Possible Formation
It was that first leg that led to the "granny from Rochdale" demanding that Fergie get rid of the "diamond formation." Given the way that Braga brushed it aside, rampaging in the wider spaces of Old Trafford, you can confidently expect that it won't be wheeled out in Portugal.
The key to the result for United tomorrow night could well hinge on Anderson. He is now getting back to his best form since he was signed in 2007. He may have only played 85 games in that time but has been excellent since his comeback this season.
Sir Alex brought on Nani in the second half of the first leg as United reverted to their traditional 4-4-2. They were so dominant that Carrick was able to play as an extra midfield player for much of that second period.
So having played his "Get Out of Jail Free" card, you can bet Sir Alex will take no risks tomorrow.
The safest bet is that the formation will be 4-2-3-1, matching up with Braga in much the same way as he did against Chelsea last Sunday.
It seems very likely that Sir Alex will find room for Hernandez, who is on fire at the moment and perfectly suits a counter-attacking style. Robin van Persie can be saved unless it's necessary to get a goal late in the match.
So a possible team in a 4-2-3-1 formation is:
Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra
Valencia, Rooney, Giggs
The substitutes bench would therefore be:
Lindegaard, Buttner, Smalling, Cleverley, Powell, Van Persie, Welbeck
If instead Sir Alex decided to go for a more bullish 4-4-2, as he did against Arsenal and finished the first match against Braga, it could be the above defence, plus:
Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Rooney
Hernandez, Van Persie
Whatever happens, you can expect Scholes and Welbeck to get some playing time as substitutes, at the very least.