Champions League Tactical Preview: Man Utd to make it through

RB Leipzig v Man Utd
Tuesday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport 2

RB Leipzig might boast one of the best home records in Europe but they have conceded an awful lot of goals recently, three in each of their last two games. Given that Manchester United beat them 5-0 earlier this season, it seems likely Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will be able to sit deep, as planned, and wait for chances to steal the ball in midfield and counter-attack.

It was alarming how easily Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, and Marcus Rashford got in behind the RB Leipzig defence in the reverse fixture. Their back four was often attempting to play offside even when being countered, while Leipzig’s aggressive vertical possession meant their central midfield was often far too disconnected from the defence.

This meant big spaces everywhere, and that systemic issue was repeated in the 4-3 victory over Istanbul Basakhesir and 3-3 draw with Bayern Munich. Martial, Rashford, and Greenwood can break again, buoyed by the speed and incision of their attacks against West Ham after Bruno Fernandes was brought onto the field. United should be able to get the win.

Barcelona v Juventus
Tuesday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport ESPN

Andrea Pirlo and Ronald Koeman are both enduring difficult seasons domestically and will welcome the respite of the Champions League, although as in the reverse fixture – a 2-0 win for Barcelona – it is the Catalan side likely to take the points. Pirlo’s flat 4-4-2 formation is leaving too many defensive gaps, and Lionel Messi, doing it all on his own as a number ten, can make Juve pay.

Messi drifted across the width of the pitch as the focal point of a 4-2-3-1 at Juve, a system Koeman should again deploy to ensure there is better defensive cover from the wingers; when Messi is on the right, that flank gets left open. From the number ten position, Messi should quite comfortably find space between Juve’s two central midfielders, with communication and compression very poor under Pirlo so far.

What’s more, with Juan Cuadrado getting forward from right-back to create most of Juve’s chances, there is bound to be more room on that side for Messi to operate within. With Pedri’s ingenuity on the left to help Messi, the hosts should win this one.

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Salzburg v Atletico Madrid
Wednesday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport ESPN

Separated by just two points in Group A, RB Salzburg can qualify if they beat Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, whereas the Spanish outfit need only draw to go through with just one win from six. It’s been a tight group with consistently poor performances from both these sides, suggesting a low-scoring slog this week in a nervous contest.

The key battleground is on Salzburg’s left. Their 35-year-old left-back Andreas Ulmer has struggled with the pace of Champions League football this season, with Bayern Munich in particular hurting the Austrian outfit down that side. Ulmer isn’t helped by the fact Salzburg’s star player, left winger Dominik Szoboszlai, consistently cuts in from the left.

When Salzburg lose the ball, then, they could get caught in the transition on this side as Ulmer is overloaded. In Atletico’s new 3-4-1-2 formation, Diego Simeone’s team lean heavily to the left in their interplay, dragging the opponent across before switching it suddenly to right wing-back Kieran Trippier in space. Trippier, who assisted both Atletico goals at the weekend, can expect to get the better of Ulmer. Atletico to beat Salzburg is my bet.

Real Madrid v Borussia Monchengladbach
Wednesday, 20:00
Live on BT Sport 3

Real Madrid are two points behind Borussia Monchengladbach and will be eliminated with anything less than a win, suggesting Zinedine Zidane cannot play with caution as he has attempted to in many of Real’s recent matches. They remain lopsided, inconsistent, and without obvious tactical direction – which is a recipe for a wild, end-to-end game as they push for three points.

Marco Rose’s team are only mildly less shambolic, such is their commitment to hurting teams in the transition. Monchengladbach have conceded six goals in their last three matches in all competitions and got caught up in a frantic game against Inter Milan, losing 3-2 as Laurtaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku got in behind.

That seems likely to happen with the pace of Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior, although given Zidane’s side keep making defensive errors Marcus Thuram an Alessano Plea should be equally effective. I’m backing a high-scoring game at the Bernabeu.

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