Jim White

Talking Ronaldo, Real and Fergie with Gary Neville

Jim White

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I met Gary Neville this week, the footballer who has so gracefully transferred to the analyst's chair. His excellence at Sky's tactics board, the way he so easily articulates a perception born of playing the game at the highest level, is a lesson to every aspiring ex-pro: this man is the business. Nor is he shy of delivering his opinion. Lots of opinion: he flings out more ideas and insights in five minutes than most of us manage in a month. Actually a year.

And this week he was talking Ronaldo, Real Madrid and tonight's Champions League game against Manchester United. Not that everything he said made sense. Having noted that Ronaldo was a player who thrives on the big occasion, who needs the adrenalin rush of being the centre of attention in the most substantial of circumstances, he then wondered if tonight's game might be too much for him emotionally. Which doesn't quite tally. If he has the temperament to relish the most pressured environment, then the sentimental undertow of his former association with United will mean this is a game that stimulates him all the more. It couldn't be bigger.

Stopping him is clearly United's priority in the Bernabeu. And it was fascinating to learn from Neville how they might go about the job. Particularly who at United will implement the tactical approach.

Last week, Robin Van Persie said in an interview with Dutch TV that United's first team coach, his fellow Dutchman Rene Mulensteen, was the tactical power behind the throne. Van Persie said Mulensteen's training sessions were constantly challenging, presenting the United players with the kind of issues with which they will be confronted in their next match. But when it was put to Neville that it was Mulensteen who determined United's tactics he smiled broadly.

"That's just the Dutch bigging each other up," he said. "No, Sir Alex Ferguson is the match day man, he picks the team. He'll have picked his next five teams. That's where he comes alive. The training, Rene, Mick Phelan will do that. But the selection of the team, managing the individuals, that's where his great skill is. Playing the right players at the right time."

And this, Neville says, has been at the heart of United's success: tactical planning through individual selection.

"Is he the sort of manager who will spend ten hours on the training pitch going through methodical 11 v 11 practices to prepare for a game like this? No," he says of Ferguson.

"What he will do he'll pick an individual he knows can do a certain job. I was surprised when I got the team sheet against Everton on Sunday with Phil Jones in midfield and Michael Carrick not playing, but as you watch the game develop, it makes sense. He picks individuals to do specific jobs. He believes in matching up: if they've got a strength, I need to have a player in that area who can cope with him. Or a series of players."

Neville claims this has been the United way for years.

"It's not a new thing. It goes a long way back, people forget in the Champions League quarter final against Inter Milan in 1999, he picked Ronnie Johnsen in central midfield to combat Roberto Baggio and Youri Djorkaeff. His attention to detail is enormous. Is that a tactical change? No, it's more equipping the individual for the task."

No-one more so than Wayne Rooney, who has played in every attacking position in his United career in Europe, switched across the front six, depending on the opposition strength. And so you wonder who the individuals will be tasked with the impossible tonight.

Against Everton, Ferguson selected Jones to corral Marouane Fellaini, whose strength and power had caused such problems for United in the past. The substantial Jones was needed to be a physical barrier to the marauding Belgian. And it worked. Meanwhile the hard working Antonio Valencia was picked in front of Rafael to protect against Leighton Baines and Stephen Pienaar. As Neville himself can attest, having failed to cut out two goal-producing attacks from Everton's left the last time he played against them, they are the Toffees' creative hub.

And although it will be a different problem to deal with against Ronaldo, Neville wouldn't be surprised if Ferguson chooses the same personnel, though their instructions will be very different.

"That's how he prefers to make tactical change," he says. "I remember against Milan in 2010 when I was up against Ronaldinho, he said beforehand I don't want you to play as a conventional right back. My job was to push him inside to midfield, with me following him in there, almost becoming another midfielder."

My feeling is that whatever United do tonight, whatever plan Ferguson plots and whoever he chooses to execute it, Ronaldo will prove too elusive. At the moment, trying to stop him is the footballing equivalent of trying to nail down the wind. So good is he, that, for the world's most pressurised football club, he plays with the gleeful abandon of a child in the playground. Maybe not his 21st hat-trick for Madrid, but if he doesn't score tonight that will be the real surprise.

But then, what do I know? Neville's own view was that the man derided by Madrid's newspaper Marca as a "hooligan" may have a more significant say.

"I think it could be a big night for Rooney," he said.

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