Lessons from the 2009 final (part one)

May 25, 2011

The starting line-ups

As this season’s Champions League final is a repeat of the final from 2009, it’s well worth taking a look at that contest before Saturday night’s game.

The footage, if you’re interested, is available on YouTube here (with the following parts on the links down the right-hand side).

Here are five conclusions from that match – five more (plus the usual preview) to come.

1. Manchester United pressed excellently early on

“I didn’t expect Manchester (United) to press up so high up,” Pep Guardiola said after the game. “They pressed 4 v 4 and caused us problems for the first pass.” This worked really well – United forced Victor Valdes into a mistake within the first 15 seconds of the match, won a throw, and then spent almost the entire first ten minutes in the Barcelona half, attempting five shots in that time.

There was a tactical factor to the Barca goal – the surprise of Samuel Eto’o starting on the right, and Lionel Messi in the centre – but it was more down to individual mistakes. Michael Carrick let Andres Iniesta drift past him, Nemanja Vidic was turned far too easily, and Edwin van der Sar will have been disappointed with his effort for the goal. United started the match very strongly, and they went behind due to individual – not tactical – errors.

2. Barcelona didn’t press intensely

We’re used to Barca closing down high up the pitch these days, but in this match Manchester United’s centre-backs were given a fair amount of time on the ball. Eto’o and Thierry Henry dropped back and Barcelona often looked willingly like 4-1-4-1 without the ball, which is relatively rare these days – it only happens when they’re under sustained pressure.

It’s unlikely to be a similar situation in this game – Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa work much harder without the ball, and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will come under pressure much more quickly.

3. Michael Carrick played reasonably well on the ball

Often remembered as having a nightmare in Rome, Carrick was the only player who was really attempting to get United playing. OK, a couple of his through-balls were overhit, a couple of his long diagonals were underhit, but the problem wasn’t really Carrick, as such – the problem was that there was no creativity from higher up the pitch, so Carrick had to act as the main playmaker.

Nowadays, Carrick plays a much simpler game. His passes are shorter because he plays with wide players who like the ball in different positions – with Wayne Rooney and (in the second half of the 2009 final) Cristiano Ronaldo on the flanks in 2009, they wanted to run onto the ball in advanced positions. Now, with Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung more classic wide midfielders rather than forwards, Carrick can do his job by playing simple balls into feet. Even when under pressure, he should be able to do that fine.

4. Messi in the centre was the surprise in 2009 – now, it’s the norm

This played its part in the first goal, as outlined earlier, and in the second, when Messi headed in Xavi Hernandez’s cross. It’s amazing how confused United were about Messi’s false nine positioning, and how they don’t react to the situation at all. Late in the first half, for example, Messi drops into a deep slightly right-of-centre position, and Patrice Evra comes high up the pitch to close him down – as if he was still used to Messi playing as a right-sided forward. It should have been the domain of one of the centre-backs, or one of the central midfielders.

Messi’s central positioning is now established – he played there for much of last season, and this campaign the number ten position is his default role. That doesn’t mean he’ll be easy to stop, and there are still question marks about whether it’ll be a midfielder picking him up, a defender picking him up, or a purely zonal system – but it won’t be as chaotic as in 2009.

5. Daniel Alves wasn’t playing

Suspended after being booked in the semi-final against Chelsea, Alves watched on from the stands. Carles Puyol was forced to play at right-back instead, and naturally played a much more defensive role than Alves would have.

There’s two ways to look at this. On one hand, United aren’t used to his energetic runs from deep positions down the touchlines, and will need to make sure their left-winger (probably Park Ji-Sung) is alert to the danger. On the other, Barcelona were down the flanks – Rooney was quiet, in particular, and Ronaldo in his centre-forward position was the main danger. Guardiola instructed his full-backs to sit deep against Real Madrid to prevent the diagonal balls catching Barca out, and considering that (possibly accidental) tactic also worked well against United in 2009, he might opt for the same strategy here.

Part two is here

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