Lessons from the 2009 final (part two)

May 26, 2011

The line-ups at the time of Barcelona's second goal - Berbatov and Tevez had come on for Anderson and Park

A continuation of the earlier conclusions from the 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.

The majority of points are, of course, related to Manchester United’s tactics – since they lost that final, and have to put things right this time around.

6. Sergio Busquets wasn’t ‘occupied’

Ryan Giggs was asked to play as a central attacking midfielder, or perhaps a deep forward – playing ahead of the midfield line but clearly behind Cristiano Ronaldo. His job was to link the play, almost as a number ten – and United generally defended with two banks of four, with Giggs given the task of helping press the opposition centre-backs.

That ignored Busquets, however. Giggs didn’t even attempt to close him down, and Busquets had too much time on the ball. Two seasons ago, with Busquets in his debut season, a back-up for Yaya Toure and not a regular in the first team, we didn’t understand how crucial he is to Barcelona’s passing game. Now, it’s perfectly clear – and United can’t make the same mistake again. Assuming Javier Hernandez plays, Wayne Rooney must be given the job of picking Busquets up when not in possession.

7. Manchester United didn’t exploit Barcelona’s weakness at left-back

Sylvinho was drafted into the side to play left-back in 2009. He was 35, his best days long gone, and was allowed to leave for Manchester City after the final. United should have attacked him, tested his lack of pace and his defensive qualities, but instead they played Park Ji-Sung on the right. Park was probably the weakest of United’s four attacking players (Ronaldo, Giggs, Rooney) and was arguably less of an attacking threat then than he is now.

Is this relevant this year? Sylvinho is long gone, but despite signing two left-backs in two years, Maxwell and Adriano, it’s still Barcelona’s weakest position. Whoever plays there will have a weakness – Eric Abidal will not be 100% fit, Carles Puyol will be out of position, Maxwell and Adriano are simply not particularly great players. Antonio Valencia dominated Ashley Cole a couple of weeks ago and should be used in a similar way here – get him in 1 v 1 battles, and United might prosper.

8. United had serious problems with Andres Iniesta

We all know that Michael Carrick is not a classic destroyer and often struggles when coming up against creative midfielders. However, even by his standards, he found it very difficult to cope with Iniesta, who was constantly able to glide past Carrick very easily.

It’s difficult to know what will change here. Look at the individual battles in the 2009 final, and relatively few are set for a re-match here – but Carrick v Iniesta is one of them. Carrick probably needs to get tighter – but that will mean Messi potentially going free, and one of the centre-backs having to play higher up.

9. Ferguson’s biggest mistake was with his substitutions

If Ferguson’s starting tactics weren’t shocking, his use of his bench was. He opted for an approach that, frankly, seemed remarkably naive even at the time – he needed a goal, so withdrew midfielders and threw on extra attackers. The first move was at half time – Carlos Tevez came on for Anderson, with Ryan Giggs dropping into a deep midfield position alongside Michael Carrick. Worryingly, for United (considering Giggs-Carrick is likely to be the starting midfield duo on Saturday), they were immediately overrun in midfield.

Things got even worse when Park gave way to Berbatov – United were already struggling for energy in midfield, and it’s difficult to think of a worse possible substitution if we’re talking about mobility. The first goal will be all-important on Saturday, but if Barcelona score it, United can’t afford to concede the midfield again – Barca will just pass their way to victory.

10. Barcelona were not as cohesive as they are now

This is largely the same side as in 2009, and whilst they may not be regarded as having the same quality as they did when the won the treble, they are probably a tighter unit. In the 2009 final, the backline was makeshift because of suspension, the forward trio were playing in slightly unusual positions, and also had Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o: great players but probably more individualistic than Pedro Rodriguez or David Villa. The midfield three were the only truly cohesive part of the side – and even then, Busquets wasn’t a regular. Therefore, that trio didn’t have the experience of playing together it does now.

Put simply, Barcelona are much more difficult to play against. They hold onto the ball better – an average of 73.3% possession per game this season, compared to to 65.6% in 2009. They only had 51% of possession in the 2009 final – it would be a surprise if that figure wasn’t above 60% here, at the very least. They also work better as a unit without the ball, and their defensive record is much better. There is simply more of a collective feel, more of a defined identity about Barcelona – watch the 2009 final and they just don’t seem so…Barcelona.

The outcome? Manchester United can’t just correct any mistakes from 2009 and automatically be in control – they’re up against a different beast altogether.

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