Barcelona v Manchester United: tactical preview

May 27, 2011

Both side's "first choice" line-up

There’s certainly been no shortage of tactical debate ahead of this game.

Indeed, ever since a repeat of the 2009 final was confirmed, all the talk has been about how the sides will play – more specifically, how Manchester United can stop Barcelona. Even current players have been asked for their tactical thoughts, with the likes Jack Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas outlining surprisingly detailed tactical ideas – the latter showed off a neat chalkboard to demonstrate his ideas visually.

The one common theme – it’s probably not appropriate to call it a mistake – is an exaggeration of how much United were dominated in 2009. Indeed, you wonder if some of the players themselves have forgotten how even the first half of that game was. Paul Scholes, for example, said that this time United “intend to at least give it a go” – which doesn’t do justice to their performance in Rome – although considering Scholes only came on for the final twenty minutes, when Barcelona were 2-0 up and played keep-ball, it’s perhaps understandable. Still, it’s worth reading ZM’s analysis of that game, or even rewatching the game as preparation for this one. In the first half in 2009, United had better chances and almost an identical number of completed passes.

Team news

Manchester United have no major injury doubts, but the fitness of Darren Fletcher and Anderson are both talking points, and may dissuade Sir Alex Ferguson from using either.

Pep Guardiola would like to use Eric Abidal at left-back, but the French defender is probably not yet up to full speed after recovering from his operation. Therefore, Carles Puyol seems likely to play at left-back, with Javier Mascherano at centre-back.

The big decision

Everyone agrees that the main decision at the start will come from Ferguson. Should he continue to use Javier Hernandez, a key part of Ferguson’s recent ‘big game’ side, or drop the Mexican in order to use another central midfielder, and go for more of a defensive system? Hernandez starting would certainly be the popular move.

The decision is perhaps more complicated than many think. The obvious argument is that Hernandez’s lightning pace – he was the quickest player at the World Cup last summer – will catch out Barcelona’s high line. In fact, Hernandez has done something very similar last year at international level against Carles Puyol and other Barca players.

For such a pacey player, however, Hernandez hasn’t scored a great number of goals in this fashion. There was the recent opener in the league clash against Chelsea, but the primary cause of that goal was David Luiz’s mistake rather than Hernandez’s pace itself. Most of his goals have been poacher’s strikes from close range, often after crosses. Getting the ball wide and then centring it remains United’s natural approach, and they are simply not used to playing through balls – not when compared to, say, how Liverpool used Fernando Torres’ pace so blatantly with balls into the channels.

Besides, Hernandez hasn’t been particularly influential in games that are likely to take the same pattern as this one – ie with the opposition dominating possession. Against Arsenal at the Emirates recently, United only had 45% of possession and Hernandez only completed four passes in open play, and there’s a suspicion that he doesn’t contribute an awful lot when he doesn’t have the ball. He didn’t have a shot in that game, and the same was true in the league game at Stamford Bridge. He would still be a huge threat and probably United’s best chance of a goal if he started, but Ferguson has to balance that threat against the fact that the midfield would be more open, and United might struggle to get the ball forward.

What Hernandez does, however (even without touching the ball) is force the opposition defence to play deeper, which then opens up the gap between the lines of defence and midfield, and creates more space for Wayne Rooney. But whereas Chelsea, for example, were clueless at times without a true holding player, Barca have Sergio Busquets who will stay goalside of Rooney.

The alternative line-ups. Guardiola could play Puyol at left-back and bring in Mascherano in the centre, and can play his wingers on either side. Ferguson may opt for a third central midfielder, and also has the option of O'Shea (or Rafael) at right-back

The case for playing another central midfielder looks stronger when you consider that Barcelona are far more possession-orientated than they were in 2009. United have a destroyer, but then they don’t need one – often you can’t get close enough to Barca to get a tackle in. What you do need is mobility, and it’s questionable whether there’s enough of that from Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in a duo, though the energy of the front three/four makes up for that to a certain extent.

Of course, the fitness worries of the candidates for the potential third central midfield position come into play here. Anderson and Fletcher might only be able to last 50 minutes. But Ferguson must be tempted to accept that, play either of them for that amount of time and tell them to close down and press like mad, safe in the knowledge they won’t have to play the full game, so tiring it not a problem. Then, as Arsenal have done twice in two years, really go for it in the final 25 minutes – it was notable how much Theo Walcott’s pace troubled Barcelona at the Emirates last year, and Hernandez might have the same effect.


Manchester United pressed Barcelona from the start in 2009, surprising Guardiola. They won the ball back quickly and forced Barca into mistakes, and they might try and do something similar here. United must be careful, though, because there is no logical solution for pressing Barcelona 4 v 4 without leaving the midfield open for Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to dominate, not to mention Lionel Messi dropping deep.

It also means playing high up the pitch, which might be a problem for Nemanja Vidic, who has struggled with pace this season and doesn’t like having to turn quickly when a player is sprinting past him. Rio Ferdinand covers very intelligently but Barcelona’s movement upfront is both instinctive and very clever tactically. A particular approach is for Messi to drop deep and then for Pedro and David Villa to make diagonal runs in behind the full-backs and into the space Vidic is occupying (a little like Pedro’s disallowed goal in the Copa del Rey final) and the higher up the pitch United play, the more likely this is to be effective for Barcelona’s front three.

Manchester United wingers v Barcelona full-backs

This is probably the most interesting match-up on the pitch in terms of tactics, and it’s arguably the one area where Guardiola, not Ferguson, has the real decision to make – even after he’s decided on a left-back.

It would be a huge surprise if Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia were not United’s wide players – Park will play a little tucked in on the left and track Dani Alves, whilst Valencia will stay wider and higher up on the right, as against Chelsea recently. Valencia will look to get into 1 v 1 battles, and is probably United’s most important attacking player considering he’ll be up against Barcelona’s weakest position.

Guardiola’s decision is about how much attacking freedom he wants to give his full-backs. At the start of the recent mini-series against Real, it was obvious that Xabi Alonso tried to exploit their attacking tendencies by hitting diagonal balls in behind them for the wingers to get onto. Guardiola might be wary of this threat – both from the wingers and the front two moving into wide positions (Rooney enjoyed getting into the space behind Ashley Cole against Chelsea recently) and tell them to stay back. Then again, he wants width from that position in order for the front three can narrow and link up.

Much of this might depend on whether Barcelona shift from their 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, with Busquets dropping into the back. This seems logical - Guardiola only generally asks his players to do this against 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 systems, where there’s a clear front two and Busquets moving deep helps Barca get out of the ‘natural’ press of the opposition, which will probably be the case here. That would obviously allows the full-backs to move higher up the pitch without fear of leaving the wide areas exposed.


The key man in this game is Iniesta. He was superb in 2009 – Rooney called him ‘the best player in the world’ after that match.

Iniesta is in the nice position of being up against Michael Carrick. No offence intended to Carrick, but if he is deployed as United’s deepest midfielder, he’ll be asked to keep it tight between the lines to prevent Messi getting space, and possibly told to try and intercept any passes intended for the Barcelona No 10 too. Therefore, whilst Carrick would naturally be closing down Iniesta, he might not be able to. What happens if Iniesta moves deeper? Or moves to the left? Assuming United’s right-back is focused on dealing with Barcelona’s left-winger, it’s difficult to see how Iniesta wouldn’t go free and be allowed too much time on the ball.

If he moves left, it might even allow Barca to shift to something like their 4-2-4ish ‘plan B’ from last season, although sporadically rather than permanently. This would also mean Xavi would move deeper and get space away from Giggs, and could cause United real problems in the centre of the pitch.

Barcelona will surely dominate possession, and therefore creating chances depends on different things for either side. Barcelona need to play through-balls accurately and the forwards must time their runs well, whilst United need to be quick and decisive at transitions between defence and attack, to bypass Barcelona’s initial and expose their defence high up the pitch.

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