Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United: Barcelona are European Champions

May 29, 2011

The starting line-ups

Goals from each of Barcelona’s front three gave Pep Guardiola’s side victory at Wembley.

Sir Alex Ferguson named his recent ‘big game’ XI – which meant Javier Hernandez upfront with Wayne Rooney behind, and Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield. The biggest surprise was Dimitar Berbatov not even being on the bench.

Guardiola was able to call on Eric Abidal at left-back, but not Carles Puyol at centre-back, so Javier Mascherano started in defence after all.

The overall pattern was not completely different from the 2009 final. United enjoyed a good opening few minutes, but were then the poorer side for the rest of the contest.

Barca dominance

There are two ways to consider the game. The first is the obvious approach – Barcelona are clearly the best side in the world, arguably one of the best of all time, and when they are on top of their game, they are unstoppable. It’s an approach that suits everyone – Barca are happy to take the plaudits, United can take the defeat easier knowing they’ve been beaten by a superb side, and the neutral can take pleasure from witnessing such a marvellous performance.

On the other hand, United probably shouldn’t have been dominated to such a large extent. Losing 3-1 is far from shameful, but the overall shots figure (22-4 to Barcelona) and the shots on target figure (12-1 to Barcelona) demonstrate quite how superior Guardiola’s side were. Tactics is not a case of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending solely upon the approach, but it’s difficult to argue that United’s tactics helped them compete in this game at all, even when starting from the earlier viewpoint – that Barca are by far the best around.

Hernandez starts

The key decision before the game was whether Hernandez would play upfront, or be dropped in favour of another midfielder. The choice to play him was an attacking move from Ferguson, but the inevitable knock-on effect was that Carrick and Giggs were overwhelmed in the centre of midfield. Wayne Rooney was given the job of tracking Sergio Busquets – a difficult task considering Rooney wanted to be in space when United won the ball – but Busquets started many of Barcelona’s attacks, and was able to find more attack-minded teammates in space very easily.

Hernandez isn’t the consistent threat over the top he should be considering his speed (though he’s obviously had a fantastic first season in terms of goalscoring) and he found himself frequently offside early in the game. Credit should go to Barcelona for that – in fact, in a game where Barcelona were largely able to play their ‘natural’ game, their aggressive offside trap was one of the few key tactical features. It takes a lot of confidence to be able to play so high up the pitch against Hernandez, especially with a back four that had played as a unit for just 60 minutes before this match.

United early pressure

United looked dangerous early on, and much of their good play came down the left, trying to get in behind Alves

All this said, Hernandez did help press Barcelona early on in this match – and Ferguson’s side were helped by the fact that Barca were without Puyol at the back – he’s a better passer than Abidal or Mascherano, and so it wasn’t a disaster if either of them had time on the ball. United settled quickly, won the first couple of tackles against Messi and played long balls, sometimes diagonal, into dangerous areas. Daniel Alves started nervously and Park Ji-Sung was a threat in the opening minutes.

Out of possession, Valencia and Park dropped deep and played narrow, helping United out in the centre of the pitch. The potential problem with Iniesta identified in the preview was part-solved by Valencia playing close to him. This then gave the Barcelona full-backs time on the ball, however, and it was partly because of that freedom that Barca were able to grow into the match and keep possession.

United’s defence dropped deep when Barca kept the ball, and so when it was played forward to Andres Iniesta, his favoured through-balls between centre-back and full-back trickled out of play for goal-kicks.

Space between the lines

The defence playing deep meant that Messi enjoyed too much time on the ball between the lines. It was obvious from the first minute that United’s strategy was to allow Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand to move forward to confront Messi, but this didn’t always work, and Messi got into intelligent positions to cause them problems.

The first goal came about because of space between the lines in two ways – first Xavi Hernandez became free there, and then Messi being unoccupied dragged Patrice Evra towards him, opening up space for Pedro Rodriguez to fire home.

Almost all Barcelona's chances came from passes played to a position on the edge of the 'D'

That summed up United’s failings without the ball, because they were too easily dragged out of shape – although usually in the midfield, rather than at the back. Giggs, Park and Valencia all found it difficult to compete, and Carrick was faced with Xavi and Iniesta coming past him, and Messi in behind him. That’s 3rd, 2nd and 1st in last year’s World Footballer of the Year award forming a triangle around him – he desperately needed help, and United needed another body in that zone.

And yet they managed to get back in it, though it was after the pressing that had worked early on, rather than good work in the midfield. They boxed in Barca when Abidal took a throw in the left-back position, won the ball quickly and then Rooney played an excellent double one-two with Carrick and Giggs, and finished superbly.

Second half

After the break, Giggs and Park were told to switch positions permanently, though they’d sometimes swapped in the first half. The wisdom of this was questionable – yes, United needed more energy in the middle, but Park was guilty of switching off for Aaron Ramsey’s goal recently when pushed into the centre, and when watching the replay for Messi’s goal here, he seemed to have given up off before Messi had struck the ball. That said, as mentioned earlier, it was the centre-backs’ job to come up towards Messi, and they were slow to do so.

The other effect of the switch was Giggs becoming exposed to Alves’ runs, and twice in the first ten minutes of the second half, Alves was through on goal after one of his classic darts down the right – once he shot at Edwin van der Sar, the other time he squared for Messi. Ferguson knew something different was needed in midfield, but switching Park and Giggs was unlikely to be the answer. With three central midfielders on the bench – Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Paul Scholes – he did have options.

Final stages

Messi dribbled past opponents easily in the 'number ten' position

Ferguson waited until the 69th minute to make a change, and that was enforced, as Fabio da Silva was struggling, possibly with cramp. Nani came on, Antonio Valencia went to right-back. Incidentally, it’s not uncommon for Fabio to depart because of fitness problems. He’s started 16 games this season and been removed 10 times, whilst his twin brother Rafael has been taken off in 8 of his last 9 games. These figures include tactical substitutions as well as changes because of injury, but a decent number have been fitness-related, and therefore it was a surprise that Ferguson named no full-back on the bench, with John O’Shea left out of the 18 altogether.

The substitution had little impact on the game, because David Villa soon curled a brilliant shot into the net to put Barcelona 3-1 up, and that settled it. United rarely threatened at two goals down, and Barcelona – particularly Messi – were keen to keep the ball rather than extend the lead.

Conclusion

“We never really controlled Messi,” Ferguson admitted after the game. “But many people have said that. We never really closed the midfield well enough to counter them. We tried to play as near to the way we normally play. For instance, it’s alien to us to try to man-mark players. We tried to play as normally as we can. It wasn’t good enough on the night, we acknowledge that.”

Guardiola was pleased with his side. “We pressed the ball a lot, we were on top of Carrick and Giggs and that shows the quality of our team. You’ll always have problems in the Champions League final but we had less problems than in Rome – we had more chances and we made more of them.

Lionel Messi is the best player I’ve seen, the best I will ever see probably. We have good players but without him I don’t think we’d be able to make that decisive leap.”

As both managers touched upon, there were two key factors – first, United didn’t get to grips with Barca in midfield, and second, Messi was sublime.

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Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United: Barcelona are European Champions

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