THERE WAS SOMETHING intriguing about the way Alex Ferguson responded to questions about the 2009 Champions league final in the months afterwards.
He seemed pretty definite what had gone wrong – though he wasn’t sharing – and he seemed pretty definite that it was fixable should his Man Utd team get the chance to redeem what was seen as a footballing lesson from this great Barcelona team.
Tomorrow he and his United side get that chance. Rarely has one huge game been so dominated by in-depth tactical discussion on how one team should be set up to stop another.
First off, that final from 2009 and its relevance here.
Well, it wasn’t quite as awful as it’s remembered from a United viewpoint (Seriously folks, check out the first half here and try and make an argument that it wasn’t at least 50-50 up to half-time).
Man Utd were well in the game for 45 minutes, pressed Barcelona, disrupted their passing game except for a couple of little spells on the carousel during that first period and wasted several very decent positions through sloppiness and selfishness from Ronaldo. Xavi completed only 66 passes (we know, only!) over the game when now he routinely hits the 100 mark, Iniesta completed 56.
Michael Carrick had a good first half, getting on the ball and keeping the play moving, though ruining it with some overambitious attempts – Carrick completed 43 from 57 attempted passes – but was let down by a Ryan Giggs who wasn’t quite sure what he was meant to be doing and an Anderson who was out of his depth.
But in the second half, United were overrun, outplayed and went very ragged, mainly due to the subbing of Anderson for Tevez as Carrick and Giggs got an awful chasing in midfield; perhaps a lesson for Saturday right there.
Decisions for Ferguson? We’ll presume he’s not going to get as bold as to completely change style with some form of three at the back, though there are valid reasons why such a formation could well work, and boil the tactical question down to whether or not to have an extra body in midfield.
Basically, does Ferguson stick with the 4-4-1-1 that’s worked so effectively in the last two months or revert to some form of 4-3-3 to attempt to get an extra grip on the game against the world’s most fluent midfield trio?
4-3-3 surely makes plenty of sense in that it’d clog up the central area for Barcelona to work through, it’d give more bite and energy to win second balls (Fletcher) while freeing up Carrick and Giggs to do the playmaking, it’d match Barcelona’s midfield three against three so there’s no outnumbering. And yet it’d seem perverse to dispense with a system that’s getting the most from Wayne Rooney as a number 10, that’s discovered a clinical number 9 in Javier Hernandez, that’s gotten a previously stuttering United playing with a bit more verve.
Park is needed for Dani Alves, Valencia is needed to exploit weakness, Rooney and Hernandez are needed to get at the Barca central defence. No, Alex Ferguson may like to tinker with systems – he surprised many with a 4-4-2 in the 2008 Champions league final when all expected a 4-3-3 – but he still tends to stick with styles that are working and players that are in form rather than meddling. It’s most likely to be 4-4-1-1, for better or worse.
Centre of attention
After that it comes down to Darren Fletcher or Ryan Giggs for central midfield. Fletcher has the legs, energy and drive that’s pretty much imperative against Barcelona but hasn’t played in a few months while Giggs has formed a strangely effective partnership with Michael Carrick (albeit one that’s getting rave reviews based on beating a stale Chelsea and an inept Schalke), getting the ball quickly from deep midfield into that dangerous area in front of the opponent’s back four and becoming an assist machine at times. Giggs represents a gamble but it’s one Ferguson could well feel like taking.
Arsene Wenger made a point during the week about Barca, that you know what you’re going to get, and it’s a valid one. It’s not to say Pep Guardiola hasn’t been innovative – two years ago he moved Messi off the wing to more centrally, he’s flirted with a three at the back – but these days there’s been little need to mess around. There’s a doubt over left-back where Puyol may have to move across and Mascherano could come into centre-half, but other than that it’s extremely unlikely Pep Guardiola will throw a curveball at United from the front six – Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi controlling the midfield, with Pedro and Villa mainly either side of Lionel Messi as a fluent, rotating front three.
What’s in the press?
You also know Barca are going to press high up the pitch, but it’s often a bit of a conundrum for opponents whether to do the same. Guardiola himself admitted United did it quite successfully early in the ’09 game, Real Madrid did the same in the recent Copa Del Rey before being unsure quite which tactic to use in the following Champions league game.
Inter famously and quite brilliantly parked the bus at the Camp Nou last campaign but they had something to hang onto, United will be looking to create also. With the energy levels of the probable front four for United also – Valencia, Park, Rooney and Hernandez – it would seem a more natural game for them to put pressure on Barca’s players high up the field rather than sit in. United will play a lot on the counter, but they’ll be looking to start their counter attacks as close to Barcelona’s goal as possible.
Other calls and necessities for United to be successful? Well Park will surely be detailed to try and halt Dani Alves’ gallop; it ain’t often you get a full-back with 20 assists over a season.
Hernandez will try to get in behind Barca’s defence, exploiting perhaps the room Alves leaves behind, and look to get match-ups with Javier Mascherano as often as possible if the Argentinian is filling in centre-back.
Sergio Busquets will need looking after and Wayne Rooney seems the obvious one to fill in this space when needed. Real Madrid had plans for Xavi in the semi-final but time and again Busquets was allowed take ball from his defenders and begin attacks, something United can’t really let happen. The likely call for just two in midfield for United make Rooney’s dropping back into this area inevitable, as a constant 3v2 through the middle in Barca’s favour would be devastating.
If United are deciding to press, then Carrick and Giggs/ Fletcher will need to push up on Xavi and Iniesta. The issue here of course is leaving that gap in front of the back four open for Lionel Messi to receive balls to feet and get turned on Ferdinand and Vidic (exhibit A – Messi’s second goal at the Bernabeu in the semi-final).
If Carrick decides to drop into that space more often, it’ll leave Xavi or Iniesta to pick little passes down the sides to Pedro and Villa cutting in from the wings (exhibit B – Pedro’s goal at Camp Nou in semi-final). And when Messi does drift away from Ferdinand and Vidic to receive ball deep, will one of them follow or hope Carrick can close down the space?
Ryan Giggs is often hailed for his defensive willingness but does he really have the tactical discipline and awareness to lockdown the influence of Xavi?
Barcelona have tended to be troubled (Real, Chelsea) by sides with high energy and physicality in midfield but Carrick/ Giggs just doesn’t offer that sort of game and though Park can drift inside to help out, he’ll be busy enough with Alves. United’s 4-4-1-1 of the Chelsea games might just be more effective exploiting Barca’s weaknesses than negating their strengths. Only after the game can we know if this is a brave or naïve call from Ferguson.
Best foot forward
Little of the tactical calls will matter unless United show up with their A game. Hernandez will need to be as cool-headed as 40 seconds into that Chelsea game rather than the wastefulness of Schalke.
Rooney was dominated recently by Alex Song at Arsenal; this can’t happen in his likely match-up with Busquets. Carrick just needs to keep the ball moving to his front four – and keep an eye out for Chicarito over the top – rather than try to open up the Barca defence with every pass.
Valencia will surely target the left-back area as vulnerable no matter who’s in this position. United will have to cope with having as little as 30% of possession – the norm these days when facing Barcelona – and ensure Hernandez doesn’t get isolated or that Carrick/ Giggs don’t need to be looking long all the time when pressed hard by Barca’s midfield.
And chances of a United win surely disintegrate if they go behind to a Barca team who can play keep ball all night long if necessary. Lots of ifs, though Ferguson has no doubt convinced his players they’ll all come to pass.