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The Media

Beating Barcelona: pre-match theories evaluated

Before last week’s Champions League final at Wembley you couldn’t move for articles about what Manchester United had to do to beat Barcelona. As we know now, whatever United were trying to do, it didn’t work. Rather bizarrely, it was Gary Lineker who ended up looking like the voice of reason with his prediction that Barcelona would need to have an off day if Manchester United were going to win.

So did any other British writers come up with something that might have worked, or was there nothing anyone could have done to stop the Catalan juggernaut that night? Here’s a review of what a handful of British writers and pundits wrote before the game and how it looked afterwards:


Zonal Marking – Barcelona v Manchester United: tactical preview

Michael Cox’s match previews on Zonal Marking are just as good as his analysis after a match and I often find them a great place to start when thinking about how a particular game will develop. What I really like about Cox’s writing is the range of questions he asks and the number of options he presents.

In this preview, Cox suggests that the big decision for Ferguson was whether to play Javier Hernandez or leave him out “in order to use another central midfielder, and go for more of a defensive system?” He then points out the positive aspect – Hernandez’s pace causing problem for Barcelona on the break, but also brings up the drawback – that the Mexican hasn’t really contributed in games where United haven’t had the majority of possession.

Some parts of the article are quite prophetic. The case for playing another midfielder instead of Hernandez was strong, because “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.” That was unquestionably true, and it’s something that Cox pointed out in his analysis after the match: “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”.

Likewise, in the run up to Messi’s goal: “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”. That’s exactly what caused Vidic to hesitate before Messi scored.

Diagnosis: 9/10
Solution: 8/10

Martin Keown – Give Ferdinand a roving role as Messi’s minder to win midfield battle:

Keown may not be the first person you would look to for tactical insight, but in his article in the Daily Mail he does a decent job of explaining United’s biggest problem – Barcelona’s front three playing between the lines and giving central defenders the problem of when to pick them up. Sir Alex Ferguson actually picked the exact team Keown suggested, with Giggs and Carrick in the centre of midfield. Unfortunately, Keown added a strange and probably unworkable twist – asking Rio Ferdinand to constantly mark Lionel Messi.

Diagnosis: 7/10
Solution: 4/10

David Pleat – My masterplan: how Manchester United can beat Barcelona:

In The Guardian, the former Tottenham and Luton manager came up with a five-point masterplan. Like Martin Keown, Pleat suggested Rio Ferdinand should step out and pick up Lio Messi, although only “occasionally”. None of Pleat’s other suggestions look as if they would have had much of an impact either – getting behind Dani Alves (because nobody’s tried that before), asking Wayne Rooney to close down Sergio Busquets (which United tried, but to little effect), pressuring Victor Valdes into kicking long (surely a waste of energy as the Barca keeper is comfortable with the ball at his feet) and the rather obvious suggestion that United should keep eleven players on the pitch.

Diagnosis: 6/10
Solution: 3/10

Jonathan Wilson – How best for Manchester United to combat Barcelona?

As with everything Jonathan Wilson writes, this article for The Guardian contained a depth of thought that is unrivalled among today’s football writers. Here, the reader is offered an historical context for Barcelona’s style of play, taking in the massive Dutch influence from  Michels and Cruyff as well as the innovation of Viktor Maslov and Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

When turning to how United could best set up to defend against Barcelona, Wilson came up with a radical new formation called the “practical hour-glass”, although he suggested that it may be “something so radical as to be unthinkable”. This formation was a 3-3-3-1 with a “wide three, narrow three, wide three, centre-forward”. As we know now, United chose a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1), which was a formation dictated as much by the players Sir Alex Ferguson wanted on the pitch as by a desire to impose their own will on the game.

Could a 3-3-3-1 have worked? Well, given the way that Valencia and Park were forced further infield to help Carrick and Giggs in the centre of the pitch, Wilson’s formation may at least have allowed United’s wide players to play further forward with the two full backs helping inside instead. In reality, when United were able to win the ball back in their own half, their counter-attacks were ineffective, mostly because Park, Valencia (and often Wayne Rooney too) were caught too far away from Javier Hernandez, who was often the only player in the Barcelona half.

Not surprisingly, Wilson also identified the biggest danger to United as being Lionel Messi playing “as a false nine, dropping deep from his centre-forward’s position”, adding that “what United must do at all costs is protect that space in front of the two centre-backs”. In contrast to Keown and Pleat, Wilson’s solution was for a defensive midfielder to pick up Messi with United’s full backs tucking in to help. Messi’s goal was a good illustration of why this was probably the better option. Nemanja Vidic failed to close Messi down quickly enough and Messi took advantage of the hesitation to get a shot away. Two minutes before that though, Vidic had followed Messi too far from his own goal and allowed a dangerous ball to be played into the space he and Evra had left behind them. Had a spare central midfielder been in that space, Vidic may have been spared an impossible dilemma.

Wilson even seemed to anticipate the ideas that other pundits would raise, skewering the idea of attacking down the Barcelona right wing, behind Dani Alves. “Logic suggests that the space behind Alves should be exploitable, but no side has managed that.” These days, it only tends to be British pundits (like David Pleat) who don’t see much of Barcelona play who suggest this as a realistic option. Everyone else has realised that Dani Alves is primarily an attacking player (although he can also defend when required) and Barcelona have anticipated this threat and developed a counter-measure. Wilson describes it succinctly as “Busquets dropping in to become effectively a third centre-back”.

Diagnosis: 10/10
Solution: 9/10

BBC (Alistair Magowan with Lee Dixon & Nicky Butt) – How Manchester United can beat Barcelona
The BBC’s Football Tactics blog has been a welcome addition to the world of football analysis, and in this article Alistair Magowan took a detailed look at the problems that were facing United, often referring back to both the 2009 final and the two semi finals this year. It was useful to me to be reminded of the formation United used in 2009 – a 4-3-3 with Giggs, Carrick and Anderson in midfield. That fact it didn’t work then may explain why Ferguson tried something different this time.

There were some really interesting and revealing diagrams and statistics illustrating how and where Barcelona keep possession and pass the ball, along with insightful comments from Magowan:  “The value of possession to the Spanish side, though, is that they use it almost as thinking time. The first instinct of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta is to pass, get it back and use that time to see what is developing in front of them.”

The contributions from Lee Dixon and Nicky Butt were pretty mixed, with Butt offering little more than generic cheerleading about how United “have to go out there and impose themselves on the game”, although his comment that “if they can win the ball high up the pitch, and win it early, they can then break off and it could help United win the game” did at least identify the way United scored their goal.

Dixon’s input was more detailed. He identified the key problem of Messi’s position and suggested a mixed approach where “somebody in midfield needs to be aware of that and the two centre-backs need to govern when they go in and when they stay as a back four”. Dixon also had an idea on combatting Barcelona’s high pressing, suggesting that you can “beat the Barca press if a longer pass out of the danger zone is employed quickly”, but he spoilt it by adding the same old stuff about exploiting space behind Alves: “If Manchester United can get past Barca’s first phase of closing the ball down, they certainly have the players in wide areas who can hurt their two full-backs. I don’t think they are the best defenders. They like to bomb forward and they do leave gaps at the back”.

Diagnosis: 9/10
Solution: 7/10


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