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Sir Alex Ferguson has not directly talked about ‘revenge’, but he has often talked about the lessons he learnt 2 years ago in what was for 75 minutes at least, a horror show of a performance from his side. There has been a lot of talk since then about what actually went wrong but let us try and narrow down what ‘lessons’ Fergie actually learnt – and more importantly, how he can use them to define his tactical approach on Saturday…
Diagram 1: Probable Starting Line-up
Tactical approach 1: Deal with Messi in the false 9 role
Guardiola, interviewed shortly after the 2009 triumph commented: “Last year we saw that Leo (Messi) had difficulties with Evra so we put him inside with Xavi and Iniesta and we had one more player in the middle.”
Ok it took Manchester United by surprise (and what a decision that now looks!), it was unexpected, but this time, unless Guardiola has a trick up his sleeve, there should be no excuse. United need to monitor his movement from the very beginning, unlike Rome where it came as a complete surprise, and there was a hesitancy from both coach and players alike to react to the conundrum. To this end, as we alluded to here, it may be necessary to pull the nearest centre half into the middle zone at times in order to press the space upon Messi receiving the ball. Koscielny had great success using this tactic at the Emirates for the first leg of their quarter-final recently. Tasked with anticipating the ball to Messi, the Frenchman was often as high as Wilshere in his pursuit of the Argentine, and thus the ball was forced away from goal.
If the game does get played out in the middle third (see below), in real terms, Vidic or Ferdinand may not have to venture too far out of the back line. They will of course be aided by Carrick’s deep positioning too, and it is perhaps this combination in particular, as well as Park’s central movement from left to right which might ensure Messi is directed into a defensive shield, narrowing his passing angle. Unlike in 2009 then, it is vital that Man United ensure they react (discussed below in more detail) to any slight tactical manoeuvring which may be on the cards – Messi alternating with Villa or Pedro could be a feature; as could Iniesta’s movement left with Villa coming into a central position and Messi adopting a regista-like position.
Tactical approach 2: Press higher up on Xavi and Iniesta, squeezing the middle third
Fergie commented after the last meeting between the two in 2009: ‘Xavi and Iniesta could put opponents on a carousel.’
And he was right. The pair were at their efficient best that night, and even more worryingly they have improved since then. Fergie thus faces a dilemma in terms of his pressing options: Allow Barca to enter the United half before eliciting the system or press high, starting with Rooney and Hernandez in Barca’s half? (Sitting too deep would be disastrous in my view).
Stopping Xavi dictating the tempo of the game will be crucial and may force Messi deeper to collect the ball allowing United’s backline to press the space in front of Barca’s midfield, taking Pedro and Vill with them. Busques’ role should not be underestimated and Rooney will ensure that the Spaniard is given as little time as possible on the ball, and it here where the system is put into motion. Park will have to watch both the movement of Alves as well as the passing option to Xavi, who forms the central fulcrum of the Barca passing strategy. Carrick’s guarding of Iniesta and Messi in a slightly deeper position with Giggs must be aided by the fullback and at times United will seek to form two banks of four where possible.
United will be astutely aware of the threat Iniesta can pose when given time to turn on the ball from deep and initiate a slalom-like run as he moves elegantly forward, evading challenges with such ease. In arguably the three of the three biggest games of his career to date, he delivered the goods: In Rome, his opportunism in driving forward to release Eto’o for the opener; for Spain in the World Cup Final, as he moved from deep, receiving the ball and calmly slotting home; and at Camp Nou versus Madrid in his last game out in the competition, expertly finding Pedro between two Real players. Pressing Barca’s artistic ‘creators’ may however allow Alves more space in which to capitalise with his clever movement.
Tactical approach 3: Focus on Manchester United
Perhaps the most telling phrase from a recent interview with Messi was this:
“They are strong, and they will not try to destroy our game. Manchester will make their own game.”
Arguably an attempt to throw the gauntlet down to Ferguson and the United side, but ironically, potentially the greatest lesson of all that Sir Alex learnt from that particular game. It is largely predicted that United will set up in a manner which will best suit our direct and attacking philosophy, as opposed to allowing Barcelona’s tactics to dictate. We can surmise the hope of the United faithful with one key issue/dilemma: Will Rooney be deployed in the ‘number 10’ role, and not, as a lone striker with Hernandez dropping down to the bench. I am a massive fan of Fletcher, and he would start in any other circumstance, but a personal view is that his lack of match fitness would jeopardise the set up.
United must be bold with the inclusion of Hernandez – his combination play with Rooney that at times this season has been enthralling. The pair should seek to work in the Barca right back zone of the field; despite Alves not as likely to be the ambitious Brazilian fullback we know him to be (instructed specifically versus Real to sit tight for the majority of the game and ensuring defensive cover in the form of Busquets/Mascherano was a given before taking any undue risks), he is a weaker defender than Puyol or Abidal, and in tandem with Evra, Rooney and Hernandez can make inroads into the final third. Perhaps Fletcher then can be key from the bench if Barca do take control in the middle, or indeed if United take the lead.
In defence, Fabio’s inclusion ahead of O’Shea would allow his pace to be used not only in the defensive phase in tracking Messi’s runs and Villa’s movement, but also in relieving pressure as both he and Valencia can dribble with the ball, seeking to exploit on the counter. If Guaridola thinks this may be a conundrum for his side, Abidal may well be forced to start at leftback instead of Puyol. Likewise Evra should play his normal game and not be focused entirely on the threat of Messi and Alves; indeed if Evra can time his marauding runs, his drive and penetration could cause Barca major problems as he sinks to link with the forward players in the opposition territory.
Tactical approach 4: Release the ball early and with authority
Barcelona have set the world alight with their incomparable aesthetic passing approach play, but what they have also developed under Pep Guardiola is an intense and dazzlingly effective pressing strategy in which the players (starting from the forwards) hunt down the ball relentlessly until they regain possession; mistakenly presumed a strategy that is easy to apply, it takes lots of meticulous preparation United must thus be prepared to take their normal game to the Catalan side. The Busby philosophy, so lucidly applied by Sir Alex during his reign, has been to attack; a direct approach reliant on sharp and crisp passing, collective movement and an ability to take a risk in goal-scoring scenarios. The upshot is simple: delay or hesitate on the ball and Barcelona will take you apart. Perform the basics well by defending tight, predicting the pattern of play and releasing the ball early to danger men such as Rooney or wide to Valencia will ensure the best possible chance of victory and will force Barca into defensive positions – something they are not used to doing and have looked vulnerable after conceding the first goal.
In midfield, for all the abuse (unfair given the collective performance) Carrick has received in the aftermath of the defeat in Rome, Saturday is a chance to set the record straight. Fantastic in the ties v Marseille, Chelsea and Schalke, Carrick’s return to form in the latter half of the season has been pivotal to the success and efficiency of United at present. His nimble passing is ironically only surpassed by the two men that stand in his way: Xavi and Iniesta. Carrick’s ability to read the game and intercept the ball in his own half is unique; his range of passing is also a key asset, whether that be his ability to play it simple, shifting the ball and thus the opposition from one frame of reference to another or the long raking diagonal that became his forte in the Ronaldo years. It could be this tool alone that gives Sir Alex’s side a chance, with Hernandez, the striker able to offer equally devastating pace and movement once United retain possession (see diagram 1 below).
Diagram 2: Park and Evra shepherd Alves inside, relieving Barca of possession with easy out-ball to Carrick – whose ability to pass quickly and incisively to Hernandez could put the Barca defense on the back foot and allow the space in behind Alves to be exploited.
Tactical approach 5: React to Barca strategy
Whilst it is fundamental that United should focus on its own game and strengths, it is also important to ensure that the detail in the Barca approach is noted. Sat in Rome disillusioned after the game, the main thing that galled me about the United tactical set-up was not merely the starting formation – Fergie always has his selection rationale and who am I to question his peerless attention to detail — Rooney was tasked with troubling the largely inconsistent Puyol, Ronaldo with providing the direct running through the centre against the relative novice Pique — but what I could not comprehend was our failure to react and that our shape was largely unchanged throughout. We simply failed to respond and this can’t be allowed to happen again. Ronaldo’s penetration was surely better placed on the veteran Sylvinho; likewise Giggs in a more natural left side role versus Puyol having looked out of his depth in the ’10’ role and unable to offer defensive discipline. Berbatov’s ball-retaining abilities too were overlooked at half time.
United should not fall into the trap of retreating too deep; whilst it will be tempting to utilise the pace on the counter attack as a primary strategy (as above) this would implore Barca to come further forward; it is logical to suspect that Barca will have the majority of the possession, but Fergie has always prided himself on taking a positive mindset, and this will be pivotal. Rooney’s positioning on the field will come to the fore; excellent at getting in between the midfield and forward lines, Rooney’s intuition on the ball will be key to the chances of a positive outcome – as the games against Chelsea in the two competitions of late are testament to. In essence Rooney should give Barca just as much of a tactical headache as Messi will for United, but he must also perform his defensive duties, sitting deep when without the ball. Logically, Valencia should be used as much as possible given his strength and ability to take the ball to the opposition with intelligence; and given the Barca system so accurately described by Roberticus (@Santapelota), they may well be vulnerable in the wide areas as the 3-4-3 means that Puyol will often look like a third auxiliary centre half.
Most of the players have been well rotated in recent games which is in sharp contrast to the situation which presented itself going into the 2009 Final. Each player is not only fit and ready for the challenge physically, but also mentally. With congestion in the centre of the park, the game could be won from the wide areas. It is essential that each player applies their tactical instruction with precision; and with United having the momentum going into the game, having been fantastic defensively in the latter third of the season, could we see a surprise on the cards at Wembley?
Referee: Viktor Kassai of Hungary. Excellent young (35 yrs) referee who officiated a WC semi-final. For me too early to be handed the Final due to his overly sentimental nature in ‘letting the game flow’. But this could however suit United, as the pressing and tackling is likely to be a key feature of the game.
Prediction: Hernandez 1-0. Essentially, whoever scores first is unlikely to lose the game.
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