With the mainstream media already whispering suggestions that Sir Alex Ferguson is considering a radicalplan for ‘if and when’ Barcelona take the lead in the Champions’ League Final this evening, it’s a wonder over a billion people are even bothering to watch. Whilst Barcelona are certainly the better ball-playing side and simply can’t be outplayed in midfield, I believe – and I have touched on this elsewhere – that with the right tactical approach they can be reduced to being merely ‘another very good side’. They can be contained, frustrated, and beaten.
Rather than drawing out tactical diagrams which would be of limited value, I shall proceed to explain by naming the starting XI to fulfil my ‘masterplan’ before running through the five critical points United need to cover if they are to triumph:
Van der Sar, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Anderson, Fletcher, Park, Valencia, Rooney, Hernández
1. Xavi and Iniesta can only pick out what’s in front of them.
In other words, you don’t stop Barcelona by stifling them in midfield (although flooding the central area helps); you stop the movement in front. The main threat, naturally, comes from Lionel Messi. His role as a ‘false nine’ is particularly dangerous for United because the English side do not possess a ‘holding’ midfielder in the traditional sense, somebody who simply occupies the area in front of the back four. However, as José Mourinho showed in his recent duels with the Catalan side, you can employ someone in that space who is not necessarily a ‘natural’ defensive midfielder but has a great physical capacity, tackles well and reads the game excellently. Pepe did an excellent job on Messi when he was on the field and, for United, Anderson can do much the same. The Brazilian is powerful, hard-working, with a strong tackle and has played in almost every central midfield position possible for United.
The role of stopping Messi actually requires less tactical knowledge of the game than a more general central midfield berth because the orders are simple: go where Messi goes. Stop him getting the ball. If you can’t, tackle him; if that fails, foul him. Anderson is stronger quicker and less liable to give away free-kicks than Paul Scholes or Darren Fletcher, even if he lacks their experience.
Stopping Messi, however, is just one aspect of United’s defence. Almost as important in this game will be the movement of David Villa. Messi works so well as a ‘false nine’ precisely because Barca’s wingers – Villa and Pedro – become ‘strikers’ when Messi comes deeper to get the ball; their run, particularly Villa’s are made inside the full-back. It’s therefore critical that United cover both their right flank an the channel inside it. John O’Shea‘s experience makes him a more reliable candidate than the da Silva brothers, plus his natural defensive qualities mean he can quite easily ‘shift’ to occupy the spaces Villa runs into. Valencia can support him out on the flank. Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz tried a similar tactic at World Cup 2010, using centre-back Ricardo Costa as a full-back to come inside and check Villa’s runs. It worked like a dream until Costa lost concentration for the first time in the game and Villa found the space to poke home the winner.
Finally, the third most important factor is the running of Dani Alves. The Brazilian’s pace means he can effectively cover his defensive duties whilst being a winger. In fact, what’s interesting about Barcelona’s supposed ‘total’ approach is that they have considerably more width on their right flank than their left;Pedro, though similar to Villa, is a bit more of an orthodox wide player; Messi still has a tendency to shift a little to the right and Alves’ overlaps are legendary. However, if United adopt a lopsided midfield like that of Brazil’s national team, they can use Park Ji-Sun in the ‘Ramires’ role – covering the central midfield area whilst working the flank. His role would be to track Alves but also look to push him back by making runs in behind him when United have the ball. Park is the sort of all-round player with tremendous energy who can perform this sort of role. Evra can deal with Pedro.
2. Against Barca, defence is the best form of attack
Barcelona’s sheer movement requires that opponents sacrifice certain attacking elements of their normal game in order to deal with them effectively. It’s all very well putting Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick into midfield to try to play the ball, but United’s only real flaw over the years in the Champions’ League has been an over-reliance on these players in central midfield at the expense of genuine cover in front of the defence. It was their undoing against this same Barcelona in 2009 and it was the same in 2007 when Kaká’s masterlcass exploited their weakness against Milan. United can only win if they stop Barcelona from playing. The rest will be up to effective use of the counter-attack…
3. Play to your strengths up front
Wayne Rooney and Javi Hernández work well together up front, so use them both! Rooney frequently cuts an isolated figurein these games when he is forced to play alone up front so that United can have both the midfield cover and a central midfield player who can pass.This seems nonsensical when you consider that Rooney’s strength lies deeper, allowing a true ‘poacher’ to work the line in front of him as he drops deep to collect the ball and pick him out. United don’t need someone to ‘pick the passes’, they aren’t trying to keep the ball. They’re trying to maintain their shape defensively and launch fast, effective counter-attacks so as to hit Barca at their weakest point – their defence, far up their end of the pitch, beyond the clutches of their high-tempo pressing game.
Hernández is excellent at exploiting space and Rooney is adept at finding it. United should play to this.
4.Valencia is an important outlet
With Park pressing down the left but having Alves to deal with as well as central responsibilities, Luis Antonio Valencia is a more typical wide player. He will need to get back in support of O’Shea, but his running up the flank will be a huge plus for United, particularly against an uncertain choice of left-back for Barca. His directness is essential in getting the early ball released so as to speed up counter-attacks; although Naní is the more accomplished player, his tendency to take on too much, as well as his weaker defensive ability, mean he is much more useful option to bring on later should Barcelona need ‘unpicking’ with a more skilful and unpredictable player.
5. Be cynical
As has been argued elsewhere, Barcelona are quite prepared to put the boot in, and they are equally keen to dive around feigning injury. United must abandon any notion of fair-play if they are to win. If a Barcelona player needs to be fouled in order to break up their rhythm (assuming it’s not in a dangerous area), United’s players must be prepared to do so in a calculated manner. United must be prepared to accept that they will not have as much of the ball as they normally do; this means that rather than abandoning their defensive shape in order to launch moves, they must rely on the idea that while most of the game will be played by Barcelona in the centre of the pitch, United can create moments of danger for their opponents by getting the ball to their few forwards quickly so as to isolate Barcelona’s defenders.
Whilst this sort of football is frowned upon by the starry-eyed romantics of the game, United can’t afford to be taken in by ‘principles’; counter-attacking football, when done correctly, is an art in itself and, so long as the object remains to WIN the game rather than to draw it out, United should be able to do so with style as well as substance.