It will be difficult, but if Manchester United have any chance of beating Barcelona they need to nullify Alves, forget Messi and attack the left-back…
Play To Your Strengths, As Well As Their Weaknesses.
Looking at Barcelona's best XI, one thing that immediately jumps out at you is their left-back. For starters, it's the only position there that doesn't automatically pick itself – do you go with the steady reliance of Abidal, the attacking threat of Maxwell or the versatility of Adriano? If Barcelona possibly have an Achilles heel, it's in that area of the pitch, especially considering that further up the field sits David Villa, a player who simply doesn't track back.
Indeed, if Sir Alex will lament anything about the 2009 final, it'll be that, by sticking Park Ji-Sung on the right wing fro Manchester United, he totally failed to take advantage of Barcelona being forced to play an ageing and half-fit Sylvinho at left-back. Had he allowed Nani, Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo to have a go at him, things might well have been different that evening. Regardless of who Guardiola chooses to fill that spot this time, Ferguson has, in Antonio Valencia, a player who mere weeks ago tore Ashley Cole a new shotgun wound and would certainly fancy his chances against any of the three likely candidates.
Looking for the tiny chinks in Barcelona's armour is all well and good, but if Manchester United want to impose themselves on the game (something they'll have to do if they want any real chance of winning) they'll have to do play to their own strengths as well. They're in a slightly fortunate position here as, over the last few seasons, they've established themselves as one of the best counter-attacking sides in the world. Barcelona will probably amass around 65-75% possession in the game and United will have to pick their moments to commit men forward. Javier Hernandez is key here, as his pace, movement and ability to get in behind Barcelona's high defensive line will be United's greatest goal-threat.
Barcelona's goals, regardless of how they cross the line, or who applies the final touch, usually begin at the feet of one man – Sergio Busquets
Disrupt The Tempo.
If you want to stop a man eating, you must first deny him food.
In all probability, Barcelona will start the final with a front free of David Villa, Lionel Messi and Pedro - arguably the most potent attacking line in world football. However, whilst they all have the ability to occasionally conjure something out of nothing, they, like any other footballers, rely on a degree of service. So, we then look at the men charged with providing it, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta – arguably the most potent central midfield duo in world football. If Messi, Villa and Pedro are the recipients of the feast, then Xavi, Iniesta and even Dani Alves, are the men bringing it to the table.
But why stop the waiters, when you can stop the chef?
Barcelona's goals, regardless of how they cross the line, or who applies the final touch, usually begin at the feet of one man – Sergio Busquets. With some of the greatest attacking minds in the game playing ahead of him, it's easy to dismiss his short, simple range of passes as insignificant, but were Manchester United able to crowd him out, it would force Barcelona's to drastically alter their approach. For a start, it would force either Xavi or Iniesta to receive the ball from far deeper positions and, thus, stretch the gap between Barcelona's midfield and attack. This would not only make life harder for them, but give the likes of Carrick and Giggs more room to play their own game.
Busquets certainly isn't glamorous, but when he first broke into the side Barcelona were one of the best teams in Europe – today, they're arguably the greatest club side ever. It's not a coincidence.
Wayne Rooney, coincidentally, has done a similar job on players like Alex Song and Michael Essien this season, occupying their attentions and removing them from the game when Manchester United were on the back foot. It's also quite probable that, with the Scouser playing slightly behind the centre-forward (be it Hernandez or Berbatov) in a 4-4-1-1, Busquets will have instructions to keep an eye on him anyway. It could be this individual battle that decides the game, if Rooney can pull Busquets around the pitch and, more importantly, disrupt his passing game, it could swing the balance in United's favour.
If Rooney can pull Busquets around the pitch and, more importantly, disrupt his passing game, it could swing the balance in United's favour.
Nullify Their Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Ball.
Barcelona aren't notoriously dangerous from crosses and their two wide players, usually Pedro and Villa, play very narrow to exploit the space in the middle that's caused by Messi dropping deep (see point 4), so a lot of teams, when on the back foot, look to close down the space in the middle and breakdown moves simply by pressuring in numbers. Even Arsenal, in their exit from the Champions League, did this reasonably well, but time and again, just as they looked to have sufficiently narrowed the play and forced Xavi or Iniesta into a blind alley, they'd lift their heads up and spray a pass out to Dani Alves, who would be standing on the touchline with enough space to write, film and star in his own big-budget period drama.
Dani Alves is Barcelona's right-back, but his average position on the field is probably more advanced than an iPhone 7 and your left sided attacker has to bear this in mind. Fortunately, in Park Ji-Sung, Sir Alex Ferguson probably has the best defensive forward in the world and, with two simple instructions, could take Alves totally out of the game; When they've got the ball; run towards him, when we have it; run away. It sounds too simple to be true but provided you've got the lung capacity for it, you'd not only cut off Barcelona's “get out of jail free” ball, but catch him on the break time and again. In theory anyway.
Now, much like the aforementioned Busquets, Alves isn't the lynchpin to Barcelona's attacks, he doesn't dictate the tempo and he isn't responsible for finding the killer ball, but he does give the rest of the side a staggeringly simple way to retain possession when the walls appear to be closing in. Cut that off and, in theory anyway, you'd shorten their attacking options and force considerably more turnovers in possession.
Manchester United fans, if you've got a sacrificial goat just laying around, now would be a good time.
Don't Sweat Messi (Too Much).
Lionel Messi is the greatest player in the world. I'm sure you don't need me to go into detail about what he's capable of doing to teams when he has the ball at his feet, you'll have seen it for yourself at some point this season.
Messi's position as the central player in a forward three is a misleading one, as he's very rarely Barcelona's furthest forward attacker. Take a look at the graph below and you'll see that the areas of the pitch he received the ball in hardly make him your archetypal centre-forward. Instead his position is best described as that of a 'false nine', starting high up the pitch but dropping deep into the space between the opposition defence and the midfield to receive the ball and elude his markers.
Image courtesy of Total Football app
This leaves teams with the conundrum of how to combat him, and there's two obvious strategies. Either, one of the centre halves (presumably Ferdinand or Vidic in this case) is charged with keeping an eye on him, they're then dragged out of position and the space is created for the other two attackers coming in from wide areas – Problem. Alternatively, one of the midfielders will attempt to stay close to him (a task only Darren Fletcher, who's apparently unlikely to start, would be capable of) following him all over the pitch in an attempt to crowd him out of the game, all this does is leave even more room for Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets to find their passing rhythm – Also a problem.
What Manchester United need to do, if indeed they can do anything, is not allow themselves to be undone by the things Messi isn't doing. As mentioned earlier, focusing on cutting off the supply to Barcelona's front three (and their midfield duo) is a far better idea than trying to deal with them with the ball at their feet, and sacrificing one or more players to effectively chase the Argentine's shadow will be catastrophic. Cut off his supply and deal with him when he's relevant, don't let him blind you to the threat the rest of his team pose.
A fortuitous bobble, a generous piece of officiating, catching them on an off day or even some divine intervention – regardless of personnel or tactics, the game could just as easily be decided by one of the above. Manchester United fans, if you've got a sacrificial goat just laying around, now would be a good time.
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