Long ball humping, no Owen Hargreaves in midfield and only Michael Owen on the bench: it's not hard to see why Barcelona aka the greatest team in the world dispatched this Manchester United side.
1. Barcelona are better
Theatrics, gamesmanship and the odd racial taunt aside, this is one of the greatest club sides in football history. Barça retain the ball obsessively, endeavour to retain it as if their adrenaline depended on it, get opponents on the passing carousel and switch through the gears faster than a Lamborghini. Sergio Busquets deceives opponents as if he was a playmaker, Xavi and Iniesta supply the great Leo Messi incessantly and David Villa is an incredibly reliable goalscorer on the biggest stage. Even the goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who could pop out to sample tapas at any point, concentrates impeccably and is unswerving when called upon.
2. Ferguson didn’t heed Rome mistakes
In 2009, Manchester United deployed three midfielders without a defensive midfielder and were predictably overrun. In 2011, United deployed two midfielders without a defensive midfielder and were predictably overrun. It is staggering that a manager with such an enviable track record as Sir Alex Ferguson can be so spectacularly naïve. Lulled into a false sense of security by thumping a mid-table German side and an instable Chelsea, Ferguson matched the world’s greatest midfield triumvirate with a winger-cum-playmaker and a conductor. The ease with which the Catalans bypassed United was greater than the Rome final, yet Ferguson has complacently stood still and not addressed the most pressing issue in his team.
3. United’s midfield wasn't tough enough
Ever since Owen Hargreaves headed down the Stamford Bridge tunnel in September 2008, Manchester United’s midfield has been on the wane. Hargreaves and Anderson were paired in memorable away displays at the Emirates and Anfield, yet the former’s prolonged absence through tendinitis and self-belief has marked the latter as undefined, and although Darren Fletcher has done his utmost to fill the void, United have lacked aggression and potency. Against Barcelona, they were on to a hiding whether it was a duo or a trio, and considering how brittle Barça’s dexterous attackers are, it was demoralising to not see the aggression of an Ince or a Keane materialise to try and stifle them. Even if the Reds miraculously pulled off a win against their adversaries, it would have been in spite of an uninspiring midfield.
Giggs was a passenger, Valencia choked, Park panicked and Javier Hernández impersonated Pippo Inzaghi.
4. Mistaken tactics
It is no coincidence that United’s adroit tactics in the successful 2008 European campaign and Moscow final came during Carlos Queiroz’s second spell as assistant to Ferguson. In the three seasons following Queiroz’s exit, United have produced some outstandingly inept tactical displays, and although starting Javier Hernández signalled a statement of intent that loyally advocated football taught by Matt Busby, nobody can out-football Barcelona. With Fletcher short of match-fitness and his form poor prior to his two-month long virus, Ji-Sung Park in the destructor role alongside Anderson and Carrick would have given United greater energy and physicality against the blaugrana’s central trinity, with Antonio Valencia and Nani on the flanks and Wayne Rooney at the tip of the arrow. Yet United were as watertight as a sieve and there was neither the pace or cynicism to curb the probing Messi and his suppliers. While considering Hernández’s no-show, Rooney again proved he could cause problems when leading the line on his own.
5. Over-reliance on old legs
Although the game was effectively over, throwing on Paul Scholes to slowly string a few passes together was a defeatist’s sentimentality shining through. Possibly the Ginger Prince’s final appearance in a Manchester United shirt, his presence embodied how dependent Ferguson is on the experienced professionals in his team. Anderson and Nani were signed four years ago yet out of the three European Cup finals United have reached since their arrival, only Anderson has started an event – and was substituted at half-time in Rome. Ryan Giggs, despite his calm assist for Wayne Rooney’s splendid goal, ambled along forlornly amidst the youthful exuberance of the opposition, thirty-year-old Ji-Sung Park spent 90 minutes worth of energy in one half and Patrice Evra – who hit the big three-oh two weeks ago – appeared to have strode into an early mid-life crisis. Even the spine of Edwin Van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic became haggard as they were defended by the human equivalent of Zulus straw shields.
6. Too many underperformers
Only Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic deserve praise for their displays. Fabio Da Silva was evidently aware of Ray Wilkins’ stay on your feet advice and was therefore unlikely to shackle David Villa, but at least he maintained discipline unlike Evra, whose ball-watching and positional inadequacy allowed Dani Alves acres of space. Van der Sar’s distribution was erratic and he was culpable for Messi’s strike, Giggs was a passenger, Valencia choked, Park panicked and Javier Hernández impersonated Pippo Inzaghi. Barcelona’s brilliance did not induce such meagreness.
7. Energy levels
In the opening ten minutes United rattled Barcelona. Pressing high, forcing errors and setting the tempo, the cocky Culés in the stands were not accustomed to this, and when the usually placid Michael Carrick smashed the ball against Busquets’ head there was a flicker of hope that Barcelona may be flustered. Yet this merely instigated the déjà vu effect which two years on made it an uncanny evening for all supporters concerned. Triangles and one-twos got United dizzy as they tiresomely chased shadows whereas their opponents tirelessly hunted their prey. The average age of United’s starting XI (29) was only two years more than their Spanish counterparts, but crucially, they just didn’t possess enough vigour to match in midfield.
8. Languorous style of play
Ironic that Dimitar Berbatov, a player famed for his languidness, was discarded to the stands (or wherever he was) only to witness United regularly mimic the pace of a Serie A outfit. Ponderous and dwelling, few players appeared to be prepared for Barcelona’s intense pressing game and the Red Army can only be thankful that eminent dawdler Tomasz Kuszczak wasn’t between the posts. The sole occasion they were incisive of course was when Rooney scored his sumptuous equaliser, yet United don’t possess enough players with the fleet-footedness of the Croxteth man and the contrast in styles were close to polar opposites. Although only three English players started for United, their style was akin to the derided drivel of long-ball success championed by the former FA coaching director Charles Hughes, whereas Barça oozed the ball-retaining prowess Spain has become famed for since the country’s Euro 2008 success.
9. United had peaked
Similar to the 2009 run, United’s best form in the Champions League came in the knockout stages, illustrated by the adventurous yet disciplined efforts against Chelsea and aesthetic conquer of Schalke. Their run to the final, English champions aside, was relatively easy, so it was likely that the acid test against one of the Spanish duo would be a bridge too far since United hadn’t faced stern competition in a tournament whose list of favourites has weakened considerably.
1o. Nonplussed substitutions
"Picking my team was easy, but my subs were very difficult," Ferguson said pre-match. "I tended to overload in the midfield because I thought that was the area that was most important in terms of the way Barcelona play – the game could be decided there.” Two mistakes there – he ignored flooding the midfield despite ostensibly being aware of how crucial that battle would be, and secondly, restricted his attacking options. With Berbatov MIA and Michael Owen bereft of the pace required to harry Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano the bench was a nonentity unless United ever led Barcelona. As it happened, Nani arrived to inject some verve yet Owen didn’t even receive a run-out and neither did the usually profligate yet three-goals-in-two-games Anderson. Instead, rather fittingly in retrospect, a relic of United’s European elite was wheeled out to phase out his career and his generation’s era, whilst possibly heralding a new one to challenge their benchmark.
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