Barcelona Dominate at Wembley

A sublime performance from Barcelona saw them crowned European champions for the second time in three years. As with the same match-up in Rome two years ago, Barcelona recovered from a slow start to dominate 80 minutes of a one-sided contest.

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Rooney and Hernandez Failure

Alex Ferguson opted for his usual “big game” selection with Giggs and Carrick in midfield, Valencia and Park on either side and Rooney supporting Hernandez up front. This lineup with two attackers was hailed as brave by some commentators but in reality it was simply misguided. Stastically, 4-4-2 is the worst formation to adopt against Barcelona and while Manchester United may have been aiming for a 4-2-3-1 they were soon manipulated out of those roles by the Catalan side’s passing.

Wayne Rooney’s first half equaliser elevates his performance above competent but in reality he was completely nullified by his tactical indiscipline and his frustration of playing without the ball. He managed more touches than any of his team-mates (68) but they were often in deep-lying areas and he rarely linked up with his strike partner or midfield runners, apart from his goal. His involvement from deep with the ball disguises the fact that defensively he appeared to abandon the role of upsetting Busquets, which appeared to frustrate Ferguson during the first half. While Xavi and Iniesta enjoyed plenty of possession deep in the Manchester United half, Busquets rarely budged from his position in front of the Barcelona back four and he was allowed to dictate the flow of possession to his team-mates without interruption.

The real flaw in the Rooney-Hernandez axis was the Mexican striker however. An early tactic of playing balls over the top to exploit his pace looked dangerous until Barcelona found his runs were poorly-timed and stepped up to play him offside 5 times in the first half. He touched the ball 21 times in the game (by contrast Nani managed 19 involvements in his 21 minute spell on the pitch), failed to register a single shot and attempted only 16 passes. In short, he looked out of his depth on this stage and Ferguson should have recognised his shortcomings on the night and withdrawn him for an extra body in midfield.

Midfield Imbalance

While it would have taken a shift in styles of epic proportions for Manchester United to dominate possession against Barcelona, they could certainly have been more competitive. They completed just 280 passes in the match, a full 40% fewer than their average in the 2010/11 Champions League before last night. To put that into context FC Copenhagen completed 292 and 296 passes in their two group games against Barcelona. The Danish side actually acquitted themselves quite well in those two games but you might reasonably expect a club with the resources of United to match them for competitiveness.

Barcelona enjoyed an extra body in midfield and made their opponents pay a very high price. Ferguson was obviously mindful of the superiority of Barcelona two years ago so tried to supplement the midfield with Rooney dropping deep (which didn’t work at all as indicated above) and with Valencia and Park filling in more centrally. This played right into the hands of the Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets trio who enjoy nothing more than playing against a disjointed midfield and they picked apart the misalignments and hesitancies in United’s midfield with ease.

The failure to put the shackles on Busquets was costly but arguably Xavi did more damage for Barcelona than any of his team-mates last night. He completed 141 passes, more than United’s entire midfield (Carrick, Giggs, Park, Valencia) even attempted in the game. Significantly the comfort zone enjoyed by the unhassled Busquets allowed Xavi to play in a more advanced role than normal (a high-tempo pressing game would have forced him deeper) and Xavi had 47 successful passes in the final third of the pitch (at a ridiculous 94% success rate) and his ratio of forward passes to backward passes was 3:2.

<a rel=“attachment wp-att-2190” href="] The player influence map (left) illustrates how Xavi played as advanced as Iniesta did. The triangle of Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi is almost a perfect equilibrium triangle, with Messi obviously dropping deep to add his considerable influence on that area of the pitch. The most frequent passing combination employed by Barcelona was Xavi to Messi (31 passes). United had to make do with the rather humiliating comparison of Ferdinand to Van der Sar (10 times) as their most frequent combination.

The support offered to Carrick and Giggs by the wingers and Rooney grew less helpful as the game went on and as Abidal and Dani Alves in particular began to stretch the wingers out to the flanks. While the first goal resulted from Evra pressing the panic button too early and rushing to mark an unthreatening Messi (if he can ever be unthreatening), the second summed up perfectly the superiority of Barcelona in midfield. Xavi and Iniesta were camped on the edge of the United penalty area and Park had neither the energy, nor the awareness to screen his back four properly from this threat. Once Messi decided to add himself to the equation the result was inevitable.

Again the lack of response from Ferguson was surprising. The equalising goal obviously gave him a false sense of optimism because in truth the first half had been a one-way procession for most of its duration. Fletcher’s fitness was trusted enough to include him on the bench but not enough for him to be added to a midfield that was visibly running out of steam and getting overrun. The belated introduction of Scholes was far too late and far too ineffective in any attempt to redress the obvious imbalance.

Messi Threat

While the superiority of Barcelona should not render Ferguson immune to criticism, nor should those weaknesses detract from just how good a performance this was from the champions. The midfield were immense, the defence immaculate, but the plaudits were reserved for the magnificence of Messi.

Barcelona are so much more than a one-man team and there was a pleasing co-operative look to the statistics with all 3 midfielders credited with assists for all 3 attackers. The commonality in all 3 goals was Messi however. His involvement in the first was indirect but crucial, a few steps towards the penalty area and the difficulties in not man-marking him were all too apparent with the defenders rushing to close him down. Pedro capitalised on his unexpected freedom with gratitude.

<a rel=“attachment wp-att-2191” href="] Throughout the first half he threatened to cut his direct opponents to shreds at will. Opta don’t provide statistics for nutmegs I don’t think, but Messi was having a field day with defenders all over the pitch. The tactic to apply pressure immediately once he got the ball was sensible in theory but ineffective in reality. He thrived on the attention, attracting defenders like a magnet and then shrugging them off with perfect touches and rapid changes of direction.

There can be no criticism of the tactics deployed to restrict Messi last night. Whenever he was faced with a single marker he accepted the challenge and beat his man. When he was picked up zonally he simply ambled around the park waiting for space and then exploded into life. It was a sensational performance from a sensational player on the biggest stage.

Defending with Possession

There is a myth, slowly being dispelled by results more than anything, that this Barcelona team is weak defensively. They may not be rugged, aerially combative beasts of the prototype enjoyed in England but their defensive record is as good as any other. While Piqué and Puyol in particular can mix it in challenges, it is their positioning and their attitude to possession that makes them so effective.

It’s possible to have possession of the ball and not to attack, and thus it is possible to defend while you have the ball. A centre back who thumps the ball 70 yards down the pitch to see it returned 10 seconds later might be lauded for his “defensive” intervention but the goal of defending is to prevent the other team scoring, not to keep the ball out of the penalty area. By embracing the importance of possession throughout the team, from the goalkeeper forward, Barcelona have not only reinvented attacking football, but they’ve shifted the ideology of defending from intervention to prevention.

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The first criterion for inclusion in the Barcelona side is the ability to retain possession, so when defensive reinforcements are called for Busquets and Mascherano are the candidates. The chances of an English Premier League team ever picking a 5’8" midfielder at centre back are non-existent. The Argentinian enjoyed a comfortable game yesterday alongside the leadership of Piqué. Despite Jamie Redknapp assuring us before the game that Piqué is not a natural defender, he’s as composed and assured as any in Europe. The deserved plaudits for Barcelona’s attacking qualities should not overshadow their suffocating defence controls possession, aided by the dominance in midfield obviously, but when pressed there are few more capable at the “basics” of defending.


There is plenty of debate about whether Messi is the best player ever, and whether Barcelona are the best side ever. Both are certainly incomparable in the current era, though a case could always be made for Xavi on the first point. He’s not as spectacular as some of his team-mates but as the heartbeat of Barcelona and Spain, he has had the most extraordinary influence over a radically changed football landscape. We can only admire such greatness.]Read the full story here

Just catching up on this article now. Compliments to the author - it’s rather good. I haven’t even read Zonal Marking’s effort yet as Rocko’s TFK pieces should always come first. I couldn’t believe that Giggs was left on. I would have hooked him at half time because he was sinking without trace in midfield. They instead switched him wide left and moved Park inside but Giggs’ fortunes didn’t improve at all.

Very good article. Would most fans not have any interest in this type of tactical stuff or what? It’s a wonder there isn’t at least some of it in any of the papers.

Where do ye stand on ‘the Barca are the best team ever’ argument Bando and Rocko?
Being outplayed once or twice in three years when it matters in La Liga and in Europe, while also providing the bulk of a Euro and World Cup winning national side and possessing the genius that is Messi, makes it hard to look past them. I’d say there’ll be no argument in ten years time. I’ve seen nothing like them for consistent dominance of games anyway. Without doubt the best team to watch I’ve seen.

Thanks Gola. I think a few newspapers are beginning to take an interest - the Guardian for one. But they reserve most of the sophisticated discussion for their websites and just fill the paper with match reports. In fairness to rugby writers, though you may not like the sport, I think they moved on to analysis far quicker than their soccer counterparts. You don’t read match reports on rugby as much as opinion pieces. And they’re broadly tactical and generally sensible.

On the Barca best ever question - I think they’re the best I’ve seen. Of the teams in my living memory only Milan could come close and they were awesome for 2 years but I believe Barca have revolutionised football to some extent. They didn’t just assemble a superbly talented team and go and beat opponents, they’ve dominated nearly every game they’ve played and have only been caught out once or twice in the past couple of years. I guess Ajax in the 70s were the last team to shift things so radically and to some extent this Barca team is Cruyff’s ultimate legacy.

Their next couple of seasons will determine how they’re ultimately remembered against Real Madrid’s 5-in-a-row etc but like you I’ve never watched anything like them and we’re privileged to be able to watch them regularly.

Top class stuff Rocko.

Excellent read Rocko. Would the fact that Barca are not shown up defensively be due to the fact that their midfield and xavi in particular keep possession so well and when they do lose possession that the opposition have so little time on the ball as the barcelona midfield fight so hard to win it back?

I would be of the opinion that Xavi, Messi and iniesta are the three players that make barcelona tick (stating the obvious i know), with Xavi in particular the greatest influence. Do you know how many ‘big’ games Barca have played without Xavi and what their record is like in his absence?

Yeah obviously the whole team keeping the ball helps the defence, as does the high pressure, pressing game. The point about the defence is that their priority seems to be ball retention too. As Bandage said somewhere else, United tried to do that once from the back on Saturday and got burned. Barcelona have possession ingrained in the whole team.

I have no idea on that Xavi stat. He really hasn’t missed many big games at all. He missed the CL win against Arsenal 5 years ago but was involved in all the biggest Barca and Spain games since that I can think of off the top of my head.

Rocko wore a Celtic jersey to the Ireland v Scotland game last night. As did Bandage. A pair of gimps.

its easy for them to do that with xavi and iniesta always in position for them to receive the ball, the fact that mascharano could play centre back comfortably shows that its that midfield that makes barca the team they are. it would be interesting to see how they would fare if they had to play without xavi for an extended period of time.

I had typed most of this and then lost it. But anyway here goes again.

I think they’re superb but I reckon they need to win more to be considered the best ever. That’s 3 CL’s in 6 years but I think it’s fair to say that it’s the second for ‘this’ side. It’s the third title for the likes of Valdes, Puyol, Iniesta and Xavi but the 2006 side had a different manager in Rijkaard and it was by and large a different team with the likes of Larsson, Deco, Van Bommel, Henry, Eto’o, Ronaldinho and others. But they are capable of creating a dynasty and putting up a formidable case to be considered the best ever.

Fenway, I think it’s not just the midfield that work so hard to win the ball back; it’s the fact that they press as a cohesive unit and absolutely hound the opposition en masse to regain possession. They defend a high line and condense the game in the opposition half. You’ll often see Messi, Dani Alves and a couple of the midfielders all pressing hard together. Despite my point above, this trait was notable under Rijkaard too but perhaps not to the extent they do it now. It’s unusual to see such technically gifted players so committed to doing the other side of the game but that’s why they’re so good at it, because they all do it and do it so coherently.

A few pundits mentioned before Saturday’s game that if you can break through the initial pressing (and it’ll often be 5 or 6 of them hounding a particular small area of the pitch) with some sharp, incisive passing of your own then you can get running at their retreating back four. It was telling that Manchester United, good as they are, resorted to lumping the ball away. The one time they tried a few risky passes in attempting to break through Barca’s high press in the first half they were dispossessed deep in their own half.

Yeah I don’t disagree with that. I thought Messi was outstanding the other night and he’s just a genius but I think I posted on the match thread that Xavi has done so much to change football single-handedly it’s unreal. He makes them tick and they’re very fortunate (or clever) to have a guy like Busquets coming through the system next who may not replace him but by God can he keep the ball too. Xavi’s involvement with Spain too says an awful lot about the guy. He may not be better than Messi but he has contributed more to their style which is so different from anyone else.

I love going back to read this headline from the newspaper who thought they knew better than everyone else.:

id agree with all that.

Xavi is incredible.

Huh? That was a peaceful protest directed against Scotland football supporters. Sending them the message that the diaspora’s team and players and manager and supporters will not be cowed by their anti-Irish racism. They don’t necessarily need to participate in it but their silence about it says enough about the skirt wearing bigots. They have helped to normalize it. One Scotland, many racists, but Celtic will not bow down to them. I was thrilled to meet Rocko at the top of Barrow Street at 5.45pm and see him wearing his bumbles. I was looking resplendent in my long sleeve sponsorless home kit. We hadn’t even spoken about making the protest in advance but we both knew a protest had to be made without even talking about it. :clap:

:lol: Myers - The wum TASE would love to be

Yes, it’s perhaps a little too trite and easy to see the values of two civilisations being represented in the Champions League Final last Saturday night.

One consisted largely of Spaniards, or their cultural kin, with a manager who reflected their qualities of being athletic, young, intelligent and energetic. The other was Britannic, though consisting mostly of foreigners, with a few lumbering old British players with their socks round their ankles and an aged manager with a whiskey-face and no game plan.

The distance between the two teams was truly embarrassing: but does it reveal serious national differences? Or were these limited merely to the pitch on the day? Might not another match at another time produce different results? Well, we know the answers to these questions: they are Yes, No and No. As I’ve said before, there has been a collapse in the physical health of the British and Irish working classes, who are now as capable of producing footballers of world-class quality as they are of making interplanetary rockets.

Where are the 20-somethings in British football? If there are fine players in these islands who are seriously accomplished, they are probably of Afro-Caribbean origin. The beer-bellied Proletarian Anglo-Saxon/Celtic Youngster is distinguished by the nightly consumption of a horse-trough of lager, then to be followed by sex with complete strangers, copious urination in shop doorways, and voluminous vomiting in public __ and all preferably at the same time.

Has Ireland produced an intelligent and skillful creative midfielder since Liam Brady and Ronnie Whelan? Enough said. Scotland, which once had lathes that mass-produced canny left-sided inside forwards and burly assassins at half-back, now produces comatose proletarian alcoholic males with a life expectancy less than that of Bangladeshi typhoon victims. Perhaps this is why so many Scottish men compensate by affecting kilts and hiking-boots and even Rob Roy bonnets (complete with feathers) in airports, though with no apparent sense of irony or self-parody.

Kilts __ a ridiculous confection of English and Lowland 19th century romanticism __ are one thing: but the modern tan hiking-boot with welded polystyrene sole __ how, pray, did it become part of the Scottish national dress?

And what is there to say of England, which has so many soccer clubs attracting such huge followings within a population of some 50 million, but which has not produced a decent soccer team in nearly 50 years? So it was surely no coincidence that two of Manchester United’s English-born players, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, have an accumulated age of 75, which is more than three times the average age of the Barcelona team.

What Manchester United __ and just about any English team __ lacks is a recognisable culture that relates with the place it inhabits. In return, most players have no loyalty to cities which are merely the areas that produce the witless slobs who pay vast amounts to watch foreigners (who by and large don’t give a fiddler’s fart for them) play for “their” teams. This is not true for Barcelona. Indeed, it simply could not be true for Barcelona, because the club sees itself as a sporting expression of a sophisticated Catalan identity. Pride in the city and its culture defines the football club. To compromise that culture is an impossible contradiction in terms, a Miss World suicide-bomber.

But even if English (and I mean English, Scottish soccer is a tragedy beyond all decent contemplation: a moment’s silence, please) clubs wanted to cultivate local talent amongst the white working classes, is there anything to groom? Yes, there is Wayne and there is Dean and there is Kevin (sob!): but these fine fellows are far too busy shagging Sharon and her twin sisters Sharon and Sharon, in between getting fitted with their own personalised incontinence pads, to be able to play soccer. (And what? You have to train? WHAT? Five mornings a week? And be out of bed every day before noon? Leave it out, squire: three pints of lager and a packet of crisps, and the same for me mate, please).

The great Jimmy Magee used to lament that it was the tragic destiny of Irish soccer players to be drawn to the relatively brainless pell mell of English soccer, rather than to the sophisticated culture of Spanish and Italian club football. Well, that was then, and those really were the days. Now, there are no stellar Irish players to be drawn to anything anywhere any more anyway: even the depraved ancestor rule, which allows any descendants of the many Irish followers of the royal pretender Lambert Simnel (1477-1525) to play for Ireland, would merely yield a harvest of portly pot-boys called Lee, who only break sweat when tucking into their third breakfast burger and fries (the word “chips” being a now distant race-memory).

If there is any consolation in any of this, it is that at least we are alive to have seen one of the greatest football teams of all time, for Barcelona now surely ranks alongside Brazil of 1970 and Real Madrid of 1960. Moreover, we can be absolutely sure that no world-class team will ever again speak English __ until, that is, it is composed of Africans.