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short, he looked out of his depth on this stage and Ferguson should have recognised his shortcomings on the night and withdrawn him for an extra body in midfield.
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="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2190] 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.
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="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2191] 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.
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