By Isidore Lewis
Brilliant but not unbeatable, this Barcelona side might be irritatingly good but they are not without weakness. Just ask Jose Mourinho.
Despite having lost to them over two legs in the semi-final of the Champions League, success for Mourinho and Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup has shown that Barcelona can be beaten, providing something of a blueprint for Manchester United of how to achieve this ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final.
No doubt, Ferguson can learn a lot from Mourinho’s recent approach; the specifics of which are explored below.
Barcelona’s game is built around high levels of possession (Pep Guardiola’s side have enjoyed a staggering average possession rate of 75% in the Champions League this season). Rather than fight against it, Ferguson and his players must incorporate this into the game-plan. The key, as Real Madrid found out, is to absorb the pressure by getting lots of men behind the ball, working hard to disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm and then – eventually and sporadically – breaking to attack.
The work Manchester United do off the ball is crucial. As was the case for Real Madrid, hustle, energy and a packed midfield will be the best philosophy for Ferguson going into the game. Man Utd should commit lots of bodies behind the ball in order to frustrate the Barcelona midfield and attack, with the intention of launching fast and direct counter-attacks where and as much as possible.
Hustle and break, from front to back.
Naturally, disrupting Barcelona’s passing and rhythm will require plenty of aggression, hard-work and high fitness levels all over the pitch. Players will have to be picked accordingly, which should mean starting places for players such as Javier Hernandez, Ji-Sung Park and maybe even Anderson and/or Darren Fletcher.
The energy of Hernandez up front will allow Manchester United to put pressure on the Barcelona defence and stretch their defensive line, whilst Park’s presence in midfield will provide vital defensive cover for Patrice Evra on the left side as well as across other areas of the pitch. This will be particularly important given the threat of Dani Alves coming forward for Barcelona.
Against Barcelona, everyone is a defender. Park should start on the left side but with the intention to come deep and narrow in order to help out in the centre of midfield. Wayne Rooney should probably be doing a similar job, coming back from a more central role to help out his midfield and defence in areas all over the pitch.
When they finally do get a chance to attack, Rooney and Park can switch around, with either one of them providing a wider option when possible. Evra can once again be useful here in terms of providing an overlapping attacking option. This should work well in conjunction with Rooney’s propensity to start attacks from deep, although he must not allow himself to be pegged back for the whole game.
Leave Berbatov on the bench.
Bearing in mind the points above, Ferguson will need all the defensive support he can get. There can be no room for any ‘luxury’ players, which means Dimitar Berbatov should start the game on the bench. This has as much to do with Barcelona’s capacity to nullify his attacking capabilities as it does his lack of mobility and sense of defensive duty:
Barcelona will press hard to retrieve the ball when they lose it, leaving Manchester United rushed in possession. Although technically comfortable enough to cope with this, players like Berbatov require time and space around them to stride and create, none of which will be granted against Barcelona. This is something Mourinho found out through the largely unsuccessful selection of players like Kaka and Mesut Ozil in the recent series of Clasicos, and Ferguson will be prepared not to take the same risk.
Deep defensive line.
Against this Barcelona side, you’re very much damned if you don’t and damned if you do. Adopt too high a line and they will expose you; stand off too much, and they will peg you back and, sooner or later, find the space to create and score.
In defence, Ferguson should choose the safer of the two options and deploy a deep back line. Buoyed by the strength and command of centre-backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, a deep midfield and two narrowly-positioned full-backs will provide solid cover.
With Evra’s place at left-back almost certain, Ferguson faces a difficult decision in terms of the right full-back position, specifically in terms of whether to choose one of the Da Silva twins – most likely Rafael – or, instead, choose a stronger and less raw (but also less energetic) option in the shape of John O’Shea.
It is a very difficult one to call. John O’Shea lacks the pace to keep up with David Villa; although, given that Manchester United should already be adopting a very deep defensive position, this is potentially not quite as relevant as it might otherwise be. However, O’Shea is also less likely to get caught going forward than Rafael, and could provide an additional aerial threat to cause Barcelona problems in attack, notably at set-pieces and corners.
Yet, given Barcelona’s lack of height and therefore their lack of propensity to play balls over the top, Rafael is perhaps a better choice here, on the grounds that he is faster and more energetic.
Physical and aerial advantages.
Although it is unlikely that Barcelona will be playing too many balls in the air, the defensive pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand will provide plenty of aerial strength for Man Utd. This will be useful in defence but crucial as a form of attack, particularly at set pieces and corners.
Vidic has scored a lot of headed goals this season, as has Hernandez, which is perhaps something of a surprise given his slight appearance. Looking again at the Clasico series, Madrid created a number of chances in this way in the Copa Del Rey final – Pepe’s headed effort struck the post in the first half and Cristiano Ronaldo’s resulted in the winning goal in extra time – so Ferguson should encourage his players to engineer situations like this where possible.
Nani or Valencia?
At right midfield, Ferguson needs to choose between Antonio Valencia or Nani. Whilst Valencia offers positional discipline, Nani is perhaps a better option in terms of providing directness, a counter attacking threat and the ability to make something out of nothing (in the mould of Cristiano Ronaldo). This is a very difficult one to call but I suspect Nani should start on the grounds that he is a more unpredictable and thus a more potent outlet. Plus, the resoluteness and likely disciplined set-up of the other players around him probably allows for at least one mercurial type player being picked.
Nani also has the capacity to come inside more, which is less likely to be an option with Valencia (although this is not necessarily a bad thing).
Fletcher in midfield.
Darren Fletcher should start in the centre of midfield alongside Paul Scholes, with Rooney and Park dropping deep to provide defensive cover and hustle from the front and left side when not in possession, as mentioned before. Fletcher will provide the energy across the pitch to do what Lassana Diarra, Sami Khedira and Pepe did so well for Madrid recently.
Scholes, on the other hand, can provide calmness on the ball to hold and create in deep positions, adopting a role much like that of Xabi Alonso. Although either could prove to be useful substitutes, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs perhaps lack the ability to hustle off the ball for an extended period of time.
The only other player that should be considered for a starting place in this position is Anderson, who could potentially provide more strength and energy off the ball than Scholes. That said, Scholes’ experience in such a game will probably be too important to sacrifice, especially considering the pressure Barcelona will put on the central midfielders. With this in mind, Anderson can instead be a good choice as substitute as the players tire and perhaps even find themselves sitting precariously on a yellow card as the game goes on.
Who can be Pepe?
One aspect Ferguson is missing at his disposal, in contrast to that which was the case for Mourinho, is a player to sit in front of the defence in order to break up play and specifically stifle the creativity of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta.
In the Clasico series, Pepe was extremely effective in this position for Real Madrid and Ferguson will no doubt consider copying this tactic, although the problem for him is that there is no obvious suitor. Owen Hargreaves might have been an appropriate option had he been fit. Instead, I think Fletcher or Anderson can do this in their own way (i.e. across the pitch and not specifically as a man marker).
On a magnificent stage and with a grand prize at stake; Saturday’s match has all the ingredients to be a very intriguing tactical battle, as much as anything else. Manchester United will go into the game in an unfamiliar position as underdogs. Certainly, Ferguson will be reluctant to adopt a purely defensive approach, especially having seen Jose Mourinho heavily criticised for his supposedly ‘anti-football’ tactics in recent weeks. However, Ferguson is also experienced enough to know that Manchester United’s best chance to engineer a victory over this Barcelona side realistically comes from committing themselves to a philosophy loosely in line with that of the Madrid coach: Defend for your lives, hustle and break.