Sunday, May 29, 2011

Too easy for Barca as United fall at final hurdle....

Everyone connected with Manchester United will be coming to terms with the club's second Champions League final defeat in two years. The 3-1 final scoreline was a fair one, it reflected the balance of play. United can have no complaints about the result, but as good as Barcelona undoubtedly were on the night, it does not alter the fact that it was mistakes that led directly to all three goals.

United did well in the first-half and just like two years ago, United started the better of the two teams, but the early promise in that opening 15 minutes didn't result in any clear cut goal-scoring opportunities. Predictably, once the Barcelona players found their feet they started to dominate possession and the gaps in the United defence soon followed.

Despite starting the better of the two teams, United had to fight back after conceding a Pedro goal on 27 minutes. But when United review video footage of the game they will realise that they made it far too easy for Barcelona.

On that first goal, Xavi was left completely unmarked midway inside the United half, and he dissected the United back-four with a pass to the feet of Pedro and by the time Ryan Giggs arrived on the scene the ball was nestling in the rigging. That was mistake number one. Either Giggs or Carrick should have been much closer to Xavi. It was by no means the first time that both Giggs and Carrick were caught hopelessly out of position in that first-half. Giggs was playing more like an attacking midfield player - one with license to roam - as time and time again he was caught on the wrong side of the advancing Barcelona midfield players.

The purists among us might argue that this cavalier approach made it an open game, and that much is true, but United had two weeks and mountains of video tapes to prepare for this game and the one thing you cannot do is allow Barcelona time and space in front of your back-four but that is exactly what happened on all three goals.

United came back strongly and replied to Pedro's opener with a brilliant Wayne Rooney goal and it was Giggs who played a big part in the build-up. Giggs charged into the Barcelona box following a passage of short passes, the Welshman laid the ball back invitingly to the feet of the United striker to score a superb goal from the edge of the box - one that was a match of any of the Barca goals on the night, that was just seven minutes after Barcelona had opened the scoring.

However, despite equalising you were still left feeling there was more to come from Barcelona who were controlling the game. On too many occasions there was a lack of positional sense and discipline in the United midfield; at one point in the first-half, Carrick went closing down the Barcelona right-back, when that task should have been left to Park on the left flank. Carrick should have been more central directing and leading in front of the back four. But that incident was typical of what was happening too often.

It's true that Ferguson had elected to start with two up front in Rooney and Hernandez, and in so doing he'd sacrificed a man in midfield, but that meant the two central midfield players could not afford to make any mistakes.

In a bid to do something about the lack of discipline in central midfield, Ferguson switched Park with Giggs at start of the second-half, but it made no difference. Barcelona started attacking down the United left, Giggs and Evra were both caught sleeping as the gaps appeared in defence at an alarming rate; it felt like it would only be a matter of time before Barcelona would score again. United were being run ragged in midfield.

Sure enough, United went on to pay a high price for sloppy marking in the second-half. Evra was caught half asleep on 54 minutes when leaving, Messi, of all players unmarked; you have to ask yourself how many times Ferguson would have told his players in the build-up to the final that they simply could not allow that to happen?

Messi scored and the task was made easy precisely because he'd been given time and space outside the United box. It was quite ridiculous - true, it all happened in the blink of an eye, but Messi is that good - he only needs a few seconds on the ball to work his magic.

United had already committed suicide twice on the night and then substitute Nani made it a hat-trick when laying-on the third goal with only his second touch and once again the ball fell at the feet of an unmarked Barcelona player outside the box; this time it was the turn of David Villa to give Van der Sar no chance with a very good curling finish. But from a United perspective it was yet another mistake. Nani should have cleared the danger area, but he didn't and there was now way back from there.

In the words of Fergie, "Barcelona gave United a hiding" and he was right. While it was good to see a final contested without the usual diving and cheating, in what was a very open game, it was too one-sided for long periods and sadly United have no one to blame but themselves.

United were simply not good enough in central midfield. Carrick was replaced on 76 minutes by Scholes and you couldn't help think back to previous midfield generals' like Robson, Keane and even Paul Ince and wonder if Fergie would have substituted any of them in similar circumstances? The answer is an unequivocal no. In fairness, Carrick had been pretty much left on his own, because Giggs was caught out of position too often, especially in that opening period when attempting to push on in an attempt to support Rooney and Hernandez.

It isn't much of a consolation that United made it to the final and lost again, but despite the lack of organisation and "the hiding" which came about as a result of that, there is no disgrace in losing to a team who are widely regarded as the finest Europe has seen in the last 30 years.

So what now for Fergie and his players? You cannot help but feel that time has caught up with Scholes and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent Giggs too. Van der Sar has retired, the final will have been a big disappointment for him, but he could do nothing about the three Barcelona goals. The big Dutchman was blameless and the fans will wish him well as he says goodbye to United.

Berbatov didn't even make the United bench and surprisingly the manager opted for Michael Owen. Reports claim United's Bulgarian striker didn't even stay to watch the final and that has sparked rumours suggesting he could be heading back to Spurs. Do not be surprised if Modric arrives at United in exchange for Berbatov plus a hefty fee. The squad rebuilding work at United cannot start soon enough.


  1. If we do not overhaul this summer, we're finished.

    I truly hope watching the team getting ripped apart by Barca will open up the management's eyes.

    I think Fergie knows we need to bring in top class players, regardless of whether there is value in the market or not. With luck, the owners are now convinced of the need to invest.

  2. The most startling aspect of Barca's play is not their technique as most commentators suggest, but their total tactical dominance. Their players' positioning at all times, whether in possession or not, is perfect. This is what won them the game on Saturday.

    When they have the ball, the pitch looks huge and they have the time and space to pass the ball with ease. Even though they undoubtedly have oodles of technique, most of their possession play doesn't require it, as they pass and move with the opposition nowhere close.

    When their opponents have the ball, suddenly the pitch looks tiny. All the space evaporates and opponents have milliseconds receive and pass the ball, often straight back to Barca, as there seems to be no one available to receive a pass. Barca harry like dogs and it seems impossible for their opposition to get any sequence of passes together. There is just no space.

    Now, I am not an expert, and I don't have any tactical solutions, but shouldn't Fergie/Mourinho/Wenger et al be able to counter Barca's tactics? Shouldn't Fergie be able to generate a tactical plan that allows our players to have some space when in possession and deny space to Barca when not in possession? I was gutted to see Manutd fail to offer any sort of tactical response to a system that Barca have been utilising for 3 years.

    As I say, all their players are technically fantastic, but that does not account for their positional superiority. That is the work of their manager, who evidently is so far ahead of any other manager in the world including SAF.

    On another note, SAF's body language in the second half, when our players clearly needed some inspiration and leadership, was akin to a potato. When Sven-Göran Eriksson displayed similar body language when England were beaten by a 10 man Brazil in 2002, he was slaughtered for it and rightly so. If you have screwed up your selection and tactics and have failed to change things around during half time, then you can at least try to spur them on from the side lines.

    I thought that Nani, our most creative and skilful player, should have started in place of Park as his running ability, as in 2009, would surely just be a shadow chasing exercise. I thought it would be more important to be creative in possession when we got the ball. Sure enough, Park was awful and I don't think he managed to find a red shirt with a pass all night. I was crying out for Nani to be brought on from late in the first half and when he eventually was, after the game was lost, Park stayed on the pitch and Fabio left. What had Fabio done wrong?? Hernandez had a nightmare when he was offside for every pass made to him, and I was crying out for Owen to replace him early in the 2nd half. Why was he even on the bench? If this situation didn’t require him, what kind of situation would?

    All in all I think the game was an absolute disaster for our manager. Tactically; in his selection; in his refusal to make any early changes to our clear non performers; letting the game be lost before making the wrong changes; and in his pathetic resigned to defeat look he had, glued to the chair.

  3. Julian, (Part 1)

    I think you're right to a point here, but I'd also add that Barcelona work extremely hard individually and I don't have access to any stats, but I'd wager their players ran further than ours collectively on the night.

    If you don't play long balls (which they don't) and if you always have a least two short passing options - as is often the case with Barca - then that involves a lot of running off the ball.

    Tactically, their system is pretty much unique in that I cannot ever remember seeing any other team play this way, not so consistently at any rate. They never change the system or the tactics.

    However, with that stated, I'd like to just underscore the points I made in my post.

    Barca won the final because United contributed to their own downfall when making errors along the way.

    (1st goal) Xavi was left in the danger area (unmarked 15 yards from our box) the whole of our back four (including Evra who should have been marking Pedro) moved a couple of steps towards Xavi they did that because no one in midfield was anywhere near to Xavi. That gave Pedro space and time to control the pass and shoot, the rest is history.

    (2nd goal) Evra was guilty of ball watching (again) for the Messi goal, he should have closed him down, but instead we left him complete unmarked in the danger area.

    (3rd goal) Basic mistake by Nani.

    SO the point is this, any really good team would have punished what was very poor defending. Barca didn't have to be that good to score those goals because we made it easy for them....

    Now on to Fergie. It is interesting what you say about him looking like a potato. I must admit when they scored the first goal he looked as though he was resigned to losing at that point... it looked to me as if there was an air of resignation about the whole thing. Fergie looked like a beaten man.

    Now you ask what else could Fergie have done? Well here's my take on how you go about beating Barca...

    What United or indeed anyone else needs is this. You need a world class striker who can do everything on his own. You need a good target man. Drogba would be the ideal man, but of course he is not getting any younger.

    United do not have a drogba. We have Rooney who is one of the best second strikers in the game and we have Hernandez who is a penalty box striker.

    I doubt Rooney could have held the ball up well enough on his own against Barca so it was right to start with two up top.

    Playing one up front would give you that extra body in midfield.

    Now if you look at goals 1 and 2, you can see where the extra man could been utilised. Xavi wouldn't have been free and neither would Messi (hopefully). The extra man would give you that extra bit of insurance. It would also allow Giggs to go charging forward which he tried to do, but kept on getting caught out of position...but he did at least create our goal.

    So that scenario would provide any manager with a sound tactical plan - but it would depend on two things which United don't currently have: A target man like Drogba and someone who can organise and protect the back four in midfield...

    While we'd all love to see United emulate Barca's style of play, it isn't that simple. It has taken Barca decades to arrive at where they are now. United have three Champions Cups, Barca have four. So what I'm saying is despite this brilliant team their total belief in this system hasn't always produced results in Europe...

  4. Julian (part 2).

    The Barca way of playing was laid down by the great Dutch master Cruyff and they've stuck to it. As a club they have total belief in this system and I'd add that La Liga is not all what it is cracked up to be. There are only two really dominant teams. What's more opponents in Spain allow you to play football - they don't have clubs like Stoke City and Wolves (for example). Ask any foreign player and they will tell you that playing in the PL is physically very demanding...

    I'm not sure how Barca would cope with the rigours of a Premier League season. Arsenal have tried and so far failed to emulate Barca.

    La Liga suits Barca perfectly, it is a bit more open. Opponents are slightly less uncompromising when it come to the physical demands of the game.

    Personally, I think it would be unrealistic to expect any English club to be able to emulate the way Barca play, for the reasons I've outlined.

    Finally, leaving Nani out was the right decision IMO. I'm afraid he doesn't work hard enough for the team when he's required to defend. I doubt he'd get on on the Barca bench and the same can be said of Berbatov who didn't get on the United bench.

  5. Anon,

    I think you've hit on something here. This shouldn't be a question of luck; if the Glazers believe in Fergie (and why wouldn't they?) then presumably United will be true to their word and they will do what the manager has asked and that is sign two to three world class players.

    So I agree with you, if we don't do that then we could struggle next season. With that said, we haven't relied on Scholes as much as we have done in previous years.

    Giggs has been inspirational at times this season and so he will be missed if and when he goes. The trick now is to improve this team and let's just hope that happens this summer. We have exceeded my expectations and then some, because at several points in the season it looked as though Chelsea would walk it to the title. In Europe we've done brilliantly until the final.

  6. James,

    I agree that Barca work very hard, but again, that has nothing to do with technical excellence. Why shouldn't our players work as hard or even harder? There is no excuse. So when people talk of their amazingly talented players: Iniesta, Xavi and Messi, it is not their technical talent that makes Barca so dominant. It's the shape of the team and their work rates. The technique is the icing on the cake.

    There is no reason, that given the right coaching that our players couldn't learn where to be on the pitch. Is there a reason why our players can;t run more? Technique is a god given talent, enhanced by practice. Team shape, is coached. Work rate on the pitch is certainly nothing to do with any god given talent.

    Barca play short passes as they always have players available to receive the ball. Again, this is due to their team shape. This is a coaching issue.

    I agree that all three goals were caused by United mistakes, but honestly, with the pressure that United were under it was inconceivable to imagine that they wouldn;t be forced in to such mistakes, and it is amazing that they didn't make more, such was the relentless pressure that we were put under. It is naive to think that any team would be error free in defence while subjected to that kind of constant pressure. The stategy to beat Barca should not be to withstand 80 minutes of pressure and not make mistakes. The strategy should be to adhere to a tactical plan that releives this pressure and moreover exerts pressure upon them.

    Fergie had options ay half time, when he saw the game being taken away from us. He chose not to act. No Nani, no Owen. Nothing. Just slumped in his chair. There was a shot of his hands at one stage. They were shaking. There was no screaming from the sidelines. When the players see the lack of that, they know they are beat.

    I understand that Barca are a wonderfull side, perhaps the best ever, but it isn't just about the quality of their players. It is more about how hard they work and their tactical plan, and this is down to their manager. I don't mind loosing to such a team, but I am gutted that were humiliated due to complete tactical ineptness and a manager who was resigned to defeat by half time.

  7. Julian,

    We should have been able to match them when it came to running, but as you say this wasn't just about running. I added that point because many people go on about Barca without referring to their work-rate.

    Carrick had to be taken off because he couldn't last 90 minutes. I'm not quite sure what tbat says about his fitness. Keane or Robson would never have been taken off in similar circumstances....

    Personally, I would have started with the two da Silva brothers in central midfield purely because they have the tenacity to match Barca's running, skill and power. The fact that he didn't even consider this option isn't good really, but on balance he's done ok down the years :0) and so we have to just hope the penny eventually drops soon.

    Fergie didn't have a plan B and I think that is what you are referring to.

  8. I think we need signings and a general rebuild anyway but lets be honest here Barca are in a whole other league right now and at least for the next few years they will be the side to dominate european football. They are the best side I have seen in my lifetime and just due to the way they play I don't even think the great sides of years gone by (Ajax of the 70's, Madrid of the 50's, Munich of the 70's, Milan of the early 90's and whilst I hate to admit it Liverpool of the late 70's) could beat them. It's just down to how they play, getting the ball back is almost impossible and maintaining possession is so difficult - these great teams of the past would have been more dangerous with the ball that we were on saturday but whos to say they would have any more luck than us at winning it back.

    This is football 30 years in the making from the ground up and its finally all come together. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta are all great players but then are they much better than Ronaldo, Kaka (maybe not anymore), Ozil, Di Maria etc. They aren't a great deal better but they are playing a system they have been taught to play since the day they first showed up at Barcelona as children. It's the system that they play which has made them such a great side and nobody we could sign could beat that on a regular basis.
    You could go out right now and spend a billion on all the worlds best players that aren't at Barca and still wouldn't touch them. Look at Real Madrid. How many hundreds of millions have they spent to try and overthrow Barca since Pep's arrival and they get no closer. You'd think having a 52 goal a season winger/striker would do the job but nope - Ronaldo was born 10 years to early or 10 years to late.

    We need to overhaul our side to fight off the threats domestically. City are a threat now. I am convinced they will make a couple more big money signings this summer and with that they will be the ones to watch next season but in europe we are witnessing the first great side to come along since the creation of the champions league, the best side for 30 years and if they are the first side to retain it next may then you'd have to consider them the greatest team of all time.

  9. Fair comments Dave. You are right about the length of time it has taken Barca to reach this level and yes, it has all come together quite beautifully for them.

  10. Can't blame Carrick. He was left completely on an island to deal with the three best ball players in the business. Giggs and Park were positionally woeful, and Rooney rarely closed Busquets down. Even if we replaced Carrick with Makalele (the most disciplined player i've ever seen), we still would have been overrun.

  11. This excellent video makes my point. Extreme tactical naivity/incompetence. We had 3 weeks to prepare for this match!!!

  12. Julian

    The video is ok. But it only serves to underscore the points raised in my post.

  13. Anon,

    Carrick was partly to blame along with everyone else.

  14. Julian,

    I'd add that the video totally misses something which many people ignore and that is the number of times Barca play the play back towards their own goal.

    If you look at the video, count the number of times the ball goes back, before it goes sideways or forwards...

    United try to do this on occasion, but as Carrick demonstrated against City recently, he can get caught out. The point being you have to be technically very good, but to make it work this is all about movement off the ball, because almost always the Barca players have two passing options and here again I pointed this out earlier when stating that I'd wager their players ran further than ours.. Barca make it look easy, but the system is built on is far from easy to replicate.

    Also, their system is well suited to their league where teams stand off and allow you to play more. In England it is more about graft and "getting stuck in".

  15. James,

    I am not arguing with you! I agree that three mistakes lead to 3 goals. But what I am saying is that our tactical set up put us under constant pressure for 80 minutes, which made defensive mistakes inevitable.

    I am looking beyond the mistakes, and looking at the cause of the mistakes if that's OK. And I believe the cuase of the mistakes was the tactical set up, much of which was illustrated in the video. We were set up to defend and were not set up to play football. The key to beating Barca is, when we get the ball, we have a tactical plan to be able to hurt them, which means that our players need to be in the correct position to do that. It is no use when we get the ball, all of our players being on the edge of our area, with Barca all over us. We give it straight back to them and they again have possesion in a very advantageous position for them.

    This was exactly my fear before the game, but I persuaded myself that the manager would come up with a tactical plan (Don't defend too deep for a start). Not necessarily to win, but to allow us to make a game of it which would allow us a chance of winning and most importantly, avoid this humiliating feeling of being Barca's gimp.

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