Barcelona vs. Manchester United: Do Barca have a weakness?

AUTHOR: – Stretford End

Ok, I’m not going to make out I am an expert in Spanish football, nor am I going to nod approvingly at a goal scored by Bojan in the 62nd minute in the 8 nil victory over Almeria earlier in the season – because I never saw it. I do try and tune into Revista La Liga and obviously watch as much football on a Sunday evening (that is when the missus hasn’t got ‘The only way is Essex’ on), but I didn’t want to give the impressive that I am a seasoned connoisseur in all things Spanish. However, I have always admired the magnificent football of Barcelona and the DNA that has been instilled in the club from the Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels days.

This blog aims to look at the goals Barcelona have scored and conceded in the Champions League this season, whilst comparing that with Manchester United.


So who has scored for Barcelona in Europe this season? The pie chart below shows a breakdown:

Pie chart showing Barca scorers this season in Europe

Massive surprise that Lionel Messi has scored more than a third of all Barcelona’s goals in Europe this season. To drill down, he has scored 38% of Barcelona’s goals compared to Pedro, who has notched up 15% of Barca’s goals. We will drill down on individual players later on in the blog, however for now I wanted to formulate the stats prior to any analysis. Below is a table highlight the goals scored against Barcelona in this seasons competition:

Rakitskiy

One thing that is clear is that out of the eight goals scored against Barcelona this season, only one team has victorious – Arsenal in the first leg of their last 16 tie. All goals scored against Barcelona are quite different as well. We have a long punt down the field, which is then flicked on for Sidney Govou to open the scoring in the first group game involving Barcelona. This was the only game in which Barcelona scored second and went onto win the game, quite convincingly might I add.

Some of the goals scored against Barcelona don’t always reflect the balance of play. For example, in the 1-1 away draw with Rubin Kazan – the Spanish Champions had seventeen shots on goal compared to the hosts eight. Wayward shooting was to blame, with Barcelona only hitting the target four times out of the seventeen, however the player positions below highlight the dominance of the visitors in the match:

Average positions for Rubin Kazan

Barcelona average position against Kazan

It is clear to see the 3-4-3 formation that Barcelona adopt once attacking, with the holding midfielder Javier Mascherano dropping in between Puyol and Pique. This is a classic trait of total football, which has been adopted by Barcelona since the days of Cruyff, interchanging of position and flexibility in moving forward. High pressing is also another trait, which is key to Barcelona winning the ball back high up the pitch –

Do United stick or twist?

I am still adamant that United were far too gung-ho against Barcelona in Rome, although I understand as to why Sir Alex setup the side to attack from the start and score the first goal of the game. However, once Samuel Eto’o scored, the tie was unfortunately over – with United running out of ideas as the match elapsed. Although that may seem incredibly defeatist, considering there were another eighty odd minutes left to play, United were left shell shocked and left far too much space between the midfield and defence – which inevitably saw Carrick overrun and Xavi setting up Messi for a second goal.

Lets take a look at the opening goal and the United setup. Iniesta picks the ball up on the half way line and then faces the United goal:

Iniesta movement 1

He then proceeds to drive forward, ignoring the pass to his left for Lionel Messi. Both Carrick and Anderson are in between the Spaniard and the space in front of the defence:

Iniesta surge from midfield

Iniesta passes both Anderson and Michael Carrick like they’re not there. His effortless gliding across the turf and through United’s two deeper midfielders made a mockery of Ferguson’s initial game plan:

Iniesta drive through midfield

Iniesta’s burst and acceleration passed the pedestrianised Anderson and Carrick, meant that Ferdinand had to close him down – which ultimately led to the key pass to Eto’o, who found himself one on one with Vidic:

Iniesta pass to Eto'o

Now, the key issue with this is shape. Mourinho opted to keep the shape of his Inter side in April 2010 and won tie, whilst deploying the same strategy at home with Madrid in this season’s tournament, which backfired spectacularly. Mourinho will no doubt point at the dismissal of Pepe, which gave Lionel Messi the space he needed to win the tie for his side, as the reason why Barcelona were victorious. However, it must be noted that Mourinho doesn’t line up like this against every side, so despite the theatrical nature to his actions and pre/post match conference – his setup is no doubt a monumental hat tip to the Catalan side. The arrogance that emulates from the nine times European Cup winners may well be stronger than ever – which no doubt also coincides with how they want to play their football, sorry, attacking football. Ferguson will no setup his United side in the same manner than Mourinho did, however surely the starting lineup will be a little more cautious than the gung ho swashbuckling nature of 09?

The lineups

What is great about football, and blogs in particular, is that everyone can select a different eleven. We can argue until the early hours as to whether or not Rafael or Fabio would be better to marshal David Villa, or whether or not Ferguson should risk Darren Fletcher – a midfielder who looks set to miss out on a third European Cup final. I’ve picked my side below, along with Barcelona’s side, and I welcome you to challenge the selection and setup. Doron will no doubt go into more detail and select his side prior to the match on Saturday.

United side to face Barcelona

Excuse the use of the black shirts, there wasn’t a ‘white shirt’ option. Barcelona’s team – excluding the left back – is self explanatory:

Barcelona side to face United

United will essentially line up 4-4-1-1, with Rooney be called upon more so from a defensive viewpoint than usual. Barcelona will of course adopt a 4-3-3 formation. So what do you reckon? Do you feel this will be the line up for United and Barcelona?

Key Battles

Park vs. Alves: Ji Sung Park put in one mighty performance against Chelsea in the 2-1 victory earlier in the month, which in my opinion booked his place in the starting line up – not that there had ever been any doubt. He will be up against Alves, who was roundly criticised for his playacting in the first leg against Real Madrid, but there is no doubting his ability as a modern day full back. He has the athleticism to provide width for Barcelona, when they move from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3:

4-3-3 to 3-4-3 shift

This is a pretty obvious movement, whilst natural to Alves and his Brazilian heritage. He will no doubt have the attacking runs of Evra to deal with, whilst not forgetting the energetic hustling and harrying of Ji Sung Park, who will be under instructions to force the Brazilian back:

Park vs. Alves

Again, on paper – this all looks pretty standard. Fabio tucks inside, whilst Giggs and Carrick sit in front of the backline occupying the space that Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Pedro usually operate in. Park’s role will no doubt be to counter act Alves surging runs, whilst Ferguson may also see the space left by Alves on the right hand side as an opportunity for Hernadez or Rooney to exploit. Park’s main role will be on this left hand side, whilst I believe he will also be asked to close down in the centre of the midfield if the opportunity arises (as he did in the Chelsea game). Park was one of the player who didn’t perform in Rome, he will have a fantastic chance to put that right on Saturday.

Hernandez vs. Puyol/Pique: Javier Hernandez is the signing of the decade. Those are the words I uttered to Doron the other day, he responded with a counter argument that Vidic was his choice – either way, we can all agree that Hernandez is without doubt a bargain. He offers a different dimension to our attack, which I feel compliments the visionary attribute of Rooney, more so than when he is up top alongside the ridiculously gifted Dimitar Berbatov. Hernandez pace will scare the life out of Puyol and Pique, there is no question of that – however, he needs the service to be able to occupy the space in behind. I’ve touched on United being more cautious than in Rome, which means that United will have to rely on the counter attack and superb ball retention when Barca lose the ball.

Take a look at the following images, highlighting a goal Barcelona conceded last season on the counter attack. For the record, it was scored by former United forward Diego Forlan:

Reyes picks the ball up on the half way line

Reyes sidesteps Iniesta brilliantly, similar to what Iniesta did against United in Rome, before bombing on towards the Barcelona backline:

Reyes movies into the Barcelona half

Reyes does excellent to beat Busquets, who would have stepped out of the back three to close down the space that Reyes was to move into. His dribbling and skill to beat the Barca holding midfield is the key to then occupy a position that will allow him to find a through ball:

Reyes takes on Busquets to have space to find the pass

Reyes, who now has a free run, plays the pass through for Forlan to run onto. Puyol is already claiming offside, despite the fact that Forlan is clearly onside,

Through ball from Reyes to Forlan

Barca’s pressing game leaves them vulnerable to this type of chance as Forlan is now bearing down on goal to score the only goal of the game:

Forlan through on Goal

The key to this is a fast counter attack, confident play in dribbling passed players and good movement from the frontman. Valencia, Giggs or Rooney can do what Reyes did – whilst Hernandez is quite clearly the best man to make the run, in between defenders, that Forlan made. He plays on the shoulder and is a nightmare to pick up. The key thing is getting the ball to him. United need to be brave, patient and controlled.

Rooney vs. Busquets: Busquets is not the flavour of the month at the moment, considering his alleged racist rant towards Marcelo, and is quite lucky to be involved in the final at all. His father played in goal vs. United in the 1991 Cup Winners Cup final, where Mark Hughes scored twice – and he is no doubt vital in the way Barcelona operate and start moves. Wesley Sneijder, who had a fine World Cup and Champions League season last year, was kept quiet in the final last July, which no doubt was down to the marking of Busquets.

Rooney’s best position, for me, is in the hole behind the front man. He can play wide and do a job, whilst he can operate as a lone frontman and do a job. However, his best position is as a number ten. He is also best when he has limited defensive responsibilities, although it should be noted he never shirks the responsibility of galloping fifty yards to win the ball back. On Saturday, I believe he will need to operate a little deeper for two reasons, 1) to press Busquets and intercept any loose balls 2) counter attack high up the pitch.

Many have suggested that Rooney should play as a centre midfielder, and although I have no doubt he could again do a job there – we need him as the link between the midfield and front line. His natural game is to drop deep and try and influence play, much like Cantona did – however, Rooney is athletically superior to Eric and can break at pace covering ground that draws players out of position. His relationship with Valencia on the pitch has been noticeable, whilst his partnership with Hernandez is now one of the most impressive in the Premier League.

Counter attack – breaking at pace

Counter attacking football used to be reserved for the minnows, the side that should keep it tight, not concede anything and hopefully snatch a goal on the break after the other side has charged forward in search of the goal they so desperately deserve. However, the counter attack should be used as one attacking option and of course there are different methods of counter attacking side, whether it be to defend deep and get the ball forward as quickly as possible (classic counter attack) or to win the ball high up the pitch and counter (by pressing) or to counter the counter attack (which requires shape and organisation).

United have the ability to break and lightening pace, even when the momentum is with the opposing side. Ronaldo’s strike against Arsenal in the Champions League Semi-Final back in May 2009 was exceptional. We’re not going to drill down on it as we’re well aware of the quality of the whole move, which started with a Vidic header from an Arsenal corner. The goal was exquisite and highlighted that counter attacking football is not necessarily ugly and defensive, but to catch your opponent off guard – to disorientate them. United have the ability to do this against Barcelona on Saturday, especially with the pace of Rooney, Park and Valencia to burst forward. The Reyes example highlights the vulnerability of Barcelona at the back, when face with a striker with pace that can exploit the space in behind. Puyol and Pique don’t want to be running back towards their goal, they want the attacker to be facing their own goal – whilst they close down the space – along with the rest of their team mates.

The following analysis actually involves the victims of that Ronaldo counter attack goal – Arsenal – and how they conjured up their very own counter attack to inflict the only defeat of Barcelona’s Champions League campaign:

Substitute Nicklas Bendtner works back to win the ball before looking to his left to lay a pass to Jack Wilshere:

Wilshere then lays a superb first time ball off to captain Cesc Fabregas who has found space behind the midfield. Notice in between the trio of Arsenal players that there are four Barcelona players, who inevitably were pressing high up the pitch to try and win the ball back. At 82 minutes, fatigue could well be playing a part in their inability to ‘counter the counter':

Arsenal counter attack 2

Fabregas now has the chance to pick a pass down either flank, but chooses the correct option in finding Nasri down the right, who is already on his way – with yards of space in front of him:

Arsenal counter attacking goal 3

Nasri’s pace is now key in getting to the box and then hopefully being supported by late runners from midfield:

Arsenal counter attack 4

Nasri does excellently to get into the box and pick out a pass to the onrushing substitute Andrei Arshavin. The Russian slots home the winner in the game:

Arsenal counter attack goal 5

Don’t get me wrong, Arsenal were very lucky to still be in the game at this point. Lionel Messi missed a host of chances, whilst Guardiola felt the need to substitute scorer David Villa for Keita, which is when I believe the dynamics of the game changed. Arsenal did extremely well to hold on and then pounce when they needed to, however United are a better defensive unit that the North London side and I don’t expect there to be as many chances as there was at the Emirates that night.

Lionel Messi

Some get wound up with the praise that he receives from fans, pundits and people in the game alike – however, I do honest believe that Lionel Messi is a genius. La Masia has produced some fabulous players over the years, but surely Messi is the best of a wonderful bunch? The little Argentinean started out as a wide man, cutting inside to cause havoc – either with a nimble dribble, delicate pass or shot blistering into the back of the net. He has notched up 52 goals this season in 54 appearances – that is a stunning return. His second goal in the Bernabeu was sent from the heavens. Many fans in the pubs, bars and coffee shops all over the world are now debating on whether Messi is the greatest of all time. Personally, I believe you need to wait until the end of a player’s career before making some a claim. Maradona, for me, is still the greatest player to ever play the game – however, even the great man even acknowledged that ‘at the end of history, people will then decide who was better: Maradona or Messi’.

So lets take a look at the goals scored by Lionel Messi over the course of the season:

Lionel Messi stats 2010/11

Interesting to see that over 80% of his goals are with his left foot, although that remarkable second in the Bernabeu was with his right foot following a superb solo run – beating four Real Madrid players in his wake. Barcelona don’t generally shoot from outside the box, so it is no surprise that only seven of his 52 goals have been from outside the area – with only one in the Champions League (out of the eleven). Are these stats here to help me explain how United can stop Lionel Messi? Good god no! I could do that I wouldn’t be sitting here at 1am blogging about the final. One thing I would say is that I would not dedicate a marker to him, as some have suggested. His deployment as a False 9 will no doubt aim to bring Ferdinand and Vidic out of position, but I believe they will remained disciplined enough to allow him to wander into the midfield space, where ultimately Giggs and Carrick will have the task of closing him down.

Messi’s transformation from a wide player to a centre forward is not a surprise. If you’re playing a direct brand of football, then Didier Drogba is a perfect lone front man, as he has the ability to tower above the majority of centre halves in order to win the ball and bring it under control. Messi’s role in the main figure head is more of a 4-6-0, which means that for long periods of time – the centre halves won’t be marking anyone only space. The idea is to obviously draw out the defenders to create space in behind, which is then exploited by the wingers or indeed Messi himself. Frank Rijkaard noted that Messi would eventually become a central player, however back in 2008 -you would have thought he would be better as a second striker – which is clearly not a possibility at Barcelona, although more likely for the national side.

Samuel Eto’o, a fine striker in his own right, was deemed surplus to requirements due to Messi’s transformation, whilst the integration of the exceptionally talented yet equally infuriating Ibrahimovic was shipped out after only one season in the Nou Camp. Villa’s addition is much better suited for the way in which the Catalans operate, although many old school English may be pulling their hair out at the thought of not having a player over 5″7 in the front line.

Conclusion

If you’ve stayed with me from the start of this blog to the end, the bravo to you – we’ve covered a vast amount of points, discussions and statistics. You will of course have you own ideas as to how United should line up and approach the game, which I welcome you to share in our comments section. My observation that United should play a more controlled, cautious game to that of the Rome match may not sit well with some Reds who want United to go out and attack at all costs. I respect and understand that, but from hearing Ferguson say that United will ‘learn’ from the mistakes of Rome, it will be fascinating to see whether or not Fergie sets his team up to attack as they did or to target Barcelona on the counter attack, as highlighted in the two examples in this post.

No team is unbeatable. All teams have their weaknesses, however we must give credit where it is due – Barcelona is a football institution and this side is one of the best sides that has ever graced this earth. Yes, there is petulance amongst the ranks. Yes, there is even bully tactics at play. However, despite these faults, it would be difficult to find a football fan that isn’t in admiration of how they play. United have a rich history in producing young players, giving them a chance and throwing them into the first Xi. Barcelona also has history of producing top class players, one of which was at United (Pique) and has gone onto become one of the top centre halves in Europe.

United will line up 4-4-1-1, with Wayne Rooney just off Javier Hernandez. If Darren Fletcher had been fit, Ferguson would have had more of a dilemma – however, that isn’t even up for discussion. Two months ago I would have put Rafael in, but I think the nod will go to his brother – who is starting to find his feet at Old Trafford, despite still some concerns about his ability to take knocks. Giggs and Carrick looked so assured against Chelsea, both home and away, they are certain starters in the middle of the park – whilst Park and Valencia have kept Nani out of the side, with some top class performances in the business end of the season. Barcelona will not change the way they operate and will line up 4-3-3 as normal. The only question mark is over the left back and whether or not Abidal will play or adopt Puyol there. If that is the case – Valencia will have a field day and it is vital that United get him in one on one situations.

The adoption of a counter attacking setup is in no way meant to be a negative approach. Some of the best goals of all time are results of a counter attack, most noticeably the Carlos Alberto strike in the 1970 World Cup finals – when Brazil beat Italy 4-1. Ronaldo, Rooney and Park have scored goals, all against Arsenal, in recent seasons that have been first class counter attacking moves. I do not expect United to sit back and defend all night, far from it, however I do not believe that a ‘attack them and see how they deal with it’ approach will work. Valencia and Park have superb athleticism and will no doubt be key from both an offensive and defensive perspective.

I think the game will be won in normal time and I am going for a 2-1 United win, with Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic scoring for United. Doron will no doubt follow up with his excellent preview, where you may see a completely different approach and line-up. This is why we love the game. We all have opinions that we wish to share and hopefully the Stretty Rant is one of those places.

Edit: I forgot to include a really interesting podcast discussing the game in detail on Saturday. Apologies about that and here you go, from RHRN:
http://righthererightnow21.blogspot.com/2011/05/champions-league-final.html

Many thanks to Zonal Marking for inspiration, Total Football Apps and This 11 for the screenshots.

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25 Responses to “Barcelona vs. Manchester United: Do Barca have a weakness?”

  1. Brian McKeever says:

    Personally I see United struggle to defend when players run at the defence, something Barca will be keen to exploit. For all the strength our defence holds in organisation and areal ability, it is the clumsy and slow feet of our tackling which could be the biggest problem. There… Ive said it…

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  2. Great article. Agree that SAF will plump for 4-4-1-1 rather than a 4-3-3 w/ Fletch as he just didn’t look sharp enough last weekend. Will be interesting to see whether Fergie maintains pressing game plan from 09 this time as it worked well before the Eto’o goal which was result of individual errors. The real problem lies with how do Utd deal with the Barca diamond in MF created by Messi in his “false 9″ role as Utd have only 3 in the centre (Rooney, Carrick, Giggs). Barca’s triangular passing made great use of space between the lines & their extra men in MF in 09. I could see Valencia being asked to move inside & help MF as Park did against Chelsea as Barca LB shouldn’t be much of an attacking threat if it’s Abidal or Puyol in much the same way we let Ivanovic have time on the ball in Chelsea match allowing Park to help out in MF battle to great effect. We’ll need our players on top form & a bit of luck to be successful on Saturday but this group has pulled out big performances before this season so it’s not beyond them. GGMU!
    P.S. Nice tip of the hat to counter attacking goals an oft overlooked beauty in football.

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  3. Ian H says:

    1) Don’t mark Messi. He’ll just yank us out of shape. What good we’ve done against him previously (and we’ve generally done well) was by letting him do as he pleased so long as we kept him in front of us.

    2) Furthermore, we again need to make sure we keep EVERYTHING in front of us.

    3) No sloppy mistakes. For all that Barcelona throttled the life from us without much bother in 80 minutes of our last final, the goals weren’t special, we had lapses. Cut these out.

    4) Don’t for a single moment let Rio get caught one-on-one against anybody with pace. He can’t cope with it any more.

    5) Don’t let a need to counter-attack cause sloppiness with the ball. If the room is there to counter then go for it, but don’t waste posession in pursuit of it every time we get it.

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  4. aiddaa says:

    Great article you have here :)

    I would like to do 1 change to this team, I would put giggs on the bench (dont shoot me yet) because I think altough he has had a great year for us, I would not put him in the midfield against the best passer of the game, and then there is his private life that may influence him the wrong way.

    I would give Rooney his place, a player who is gooood in defence and is good going forward, I really think he would flourish in this position and then I would put Berbatov in Rooneys position, and the reason for that is because when we finally do get the ball (make no mistake they will have the ball 70% or more) when we get the ball we need a player like berbatov, the best at united to cover the ball and retain the ball and then build our attacks from there.

    And with this I still think we will be able to play counter when needed, but to have berbatov would somehow in my world give us something extra against this barca team

    lets go out and give a display manchester united

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  5. 3times says:

    I think Fletcher’s fitness has pretty much ended any debate on the formation and line up.
    I cannot see any other than the 4411 with Giggs & Carrick in the centre, Valencia & Park on the flanks with Roo/Chicha up top (Roo deep).
    However it wouldn’t surprise me if SAF does something off the cuff, remember moscow with Hargreaves playing Right wing and Rooney & Tevez up top? Everyone expected Rooney to play wide with either Ronaldo or Tevez as a lone striker & a 3 man midfield.
    If Fletcher does pull through training at the right level it still wouldn’t surprise me to see us go 433 with Chicarito not starting. Would SAF look at the effective way Pepe broke up Barca’s flow until his sending off?
    I would then debate as to whether Nani would get the nod ahead of Park as 3 man midfield with Valencia on the out side right would give us ample cover. I think Nani would then offer slightly better attacking support to a lone striker.

    Personally I would prefer to play the United way with Rooney & Chicharito, but we then do need the work rate of Park & Valencia in the wide areas.

    I heve not watched a lot of Barca this year but the games I have seen like Arsenal & Real they havn’t looked overly threatening until those teams lost a man.

    Is abidal set to start, or will Puyol play at full back?
    I think their defence is suspect for pace and if Puyol is wide then Mascherono can be got at in the air especially when we have 3 forwrads who are effective in the air.

    Comment by aiddaa
    I wouldn’t bench Giggs for several reasons:
    Firstly this is far too big a game to start experimenting with Rooney CM especially agianst 3 of the best players in the world.
    Secondly his partnership with Carrick has been the turning point in Carrick’s season, his movement and intelligence gives Carrick more space rather than the flat CM pairing we get when Scholes or Gibson play with him.
    Thirdly this news story has been hanging over him for months and has not affected him previous if anything look at the Rooney situation, when it was bubbling under the radar he was awful at the world cup and at the start of the season, once it came out and everyone moved on his form has gradually got better.

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  6. Eric says:

    Nice share and thinking … would have liked to have read some more about substitutes. I hope SAF gets it right on the night. I’d opt for 4-2-3-1 – its written elsewhere. Enjoy the Match!

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  7. SleekRed says:

    Another cracking article and i would have to agree with it all. Personally i think Sir Alex will get his tactics spot on, but whether we win will depends upon a few things for me.

    1)Stick to the gameplan – As has been mentioned the goals Barcelona scored against us last time out were more down to personal error, if we can cut these out and the players stick to Sir Alex’s game plan, i think we will nullify Barcelona.

    2) Have that little bit of luck – every team needs a little bit of luck along the way to win a trophy,Saturdays game will be no different. If we can ride our luck and take our chances (the reason its vital Hernandez starts), we will have the beating of Barcelona.

    Whilst every player on that teamsheet will be important, the key man for me will be Giggs. When we do win the ball back we we will need composure, and either the ability to beat a man to find space or the vision to make the correct ball to release someone else (as highlighted in the goals conceded by barcelona above). For me Giggs has been playing this role majestically in our recent big matches, and i hope he can continue to do so on Saturday.

    Thanks for the article, again a top read :)

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  8. david levine says:

    Push Messi out wide – he’s incredibly dangerous when he cuts inside to set up his left-footed shots (the stats bear this out, too). From my vantage-point, the key to containing their main threat is make Messi use his right foot. Force Alves out wide as well – his crossing isn’t the greatest and, actually, “crossing” isn’t really a part of Barcelona’s game-plane ‘cos they like to walk-the-ball-into-the-net. This game-plan puts enormous pressure on ThreeLungPark and Patrice Evra to keep to their task, and especially for Evra, not go walk-about. SirRyanGiggs’ presence is going to be vital, too; he can deal with a pressing defender and get the ball under control and THEN do something positive with it. (Basically, I am in complete agreement with “3times” about Giggs’ importance to the overall shape of this team.)

    On the other side of the pitch, I’d plump for something very different – play Antonio Valencia at “right back” and deploy Nani in front of him. Barcelona’s game is heavily tilted towards the other side of the field which means that they rarely try to move the ball from their half to the danger-zone down their left (UTD’s right).

    In ice-hockey, this kind of formation would be called a “left wing lock” – overloading one side based on the knowledge that that side (in this case, Barcelona’s right side) is their preferred route-of-entry.

    The other point I’d make is that the starting-eleven is not likely to be the eleven who are playing at the end of the match. There’s a good chance that this game can go into extra-time and that would mean that all the so-called analysts who have discussed this match as if the starting-eleven are likely to play the whole game will be missing a key part of the challenge. Here, I think, the superiority of UTD’s bench – Berbatov, Rafael, Fabio, Anderson, and Scholes – is under-emphasized by pundits who persist in their belief that the starting-eleven are set-in=stone for the whole game.

    And, of course, refereeing comes into play but how ? Will Maureen’s complaints about Barca’s “diving” and “cheating” and “playing against ten men” have an unconscious influence ? To me, that’s a great unknown which could be a real game-changer.

    UTD are underdogs – correctly, since the core of this Barcelona team are World Cup winners, defending Euro Champions, and have had a remarkable run of success playing for the team in both La Liga and CL. They also have the best player in the world – Messi is, of course, left-footed but give that little bugger an inch an dhe takes a mile ! BUT, saying all that, it’s crucial to note that in a series of top=level encounters (UTD in 2008 semi-final; RentBoyz in 2009 semi-final; Inter-Milan in 2010 semi-final; and their earlier matches this year against TheArse and TheVirus) their record is not one-sided. Barcelona are very, very good but all this blather about the “best club side of all time” has to be seen in the context of their rather ordinary achievements in the top-level matches mentioned above. They are beatable – and it would be a fitting achievement for the “crap UTD” to do just that.

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  9. Ian H says:

    3times: Barcelona not looking threatening is kind of their thing. See also: Actually not being as exciting as the reputation would suggest.

    They’re not like an old school United team or even a Spurs of last season/early this season in the way they attack. It’s not battering the opponent in waves at speed and overwhelming them.

    It’s parking the bus but in the opponent’s half. It’s throttling the life out of the game. It’s baiting the opposing defence by moving the ball around and often showing no overt signs of making their move and exploitng a gap once it appears. It’s about giving players who are amazing with continued posession such a weight of posession that eventually they’re going to eventually create something.

    As I said above, for me United’s game has to be about patience and discipline, and when we do get posession balancing making the most of our strength (hitting teams at speed) with a need to not just gift posession back to Barcelona by playing too quickly.

    If we don’t concede an early goal then it could be a fascinating game, tactically, but I don’t know whether it’ll be a good one for the neutral.

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  10. 3times says:

    Comment by Ian H
    What I was trying to point out is that for all the plaudits they get they were one toe poke away from going out against the Arse. At the same time their record in this competition is no better than ours.
    I admire their passing game and I have a huge respect for the way they hunt the ball down like a pack of dogs but at the same time every game plan has a counter game plan and i am not taken in by this greatest team ever tag.
    I agree it may not be an entertaining match in fact I am expecting a game much like the Semi a few years ago.

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  11. Ian H says:

    Oh I do agree with you, though I admit I didn’t actually say that. My point was more that…. well, even when they are being good they’re kind of deceptive at times.

    I don’t know whether you can call a team the best ever because there’re too many incomparible variables, though I don’t have much of an issue saying that this Barcelona team is easily the best team of the last ten years or so.

    But that doesn’t make them unbeatable. As you say, everybody is beatable.

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  12. Butho says:

    man you not serious if we set up like that wil be murdered in midfield. Do honestly believe that that four man midfield can cope with treat they pose.
    First thing we have understand is they wil have the advantage in midfield thanks famed total football passing game which unmatched at the moment. In fact i doubt if in the whole history of there has ever been a team as eye pleasing as them.
    Now given this our primary tusk should be to cancel out that advantage in midfield. Which in my automatically means we go 451.
    Now coming to personal i start Roo upfront on his own because his so good at initiating counter attacks by holdin onto and playin that all important reverse through ball to on pushin players.
    Now my five in midfield would be Park Ando( For his pace on ball and direct runs approach which is all important in the counter attacking game which we have to play ) Carrick Nani(again 4 his pace and skill on the ball just wat u need on the fast break plus he wil closest to the lone gun man ) valencia
    right bac Oshea

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  13. 3times says:

    Comment by Ian H
    I agree, I actually think they are more than beatable but far too many sides are beat before the teams take the pitch in a similar way that we had through the 90s and early 00s.
    I reckon they will have problems next year domestically to once Jose has had more time to build a team in his image.
    I think what is really impressive about them is they play in fairly uncompetitve league but are still able to step it up for Europe.
    I wonder sometimes though when we see these spanish domestic results of 7-0 and so on for both Barca & Real and with Messi & Ronnie scoring huge goal tallys from midfield that teams run scared instead of looking at La Liga for what it is.

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  14. Ian H says:

    @ Butho: With Rooney doing the marking job on Busquets everybody’s talking about, this essentially is a 4-5-1 when we don’t have the ball… and much of what time we do have on the ball.

    Don’t let the personnel fool you.

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  15. Jig3000 says:

    I agree with the idea of playing the same midfield and frontline as the Chelsea game; Fletch isn’t ready and hadn’t been playing very well before his illness. Anderson’s season has been his best but he still lacks consistency. Nani is sporadically incredible and incredibly sporadic, he loses out to Valencia because consistency & reliability are vital against top-sides. Park gets the LHS for obvious reasons.

    I see our team broken into a number of partnerships that have to work like Trojans, concentrate like surgeons and create like artists.

    Evra & Park
    This is arguably the most important partnership for Utd. Barca’s RHS is definitely its’ strongest: Alves, Villa and Messi would be enough to give the great wall nightmares. Park and Evra will have to be at their very best and Patrice will need to stay extremely disciplined, a trait that has failed him more often this season than any other.

    Fabio/Rafael & Valencia
    This is our outlet; if Barca go with Puyol at left-back we’ve got the ability to punish them with our pace, skill and tenacity on the RHS. If we put enough pressure on this side of the pitch it could knock Barca’s balance off-kilter, hopefully dragging Busquets out of his central position.

    Rio & Vidic
    There are obvious weaknesses in both player’s skill-set, most notably pace and ability facing their own goal. Thankfully Messi sits the right side of defenders; unfortunately he has an incredible ability to ghost past them like Swayze.

    On the plus side, it’s hard to think of two more accomplished, experienced, complimentary and professional central defenders. These guys are incredible and if the boys around them stick to their own tasks, the central two will stand firm.

    Giggs & Carrick
    Playing two men in central midfield against Barcelona is tantamount to suicide in some people’s eyes. How can you possibly contain a central four, if you include Messi in his deep-lying role? The answer is that you can’t, all you can do is shield the defence when Barca have the ball, calling on assistance from your two wide-men, particularly Park and stifle them as best possible. It’s fair to say that this task isn’t ideal for either Carrick or Giggs, although both have performed well in the same role for the course of the season, when called upon to do so.

    The advantage of these two is when they have the ball they’ve got the ability to retain possession and distribute dangerous balls around the pitch. Carrick had a stinker the last time around and can lack in concentration at times, his passing must be accurate and must be positive. Giggs has been thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons but if word on the street is to be believed, it’s not the first time he’s strayed off-side and I can’t see it affecting his performance in a big way (Pardon the numerous puns).

    Rooney & Hernandez
    Playing two up front is the difference between this final and our last. The fact we had Ronaldo alone up front meant he was isolated for large chunks of the game. It also meant our central midfield were required to support and when they did so our centre-halves were exposed.

    I can see Hernandez causing serious headaches for Pique and Mascherano. I’m a big fan of a pressing forward, used to push a team’s back line as deep as possible and stretch space.

    Rooney, as per usual, will be incredibly important to the team. I’m delighted he’s being used in his best position this season and expect to see him there on Saturday night. The elusive position between defence and midfield allows Rooney a number of options in both attack and defence. When Barca are in possession, Rooney will be used to hassle Busquets, help-out slightly deeper in midfield and also to drift wide left, keeping Alves from storming forward as much as he’d like.

    When Utd are in possession, Rooney can move wherever best suits play. I won’t be surprised to see Rooney in the hole, in the 6-yard box and drifting wide left. If things go his way, he’ll adore the challenge and intensity. If things don’t go his way, he must keep incredibly disciplined; marking Busquets is a delicate matter for any midfield player, for a striker it’s a different kettle of fish, for the aggressive, impatient Rooney it could be lethal – he’s got to realize Busquets will do everything in his power to get the lad sent off.

    So that’s my run-down on events; regarding Barca and their player, we know what they’re going to bring to the table and I’m happy to concentrate on us rather than them. Sorry for such a long-winded post but I can’t help thinking so thoroughly about the game.

    Let’s hope it’s a fantastic game and that both teams show up.

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  16. Ian H says:

    Am I the only one for whom Messi is only the third or fourth most worrying player on their team?

    Not because he’s not awesome, just because we’ve dealt with him before when he’s been having absurdly good seasons.

    His cracking header against us in our last final was facilitated by a great cross and man-marking by Rio that would’ve been hilarious if it wasn’t my team doing it.

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  17. Jake says:

    The only doubt about Barcelona’s lineup is whether Abidal or Mascherano plays. This in turn will affect where Puyol plays. It would be best for United if Mascherano plays instead of Abidal. Figuring out how United will line up will be a tougher task. One would assume they would use use the same 11 they’ve used in the knockout stages of the tournament. If this is the case, I would expect Carrick and Rooney to both play slightly deeper than normal, almost forming a 4-1-4-1.

    There is a problem with this starting XI though. It makes it difficult to close down both Xavi and Messi due to personnel. Park and Carrick are the two players that will be asked to perform the majority of this task. However there will be times where Giggs will be forced to close down Xavi because Xavi will be more central than Park.
    For that reason, I could absolutely see Sir Alex flipping Giggs and Park.

    On the counter, Giggs should push forward and wide left (as he has all year), exposing the space left by Dani Alves pushing forward. On the otherside, Rooney and Valencia will both drop deeper than normal. Valencia to help out with Iniesta and Rooney to pressure Busquets. Rooney will drop offensively and play long diagonals to Valencia and Giggs. Pep will respond by keeping his fullbacks further back. For that reason I disagree with you that Park has to worry about Alves. I think United want Alves on the ball and want him up in space. Pep will be more cautious and not let him go up as much as he is accustomed.

    Hernandez will be of course trying to force their back line deeper than they are used to. Carrick will fill in between lines and follow Messi when needed.
    An alternative method would play Scholes instead of Giggs initially, precisely for his ability to close Xavi down. Ideally, Fletcher would be fit and in form and this wouldn’t be an issue. He would play next to Carrick and the question would be whether Giggs would start behind Rooney or Rooney behind Hernandez.

    Regardless of how United line up, it is imperative they score first. I believe that the first goal will likely determine the winner of the match. That’s not to say it is impossible to come back from a deficit, it is just much more difficult to score on either of these teams if you are trailing.

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  18. butho ncube says:

    @Ian A 451 with chicharito up top is worlds apart from a 451 when Roo is up top . Mainly because u playin a genuine midfielder to make up numbers there to cancel out wat i see as thier strength.
    I can not for the life me of me c carrick and giggs copin with e triple threat of xavi inesta and messi bursting thru that centre. They need help there 5 genuine midfielders is a must.

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  19. nick i says:

    really enjoyed a brilliant detailed blog with lots of great points, even though feeling sick/excited about saturday night.

    I think you are right about the team. However i worry about Hernandez. Brilliant though he has been so far, he was barely in the game against Arsenal at the Emirates. As memory serves he made about 7 attempted passes in the whole first half and did nothing else.

    Fair to say the whole team was pretty poor, but as everyone bangs on about, in terms of style Arsenal are the closest thing to Barca in the English game. If we have limited possession, which seems likely, might he have another poor game.

    What about playing Rooney up front on his own? Rooney is quick enough and finishing pretty well, and has obviously enough played it plenty of times before. As Fletcher obviously isn’t fit (despite a poor season, i feel terribly sorry for the bloke), play Park in the centre as a defensive forward, closing down Busquets and Giggs and Carrick behind to play the passes for Rooney.

    On the left, play Nani who is working a lot harder than he was a year ago. Even if he is not in great form, he still has a lot of pace to push Alves back.

    All said, I think you are right. I don’t mind losing, as long as we turn up and play, unlike Rome. 19 titles makes this a hell of a season already.

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  20. Ian says:

    @ butho: That’s a fair point, but the only thing Rooney really lacks if he’s told to be a pest at the halfway line is tackling ability, and we don’t want people tackling that way. Not to go all Ray Wilkins on everyone, but against Barca you need to stay on your feet. A man on the ground is whole seconds of being a man down which they’re more than capable of exploiting.

    I’m not by any stretch saying either of us is right or wrong. I think whatever you do against Barcelona you’re gambling somewhere.

    I’ll be honest, though. Losing to this Barcelona team, full as it is with people who conduct themselves atrociously on the field, makes my spine itch.

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  21. butho ncube says:

    @Nic i think u right no ur Chicharito point playing him in this all hands to the pump game would be a huge mistake.
    His stil has a lot to learn as brilliant as he is. Esp when it comes to retainin ball possession. Thats y he is always used with a supportin striker. Much rather give him a run in second half when defenders r a bit tired.

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  22. matt says:

    Do Barca have a weakness?
    In short, no.
    A few above posters have commented that we’ve handled Messi in the past. However, I’m not very encouraged by that. In 2007-2008, Messi was a mere right winger, and had 16 goals and 13 assists in 40 matches. In 2010-2011, Messi is a complete forward who plays all over the front line and even drops deep into midfield. This season he scored 52 and assisted 24 in 54 games.
    In 2008, Evra was the best left back in the world, and contained Messi for most of the tie. Today Evra is not nearly as good as he used to be. Also Messi is now a threat between the lines, and we have no true defensive midfielder to deal with him. Remember, Real Madrid needed 3 holders to contain him in the Champions League.
    Anything can happen in football, and we have some great players, but I’d be very surprised if we won this game. They’re just better in the center of midfield, and they’re better at keeping possession and much stronger defensively now than they were 2 years ago (Valdes used to be mediocre, now he’s great)

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  23. butho ncube says:

    @matt for sure barca start as favourites but to say we have no chance is wrong. With the right tactics we can hammer them 3 nil. Believe it or not we wil get or chances to win that game on sat its a matter of whether we take them or not.
    One thing thats in our advantage is the tempo in eng is much higher than in spain.if we blitz them in 1st half with bit of luck we can get a goal and knock them out of thier stride then finish them of from there.
    As for messi dont b fooled by al those goals he scored in spain its mainly because of huge gulf between the top 2 teams and the rest of the teams in that lig. If he was in epl he would have never scored so many.
    And yes he does have a weakness he tends shoot with one foot which means with a bit of clever defendin u can contain him. Not easy but very possible
    Also thier defence is suspect if we can pick our way thru
    ivanovic alex terry cole
    then against
    an over-overlappin Alves Pique an aging slow Puyol not so fit Abidal it be
    should be a piece of cake.

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  24. Ian H says:

    “Do Barca have a weakness?
    In short, no.”

    Nonsense.

    And I’m not at home with this mythologising of Messi either. We’ve kept him relatively quiet, one poached goal aside, in a season where he’d already scored 37.

    And let’s not forget that he’s not the only player to shit all over La Liga defences this season. They’re very good players, him and Ronaldo. Best in the world. But that statistic points out how astoundingly behind the rest of the Spanish league is.

    Messi is the best attacker in the world and the best in at least a few years, but this bed-wetting notion that the only way to beat him is to hope he has a bad day is bilge.

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  25. minimal says:

    also if they start diving (wich i’am sure they’ll do) and get ref on their side we have no chance, because if game doesn’t go theirs way i’am sure they’ll try dirty tactics (they are fucking dirty diving team), so hope ref will be strong, its vital if we hope to win.

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