Saturday, 28 May 2011

United's five point plan for beating Barcelona

Well, if the turf accountants of this green and pleasant land are to be believed (and on the surface, they seldom make poor calls), then the culmination of the 2010/11 Champions League is a formality. The script is written and it declares that European football's finest exhibitionists will win their third Champions League final in six seasons, each achieved against English opposition in the final. This will spark scenes of jubilation in North West London, Catalonia and Wallasey, while sorrows will be drowned in Salford, Didsbury, Guildford and one small corner of this author's local in Brighton from 9:30 pm BST onwards.

Yet, while football for the most part is a game of black and white, there is sometimes scope for shaded areas. This is particularly so in a one-off match, where the favourites can become suffocated by the cauldron of expectation while the underdogs can approach the match with lots to prove but litle expected. Given the stature of these two clubs, it would be absurd to suggest that there is low expectation in either camp, as winning European club football's blue riband event is the yardstick by which clubs are allocated places at football's top table and supporters on both sides demand to be dining on gourmet rather than ready meals.

While recent history and all known form would indicate that Barcelona should prevail and thereby stake a genuine claim to being one of the greatest sides in the history of the European Champions' Cup, it is only three years ago that United defeated the same opposition in the semi-finals to set up that drizzly, tear-stained night in Moscow, without conceding a goal to them in 180 minutes of football. Some of the key personnel have changed since then, but the nucleus of both sides still remain.

For Sir Alex Ferguson to land his third 'cup with big ears' as Gianluca Vialli once referred to it, he will need a disciplined and committed performance from every single player that takes to the pitch. Getting the odd rub of the green would not go amiss either. But most crucially, Ferguson will need to follow the lead of one of the great strategists of his generation, namely John Hannibal Smith. Ferguson will be red with delight when his plan comes together. To aid him in his duties, here is a five point plan from this alehouse strategist that could prove decisive.

1. Settle on a formation
Given the depth of his squad, Sir Alex Ferguson faces a few selection dilemmas. However, in reality, the main quandary he faces is what formation to go with. In the past two months of the season, United have largely kept faith in a 4-2-3-1 formation, ostensibly with Rooney floating behind Hernandez, but the formation has provided licence for the two players to interchange positions. Hernandez's pace and movement would undoubtedly unsettle Barcelona's back line, with Pep Guardiola admitting as much in his ante-post comments.

However, the lines are blurred by the issue of the midfield area, where many sage observers have opined that the result of the final will be determined. Manchester United's Achilles Heel so happens to be Barcelona's strength, namely that their midfield is not as imposing as, say, the treble winning team's in 1999. Barcelona play a trio in midfield, with Sergio Busquets marshalling the defence and committing the strategic fouls in order to free up Xavi and Andres Iniesta to dictate the tempo of the match and to provide the supply line to Lionel Messi. Until Hernandez's rapid improvement dictated that Ferguson could no longer just utilise him as an impact substitute, United generally lined up for their marquee Premier League matches with an extra body in midfield.

Ferguson will mindful that it is as certain as death and taxes that Barcelona will enjoy sustained periods of possession during the match and so his concern will be that if he is a man light in the middle of the park, Barcelona could carve United open with their passing triangles and Lionel Messi will be able to dominate the match. Against that, however, United's central midfield options are not prolific. With Park-Ji-Sung likely to be stationed on the left flank, this would mean Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick taking up two places centrally and playing just two central players would mean a lot of running for a 37 year old, some 16 years older than Sergio Busquets. If United do play a third midfielder, Darren Fletcher would appear to be the most likely addition. If Fletcher was fully fit, he would be a certainty to play, as United missed his harrying and strong tackling when they lost the final two years ago. However, his performance against Blackpool suggested Fletcher is some way from full match fitness, and a Champions League final against Barcelona is not an ideal occasion to feel your way back. With Paul Scholes too much of a liability to start a match of this magnitude now, the only other option would be Anderson, and he has flattered too much to deceive on the big occasion before.

Although second guessing Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection is an impossible task at the best of times, it would seem that his starting eleven will be primarily determined by whether he plays an extra midfielder or accommodates both Rooney and Hernandez. He does also have a decision to make about who plays at right back, but I expect Fabio Da Silva to get the nod ahead of his twin and John O'Shea and to have the job of nullifying the threat of David Villa.

As much as Ferguson has made public pronouncements that United will set out to attack Barcelona, privately I think he realises that being outnumbered in midfield would be akin to Russian Roulette and so I expect Ferguson to mirror Barcelona's 4-3-3 formation, with Darren Fletcher likely to join Carrick and Giggs in the centre and Javier Hernandez reverting to the impact substitute role. If Ferguson was to play 4-2-3-1, then Rooney would be required to drop back into midfield and work hard for the team when they do not have possession, which would restrict his attacking potency. That is why I feel United will focus on staying in the match and keeping Barcelona out of harm's way, before introducing Hernandez as an extra forward early in the second half at the expense of Fletcher.

2. Play a pressing game
With the formation now decided, United will need a winning strategy in order to prevail. Some will suggest fighting fire with fire and going on the offensive. However, you only need to look at Arsenal's matches against Barcelona in the past two Champions League campaigns to see that employing such a strategy would only result in gallant failure at best. It was interesting, however, to see that a player who witnessed first hand Arsenal's latest defeat at the hands of the team they so implicitly wish to emulate, Jack Wilshere, was eager to advise that United had to employ a pressing game against Barcelona.

In every La Liga match that Barcelona have played in the 2010/11 season, they have enjoyed more than fifty per cent possession. It is a near certainty that they will again at Wembley, and there is no point in setting out in being resistant to that. The crucial element is minimising the amount of possession Barcelona have in meaningful areas of the pitch, that is to say, give them as few clear sighters of goal as possible. This is why I feel Ferguson ultimately will choose to play 4-3-3 as it means he has safety in numbers, with his team effectively playing as a 4-5-1 whenever they do not have possession of the ball, which as we have discussed is likely to be more than half of the time the ball is in play.

Jose Mourinho realised that the best way of beating Barcelona was to stifle their supply line and stop them from getting in positions where they can shoot, even if this meant playing a cat-and-mouse game of throwing men behind the ball and committing strategic fouls in areas of the pitch where Barcelona cannot threaten from, but where the rhythm of their passing can be broken up. Ultimately, Mourinho's masterplan in the semi-finals collapsed due to his team's lack of discipline, becoming demoralised by spending so much of the match in the Santiago Bernabeu chasing shadows.

The basic premise of pressing Barcelona high up the pitch was not necessarily wrong, however, and evidence from previous Champions League campaigns shows it can sometimes be an effective method of counteracting them. Mourinho himself deployed the strategy with far more success last season when Inter took Barcelona apart in the first leg of their semi-final, en route to winning the competition. Chelsea also came within ninety seconds of defeating Barcelona the previous season by squeezing their midfield and blocking out the supply lines, only for Iniesta to score a stoppage time goal from which there was no point of return.

United themselves got the better of Barcelona in 2008 despite being on the backfoot for much of the tie, helped by some stoic, last ditch defending on occasions when Barcelona came close to scoring a precious away goal. For United to win the final, it is inevitable they will have to weather a storm during the course of the match and so it is important that they keep their concentration and their tactical discipline to a man at all times, and do not get frustrated if there are spells of the match where they are not getting the ball. If Barcelona get plenty of the ball, but are not getting into meaningful shooting positions, they too will get frustrated. Patience will be key and it is certain that there will be times in the match where United can attack themselves, particularly down the flanks.

3. Make use of width
This brings us neatly to the next point, which is to emphasise that the wide areas of the pitch will also be a determining factor in the outcome of the match. While there are several match-winners taking to the pitch who can decide the result in a split second of brilliance, it does seem a fair assessment to state that whichever team is more assertive and busy in the wide areas will have a clear advantage.

Both teams will have the potential to be fluid and have players capable of interchanging, with the forward players swapping from wide to central positions. However, it should be expected that Messi and Rooney will line up centrally for their respective forward lines, sandwiched in axis of Villa and Pedro, and Park and Valencia respectively. I expect United to play Park and Valencia from the start, rather than accommodating Nani on the right or moving Rooney across to the left in order to accommodate Hernandez, because Park and Valencia are more industrious wide players, who are happy to track back and carry out defensive foot soldier duties whenever United do not have possession. While Nani would offer more direct running, he is less inclined to carry out the defensive requirements of the game and that could result in Barcelona having more capability to run into a green expanse of space when the ball is lost.

Park-Ji-Sung will have a key role to play on the left hand side, as he will be in direct combat with Dani Alves, who has an integral part to play in building Barcelona's attacks with his marauding runs down the flanks. Alves very much fits the template of a Brazilian full back, as he is at his most destructive going forward, but is capable of being self-destructive when required to carry out his defensive duties. Park should look to pressurise Alves and prevent his runs forward, thereby meaning that Park himself is able to get more of a foothold on the game as an attacking threat.

On the other flank, whichever one of the Da Silva twins is entrusted by Ferguson to marshal David Villa is going to have a vital role in the match. In talking up the obvious threat of Lionel Messi, it is easily forgotten what a danger Villa is, as one of the most natural finishers in world football. Villa's role for Barcelona is the same as the pivotal one he played for Spain in last summer's World Cup, where he is usually stationed on the left hand side before cutting in to shooting positions. This is reminiscent of the role Thierry Henry previously performed for Barcelona, and before that with deadly aplomb for Arsenal. United's right back of choice will need to ensure Villa is given as few sighters of goal as possible.

Further forward for United, Valencia is likely to come up against Carles Puyol, who has generally been playing as a makeshift left back since Eric Abidal has been sidelined through illness. This is potentially an area of weakness for Barcelona. This observer has not been as sold on Puyol as some in his more favoured position as a centre back and I feel that Puyol is a reactive defender rather than a proactive one, responding to danger rather than averting it with last ditch recovery tackles. The heavily bouffanted local lad is also not particularly mobile, while Valencia is very much an orthodox winger, who is quick and direct, and generally produces pinpoint crosses. He is not as spectacular as his predecessor, Cristiano Ronaldo, but he sticks to his task more effectively, and United's forward players are able to anticipate his crosses better than they sometimes could with Ronaldo. For United to win, imposing themselves down their right flank will go some way to helping them.

4. Don't concede early
It is an obvious truism in some senses, but the story of the 2009 final was played out in the first ten minutes of the match. At one end, Park-Ji-Sung wasted a good chance to give United a lead after eight minutes, only for Barcelona to advance straight up the other end with Samuel Eto'o being more clinical when presented with his chance. This set the tone for the match and United did not recover from the setback of conceding a goal so early against a team that are imperious front-runners.

Sir Alex Ferguson should consider the philosophy of his managerial compatriot, George Graham, which stood him good stead almost exactly 22 years ago. I am referring to the night that Graham's Arsenal side played a title decider at Anfield against a technically superior Liverpool team and had to win by two clear goals in order to claim the league title at the Merseyside giant's expense. As any supporter of these two clubs will know, Arsenal won 2-0 on the night, scoring the decisive second goal in stoppage time from which there was no comeback for Kenny Dalglish's team.

What is interesting to reflect on is Graham's strategy and pre-match words for his players. Graham's philosophy was simple and while in keeping with the common stereotype of him as a defensive minded manager (which was not always true in his early years as Arsenal manager), was also mighty effective. He simply told his players to keep the score at 0-0 at half time. He asked his players not to concede of course, but also advised his players not to score too early, as it would make Liverpool angry. Then at half time, he revised the strategy and asked his players to become a more attacking threat in the second half. Sure enough, Arsenal made the breakthrough in the first fifteen minutes of the second half, and then with Liverpool committing players forward for an equaliser, Arsenal broke away and scored the crucial second goal.

Much has changed on the football landscape in 22 years and it also hard to envisage an attacking manager such as Sir Alex Ferguson specifically instructing his players not to score in the first half. However, it is worth considering the background to Graham's thinking. The 1988/89 season was the season of the Hillsborough Disaster and by the time Liverpool faced up to Arsenal, they were both physically and mentally shattered and so Arsenal came into the title decider with the momentum, even if the task they were faced with was a monumental one to achieve at the time.

Similarly, Barcelona come into this final with a number of their regular observers claiming that the Catalan giants have looked tired in recent weeks and have not been defeating teams with the same authority they displayed earlier in the campaign. This is understandable given that Barcelona have played in excess of fifty matches this season and over half of the Barcelona team were a cornerstone of Spain's World Cup winning team last summer, meaning that much of the team has had little respite in the past eighteen months. United too have played over fifty games this season, but Ferguson's rotation policy has ensured that all of his players have been refreshed during the season, added to which several of the players also had more of a rest last summer due to their nations being eliminated from the World Cup at an early stage.

Keeping things tight in the first half of the final would give United a suitable platform in the second half of the match to throw on some impact substitutes who could hold the key to unlocking Barcelona's defence as the game becomes stretched and legs become strained.

5. Make use of impact substitutions
And so that brings us neatly to the final point in this unbreakable strategy, which is to make the most of substitutions when the moment materialises. Champions League finals over the years generally see managers call upon at least one of their substitutes in the first twenty minutes of the second half. This is usually due to Champions League finals of following a set template of matches being quite cagey and tactical in the first half of games and so a substitution is used as a game-changer, someone to give the opposition something different to think about.

If United are to be in with a chance of winning this final, I expect a similar pattern to be played out this time around, and so how Ferguson deploys his substitutes could make or break his evening. History shows that Ferguson is generally a grand master when it comes to making positive, match turning substitutions, witness his 1999 goalscorers as a case in point.

Assuming Ferguson opts for 4-3-3 rather than 4-2-3-1, he would have two of his quickest players starting from the bench in Javier Hernandez and Nani. He could be expected to introduce both of these players at some stage of the match, and particularly so if the match is still in a state of gridlock as both players will provide a 'fresh pair of legs' that can ask questions of defenders beginning to tire, which as discussed in point 4, is a genuine possibility for Barcelona given the exertions of their season. It is also possible that Paul Scholes could be introduced late in the game in order to ensure possession is not needlessly surrendered.

Bringing on players with pace who can make an immediate impact though is where United can prevail if they have carried out all the other parts of the plan effectively. Looking back at Barcelona's past two Champions League campaigns, they have sometimes flagged dramatically in the final twenty minutes of matches. This has been noticeably demonstrated in their past two Champions League ties at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal. Although ultimately in vain for Arsenal, Barcelona threw away a 2-0 lead last season as Arsenal mounted a comeback in the final twenty minutes of the match to draw 2-2. The telling difference was the introduction of Theo Walcott, whose raw pace asked new questions of Barca's left back on the night, Maxwell, who was running on empty having dictated the match for the first hour.

In the corresponding tie this season, Barcelona should have been out of sight in the first half, but were profligate in the final third of the pitch and history repeated itself when in the final twenty minutes, Arsenal turned a 1-0 deficit into an unlikely 2-1 victory. The only difference this time was that Walcott was withdrawn rather than introduced, with Nicklas Bendtner's physique and aggression causing problems down the right and Andrei Arshavin and Robin Van Persie carving Barcelona open in the middle.

That this comeback was ultimately fruitless for Arsenal is beside the point. The key issue is that Barcelona can be exposed in the latter stages of matches, provided their opponents are still in the game and provided they have players capable of making a match-changing impact. Real Madrid also demonstrated this in extra time in the Copa del Rey final. United do have these options and bringing on Javier Hernandez, for example, early in the second half would cause a different problem for Barcelona as his pace and movement would be a challenge to Barca's current stop gap centre back, Javier Mascherano, a player prone to moments of rashness. It would also mean Wayne Rooney could drop deeper and then provide Barcelona with a dilemma of whether to stick tight to Rooney and thereby allow midfield runners to drop into space, or let Rooney roam where he could provide a moment that determines the match himself.

Hernandez has shown that he can quick up the pace of the game almost immediately on numerous occasions this season, regardless of whether he starts the match or is introduced as a substitute. But his pace and ability to find space in the penalty box are very handy assets to introduce when a game is becoming stretched, while Nani is also capable of mesmerising Carles Puyol in the same manner that Theo Walcott did to the more mobile Maxwell last season. The aces Ferguson has up his sleeve could tilt the balance in his team's favour, so long as his team have done the hard work.

So there in a nutshell is how United can Barcelona. Although given the calibre of the opposition and how other factors such as a refereeing decision and moments of outrageous fortune can turn a match in a blink of an eye, United could do all of this and more, but still end up losing the final. It does serve to show, however, that they are perfectly capable of defeating the de-facto 'Greatest Team on Earth' provided they stick to the task rigidly and, in the words of their own supporters, 'Believe'.

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