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2009 Champions League Final: A Tactical Review

May 18, 2011 1 comment

Starting formations

United started the match strongly and within two minutes Ronaldo had forced a good save from Valdes after Anderson won a free kick on the edge of Barcelona’s penalty area. They played with a high tempo, attacking with pace and directness, and by the eighth minute had already taken five shots while Barcelona had none. They also succeeded in forcing Barcelona to play uncharacteristic rushed long balls up the pitch which United’s defenders dealt with easily.

United’s plan was clear from the first few minutes. They were going to press aggressively high up the pitch and try to disrupt the supply from Barcelona’s defense to their midfield, rather than sit deep and try to disrupt the supply from Barcelona’s midfield to their attack. The focal point of this pressing was Ryan Giggs. When Barcelona’s central defenders had possession Giggs, together with Ronaldo, would close them down and chase the ball all the way back to Valdes. The result was that while on paper United had a midfield trio of Carrick, Anderson and Giggs to match Barcelona’s trio, in reality United’s shape was much closer to a 4-4-2 than a 4-3-3. During extended spells of Barcelona possession Giggs would drop slightly deeper and loosely mark Busquets but most of the time he stayed in his advanced position.

Giggs played a very advanced role and focused on pressing aggressively high up the pitch

United's first half formation

The result of this was that whenever Barcelona was able to bypass Giggs they had a 3v2 advantage in central midfield. While that in itself was worrying it was made even worse (from a United point of view) by Guardiola’s tactical masterstroke.

Barcelona began the match in their standard 4-1-2-3 formation with Henry on the left, Messi on the right and Eto’o through the middle, but in the fifth minute Guardiola switched Eto’o out to the right and Messi into the center. It was a small tactical change but it was one which set the tone for the rest of the match, and one which Sir Alex had no answer for.

Formations from the fifth minute onward

In the two seasons since the final, and especially this season, Messi playing as the central striker rather than out on the right wing has become a common occurrence but at the time it was a surprising switch. It wasn’t the first time Messi had played in a central role but primarily he was still considered a right winger/wing-forward, and United probably wouldn’t have expected the switch. Now instead of Evra marking Messi out on the wing (at the time it didn’t seem like an outlandish idea that one full back by himself could contain Messi) they had to deal with Messi in a central role, floating freely between United’s midfield and defense.

The switch caused United several problems. Firstly it left Vidic and Ferdinand with no one to mark, a situation they probably wouldn’t have expected going into the match. Secondly, and more importantly, considering Giggs was playing in such an advanced role it effectively gave Barcelona a 4v2 advantage in central midfield. Even when Giggs dropped deeper to mark Busquets Barcelona still had a 3v2 advantage with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta against Carrick and Anderson, and they used this advantage to great effect. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi completed 66, 56 and 43 passes respectively, 165 in total which accounted for 43% of Barcelona’s passes. The corresponding numbers for United’s midfield “trio” were 93 completed which accounted for 26% of United’s passes. On the flip side while Barcelona’s central defenders accounted for 15% of Barcelona’s passes, United’s central defenders accounted for 29% of theirs. While the overall ball possession stats were roughly even, 51% in favour of Barcelona, it’s clear it was Barcelona who were passing the ball in the areas of the pitch where they could actually hurt the other team.

Carrick received a lot of criticism for his performance in the final, and if rumours are to be believed even Sir Alex placed a large portion of the blame for the loss on Carrick’s shoulders. While he certainly didn’t play well, to me much of the criticism seems excessively harsh. The tactical decisions of both managers left Carrick in an impossible bind. If he dropped deep to mark Messi he left Anderson alone against Xavi and Iniesta. If on the other hand he joined Anderson and challenged Xavi and Iniesta he left Messi free to roam. No matter what he did it was going to be a losing situation for United. In the end he didn’t fully commit to either choice and not only did Xavi and Iniesta control the midfield but Messi was allowed to roam free, constantly finding himself in space between the midfield and defense.

Messi consistently found himself in acres of space between United's midfield and defense

Sir Alex needed to react and find a way to deny Messi time and space in between United’s midfield and defense. Eto’o and Henry were constantly threatening runs in behind United’s back four so having Ferdinand or Vidic follow Messi into midfield would have been too risky. While that may limit Messi’s effectiveness it leaves the back three too vulnerable to simple runs in behind the defense. The obvious choice then would have been to drop Giggs into a deeper role alongside Anderson, essentially taking up Carrick’s place while Carrick drops even deeper to mark Messi. While that leaves Busquets free, if the choice is between leaving Messi free and leaving Busquets free, well that’s no choice at all.

United's midfield formation left Carrick and Anderson outnumbered

Dropping Giggs deeper would have helped

Sir Alex acknowledged after the match that he got his tactics wrong and only he will know why he didn’t react when he saw what was happening. United’s high pressing approach wasn’t effective in limiting the supply to Barcelona’s midfield, and when Barcelona’s midfield received the ball they consistently found themselves in 3v2 or 4v2 situations. Whether making a change would have had any effect on the result is an altogether different question, but it would at least have made it more difficult for Barcelona to control the match.

When the change did come it came in the form of a halftime substitution. Anderson made way for Tevez and while the Argentinean brought some more energy and attacking thrust it did nothing to address the real problem of Barcelona’s midfield dominance and Messi’s free role and ultimately had little influence on the match. Giggs moved into a deeper role alongside Carrick, Park and Rooney switched wings and Tevez played up top with Ronaldo, but United’s attacking play didn’t change. As they had done in the first half as soon as they won the ball they looked to play long diagonal balls out to the wide areas, bypassing Barcelona’s midfield and looking to exploit their weaknesses in the full back positions, but apart from a few instances when Rooney exploited the space behind Sylvinho and got into good crossing positions United struggled to get the ball into Barcelona’s penalty area, and the times they did Barcelona dealt with the situations relatively easily. Pique in particular had an excellent match at the heart of Barcelona’s defense.

Sir Alex brought Berbatov on for Park in what was by now a 4-2-4 system and unsurprisingly Barcelona were able to carve through United’s midfield at will. The second goal came in the 70th minute when Lionel Messi capped off his excellent night by heading home a Xavi cross. United fought on till the end but Barcelona defended well and the United comeback never materialised.

In a match of two decisive tactical decisions Guardiola outfoxed his opposite number just like his players outperformed theirs. Manchester United will feel disappointed they didn’t perform to the best of their ability and when the two sides meet again on the 28th of May at Wembley they will be desperate for revenge. It remains to be seen whether they have learned from their mistakes of two years ago.

Categories: Tactics