Barcelona vs Manchester United, Stadio Olimpico, Rome. 27 May 2009.
The 2009 Champions League final, which will be repeated at Wembley in 22 days time, resulted in a hugely disappointing loss to Barcelona in the final. Rant looks back on that final and wonders whether Manchester United will make the same tactical mistakes again?
Both teams lined up as expected; United missed out on Darren Fletcher after Scotland captain’s unfortunate booking in the semi-final with Arsenal. Meanwhile, an injury crisis forced Barcelona into fielding a makeshift back-four including Yaya Touré in central defence.
For United, Cristiano Ronaldo led the line, with Sir Alex Ferguson deploying Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung in wide positions, aiming to contain Barça’s fullbacks. Barça used Lionel Messi in the now familiar “false 9” role, forcing Samuel Eto’o wide.
Surprisingly, United initially lined up in 4-4-2 with Ryan Giggs playing as a supporting striker – it was perhaps an attempt to press and take the game to Barça, although Giggs floated too much to get a sense of how United lined up at any given time.
United started the game brightly though with Victor Valdes saving an excellent Ronaldo free kick early in the game. After all, the Reds had been pre-match favourites.
Eto’o and Messi kept changing position as game settled into a pattern, which caused United considerable problems. Ultimately when Messi dropped deep in the ninth minute, not a single United midfielder picked him up. The Argentinean pulled Andreas Iniesta’s marker out of position, which afforded the Spanish international a free dribble, eventually allowing Eto’o to score past Edwin van der Sar at the near post.
The goal could have easily prevented had United maintained a more disciplined shape.
United persisted with a 4-4-2, (see figure 1, below) which Barça negated by simply passing around the oncoming Red midfielders. The shape also meant that Park and Rooney had to form a second line of defence with United on the back foot. It took the pair away from Barcelona’s full-backs, enabling Puyol and Sylvinho’s influence on the game to grow.
United was unable to cope with Barça’s relentless pressing. United chances were then limited to long balls down the flanks, while Messi was also left without a marker for most of the game (see figure 2, below).
Lack of organised pressing, resulting from United’s rather limiting formation, allowed Barça to get hold of the game. United players could not abandon a post without leaving a an opponent free, while Barcelona stroked the ball around freely. United sorely missed a dedicated ball-winner.
By the end of first half, United swapped Giggs and Rooney’s positions to little effect. In another change, the half-time interval saw Carlos Tevez’s introduction at Anderson’s expense. Giggs was pushed deeper to maintain a 4-4-2ish shape and again Messi was to left roam free by United.
Sir Alex soon substituted Park for Dimitar Berbatov allowing Ronaldo to occupy a more familiar left-wing role. With United enjoying some success on the wings, it was a move that made sense, also introducing some height to the penalty box.
The changes were soon negated though, with Messi scoring a free header in the 69th minute; he had been left without a marker for much of the game. The player’s excellent movement and Xavi Hernandez’ exquisite cross should be commended but Ferguson must also take some of the blame for picking a shape that left the most dangerous opposition player free to do as he wished.
After the second goal, Barça comfortably saw the game out.
While it is true that almost the whole United side had an “off day”, Ferguson’s team was also hampered by frankly baffling tactics. United lost the midfield battle – a failure to be placed on the Scot’s head, who decided to play two central midfielders, including Anderson and Michael Carrick. Park’s headless running on the wing was also a factor of United’s shape.
United lost because for two reasons: the team shape and a complete lack of pressing. The question is – will United repeat the same mistake again on 28 May?