Champions League Final 2011: Fergie’s selection dilemma

Manchester United’s chances of beating Barcelona in next weekend’s Champions League final may come down to Sir Alex Ferguson’s selections in two or three key positions. Indeed, the Scot’s deployment of Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung could decide whether United takes or concedes the initiative at Wembley; perhaps even if the Reds secure a third Champions League title under Ferguson’s management, or not.

Both starting team and bench remain a dilemma for Ferguson, whose instincts in recent years may draw him towards a conservative selection against the Catalan giants. But if the Scot, who is competing in his fourth Champions League final, wishes to augment midfield with Fletcher, for example, then it may be at Hernandez’ expense. The dilemma is all the more acute for Fletcher’s very recent return to fitness and the Mexican’s outstanding form during the end-of-season run-in.

Ferguson’s decision could be coloured by United’s experience in 2009, where Barcelona simply passed around Michael Carrick and Anderson in the centre of the Reds’ midfield. The theory that Fletcher’s energy and destructive quality would have changed that game’s nature have long been espoused. And should Ferguson bring the Scotland captain into the side for Hernández’, Wayne Rooney will likely be asked to play as United’s  lone forward.

Fletcher will face a late fitness test to see whether the Scot can take part or not. He faces potential heartbreak for a third time – the 26-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute as United won the trophy in Moscow, May 2008 and missed the 2009 final through suspension.

“Darren has had a difficult time,” assistant Mike Phelan admitted on Monday.

“A Darren Fletcher up and running and firing on all cylinders gives us a hard job of picking the team. It is never easy to come back when you have been out for so long. Now we will recover him and see where he is at in a couple of days’ time.”

But Ferguson has alternatives, including deploying the formation used against Chelsea in this season’s quarter-final, or bringing Fletcher into United’s midfield at Giggs’ expense. Should the United manager decide energy is more important than Giggs’ guile against the Catalan giants, Fletcher or Park could find themselves deployed centrally in a 4-4-1-1 formation.

That is one theory at least.

Yet, it is almost inconceivable that United will enjoy more than 40 per cent possession against Barça whatever the midfield combination Ferguson deploys. After all few, if any, opponents have been able to break up the Catalans’ ‘passing carousel’ by deploying agricultural tactics in recent seasons.

If Ferguson takes this view, he may indeed choose to focus on United’s positional play instead, asking Carrick, Park and Giggs to drop deep when needed, with Rooney augmenting midfield and Hernández attempting to run behind Barça’s atypical high defensive line. Should United enjoy enough possession, of course.

It’s a formation that will allow United to maintain the partnerships that have proven so successful in recent weeks – Rooney/Hernandez and Giggs/Carrick – and enable the former Evertonian to continue at ‘number 10′, where he has returned to form.

Elsewhere, Ferguson will probably choose between brothers Da Silva at right-back, although there is still the chance, fitness permitting, that the Scot will go for experience with John O’Shea. The remainder of Ferguson’s back-five – Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Namanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – picks itself.

But it is not only the starting XI that will cause Ferguson sleepless nights over the next five days. There is also fierce competition for a place on the bench, with just seven substitutes allowed in the Champions League squad. With Ferguson’s men almost fully fit up to eight of the squad will miss out on a place in the matchday party altogether.

Indeed, regular first teamers including O’Shea, Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans may be fighting for a place on United’s bench. Meanwhile Darron Gibson, £8.3 million Bébé and new goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard are likely to miss out altogether. It is not inconceivable that only one of Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov will make United’s subs list, with the former-Liverpool man arguably more impactful off the bench but the Bulgarian the club’s top goalscorer.

Whatever the selection, Ferguson is keen to sure his team remains positive. It may just swing the Scot’s decision towards an attacking starting XI.

“Yes, I concede Barcelona are favourites in many people’s eyes,” said 69-year-old Ferguson.

“They have a super side, rich in experience and yet youthful enough to give them a good balance. But it is a challenge we are eager to meet. Don’t write us off. We have the players to win, too, and while praising Barcelona is something that comes naturally, we will be making our own contribution.”

“It is the biggest game of the whole year. We know what it feels like to go to the final and lose. It was one of the saddest moments of my career. I am sure all the players won’t forget that.

“We know we are facing a very, very good team and we have to be physically and psychologically ready. Against this Barcelona team you have to be intelligent. They have qualities but we will try to work on their weaknesses, expose them and try to win the game.”

And the answer to whether Ferguson’s men can rise to that challenge is just five days away.

United XI? – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Rooney; Hernández

Subs? – Kuszazck, Rafael, Smalling, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov

Missing out? – Owen, O’Shea, Evans, Obertan, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Hargreaves, Amos, Anderson

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Comments

  1. says

    I agree with what you’ve said other than I think Anderson will be a better option from the bench than Scholes. He’s been playing well recently and his energy could be needed if we’re chasing the game later on.

    • says

      i think experience is better thank physical energy. Anderson is good but u can compare them with scores especially in their passes.scores is more accurate and Barcelona being a team that need to posses ball all the time i will opt for scholes

  2. says

    This is a very negative piece Ed. I’m pretty sure that Guardiola is genuinely worried about United. Yes Barca will have 60%+ of possession but SAF will plan to win the game by being positive. What is the point of death by a thousand cuts? Hernandez will start, allowing Rooney to wander where he needs to be. SAF might think that Giggs “is not right in the head”. Fletcher was only on 70% throttle on Sunday so it would be a big gamble to start with him. I don’t think that this is a “Scholes-type game” -we neeed someone more dynamic; but he (& Nani) will be useful sub options if we are in the lead (or losing).It would be very surprising if Park & Valencia do not start because of their discipline.A case can be made for Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs & Anderson (not much in it); no point guessing. I still think that SAF will spring one surprise. Smalling at right back for his power & heading ability; I can’t see that Villa would fancy either attacking him or defending aginst his runs??? The first goal will be crucial for both teams.

  3. triggs says

    I think Ed has the team and bench exactly right (although I think Fletch will be lucky to be ahead of Ando), but I can’t escape the nagging feeling that Fergie may spring a surprise.
    He’s had two years to mull over what went wrong and how to beat them. United’ll be far more prepared for Messi playing as a no. 9 this time and preventing him influencing the game will be crucial. As will Rooney hounding Busquets.
    Our key chance of winning this game is the counter attack. If we can get the ball forward quickly and accurately to Tony and Rooney we’ll cause them a lot of problems.

  4. Lovedale says

    I hope we don’t play carrick at all. I think that (1) he ll still have nightmares of 2009 (2) he is poor when passing under the kind of intense pressing that barca employ.
    I hope we play a midfield of Fletcher Giggs Rooney. With Toni Nani and Chicha up front. The midfield can work hard in winning the ball, better than any other combination, and giggs and rooney are adept at releasing any of our front three.
    Also, Park is risky cuz of the same reason carrick is. His passing goes astray under serious pressing.

  5. Lovedale says

    I hope we don’t play carrick at all. I think that 1. he ll still have nightmares of 2009 2. he is poor when passing under the kind of intense pressing that barca employ.
    I hope we play a midfield of Fletcher Giggs Rooney. With Toni Nani and Chicha up front. The midfield can work hard in winning the ball, better than any other combination, and giggs and rooney are adept at releasing any of our front three.
    Also, Park is risky cuz of the same reason carrick is. His passing goes astray under serious pressing.

    • dingleberry says

      behins scholes, carrick is the best passer of the ball but i agree that a fletcher / giggs partnership could work but i think its 2 games too soon for Fletcher. i think there is only 1 position up fro grabs – RB. either da silvas or as says above, smalling isnt a bad shout.

  6. everwonthetreble says

    The match will come down to preparation for the Barca press. Doesn’t matter who they put in, if United aren’t prepared for what to do once they win the ball back, Barca wins…eventually. United will have roughyl 30-40% of the ball so it is critical they know how they are going to attack Barca before the press comes which often times is in their own end. Dropping the methodical approach and attacking them with and without the ball might be the best option.

  7. RedDevilInArizona says

    As important as who plays; is when they play and the game situation when they come on. Let Park run the legs off Alves until he (Park) starts to get fatigued, then bring on Nani to tire Alves out some more and keep him on defense. Let Carrick face up on Messi and provide the link up with Giggs and Rooney then depending on the score either Scholes or Fletcher to control the middle and/or continue the pressure on Messi. Neither of these substitutions can afford a card of any kind or the Barcelna midfield will run riot. The last substitute would be Berbartov for Hernandez; Rooney must drop back to disrupt the back end of the Barcelona midfield triangle, and also be ready to go wide left when Park comes inside. If we have the lead after about 70-75 minutes, Berbartov goes up front alone with Rooney playing the upfront midfielder role for outlet to either wing.

    In my opinion the most important factor for our defense will be to remain on their feet. Barcelona players will fall over at every opportunity; the slightest contact, and even there is none, and they will roll around like they have been shot. Hopefully with the defender is still on their feet the referee will show at least one of them a card and cut that out.

    Manchester 3, Barcelona 1

    • Griffin says

      “Let Park run the legs off Alves until he (Park) starts to get fatigued”

      …we could be waiting a while

  8. Violent Banana says

    4-4-1-1 with Rooney and Hernandez has been successful against Chelsea, but not necessarily in other fixtures. It certainly wasn’t terribly effective at Blackburn, and it allowed Arsenal to waltz through our midfield at the Emirates. We played a similar formation with Berba instead of Chico at Anfield and we were comprehensively beaten. I certainly think it’s a great option for us to have, but I don’t think we can use it against every team, and I think it worked best against Chelsea because of their aging midfield and inability to keep the ball.

    Also with Rooney and Chico upfront, I don’t see Rooney tracking back enough to fill the holes in midfield, (and nor should he). The thought of giving a man advantage to Iniesta, Busquets and Xavi is frankly startling, and I think we’d be asking an awful lot of Giggs and Carrick to track them, as well as get forward and create attacking opportunities.

    I think the best chance we have is 4-5-1: VDS, Fabio, Rio, Vida, Evra, Park, Giggs, Carrick, Fletcher, Valencia, Rooney

  9. herbie simms says

    Whatever formation or players SAF puts out there, the bottom line is we cannot allow them to play their style of football.
    We must stop them from getting balls to Messi. We must show them no respect and attack them from the start, keep them on the back foot. Hernandez and Valencia will be key in a United victory. But it must be an allout attack. If we play too defensive, we will get burnt.

  10. Brian R says

    I think Hernández, Rooney, Park, Valencia and Giggs are all certainties. I don’t see Nani getting a look in on account of his defensive shortcomings. Anderson has made good progress in recent months, but he’s just not at the starter level currently for a major game like this.

    Can you explain to me why starting Fletcher would mean that Hernández would need to be sacrificed? Personally, I’d rather Fletcher’s temperament in the centre of the park to that of Carrick, who I think has the tendency to lose confidence in tense moments. Whether or not Fletcher is fit enough is the only issue. On the other hand, I’d rather Carrick play if it also facilitated Hernández.

    Initially, I’d have thought that Sir Alex would undoubtedly go with experience and composure by picking O’Shea at right back ahead of either Rafael or Fabio. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no question that selecting either twin would be the bolder move in terms of constructing an attacking game plan, yet I still must wonder how likely Ferguson is to go against the conservative streak that has so often characterised his approach to big European games.

  11. says

    The closer this gets, the more I think there is something special going on at OT at the moment.

    The 19th title, the youth cup win, G Neville testimonial, even the reserves winning the Senior Cup. We could pull off a famous win on Saturday.

    After watching the testimonial and how the players were used I would suspect that Fabio will get the nod at right back. Owen, Brown, O’Shea, Gibson and Scholes all played a large chunk of the game too which probably doesnt bode too well for them.

    Lindergaard looks a better bet for the bench than the PIG. I reckon Rafael, Smalling, Anderson, Nani, Fletcher, Berbatov the other subs.

  12. says

    An irresistible force meeting an almost immovable object. Chelsea or Real Madrid would just park the bus and hope. bleah. Ferguson will come up with a high intensity midfield game, Two Lung Park will start, and Rooney will probably do some high and aggressive defending.

    Ryan Giggs head not being in the game, and those distractions, will severely hurt Man U. I thought Barcelona were crazy to get rid of E’to, but his style wasn’t really theirs, and Villa is perfect for them. Basically, they are the Spain team, swopping out Torres, for Messi.

    I would say Ferguson and Man U have the best chance of anyone to stop Barca, but they still won’t.

    2-0 Barca

  13. bman says

    Blog Commenter said:
    4-4-1-1 with Rooney and Hernandez has been successful against Chelsea, but not necessarily in other fixtures. It certainly wasn’t terribly effective at Blackburn, and it allowed Arsenal to waltz through our midfield at the Emirates. We played a similar formation with Berba instead of Chico at Anfield and we were comprehensively beaten. I certainly think it’s a great option for us to have, but I don’t think we can use it against every team, and I think it worked best against Chelsea because of their aging midfield and inability to keep the ball.

    Also with Rooney and Chico upfront, I don’t see Rooney tracking back enough to fill the holes in midfield, (and nor should he). The thought of giving a man advantage to Iniesta, Busquets and Xavi is frankly startling, and I think we’d be asking an awful lot of Giggs and Carrick to track them, as well as get forward and create attacking opportunities.

    I think the best chance we have is 4-5-1: VDS, Fabio, Rio, Vida, Evra, Park, Giggs, Carrick, Fletcher, Valencia, Rooney

    No, the more I think about it the more it seems to me that we can’t go 4-5-1. Barca’s central midfielders collectively are much better than ours, so if we get into a contest for central midfield bodies we’re just going to lose. Why play Barca’s game by turning the match into a contest about the one area of the pitch where we are unquestionably inferior?

    So instead we play Hernandez. First of all, he scores goals, which is a useful attribute. But he will also push their central defenders back, which makes it harder for them to press and also diminishes the strength of their central midfield. You see one of the reasons why their midfield is so good is because they usually actually have a midfield four, because Busquets, Xavi & Iniesta will be joined by one of their centre backs moving up (usually Pique) or by Messi moving back. So us having a fast forward like Hernandez, with his unpredictable movement, will deter Pique, Puyol, Mascherano or whoever they have back there from roaming forward.

    That leaves the Messi problem, which is obviously the main key to the whole game. What do you do about Messi falling back into midfield — do you let one of your centre-backs wander up there after him? He’ll definitely be targeting Vida with this, it’s the most obvious danger for us.

    So it seems to me the key is to turn this into an asset by coming up with a back four that’s comfortable with someone wandering into midfield. For this reason I think Fergie might play Smalling in right back, and when you think about it he’s been trying him out there a few times recently. As a quality ball-player, Smalling himself would be useful moving forwards a bit and helping out in midfield. More importantly, if Rio or Vida have to follow Messi up the pitch a bit, Smalling can shuffle across and form a new quality central-defensive partnership. That means whoever’s followed Messi up the pitch can actually stay there and help out, and suddenly we’ve turned a liability into an advantage. If we regain possession, whay-hay, game on! Now we’ve got a very nice counter-attacking position.

    So definitely Valencia on the right, if there was any doubt, because he has the pace and defensive qualities to get back into the righ-back position if the right back has shuffled over into central-midfield. And for the same reason, definitely not Nani on the left — it would likely be Park, but I actually wouldn’t rule out Fabio.

    So basically I’m convinced our line-up will be either:

    — VDS
    Smalling — Rio — Vida — Evra
    Valencia — Giggs — Carrick — Fabio
    ————Roo
    ————Hernandez

    or,

    — VDS
    Fabio — Rio — Vida — Evra
    Valencia — Giggs — Carrick — Park
    ————-Roo
    ————-Hernandez

    The latter could still work with this system because Barca aren’t that tall, so in theory one of the twins could shuffle over and do a decent job in central defense. Definitely the right back has to be clever and disciplined, so if it’s one of the twins, I’d say it will have to be Fabio…

  14. sheesh says

    Bill said:
    The closer this gets, the more I think there is something special going on at OT at the moment.

    The 19th title, the youth cup win, G Neville testimonial, even the reserves winning the Senior Cup. We could pull off a famous win on Saturday.

    After watching the testimonial and how the players were used I would suspect that Fabio will get the nod at right back. Owen, Brown, O’Shea, Gibson and Scholes all played a large chunk of the game too which probably doesnt bode too well for them.

    Lindergaard looks a better bet for the bench than the PIG. I reckon Rafael, Smalling, Anderson, Nani, Fletcher, Berbatov the other subs.

    I’m getting more (cautiously) optimistic as we get closer to Saturday. If we play as well as we did against Chelsea in the Champions League, we have every chance.

    Fergie has been very shrewd in terms of giving players a bit of match time tonight and in the game against Blackpool – just to keep them sharp.

    I just hope the fact that we haven’t been all that fantastic for much of the season will mean that, subconsciously, Barcelona underestimate us. They may talk about respecting us, whilst privately spend too much time licking their own balls from winning La Liga so easily and having beaten us so comfortably 2 years ago.

  15. says

    Glad that you agree. I’m convinced SAF will spring a surprise. Just have the feeling that Chris Smalling could be our secret weapon, in defence, in breakaways & for set pieces. The lad has terrific talent.

  16. Jesus says

    If you guys watched Madrid v Barca
    Pepe was key to nullify Messi. Perhaps Fletcher can play that role, I don’t see Carrick running around pressuring Barca’s midfield.

  17. Griffin says

    As Rio would say – Stay on your feet. Thats the key. Because Barca will have no qualms about diving around like idiots to get an advantage.

    God I hope we stuff them.

  18. Dinkinflicker says

    Watching us against Blackpool at the weekend i noticed that every time the ball was played from their centre halves into midfield we were very quick to close down whoever received the ball in packs of 2 or 3, first half in particular. Most games at OT this season we seem to have been happier standing off slightly and hitting teams on the break. I couldn’t help notice the change in approach, especially seeing as it was a dead rubber from our point of view.

    Not exactly suprising, but I would imagine it was a prelude to our approach on saturday, i.e. get straight into Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and try to stop them getting any rhythm to their play.

    Coming next week – new evidence suggests bears do indeed shit in the woods.

  19. says

    — VDS
    Fabio — Rio — Vida — Evra
    Valencia — Giggs — Carrick — Park
    ————-Roo
    ————-Hernandez

    I’m pretty much convinced this will be the team. Its well balanced and 10 of the side got us through Chelsea and Schalke. As far as the game goes if we get done by some Messi magic then its fair enough. If he has an off day then we could be picking up the trophy. We can’t worry too much about their game, just play to our absolute best. If we’d play them 10 times, they would probably win 6, so we are outsiders but not remote ones. UNITED!

  20. says

    I think we will play with Rooney alone uptop. We have to match up with them in that midfield at least in terms of numbers. We fans have to ignore the Chelsea and Schalke matches. Those two teams do NOT play in anyway like Barca. If we ask Rooney to drop in and fit into the midfield then we are going to expose Giggs’ age to a worldwide audience again. I would rather we had Fletcher and Carrick deeper and Giggs closer to Rooney.
    I will still have Valencia at RB with Nani in front of him while Park and Evra will have to contend with Alves and Pedro. We must NOT allow the space inbetween the corridors for Messi to exploit so like I keep saying our defenders have to be brave. I am sure we will hunt in packs. It is not an impossible task to beat this Barcelona side. It really is not.

  21. says

    At the end of the day if we go 4-5-1 then we are putting little pressure on their weakness, which is their defence.

    The United way has never been about worrying about the opposition, we need to play our game to the optimum.

    We haven’t played 4-5-1 for while now so it all points to 4-4-1-1 with an on form Rooney being our key man.

    Going to be interesting to see what he goes for.

  22. says

    Playing Valencia at RB is far too high risk; Villa could have him on toast. He might be “Three Lung” Park but if he & Evra control Alves & Pedro & attack Barca on their right we can’t ask for more. Our biggest problem is that we do not have a proper defensive midfielder. Carrick is an accident waiting to happen; Giggs & Anderson lack the discpline. Only SAF knows how fit & sharp Fletch is; he could start. What is absolutely certain is that SAF will play it on the front foot & try to hurt Barca. Chelsea might be no Barca but they are a high quality team. Playing at a high tempo we slaughtered them. The Arsenal match has no relevance; we were tired & stale.

  23. Violent Banana says

    Interesting response Bman, and I take your point about not going toe-to-toe with Barca in midfield – but its more to do with trying to stop Messi & co. finding enough space to work their magic.

    I also dispute the argument that by playing two centre forwards we will therefore be causing Barcelona more problems. First because we’ve got to get the ball back off them to even try to create something – a tough ask against a side so good on and off the ball with an extra man in midfield, and secondly the advantage of 4-5-1 is you can have runners from midfield supporting the striker which are hard to pick up. Isn’t that why we’ve done so well against Arsenal in recent matches?

    Taking the most recent game against Arsenal, the game in which we lost 1-0, we played 2 strikers (Roo and Chico) but I thought offered a significantly smaller threat than we usually do. We tended to play long balls out of defence – I think in part because our defenders knew that there was an extra man up top to aim for, and also because our midfielders were outnumbered and harder to pick out. I seem to recall a similar problem in our last game against Barca – too often we tried the long ball in fear that if we lost it, we would be swamped in midfield.

    Indeed didn’t we play a 4-5-1 system against Barca in 2008 – and it worked out pretty well for us? We didn’t concede a goal in 180 minutes. Chelsea in 09 packed the midfeld, and when they won the ball broke quickly and caused them all sorts of problems.

    I think our Rooney and Hernandez system works well against many teams, but not against a team who are so good at keeping the ball and winning it back.

  24. says

    Would be a big shout to put Smalling into a CL final in a position he’s not played all season! I would suspect Fabio as he has more discpline than Rafael and more pace/skill than O’Shea.

  25. says

    I agree Bill, but I think that Smalling is a tremendous talent, has enormous physical presence & pace & has never been phased. I just can’t see Villa getting anything out of him, (apart from his pace going forward) but I can see Villa skinning both the twins & definitely O’Shea at a crucial time in the match.

    • MrKirie says

      As much as I love the twins, I agree with you. I think Smalling could do well in the right back position. Also offers height for set pieces. Someone mentioned Fabio on the LW earlier and I’m not opposed to that either. Him and Evra on the left would be fun to watch.

      Whatever the team and formation, we have to attack Barca. In my opinion if we go for the win and try to play our game, then we’ve done what we can do. Trying to defend and catch them on the break is just too dangerous. They play a high line and I cant help but think that Chicha up top with Rooney a bit behind would be the recepie. If Fletcher is fit, he has to play.

      VDS
      Smalling – Rio – Vidic – Evra
      Valencia – Fletcher – Carrick – Fabio
      Rooney
      Chicharito

  26. says

    Might be something to try at some stage. He is definitely our 4th best defender at the moment after Vidic Ferdinand and Evra.

  27. Sidsidney says

    Why hasn’t Fergie been talking shit about Barca being cheating cunts this week

    He should be pressuring the ref FFS otherwise there is no hope

  28. says

    I watched the prematch training session. Fletcher doesn’t look fit and he was training with Bebe, Gibson and Obertan for one section of the session. Could be a sign and to be honest he just isn’t fit enough to play. Anderson and Scholes to be the two centre mids on the bench. Rafael, Smalling, Nani and Berba to take the other sub outfield slots.

  29. says

    Can’t see Fergie doing that. Joint top scorer in the premier league and doesn’t even make the bench. Berba would definitely leave then.

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