With the Champions League final approaching, Sir Alex Ferguson must find answers to several key tactical questions ahead of the game at Wembley next weekend – from Manchester United’s formation, to dealing with Barcelona’s plethora of attacking options. In the first of a week-long series of build up articles, Rant’s Jay Shon looks at the key tactical decisions facing United ahead of the final…
With United generally being more defensive in Europe than in domestic games – Ferguson’s side is yet to concede away from home in the Champions League – one might be tempted into thinking that United might go for a 4-3-3. Indeed, the Reds have used the formation featuring two ball winners and a deep-lying midfielder as the midfield trio in recent years.
However, with Darren Fletcher likely to miss the game after missing much of United’s run-in, Ferguson’s squad lacks a genuine ball winner in midfield to attempt the system. In addition, the second ball winner – Anderson or Darron Gibson – is known to squander possession. It is a sin that cannot be tolerated against Barcelona where possession comes at a premium.
In fact United is more likely to line up in a shape similar to the side’s that faced Chelsea and Shalke in previous rounds, although not in a 4-4-1-1 system. It is a formation that requires wide players to work alongside central midfielders, as opposed to playing as pure attacking midfielders. Such placement will allow Barcelona’s full-backs too much time and space. Indeed, one of the reasons United lost the recent Arsenal game is because Nani and Ji-Sung Park couldn’t get at the Arsenal full-backs. The mistake cannot be replicated against Barça whose full-backs are even more dangerous than Arsenal’s. To counter, United must deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, pushing both Valencia and Park further forward.
With Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs expected to play, ball winning is a concern for Ferguson. However, Park, Valencia and Wayne Rooney all do plenty enough running and tracking back to cover for lack of a dedicated ball winner in the central midfield. Ultimately, United’s formation will be key – the Reds lost the 2009 final against Barcelona thanks, frankly, to the baffling 4-4-2 shape. Ferguson must not repeat the same mistake.
Meanwhile, United must also counter key Barcelona threats. Lionel Messi is acknowledged to be the most dangerous man in football and stopping the Argentinean is essential to a United victory. In the previous meeting, Messi was a deployed as a “false 9,” a centre forward who drops deep, to great effect. United could not cope with his movement and Messi was left free for majority of the game. There are no excuses this time as Messi has been used solely in the role this season. Ferguson and his players should be well prepared.
Perhaps the most obvious solution, since Barça plays with a lone forward, is to have one of United’s centre-backs to push into midfielder to meet Messi. However, with David Villa playing on the shoulder of last defender, leaving a gap in defence might not be the best response. Should United choose to take this route, full-backs Patrice Evra and Fabio da Silva must either play extremely defensively to keep numbers at the back, or offensively, pinning back Barça’s wingers.
Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to play a high line and deny Messi the space to turn. United will be susceptible to quick balls over the top or exquisite through balls, both of which Barça are very capable of, but it’s a tactic that will work if United can maintain a decent amount of possession.
This Messi conundrum is caused because United’s midfield trio is matched by Barcelona’s inverted triangle, leaving no free man in either side’s midfield. It might just be that Michael Carrick, the more defensively aware of United’s central midfield duo, will have to drop deep every now and then to pick up the little Argentinian.
Another principal tactical threat to United comes in the shape of Dani Alves, who is widely considered to be the best attacking right full-back in the game. Given Sir Alex’s usual tactics over the years, Park will almost certainly be deployed to do a defensive job on the Brazilian. However, the gap that Alves leaves behind by him also presents an attacking opportunity for United. Barça play a very high line, which is compounded by the gap left in the Catalans’ right channel. It leaves Barça defense vulnerable to pace of Javier Hernández and Rooney. In fact, it might be worth a gamble by deploying Nani on the left to aggressively take advantage of this opportunity.