It has been nearly a week since Sir Alex Ferguson’s team lost comprehensively to a Barcelona side hailed as ‘the best of a generation’. Although credit is due to Pep Guardiola’s truly magnificent Barça side, which illustrates just why total football is no longer a utopian concept, it can also be said that United rarely engaged the Catalan giants in battle at Wembley.
For all the confidence shown pre-match, United failed to deliver a performance in the season’s biggest match. Perhaps part of the problem was Ferguson’s selection? After all, the starting 11 – one that many supporters called for prior to kick-off – failed to disclose Ferguson’s true intentions; whether to match Barcelona tactically and defend, or change the system and go for broke.
Evidently United did neither of those. The selection of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, flanked by Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia, suggests United wanted to take the game to Barcelona. Yet, as the statistics demonstrate, Ferguson’s side did little of this, with just one shot on target in 90 minutes.
Defensively United’s midfield did little to deter Barcelona’s attacking impetus, with Giggs struggling to break up the famous ‘carousel’ of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta, largely due to the physical constraints of the role. Meanwhile, Valencia and Park failed to offer United an outlet on the wings and were unable to turn the tide of possession in United’s favour.
Despite this Ferguson’s team sheet is certainly defendable given the set of results against Chelsea and Shalke towards the end of the season, using Carrick and Giggs in the centre of midfield.
The Scot had only a few options at kick-off. However, after 45 minutes United was clearly struggling to negate Barcelona threat and change was needed.
Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s strike, giving the side a lifeline on 35 minutes, may have adversely suggested convinced the Scot that no substitutions were needed when it was abundantly clear to most Giggs and Carrick would never force Barcelona into submission. If Ferguson had both Darren Fletcher and Anderson on the bench why did he forget to deploy either of them when needed?
The decision not to call on either Fletcher or Anderson may have led to Barca’s goals. Disappointingly, each of Barcelona’s three strikes derived from lackluster defending. With the aforementioned pair Barcelona would surely not have been gifted so much time in front of goal.
Lionel Messi’s goal on 54 minutes is a perfect example of this point. United’s defence failed to close the Argentinean down leaving Edwin Van der Saar exposed and Messi with a choice of firing into either corner. With no defensive cover in midfield Messi had even more time and space.
Aside from United’s defensive display, the Reds rarely managed to spring into attack with Javier Hernandez cutting an isolated figure and at times seemingly out of his depth.
Here Ferguson could also have done something different too. Certainly a player of Nani’s abilities would have added more had he been introduced earlier in the game. Perhaps even United’s leading goal scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, would have been useful from the bench? It seems futile to even attempt to understand the Bulgarian’s snub in place of a man who has scored just five goals this season.
Many pundits claim that no side would have beaten Barcelona that night. That may be true but the manner of defeat inflicted upon Ferguson’s side was embarrassing. More to the point, those who witnessed Barcelona’s encounters with Shaktar Donetsk, although high scoring, will have observed far more evenly contested affairs with the Ukrainians.
There were also alternative approaches to United’s. Real Madrid infamously tried a more defensive tactic in one of five encounters this season. Despite mixed results, Jose Mourinho’s side certainly gave Barcelona far more of a game than United did.
Ferguson’s side seldom forced Barca’s newly formed defence back. Neither did the they pressurise Iniesta and Xavi. The evidence: how many times did Barcelona’s players feel the need to writhe around on the ground in agony? Certainly, it was merely a fraction of what Barça exposed the world to in the matches against Real Madrid.
In fact the only injustice of the occasion was the presence of Sergio Busquets on the pitch. Despite being clearly and conclusively depicted as racially abusing Real Madrid’s Marcelo in the semi-final UEFA deemed it fitting to dismiss the claims. Maybe Jose Mourinho wasn’t so mad after all.
Not that United can complain. Ferguson’s side got exactly what was coming.