That was a game worthy of a final. I was worried it might turn into a tight encounter with both teams adopting a very cautious approach, Barca with the ball and United without it, but thankfully that didn’t come to pass.
Ferguson’s tactics were, in my opinion, the reason this tie was such an open encounter and also for it to be a completely one-sided final. United had moments when they pressed Barca but that was really nothing more than some pesky disruptions to the otherwise predictable pattern of the game. The English side also got a goal but it seemed more down to basic mistakes in defending, especially by Busquets. United rarely threatened the Barcelona goal otherwise, those counting Arsenal’s shot on target might want to note that considering this wasn’t even at the Camp Nou.
I was really surprised to see Hernandez in the starting line-up. The Mexican has been an excellent goal-scorer for United in his opening season but he is also a very limited player who doesn’t often makes a meaningful contribution outside the box or in possession. Chicarito is a finisher, and a very good one, but in such a game did the United manager really expect him to get a chance? That too with Giggs, Carrick, and Rooney playing in midfield?
Frankly, I never expected Ferguson to go against the single biggest strength his team has – organization and hard work. Not that they completely abandoned it, for large parts of this game United did put up a good defensive performance – I’ll talk about it later in the post – but the team selection and approach meant that there were always going to be moments when they struggled. The second half should have been one where the English side grew in strength but it proved to be one where they fell apart.
Normally, Manchester United defend in numbers and against Arsenal they’ve often played with three defensive midfielders and Park. In this game they had Rooney and Giggs in the middle. That meant more work for Park and Valencia on the flanks but it also meant that the cover in front of the back four was going to break on a regular basis.
The first goal was the result of exactly that. Xavi got in behind the midfielders and that meant the defenders had to worry about the man on the ball and the attacking players. If we notice the way Vidic moves – initially he gets sucked towards the centre because he has to provide cover for Ferdinand and then he tries to run back across to close Pedro down – we can see that even the best defenders struggle when they have to deal with two attacking players. This is a problem Arsenal defenders face on a regular basis. Manchester United normally have enough midfield players to help the defenders in that area just outside the penalty box.
For the second goal too Messi was able to get in between the lines and the midfielder, I think it was Park, stopped chasing him. Again, it’s a problem we see repeated quite often by the Arsenal midfield. Some might expect the central defenders to step up and close him down but if you watch the whole game closely, Vidic and Ferdinand rarely stepped up when a player was running at them with the ball. They maintained their shape and kept an eye for runs into the box. This allowed them to make a number of excellent tackles inside the box. At United the job of closing the runners is down to the midfield. This is an aspect that Arsenal have to incorporate in their game with better efficiency.
Another aspect that the Gunners can learn is that playing offside just outside your own box is a very risky proposition. The most recent example in my memory is the second goal Bent scored at the Emirates when Sagna tried to step up at the last moment. In this game we saw the United defenders tracking the runs and staying goal-side of the attacker. It wasn’t enough but it did prevent Van der Saar from being exposed in one-v-one situations.
Playing off-side is not a poor strategy as Stewart Robson would have us believe. Barcelona showed what an excellent weapon it can be for an attacking team.
This game showed us that a team can have defenders like Vidic and Ferdinand with a goalkeeper like Van der Saar behind them but, if the midfield doesn’t do its job as required, even top quality players can’t prevent the opposition from scoring. As usual, this isn’t a black and white issue. The fault doesn’t lie solely with the midfield or with the defenders. There are eleven players on the pitch and each has a role to play. A mistake by one can lead to a chain of events that ends up in a goal. On other occasions someone else covers for that mistake and it goes unnoticed. The odds of conceding a goal are directly proportional to the number of mistakes a team makes because the defenders will falter at some point if they’re overworked.
Ferguson’s side didn’t have a strong defensive midfield in this game and that meant the defenders had a lot more work. Eventually, they had to crack.
As I wrote this piece I realized it is not often that one can say Ferguson got his tactics wrong. This should not be interpreted as a claim that I know better but it does tell us how difficult the job is and how simple it can appear to be with the benefit of hindsight. I am pretty sure if someone scans through the United fan forums, there will be questions about the presence of Anderson, Gibson, et al in the squad. Some fans will be making statements like, “Buying a good defensive midfielder would have won us the game” and so on. I understand that’s how some fans are. There are also those who can take some distance and look at the bigger picture with all its complexities and nuances. That even makes us appreciate the mistakes because we can see why they were made and just how fine the line between the right decisions and the wrong ones can be.
On the whole, despite my feelings, I must congratulate both the teams. There were a lot of quality moments in the game, offensively and defensively. I will try to cover some of those using the snapshot analysis.