Manchester United can exploit Barcelona’s defensive weaknesses
It’s not often Manchester United go into a game, any game, as underdogs. But that evening in Rome still lives long in memory (Patrice Evra: “It hurt so much when we lost. We did the team pictures the following season. We had three trophies. But we were missing the one with the big ears.”) and the pain still remains. But United are adamant that they’ve learnt their lessons and that, on Saturday, there will be no such naivety on show this time around. Of course, words are just words.
However, the general perception is that this will be a more competitive final. Indeed, it will be – or at least, it should be. Despite inexplicably improving even more so since Rome 2009, the formidable Barcelona can be beaten and even without the aid of this. “Basically, Barcelona do not like being attacked or pressured,” says Rafael da Silva. “We need to make them feel uncomfortable.” They have weaknesses, and United must exploit them.
Of course, that’s easier said than done because Pep Guardiola has worked incessantly in his three years in charge to make Barcelona the ultimate footballing machine, perfect in every way and devoid of any weaknesses.
The Guardian journalist Paul Hayward suggested earlier this month that Gerard Piqué is Barcelona’s weak link (also noting how pressing Barca high up the pitch can stifle them): “According to Guillem Balague, the respected Spanish commentator, coaches in his homeland reckon the way to inconvenience Barcelona is to attack their “first line”, which means their centre-backs (principally Gerard Piqué), who start most of their forward moves.” However, Guardiola has anticipated this, even though those sides who have used the tactic have troubled Barcelona. He looks to spread the centre-backs wide across the pitch in the hope of evading the press as this means the opponents will have to cover more ground to try to get the ball off them. Yet by doing so, it comes at a risk because it leaves more space in the middle to exploit and if United get the ball back there, Barca will be in real trouble. Sergio Busquets is usually the man who drops in to make a three and allows them to spread with assurance but press him – that is, if you can – and Barca lose the man who starts off most of their moves.
<Figure 1> Barcelona opt to spread their centre-backs wide when in possession as they anticipate Manchester United, like many other teams who have they faced before them, press high up the pitch. By spreading the defenders it is hoped that closing them down will be more difficult as there is more space to cover. However, it comes at a risk because it leaves a massive gap if United can win the ball back in this area. Sergio Busquets will particularly be targeted as he is the man who plays the ball out so the duel between him and Rooney will be fascinating. (Image generated by The Arsenal Column).
(Another example of Barcelona’s tactic is displayed by Porto who use a similar strategy of spreading their centre-backs wide. Here, Fernando, the defensive midfielder, drops back to receive possession but is dispossessed, resulting in a great chance for Braga. Barcelona, though, are a different kettle of fish in possession.)
Barcelona’s key selection will be that of Eric Abidal at left-back or Carlos Puyol. Manchester United might hope the latter as Puyol will not be very comfortable at full-back getting forward and particularly using his left foot. United must not allow him the easy pass inside and can profit if they cut off the angles off his right boot. Pressing full-backs is an underused strategy as they are cramped for space to the side, even more so as Puyol is not on his “natural” side. Park Ji-Sung did this well against Branislav Ivanovic, forcing him centrally thus making play narrow. They will need him or Antonio Valencia to do the same again at Wembley regardless of who starts.
One player who needs no invitation to get forward is Dani Alves although he has hinted he may be more conservative in the final. Alves’ role is often understated simply because he is a full-back but he gets forward as much as a winger would and is key to helping Barcelona stretch the play. In a way, he sets the dynamics of the team’s movement forward, pinning opponents back. If he doesn’t play, Barcelona are less fluid as he is often their out-ball. Sir Alex Ferguson may want to exploit any space he leaves but is Park the correct man to do that? Valencia could be thought of doing likewise on the other side but if it’s Puyol he’s up against, he’s unlikely to get forward as much. Nevertheless, the left flank seems the most vulnerable side to exploit as David Villa will not track back as frequently bringing the energy of Fabio or Rafael into play.
In the season gone by, Manchester United finished with more headed goals than anybody else in the Premier League (they notched up 18 headed goals, three more than Newcastle in second) and although they have struggled to convert from set-pieces and corners in particular, their aerial threat is a key asset to their game and one that can ultimately see defeat for their opponents. Barcelona are not as bad as made out to be in the air, they are sometimes vulnerable.
“Ferguson is aware of the physical superiority of his team and knows that United’s best chances may be from mistakes and corners,” says Cesc Fabregas, who also recommends starting Fletcher in a 4-3-3. “This strategy is the key in the finals. A dead ball for [Nemanja] Vidic is dangerous. Rio Ferdinand does not go up all the time, but I think in the end he will when it matters. United are extremely combative.”
Barcelona come into Saturday’s game as overwhelming favourites – but they are beatable and United will know that. And, despite boasting some of the best defensive players in the world, their backline is an area that they have to, and can, breach. When it does happen, you’ve got to take your chances; you never know if you’ll get another one.