Tactial Preview Champions League Final: Barça vs. Manchester United [Updated for Language Edits]

For much of the season Manchester United has played as two distinct teams that operate along two different tactical systems.  As the season progressed United became a stronger team and doing so in part by evolving into a third mode of play, one that drew from both of those two base tactical systems.

On top of this, United played a very different system last season which could be reimplemented in the Champions League finals.  Given this potential range of formations and modes of play United could implement, the major open question headed into the the final is as general a question as can be posed before a match – what system is United going to play?

One of the most interesting aspects of the coming Champions League final is the contrast between the two teams and their managers.

Alex Ferguson is the quintessential fiddler  – his approach involves prioritizing flexibility, having a range of tactical choices, and making constant adjustments to take advantage of the opponents weaknesses.  Pep Guardiola’s philosophy is to impose his system of play on the opposition, to dictate the terms of the engagement.  He has implemented a template which allows for variation in play (requires it even), but whose overall intent is to force the other side to change how it can maneuver in response to Barça’s initiatives.

To better understand how United may try to play against Barça, let’s take a look at the different systems Ferguson’s side have employed this year.

Manchester United’s Initial Formation:  4-4-2 with a Target Man

United opened the season favoring a 4-4-2 system incorporating a target man striker up top in Dimitar Berbatov.  After a poor season in 09/10 Berbatov opened this campaign in tremendous form, scoring goals at a blistering pace.  For much of the first part of the season Berbatov was at the very top of the goal scoring race in the EPL.

 

United 4-4-2 vs Rangers CL Group Round: Rooney Playing High Up the Pitch to Support Berbatov
United 4-4-2 vs Rangers CL Group Round: Rooney Playing High Up the Pitch to Support Berbatov in the Target Role Wingers Pinched in Centrally to Make Up for Numerical Disadvantage in Midfield

 

White Berbatov was playing very well (and doing so at a time when Rooney was off form and Chicharito was still adjusting), United’s 4-4-2 target man formation had two distinct limitations.

First, as with any 4-4-2, it left Manchester United with numerical disadvantage in midfield – 2 vs. 3 – when facing a 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 formation.  For certain opponents this numerical disadvantage put United at significant threat for being over run in midfield.

The second limitation relates to Berbatov himself, or more precisely to the role of a target man in a 4-4-2 formation.  A target man type striker in a 4-4-2 requires the second striker to play close to him to form a partnership (see Rooney’s position in the diagram above).  There is no point in holding up play or knocking down balls if there is no one to link up with or to collect the ball.

As such, to make best use of a target man in Berbatov up top, Rooney is  required to play higher up the pitch.  But needing to stay in proximity to Berbatov diminishes key aspects to Rooney’s game – namely his work rate and movement (this was also a problem Rooney faced in the World Cup when teamed with Heskey).  Rooney has a strong motor and looks to drop back both to support possession and to help in defense.  But if, for example, Rooney drops to defend and United try to play a fast counter to Berbatov there will be no one for him to hold the ball up for.  Now this is not to say that Berbatov is himself a stereotypical target man (his game is more varied than that).  However, Berbatov greatest strengths are not his movement or pace and his game does take on important dimensions of the target man game.

Manchester United:  Second Formation  4-2-3-1

While United was able to play a 4-4-2 for most of its EPL and domestic cup competitions this season, for a number of matches Ferguson deemed the formation as problematic and switched to a 4-2-3-1  to maintain numerical equivalence, 3 vs. 3, against certain sides playing 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.  For most of the early Champions League matches the 4-2-3-1 formation was the one he elected to use to prevent his side from losing control of midfield.  Over his career, this has been one of the major areas of tactical “tinkering” Ferguson has engaged in – using a 3 man midfield in European competition.

Once a strong adherent to the 4-4-2, Ferguson, widened his tactical range by utilizing three man midfields when needed against teams that were either using three man midfields themselves or were strong at dominating possession (this is part of why Ferguson did not win in Europe until relatively late in his career).  Ferguson liberalizing his tactical approach to include 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 has been a key factor in United’s increased efficacy in European competitions over the years because it has allowed United to better control in possession.  And last season a 4-3-3 with Wayne Rooney as the lone striker was a primary formation used by United.

United’s CL match against Marseille earlier this season is a good example of how they could change how they play as a team by utilizing a 4-2-3-1 to create numerical equivalence in midfield:

 

Manchester Untied in a 4-2-3-1 vs. Marseille First Leg Round of 16 - Rooney Split Wide Left with 3 Midfielder to Create Numerical Equivalence in Center. An Attacking Winger is Removed From the PItch Compared to the 4-4-2

 

While the advantages of the 4-2-3-1 are clear there were significant reasons for why United did not utilize it as their base system this year.

First, unlike last season Berbatov was in much better form and Ferguson clearly wanted to get both he and Rooney on the pitch at the same time and in the area of the pitch where they are most accustomed to playing (this theme will form a central tension for Ferguson headed into the CL finals – more on this later).  To play both Berbatov (or Hernandez) and Rooney in the 4-2-3-1 required Rooney to play wide left.

Second, Rooney was injured, off form and going through off field controversy for much of the first part of the season.  As such he was not necessarily able to support United the way he did last season when he was so effective as a lone striker.

Third, United’s depth and age in midfield are significant.  The central attacking midfielder is a pivotal player in the 4-2-3-1 and United’s options in that critical position are limited.

Fourth, Manchester United’s greatest team strength this season is it’s play on the flanks.  United have outstanding wingers.  The 4-4-2 more naturally places those flank players in wide positions.

Finally, while Ferguson implements the 4-2-3-1, the 4-4-2 still seems to be the system he is most comfortable utilizing when feasible.

The Evolution of Manchester United:  Rooney Redefines his Role and the Rise of Chicharito in the Dynamic 4-4-1-1

As the season progressed, Ferguson continued to experiment with his formations.  In the process he developed an extremely interesting tactical innovation – merging key advantages of United’s 4-4-2 with those of their 4-2-3-1 in order to better take advantage of the strengths of his current squad.  To do so required two major changes:  1)  Redefining Wayne Rooney’s position by having him utilize his natural abilities to play more like a false 9 from the second striker postion;  2)  Utilizing Javier Hernandez in place of Berbatov to gain more pace and off the ball movement at the most advanced attacking position.

 

Manchester United in a 4-4-1-1 vs Marseille in Leg 2 of the CL Round of 16: Rooney is a Second Striker But Deep Enough to Almost be Playing as a 10 to Provide An Extra Man in MIdfield. Compare to Formation United Used in the First Leg Against Marseille in the Prior Diagram

 

After the first leg against Marseille in the Champions League, Ferguson revamped his approach and developed the 4-4-1-1 pictured above.  What’s critical is Rooney’s positioning.  He is playing in a hybrid role.  His average position is nearly equivalent to a traditional 10 but the average position can be a bit misleading as Rooney spends considerable time both high up the pitch and dropping very deep.  How he’s playing is probably more precisely described as a false 9 from the second striker position.

A great deal of attention has been paid to Javier Hernandez’s goal scoring this season.  And he’s been wonderful given his youth and experience.  However, the key change in United’s play hasn’t been due to Hernandez and his goal scoring prowess.  For a significant portion of the season Berbatov was at the very top of the scoring table in the EPL.  He was arguably United’s best player for the first part of the season.  Even as Berbatov lost playing time during the second half of the season, he still tied for the EPL lead in goals by the end of the campaign.  So the exchange of Berbatov for Hernandez was not a direct switch based on individual goal scoring quality.  It was a change made for systems reasons.

In many ways switching Hernandez for Berbatov was a secondary consequence of a deeper tactical change – the redefinition of Wayne Rooney’s role in order to compensate for the area where United is weakest – midfield.

Last season Ferguson had Rooney play as a lone striker.  This season he asked Rooney to completely transform how he plays once again.  It speaks volumes about Rooney’s game that he was both willing and able to make this transition.  While much has been made of Rooney’s slow start and lack of goal scoring this season compared to last, in many ways by the end of the season Rooney was playing as brilliantly this season as he was last season.  But he was doing so in almost an entirely different way, one centered on passing from deeper positions to enhance the effectiveness of the lead striker and the two wingers.

Over this season Rooney’s role evolved into a role that echoed Lionel Messi’s.  Rooney played more and more as a false 9 – but unlike Messi, Rooney did so from the second striker position of a two man formation.  In some ways one could argue that Rooney was playing almost as a 10 or as a “false 10” of sorts.

The advantage of having Rooney play this innovative, hybrid role was that it allowed United to maintain a two striker formation while also minimizing the impact of playing against 4-3-3 formations and being outnumbered in midfield.  Rooney’s work rate, movement and willingness to defend allowed him to move into deeper positions in midfield to act almost as an auxiliary midfielder, particularly in defense.

The reason why this change made United an improved squad relates to the United’s relative weakness in midfield.  United are a very strong at striker, winger, center back and full back positions.  Their midfield however has real limitations with each player requiring significant trade offs to be made when played.  This season, United have had neither an ideal attacking mid nor an in form, multi-dimensional holding player to turn to on a regular basis.  Giggs and Scholes are both still highly effective but neither is in his prime nor has great pace or stamina.  Carrick is a specialist player who is very good at his job but is not particularly strong defensively.  Fletcher has been injured for much of the season and lacking form.  Anderson is another specialist player who is relatively good in defense but not particularly strong on the ball.

Playing a three man midfield through a 4-2-3-1 as such forces Ferguson to use three of these limited players and forces him to take off the pitch a much more talented winger or striker.  The 4-2-3-1 may allow United to gain numerical equivalence but it comes at a cost of taking talent off the pitch and utilizing more players from the weakest sector of the squad.

Rather than play three midfielders, Ferguson adapted a system where he could utilize Rooney as both a support striker and a support midfielder.  Rooney was able to handle this broad set of responsibilities due to the varied nature of his skill set and talent.  And against the vast majority of clubs this dual role not only functioned well but provided them with maximum advantage.

However, to play Rooney in this kind of false 9 second striker role Ferguson needed a more mobile, pacy lead striker than Berbatov.  If Rooney was going to drop deep and have significant freedom to utilize space and the ball across the pitch, the lead striker would need to himself excel at movement and have strong pace.  For example, without those qualities the sharp diagonal passes Rooney could execute from deeper positions would have a lower probability of paying off.  Without more dynamic pressure from the lead striker, very large gaps in space would open up on the pitch when Rooney moved deeper on the pitch.  Despite his goal scoring prowess, Berbatov was simply not this player.

And after drawing 0-0 with Marseille in the first match of the CL Round of 16 in which they utilized an ineffective 4-2-3-1 formation with Berbatov in the middle and Rooney on the left, Ferguson reconfigured Rooney’s role and inserted Hernandez into the line up, radically transforming the United system in the process.

The other associated tactical change Ferguson made to the system as they shifted to the 4-4-1-1 was to often have the left winger pinch in to further support the middle of the pitch (more on this later in the potential match up of Park vs. Alves).

How Barça Should Attack Manchester United
Shifting to that dynamic 4-4-1-1, United elevated their game and starting playing some of their best football of the season.  This formation quickly became Ferguson’s first choice system of play.  Even against teams that played 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 formations like Marseille and Chelsea, United were able to compete in midfield because Rooney dropping back turned a potential 2 vs. 3 disadvantage in midfield into a 3 vs. 3.

But this in turn raises a major tactical question Ferguson needs to answer going into the CL final.  His first choice system this season functionally requires Rooney to almost play two positions at once.  While this may work against the vast majority of teams will it work against Barça given the blaugrana’s rapid ball circulation and off the ball movement?  Or will playing Rooney in this hybrid role leave him between spaces while making United even more vulnerable to being outplayed in the middle because they will be at a 2 vs. 3 disadvantage in terms of formal midfielders?

To gain some insight into this question let’s take a look at the recent Arsenal’s recent 1-0 victory over vs. Manchester United as a model.

Arsenal vs. Manchester United at the Emirates:  Insight into How Barcelona Can Attack

The screen shot below illustrates the problem that United’s 4-4-1-1 can have against a 4-3-3 executed by a team that understands passing and ball possession.

 

United Trying to Defend Arsenal's Triangles with a Flat Line of Defenders

United is not only outnumbered in midfield but they are also in poor defensive shape to challenge what Arsenal is doing in attack.  Notice how Arsenal has not only formed one triangle in attack – but two.  United is attempting to defend those two triangles with a straight line of defenders.  In order for United to regain shape Rooney must not only exert tremendous work but position himself with great anticipation and precision.  If he doesn’t do all of those things United can be left exposed in midfield.  The next screen shot illustrates how Arsenal made Rooney’s job as a defensive false 9 very difficult through intelligent movement:

 

Song Dragging Rooney Out of Position While Ramsey Finds Space By Position Switching
Song Dragging Rooney Out of Position While Ramsey Finds Space By Position Switching

The screen shot above provides key insight into how the Champions League final may unfold if United utilize their 4-4-1-1.  Notice how deep Rooney is on the pitch.  He’s a striker who is defending deeper than either of his midfielders.  Rooney’s responsibility in this match was to mark Arsenal’s holding player Alex Song.

Second strikers are often tasked with marking the opposition’s holding player.  What’s interesting about the dynamics above however is that Rooney’s responsibility as a striker isn’t simply to mark Song higher up the pitch. His responsibility is to mark Song and track him across the pitch regardless of where he goes.  Rooney has to do this because Carrick and Anderson are already responsible for marking Ramsey and Wilshere.

If Rooney doesn’t track Song Arsenal will have a free attacker in midfield.  As such, functionally Rooney is acting as a midfielder now.  Rooney will likely play a similar role against Busquets in the CL finals.

But Song is making Rooney’s job as an unconventional false 9 defender very difficult through his intelligent forward run towards the flank.  Song’s goal here is to drag Rooney out of position.  In essence what has happened is that Song and Aaron Ramsey have interchanged positions.  And in doing so they have created confusion for United.   Rooney has done his job – he has tracked Arsenal’s holding player.  But then Ramsey drops deep as does Wilshere.  Carrick and Anderson cannot afford to chase the two Arsenal midfielders because they are trying to maintain defensive position.  If Anderson closes down Ramsey on the ball an enormous gap in space will open up.

Cesc Fabregas is often projected as Xavi’s heir apparent.  But Fabregas and Xavi don’t play the same tactically.  Fabregas plays in a much more advanced position.  Ramsey however in many ways makes a much better proxy for how Xavi tends to play because Ramsey also plays in a deeper position.  By staying deeper as the holding player drags Rooney forward, not only is Ramsey able to find time and space on the ball he forces United to open up space between their lines.  Notice the space that has opened up between the two midfielders and the backline despite Anderson and Carrick trying to not lose compactness.   We see the results in the next screen shot:

 

Van Persie As a False 9 Finds Space Between the Lines

Robin Van Persie in his role as a false 9 has dropped deep into the space between United lines that have cracked open.  Ramsey has no problem sending the ball to feet because Anderson was unwilling to move forward. In addition, Nasri has also moved into this open space by moving centrally off his original wide position.  Nasri is open and unmarked in this space.

The problem here is that even with Rooney dropping deep to create a 3 vs. 3 in midfield United do not have a true defensive holding player positioned between the lines in front of the back four.  Rooney job isn’t to maintain shape or play space – it is to track Song.  And Song has dragged Rooney into a position where he is irrelevant to the team defense.  Song is essentially acting as a decoy.  United’s second problem is their susceptibility to the false 9 dropping between the lines.  They don’t have a player in that space to mark that player.

If Rooney plays the same way, Busquets will be able to drag him out of position with simple runs where he changes positions with Xavi as well.  And  Messi in turn should be able to find space between the lines as Van Persie has. Both Villa and Pedro should be able to exploit that same space between the lines that Nasri has and allow them to link up play with Messi.  Finally, in this situation Carrick is left 1 vs. 1 with Wilshere.  Carrick is a good possession midfielder but he is not a strong defender.  And against Barça he will be left trying to mark Iniesta and do so without another midfielder behind him.  This is an enormous advantage for Barça.

This is a central tactical problem for United.  Rooney dropping deep may solve the issues of numerical advantage in midfield of a 4-4-1-1 vs. a 4-3-3.  However, solving the numerical problem does not solve the problem of position and open space.  And Rooney’s innovative role and work rate cannot provide a response to Messi’s false 9 role.  This is potentially disastrous for United because there is no team in the world that can exploit space between the lines like Barça can.  Vidic and Ferdinand while both strong defenders in the box and facing up attackers aren’t particularly mobile or pacy.  Neither turns very well.  They could be forced to step up to stop runs started between the United lines which not only exposes them to be being beat on through balls and acceleration but also exposes them to picking up cards.
The other area where United’s defense will have a tactical challenge is along the wing due to Dani Alves.  The screen shot below illustrates a few important issues Barça can exploit:

Rooney Trying to Mark Two Attackers with Park Trying to Support by Pinching In

Ramsey has once again dropped deep to receive the ball and build play.  Xavi is the best in the world at this.  Rooney is once again doing his job – he is marking Arsenal’s deep midfielder.  But United is faced with another problem here.  Song has  also maintained a deep position in the center circle – this is an area where Busquets regularly positions himself.  Neither Anderson nor Carrick want to come forward to defend him because if they do United will lose compactness and open up space between their lines.  As such Rooney is essentially responsible in his false 9 second striker role not only to defend vigorously, but to defend two men at once.

Here we can see that a support striker with a high work rate who is willing to track runs and defend deep may make up for numbers in defense but that does not mean that he can necessarily create a sound defensive shape.  Ultimately marking players does not mean you are controlling space.

The second thing to notice is Park and his positioning.  Moving to the 4-4-1-1, Ferguson had Park not only play as a defensive winger to mark the opposition right back, but to pinch inwards to assist in defending in the middle.  Here Park is trying to support Rooney in containing Ramsey who has significant space on the ball.  But there is only so much support Park can provide because he too is tasked with playing in two regions of the pitch.  If he pinches in too much – the RB will have acres of space to run into.  Against Dani Alves there is no way Park can pinch in to any significant degree.  Given this, Park will not be able to assist in defending the middle as he usually does.  Just by staying in a wide position, Alves will be hindering Park’s ability to contribute to United total team defense.

Finally, notice where Chicharito is positioned. He stays high up the pitch to try to position himself in a dangerous area to attack on a quick transition counter.  But this positioning comes at a real cost because Hernandez is not in a position where he can contribute defensively.  This is the very real cost of playing a two striker formation against a team that is strong in ball possession.  Even if the second striker drops deep to defend, the striker at the top will often be positioned in areas where he becomes a redundant defender.

Barça in Defense:  Guarding Against the Flanks

The area where Barça will encounter the most danger from United is along the flanks.  United has very strong wingers – Valencia is in outstanding form since returning from injury.  His pace, play on the ball and crossing make him very dangerous. Given that he lines up against the area where Barça is theoretically weakest given lack of players being match fit – left back – Valencia is likely to be United’s most dangerous player.  The danger along the right flank is further heightened by Fabio’s ability to attack from RB and Rooney’s ability to send strong diagonal balls through the channel between the CB and FB.

In a similar fashion, Barça will also need to be cognizant of Chicharito given his pace, intelligent runs and understanding of space.  Chicarito staying high up the pitch represents a critical trade off for United.  His positioning makes it difficult for him to defend in the areas where Rooney and United need support.  But it may also represent United’s best chance to score a goal.

Conclusion:
United have become a better, more dangerous team as the season has progressed. They are strong across the pitch but have vulnerabilities in midfield.  And it’s very difficult to beat Barcelona if you are exposed in that region of the pitch as space between the lines is something that you cannot leave open for Messi and Iniesta to exploit.  Villa and Pedro should stay in wide positions and make delayed runs to move diagonally for when the United back line loses shape as they are forced to close down the ball when it is in between the lines.

Ferguson has a real dilemma entering this match.  The tactical system that has produced his team’s finest level of play this season may be particularly vulnerable to breaking down against Barça’s own style.   Does he keep that system or switch to another system which he used prior but then discarded as the season progressed?  What does a manager who needs to tinker do?

¡Visca Barça!

90 comments

  1. One of the things people really forget about the 2009 final was that it was a major tactical innovation Guardiola introduced during the final that made a major impact on the outcome.

    We take it for granted now about Messi playing in the center. But it was much less given back then.

    Moving Messi to the center in that false 9 role caused United all sorts of confusion in their defensive scheme and tactics.

    It was a masterstroke. If any other manager had done something similar they would have been lauded to no end for that move given the impact it had on the match.

    Both goals scored in part due to the tactical confusion Guardiola caused United.

    Let’s see what Pep has set up for today’s final.

    1. Exactly. Back then, it was a surprise for Man U, having Messi playing the false 9 role. But 2 seasons on, I think SAF will must’ve done something. Will he deploy someone to track Messi everywhere? I think he can do that, but they don’t have someone like Pepe. Therefore I think it doesn’t matter.

      Btw, I thought about this for weeks already. I really think that Man U has an advantage in this. They’re basically playing in their back yard. It’s in their country, they will definitely have more support. Back in Rome it was on neutral ground.
      Add to the fact that we are piss poor when playing away, especially in ENgland, gives me an extra cause of concern.

  2. Good analyse! And you are totally right with the innovation of Messi in that game.

  3. Outstanding analysis from Euler. It is a coherent analysis of how Manchester United shifted from a goal scoring machine in Dimitar Berbatov to a new energy bunny in Javier Hernandez in mid season and did not miss a beat and in fact garnered a few more beats to become a Champions League contender.

    As to how Manchester United will play in the final to counter Barcelona’s outstanding possession play without giving up shape and retaining the 4-4-1-1 formation, I suppose it will give a far more dynamic role to Park. Or perhaps it will give up on the 4-4-1-1 and play a more traditional 4-5-1 itself a lot like Madrid with Darren Fletcher in the business and Rooney a lone striker supported by wingers Valencia and Park with Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick in the middle to suffocate the Barcelona midfield.

    Either ways, it promises to be a cracker of a tactical battle between an experienced fiddler in Alex Ferguson and a philosophical imposer in Pep Guardiola.

  4. I am pretty Sure that Ferguson won’t play the formation you described, Euler. He will probably leave Chicharito on the bench for another midfielder. Chicharito will probably be his super-sub. He sought advice from Mourinho! And both of them know that you can’t outplay Barca, you can only try to stop Barca.

  5. Thank you Euler, I enjoyed reading this amazingly detailed piece.

  6. Amazing analysis by Euler.
    I dont know your background Euler but you are great at this.

    However we are assuming that Fergie will play 4-4-1-1.
    Theres uncertainty here as you clearly indicated.

    Word going around is that we are a spent force in terms of energy come the 70th min mark.

    This would probably represent the best time for united to hurt us, that is if the game is still in the balance by then.

    Fergie comments about this being a beautiful game and it being the game of the decade is all lip service for me.

    The more cagey the game is the better for United.
    The longer the game remains scoreless the more confident United will be esp with the Rome final playing on their minds.

    The first 20min are crucial in this regard.

    Its a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 for United for me. Chigarito drops to the bench and fletcher starts. Adjustments to be made in the 2nd half.

    Barca 1 – 0 Man Utd.

  7. Thanks you very much for this Euler, very interesting as always
    I think i will agree with flyzowee on this, there is too much lip service from ferguson, i believe Man Utd will play ultra defensively and try to his us on the break, however i still think we will win this.

  8. Wow Euler! Just wow!

    I had wondered why they stopped using Berbatov.

    I really don’t care who Pep plays between Puyi, Abi and Masch. I imagine that Pep knows who is fit. But it would be kinda cool to see us end the year with our magical starting XI.

    If we play like we know we can, we’ve got this.

    Visca Barca!

  9. So, what do you guys think:

    #1 Alves – Pique – Puyol – Abidal

    OR

    #2 Alves – Mascherano – Pique – Puyol

    What will Guardiola roll out with?

  10. He will go for No.1 if available other than that adriano in for Abidal.
    Either way puyol and pique stay in the middle.

    1. It’s too early… We’ll have it around 19:45 (1 hour before the game).

  11. Great piece, Euler. Eklavya sent it to Zonal Marking and got it retweeted. He also said it was a nice piece.

    1. How come Euler is so good at this analytical stuff?
      Has he got some experience like i dunno maybe commentary or smth…lol
      Surely he aint a blaugrana mortal like us?

  12. Thank you everyone! I stayed up until 4am to finish this piece and glad I did!

    I know it’s extremely long – I think it’s the longest post I’ve done for the BFB. And I know it takes significant effort just to even read it. So I greatly appreciate people taking time out to go through it.

    @Eklavya – I don’t care how many people want to sell you during live blogs – you are gold in my book! Thanks so much for tweeting the article to zonal marking. It’s terrific to hear that he actually took the time to read the piece and then enjoyed it enough to retweet it.

    And thanks to everyone else who may have tweeted or linked to it. I’m not on twitter so it’s appreciated.

    1. No problem Euler, I was just doing some publicity 🙂

      It was also retweeted by Andy McGeady and willdurnan (don’t know but they are) and the latter said, “@Eklavya_FCB @Zonal_Marking Despite Dimitri/Dimitar mistake that one article contains more intelligent comment than you’ll hear on ITV today”.

      I didn’t find this article very long. Probably because it was very engaging!

    2. Oh boy. I can’t believe I actually wrote Dimitri rather than Dimitar. I only read his name around 1000 times looking at United formation. I was just getting so tired last night.

      I’ve updated the article to fix the mistake, some types and some language issues.

  13. I expect a Mourinho-like gameplan from Manchester.
    And I hope for a demolition of this gameplan…

  14. Dang it! why is this game on at 2:45am?!
    good thing I only teach one class tomorrow and I have another teacher carrying at least half the load.
    I can’t see Fergie using the 4-4-1-1 unless he has chicharito drop deeper to help out. I think we will see a more traditional DM/holding middy behind their midfield to help mark messi.

    alright. I’m gonna catch some ZZZZZZZZZZZZZs before I go out to watch the game. oh i hope my jersey is clean enough to wear.

    Don’t lose your brain too much and have fun

    visca Barca

  15. If Ferguson does elect to not use his favored 4-4-1-1 formation, Pep and Barca will have already won an enormous tactical victory before they even step onto the pitch.

    They will have forced the opposition to do what they don’t want. To play in a way they have themselves deemed to be sub-optimal.

    That is a major victory. It is imposing yourself on the opposition and making them react before the game even starts.

    That said – Ferguson my just have to concede that victory to Pep. I don’t think they can afford to get over run in midfield and a 4-2-3-1 gives them the best chance of avoiding this – even if it means sacrificing chicharito.

    If Fletcher is not available, I would strongly consider playing Park, Giggs and Carrick in midfield while using Valencia on the right and Nani on the left. That would allow United to maintain attacking threat on both flanks while incorporating Park and Rooney’s work rates in the middle of the pitch.

    The key thing there would be to really drill into Nani that he must play on the counter. His main job will be defensive – he has to track Dani and only get forward in the transition game.

    I think Nani would do this if instructed and drilled to do so for the past two weeks.

    1. A very interesting and engaging read, and I have learned quite a lot from your article, but I have a question for you. Do you think it is possible Sir Alex would play with a 3 man defense, or would that be tactical suicide. It would leave United vulnerable on the wings, but if the defense stays compact enough it would be able to hold off Villa and Pedro cutting in, while adding an extra player into the midfield and not significantly altering the offense. The 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1 formation might be able to challenge us with significant pressure and maybe nab a goal from a counterattack before halftime or so, when United would switch to a more defensive and compact formation. I do not understand much about tactics, but I am eager to learn as I was a bit of a chess player. Do you have any recommendations for learning more about tactics? Thanks for a great article!

    2. Flippy,

      You’ve hit on a very interesting point. In many ways playing three at the back is absolutely the right thing to do against this Barca squad with Messi as a false 9.

      Given how much time messi spends in midfield and between the lines having two center backs is redundant. It would be far better to have an extra man in midfield.

      For the most part Barca has 2 forwards matched up against the defense at any one time. So 3 at the back should work.

      But that would cause two difficulties. First, if you play three at the back you will have difficulty using your own full backs to provide width in attack. It becomes very risky.

      Second and most important – if you do play three at the back Messi will simply not drop deep as much. He’ll stay higher up the pitch and move more laterally from touch line to touch line.

      And that’s the real problem. With three at the back Messi would find opportunities to go 1 vs. 1 to run at the backs. At the same time Villa and Pedro would also be lined up 1 vs. 1.

      The problem with 3 at the back is that Barca can adjust to it and do so relatively easily.

      Regarding tactics – I’d recommend reading Jonathan Wilson’s remarkable book Inverting the Pyramid. It’s a classic. Perhaps the seminal book on tactics. Also, Wilson’s column’s in the guardian on tactics, “The Question…” is just terrific. Go back in the archives and just start reading all of them.

      Zonal Marking is just phenomenal as well. His team of the decade series is just great.

      A few other things I’d recommend are Rinus Michels book Team Building. In some ways I wish Michels had written a more systematic, thorough book given his genius. But Team Building is a more practical kind of book for coaches. It’s still a must read for any cule interested in tactics.

      Michels concept of “team efficient” is perhaps the single most important idea behind how barca plays.

      Some other books on tactics I really like – Soccer Attacking Schemes and Training Exercises by Eugenio Fascetti. Soccer the International Training Guide by Jerzy Wros is also very good.

      Finally – the best way to learn is to record matches and simply keep stopping them over and over and ask yourself why is what I’m seeing happening. That’s the best way to learn about tactics, IMO.

    3. Manchester already played other tactical structures in many occasions. The 4-4-1-1ish structure is the most used, but they are not as dedicated to it as we are for our tactical skeleton. So I dont think they will be conceding anything by changing the approach. What matters at the end of the day is the result, and they will do what they believe can get them closer to the victory.

      Man Utd is an opportunistic pragmatic team. Players are already “brainwashed” to make sure the job done. It doesn’t matter what tactics is needed and what players functionality required.

      Its really a close call. But I still feel its unlikely that the two teams will take predictable approach. This is a match of surprises. In the other hand, form in training sessions in the past two weeks dictate lot of facts on tactical decisions.

      Yet, no matter how the two coaches decide to plan the game, this game is in the hands of the players concentration and drive. Luck will be there to have a saying as well.

      Good job with the tactical opinion.

      I have a good feeling about the game.

  16. Great tactic read as always.
    ……………….
    2 hours 45min! Good luck to you all, visca el barça visca BFB visca all of you…. maybe the beer started its intended effect 😛

  17. The wait is killing me and I got bad feelings about this.

    I think playing at England is going to be of some benefit to Manchester, I can’t remember in recent times of us playing that well or even winning there.

    1. True, but 90sbaby mentioned winning in England. No matter how badly we played, we did get the result we needed. 🙂

    2. hehe true, but as Kxevin would say, that was an instance when “a draw [was] as good as a win”. 😉

  18. Fantastic piece as always, Euler. The best part about your articles is how everything makes so much sense. It makes you wonder why the so-called “experts” in the media can’t produce pieces with half as much insight as yours.

  19. Not liking the rumours about Puyol playing LB rather than Abidal. Mind you, nothing confirmed yet. Just to say I won’t be joining liveblog – way too tense- but with you all in spirit. Visca Barca !

  20. Oh man, I’m so nervocited, I’m creating words to express my nervousness and excitement! AHHHHHHH!

    Finals rarely live up to expectations, but that depends on what you’re expecting. I just want a win, with us dominating them, and Messi, Villa, Abidal, Busi, Afellay, Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Alves, Thiago, Puyol and Pique to score.

    I know right? Not that unreasonable at all.

    1. Yes, yes I did. And I see that goal so clearly too. Abidal robs the ball from Valencia and passes to Busi, who dishes the ball to Iniesta who dribbles past three defenders before giving a side-rule pass to Alves who forgets to chut de bol and loses it, but Messi is there to recover it and looks to pass to Villa, but he’s offside so Leo chuts de bol but it hits the post and Bojan is there to (somehow) bamboozle his defender and tap it home.

      It can’t fail.

      (I also have the strangest feeling Villa will come up huge today. Nothing to really back that up except it’s his first UCL final and he’d want to prove himself.)

  21. 1 – 1 draw and while we dominated we didn’t create any clear cut opportunities.

  22. barcastuff: Guardiola has prepared a video that includes both
    tactical and motivational pieces. The players will watch it now. #
    fcblive [cat radio]

  23. I won’t be at the LoveBlob either (will there be one?). Because I will be having 10 people at home, its gonna be crazy!!

    LETS DO THIS!!!!!!!!!

  24. vicsoc will be running the liveblog like a boss. He’ll be watching the game too, so don’t make his job harder!

    Imma go rock myself in a corner for the next hour and half.

  25. No Puyol acording to the catalan tv.
    Valdes, Alves, Masche, Pique, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa

    1. Really? I got this: Barcelona lineup: (official): Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa

    2. And I got this: Barcelona line-up (official): Valdes – Alves Mascherano Pique Abidal – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa

      Wth?

    3. Nope, yours in the right one. Mine was still unofficial it seems (that’s what I get for not looking at the source….)

  26. Our lineup looks to be the pre-injury lineup most were predicting. Man Utd’s looks like the 4-4-1-1 that Euler was talking about. Surprised, I expected Chicharito as an impact sub

  27. Man United lineup (official): Van Der Sar, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Chicharito

    Like barca_ctb, I thought Chicharito would be an impact sub.

  28. Confirmed, no Puyol. Abidal starts.

    Lets just go ahead and sign Botia and Sahko tomorrow.

  29. NO PUYOL! 😯

    Barcelona line-up (official via barcastuff): Valdes – Alves Mascherano Pique Abidal – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa

    1. sMasch has an unbelievable positional sense in terms of defending. He could be the best in in the world in that area. Let us see how it all pans out.

  30. Its ok, Puyi will roam the sidelines shouting at Gerard to keep him focussed :/

  31. Okay, okay, calm now everyone.

    Just think about this for a second and it makes some sense. There was talk of Puyol undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery next week (Sport, I know, but still)– that’s quite serious. Furthermore, Puyol hasn’t played back-to-back games and is lacking match fitness. Even if he started, he was bound to be subbed some time in the second half.

    On the other hand, Mascherano has done very well at CB, despite his inexperience. If things don’t go well, we still have Puyi on the bench to improve the back line….

    But I still wanted el Capita from the start. 🙁

  32. Whenever Puyol plays, we don’t lose. Now he’s not playing… And yesterday he said that he feels fit and ready. But Guardiola knows best.

  33. WTF??? Doesn’t Pep know that Puyol is our leader???
    Even though when he’s at 60% he would still be very useful.

    1. Yeah, for me he plays, even at 70%. I don’t agree that Masch has great positional sense although he has played quite well there for a non- CB. I’m more worried about the effect this will have on Pique. Puyol gives him confidence to play his best.

      Finally, we’d better pray they don’t get too many set pieces. This is one small side against english opposition.

  34. Mind control. Puyol must use his mindcontrol to control Geri from the bench. “You must keep foucs. Do not look for Shakira in the stands. Damnit Pique, Chicharito just past you! Execute the perfectly timed slide tackle I taught you RIGHT NOW! Slide tackle the foo’ pronto!”

  35. Good move Pep. We need a Rooney hunter between defense and midfield while keep having two players at the back. This is the best way to do it. Beside, Puyol had injury problems.

    1. Ramzi to the rescue! I was just talking outta my arse above….

      That’s right, sMasch is also a defensive midfielder and so he has an additional skill set that helps in marking Rooney. Not to mention he must have done that plenty of time with Liverpool.

      I feel good again.

  36. No Puyol?!

    In Pep I trust. In Pep I trust. In Pep I trust.

    Scary, but El Jefe has stepped up to the plate before. There’s no reason to doubt him or the team now. Visca Barça!

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