I feel privileged to have these players. We’ve asked them to work hard and I’d like to congratulate everyone who’s worked towards this. We played much better than in Rome [in 2009] – at the end of that final I said we’d played a good game, but when I looked at it again I wasn’t that impressed. That served its purpose because we played much better today and created more chances than two years ago.
The way we won is what I’m most proud of – this is how I want to play football.
-Josep Guardiola, May 28 2011
Rome is already in the past. But it’s hard not to think of that match right now. Two European Championships in three years. But that makes three in five years so it’s only natural for Paris 2006 to come to life again and start beating in the same chamber of the heart that’s racing so fast in chests of cules around the world after witnessing the joy of London 2011.
The Dream Team – is even further away. But there’s Guardiola yelling out instructions pointing furiously to where his players should be positioned while they are up 3-1 in the Champions League final with only a minute or so to play (it’s just one minute Pep!). There he is worried, gesticulating – thinking – to the very end of the competition just as he did when he was on the pitch as a player for those legendary Dream Team sides. And afterwards during the press conference when he’s being asked leading question about whether this Barça is greater than that Dream Team – there’s Pep reminding us of how Cruyff’s squad were the template – how without them and what they did there is no Barça 2010/11. There he is, the man who is tasked with carrying that oldest of burdens – keeping the flame – reminding us of how wondrous, how unlikely this beautiful FC Barcelona project has been for over one hundred years and how we should never take the joy it provides as a gift for granted.
But it’s not even that easy. Because when you are speaking of things like three league titles in a row, two European Championships in three years, the youngest manager to ever win two finals we aren’t just speaking about one club anymore. We aren’t even talking about club football alone anymore. We’re not speaking about one period in time anymore.
Barça had two opponents in the 2011 Champions League finals. Manchester United. And history. Saturday, they beat the first. And they formally took their place within the second.
The beautiful game. Why is it so? Why can football almost become a kind of art? One dimension central to it’s aesthetic is it’s past – how that past is woven into traditions that turn into styles of play on the pitch, that intermix and evolve to produce new ways of playing this simple game. We watch Messi score that goal against Madrid to see Barça through to the finals and it’s hard to not think of Maradona. Reference. It’s a word that comes up often in football. Everything that has come before adds to how we understand these moments now. It’s what turns isolated events and facts into the texture of living memory.
The reference. Sacchi’s Milan. Michels and Cruyff’s Ajax. Brazil 1970. Real Madrid of the 1950’s.
But let’s make it clear – until the final whistle blew to end this match all of these conversations and connections between Barcelona and those points of reference for greatness could not be solidly drawn. Winning six trophies in one season while playing beautiful football accelerated this team’s place in the world’s imagination. But Barça had not yet defined it’s place in history alongside the points of reference for the greatest sides in history. The pervasiveness of media culture and the disappearance of memory pushed those claims forward prematurely. Even taking every trophy possible for an entire season was not enough – it was only one year. World Cup sides can achieve lasting greatness through one campaign due to the Cup being played only every four years. But for club sides more is required.
Barça’s wonderful season in 2009/2010 furthered their claims with another league title and a record point total. Nonetheless still more was required.
To fully take their place with the wondrous sides Barça was being compared to required success at the highest level – this season. This season was vital. Winning next season would have created too large a gap from the 2008/2009 team. It would have been difficult to view this team as a coherent whole. To build a solid foundation that would last in the annals of the game it was this season that success had to be achieved – and done so at the highest levels.
Before the Club World Cup finals in 2009, Guardiola famously said, “Gentlemen, if you lose today you will continue to be the best in the world – but if you win today you will be eternal.” Pep was right – winning that sixth consecutive trophy put that team at a level that no other club had ever achieved, a record that by sheer mathematics could not be surpassed. But there is a difference from making a moment eternal and making a project eternal. And even six perfect trophies could not make Guardiola’s Barça as a project ever lasting in the game. If there wasn’t additional success – both in La Liga and in Europe – this team could not truly be compared to the greatest sides the sport has known. AC Milan, Ajax and Real Madrid had all achieved not only brilliance – but sustained brilliance.
The hard part of beauty is making it last. You know before hand that probability is weighted against you. That brilliance, as rare as it is, is even more infrequently sustained. But lasting beauty at the highest levels is the true reference for greatness in football.
When Eric Abidal lifted the Champions League Cup for Barça beauty does what is so infrequently gets to. Become part of something larger, something that will last. It becomes part of history. Yes Pep. Your men – and yourself- are now truly eternal. And you achieved that grandeur because you insisted on playing the way you believed – the way you were taught – football needed to be played. And you should be so proud of that. You should. Because I know that we cules are so proud of you and your team.
Headed into the match the major open questions revolved around what system United would play given the range of models they’ve utilized all season. Ultimately Alex Ferguson elected to go with the 4-4-1-1 system with Rooney and Javier Hernandez up top as the two striker formation. This was the formation that had seen United through to the Premier League title and through to the Champions League final and he chose to stick with it. It would only be apparent after the match started that while Ferguson was utilizing his first choice system – he would be deploying certain players in very different ways than anticipated. The key figures who would have their roles altered were Park and Evra (more on this later).
The major prematch surprise was on the Barça side where Carles Puyol was not included in the starting line up due to lack of fitness. Much of the discussion on the Barça side was whether or not Eric Abidal would be able to make his miraculous return to the game complete by starting in the Champions League finals. Outside of it’s emotional dimensions, this was a significant tactical question due to United’s prowess on the wings. United finished off the EPL title by beating Chelsea and in that match right winger Antonio Valencia was their key player. Valencia simply picked apart Ashely Cole, one of the world’s best left backs, in that match. Given that Abidal had not yet played 90 minutes since returning and had only played in a few games, it was unclear if he would be deemed match fit enough to deal with Valencia.
Given that he had played in the critical matches against Madrid, it was assumed that Puyol would be in the starting line up – either at CB or perhaps at LB if Pep didn’t feel that Abidal could go. When the line ups were announced, no small amount of nervousness shot through the hearts of cules. Puyol would not be playing and Macherano would have to play out of position at CB, a position he had done admirably at but had little experience playing. And Mascherano would have to play at the back against a team that already looked like their most direct way of hurting Barça was through the air.
Midgets in the front. Midgets in the back. Trouble in the hearts of anxious cules.
There’s no way to minimize the loss of Puyol. He is not only a legend but has the kind of positional intelligence, skill set (especially in the air) and experience one wants in a match of this level. But Guardiola knew that while United’s aerial threat was very real, the key to their attack would be generated by the movement of the two man striker formation.
Hernandez is one of fastest strikers in the world. If Feguson was going to play a two man midfield in order to get Hernandez on the pitch it was always likely that the United attack would be focused on getting Hernandez behind the Barça high back line. Just behind Hernandez in the hole would be Rooney who is extremely intelligent in his movement and never stops running. Barcelona could not be vulnerable at CB to movement and as such playing Puyol – as legendary as he is – was the greater risk against United. Pushing him to play when he struggled to complete training was not a viable option.
The only other wrinkle in the starting line ups was the alignment of the Barça front three. While it was the expected trident of Villa-Messi-Pedro, Guardiola elected to use Pedro on the left and Villa on the right. For most of the season Villa has been deployed on his favored left side. Attacking from the left allows Villa to cut in on his right foot. At the end of the year Guardiola used Villa more on the right however. And in this game the decision to play Pedro on the left was likely for defensive purposes. Pedro on the left enhances Barça’s defense on that flank. Pedro would be able to use his work rate, pace, and defensive skill to support Abidal defensively at the left back position. Given the threat posed by Valencia and potentially the forward runs of Fabio from RB Guardiola’s switching Pedro to the left made a great deal of sense.
Later on when the match progressed it became clearer why Guardiola wanted Pedro on the left. Given that United were only playing a two man midfield and doing so without a true holding player there was always likely going to be space between the lines. Pep wanted Villa to be able to play in that space so he stationed him nominally on the same side as Dani Alves. That way Villa could ghost in centrally to link up with Messi while Alves could maintain width on the right through his runs forward.
The Key Principle: Barça Not Only Dominate Possession but Use the Ball To Control Space on the Pitch
It is now almost given that Barça will dominate possession. Because this the opponent must control space on the pitch. If you do not have the ball and do not control space then you are going to get played off the pitch. As such, the major challenge for Barça is whether or not they can utilize possession to break the opposition’s attempt to maintain shape. And in the Champions League final Barça did this brilliantly. This point becomes clear from Barça’s passing chart, particularly in comparison to United’s chart.
The sheer number of passes Barça completed is remarkable. And this is heightened by where the passes are directed. Notice the density of balls played not only in around the center circle – which is an area Barça frequently dominates – but also in the space between United’s midfield and defensive lines. It was this region that was the key to the game and Barça exploited it masterfully.
To make this point clear here is an example of how Barça executed play between the lines to break United’s shape.
In the still shot above not only has Messi dropped deep between the lines so has Villa. In fact Villa starts the move by running back into space to drag Ferdinand off the back line. Interestingly, rather than run into the open space Villa has created Messi amplified Villa’s move by repeating it. He too drops into the space in front of the United defensive line pulling Vidic with him as well. Seeing this Villa than makes his own run forward and Messi threads a pass onto Villa’s foot generating a dangerous opportunity:
It was this kind of dynamic interplay combining use of the ball with intelligent, decisive movement off it that was the key to the game.
The Opening: United Come Out Brightly
The match opened very similarly to how the last Champions League final between these two clubs did. United played very brightly and had the better of play to start. This was not unexpected, however. This Barça teams greatest weakness all season has been their depth. And for the second half of the season the team looked exhausted and in turn vulnerable. Sealing the Liga title early was critical because it allowed Guardiola to provide full rest to his side for two weeks. United sealed their league early as well – but given that they were the deeper squad and Ferguson had rotated players more during the season the added rest was much more important for Barça.
However, given Barça’s intricate one touch system and the amount of minutes the players are used to getting, the risk of that rest was that the team may not be fully up to match speed and would suffer from some rust that would require time to shake off.
United played very well to open -they pressed high and circulated the ball very rapidly. At the same time Barça were off form and did in fact look somewhat rusty. What marked the slow opening for Barça was uncharacteristically heavy touch and poorly weighted balls on passes. Messi miscontrolled a few balls. Pedro and Alves both lost possession cheaply on several occasions. Even Xavi and Iniesta were searching to establish their own rhythm in the game.
United did well to press their advantage in those early minutes. Their focus became very clear. They immediately played long balls to their right flank in order to isolate Valencia and test Abidal. They expanded that approach by doing the same with direct balls to Hernandez.
Given these dynamics it became imperative for the club to play solidly at the back, especially until the possession game became composed again. Much had been made before the game about he importance of the first goal – especially after that first goal had turned it for Barça in Rome in 2009. It was imperative that composure and solidity were maintained until an attacking rhythm could be created.
And it’s in these moments that Victor Valdes demonstrates again and again his brilliance and his value. Because in the opening minutes United brought significant pressure to bear high up the pitch. They forced mistakes and played with sharp movement. In turn Barça didn’t look composed defensively. The game had an unsettled character at the back. Seven and a half minutes in, van der Sar played a long ball from his own box for the United front line to run into space for in an attempt to get behind the high Barcelona back line through direct play. And it nearly worked.
Alves and Abidal were high up the pitch. Pique was to the left of center and marking Hernandez. Mascherano was positioned poorly and got turned the wrong way on the long ball from van der Sar. Rooney gained a step on him and then accelerated away from the off balance Barça CB. van der Sar’s distribution was on line and Rooney was clear through in space waiting to control the ball.
For a keeper this is a play where a mistake cannot be made. Stay back and cut down the angle or come out hoping you can beat the striker to the ball? And once again Valdez made the right decision and had the tremendous athleticism needed to get off his line and just beat Rooney to the ball. Barça were fortunate that the ball took a high bounce and Rooney had to wait for it a split second. But Valdes made a tremendous play hurling through the air, knowing that Rooney was barreling down right into him, and punched the ball away just before Rooney could get a touch on it.
Two minutes later Busquets made an off line pass to Messi in the center circle. Messi controls those kinds of substandard passes all of the time. But during these opening minutes his touch let him down and Carrick recovered the ball and played it to Giggs. Giggs took one touch to settle and evade Busquets press and then played a perfectly weighted long pass on the ground.
The pass split the entire center of the Barça formation, past the two center backs, and into space for Hernandez to run onto. Pique arrived on the ball first. But in trying to out run the much faster United striker, Pique mishit the ball back towards Valdes who himself was coming off his line at a sprint to intercept the ball. Rather than tap the ball back to Valdes, Pique wound up hitting the ball very hard. And by that time Valdes was already out of the box and only a few meters separated the Barça players. Based on pure quickness and reflexes Valdes was somehow able to get a foot on the mishit back ball averting an almost certain own goal. Few other keepers in the world would have had the foot skills and quickness to prevent that near disaster. Danger averted. Barely.
And then with ten unsettled, precarious minutes over – just as in Rome 2009 – the game changed. This time it wasn’t a goal out of the blue that did it. It was a more substantive change. Barça started developing that rhythm with the ball that defines who they are, that marks their identity. They started dictating tempo. Started caring for the ball as if were precious. That is – they became Barcelona again.
And with that – the match was functionally over. Outside of a brief break in concentration that led to the United goal, Barcelona utterly dominated throughout. They played football at a level few sides have every been able to play, never mind against a world class team like United in a Champions League final being played in England.
Think about the weight and pressure on the opposition facing Barça. The blaugrana are rusty and off form. And all you have is ten minutes to try to win the entire match. And once that opportunity passes you will never be able to dictate the terms of the engagement again. Ten minutes is all you have. And for the next eighty all you can do is react as Barcelona dictates the match by executing it’s template.
Barcelona Dictates Play: Tactical Analysis
As outlined in the tactical preview Alex Ferguson faced a significant dilemma headed into this match. United started their season playing two different tactical systems: a 4-4-2 wtih Berbatov as a target man up top and a 4-2-3-1 in competitions where they would need an extra midfielder to better control possession. Ultimately, Ferguson merged advantages from both system forming a dynamic 4-4-1-1 with Rooney playing behind the pacey Javier Hernandez.
The key to this formation was Rooney’s work rate and positional intelligence, qualities which allowed him to function as a false 9 from the second striker position. By doing so Rooney allowed United to have both a two man strike force up top, but to also diminish the impact of United only playing two midfielders. By dropping deep Rooney could prevent United from losing midfield due to a 2 vs. 3 numerical disadvantage.
It was under this system that United played their best football the entire season. It was this system which had won them the EPL, with a dominant performance against Chelsea late in the season and had then seen them through to the Champions League final.
While the dynamic 4-4-1-1 worked wonderfully for United it was an open question of whether the system could work against a team that circulated the ball and retained possession as well as Barça. Two major problems arise. First, the 4-4-1-1 asks Rooney to almost play two positions at once. If Rooney couldn’t fall back fast enough to midfield Untied would be overwhelmed 3 vs. 2 by Barça. This advantage would only be amplified when Messi dropped to midfield as a false 9. Second, the 4-4-1-1 formation does not have a true holding player positioned between the lines. And this space is one that Barcelona is particularly adept at exploiting.
Ultimately, Ferguson elected to play the formation that brought his team to it’s strongest level of play this season: the 4-4-1-1. United had dismantled sides playing 3 man midfields for much of the entire season and it was that 4-4-1-1 formation that had carried United through to the finals in the first place.
However, Ferguson did not simply ignore the vulnerabilities of his system. He attempted to augment his base system tactically to counter Barça’s strengths. This is a point that has not been focused on enough since the end of the match. Ferguson implemented several interesting tactical maneuvers to try to make up for the two major problems United were facing tactically – potential numerical disadvantage in midfield and space between the lines. The key players in these changes were Ji-Sung Park, Antonio Valencia and Patrice Evra.
Headed into the match it was widely believed that Ferguson would use Park in his accustomed role – as a defensive left winger to track Dani Alves’ surges forward. Ferguson significantly altered Park’s role in this match. Park was stationed on the left wing but from that position he was constantly pinching in towards midfield to provide support in the center. One of Park’s roles was to mark Messi when possible if the Barça false 9 dropped to midfield in the center-right region.
Ferguson also had Valencia play by pinching in to the middle as well though not to the degree that Park was.
In essence, Ferguson was hoping that Park’s tremendous work rate and stamina would allow him to almost play two positions at once – one as a right winger to slow Alves and one as an auxiliary midfielder to support Carrick and Giggs.
Ferguson also expanded the role of Patrice Evra as well. Evra was charged with not only playing LB, but also tracking runs into the space between the lines. From that left back position he was responsible in part to track Messi when he dropped between the lines to the center-right part of the pitch. Fabio would act similarly at RB but not to the degree that Evra did. Again, this was likely due to the fact that Messi operates largely in the center right position. Like Park, Ferguson was asking Evra to almost play two positions at once to make up for the tactical weaknesses of the 4-4-1-1. Evra was not only to play LB but also almost as a holding midfielder at times.
And these two tactical changes built on top of what Ferguson was asking Rooney to do as a false 9 where he was also being asked to almost play two different positions at once as well- striker and attacking midfielder.
So in essence, to address Barcelona’s tactical strengths from a 4-4-1-1, Ferguson was asking three players on his squad to play in two different positions each through their work rate, stamina and athleticism. As long as United could maintain a very high work rate this strategy could hold. This is partly why United were so strong in the first ten minutes. Park in particular covered enormous space when United opened strongly.
However, once Barcelona found their rhythm and began circulating the ball with crisp off the ball movement, Ferguson’s tactical adaptations were overwhelmed. Rooney, Park and Evra could try to cover enormous amounts of space defensively – but Barça just moved the ball too fast for them to sustain this approach. And in addition, once United tired even slightly, Barça forced the approach to collapse through their use of the ball. Ferguson partially acknowledged this problem in the second half when he permanently shifted Park to the middle and Giggs to the right wing. But by then it was too late. The dynamics of the match had been set.
Perhaps the most surprising tactical development in this game was what Barça did not do. Given that Park was constantly pinching to the middle Dani Alves was functionally unmarked for much of the first half. Rarely has Alves every been left alone like that and on very few games has he had that much space to run into since coming to Barça. It was initially very surprising that Barça did not circulate the ball and run the attack through Alves on that flank. In the second half, it was very clear that Giggs could not track Alves’ runs. Barça played the ball out to Alves on a few occasions and he generated several very dangerous chances. But on the whole, even in the second half with an older Giggs on him, Alves wasn’t utilized as a weapon to the degree that he could have been. This may have been a sub-optimal tactical approach on Barça’s part.
However, it’s likely there was another reason why the attack wasn’t directed through Alves on the right – Barça were so overwhelming in the center of the pitch that an outlet on the flanks wasn’t needed. The attack could be directed through the middle because opportunities were being generated over and over in that region of the pitch.
The Busquets-Xavi Axis: The Use of the Ball to Control Space
Few players in the history of football have had the influence on game play that Xavi has had. Simply by the sheer number of touches he has on the ball and number of passes he executes he is the player who so often dictates play and defines the rhythm of the match. Over the past several years it has been Xavi’s responsibility to take the burden of play off of his midfield partners. Xavi is required to function in a way which allows Iniesta the freedom he needs to express himself in an advance attacking role. At the same time Xavi has been required to support the Barça holding player by dropping deep to relieve pressure and to build play from deep when needed.
In many ways, this Champions League final was a seminal match for Barça from a tactical standpoint. It was a match that may signal a significant alteration in the way the opposition tries to defend and the way that Barcelona structures it’s attack. What was remarkable to watch in this match was the manner in which Sergio Busquets provided the foundation which enabled Xavi to play his game to the fullest. Rather than Xavi forming the platform for the other midfielders it was Busquets who formed that base. In turn this allowed Xavi to utterly dominate the match.
Xavi Hernandez is arguably the greatest player of his generation. And in this Champions League final we had the privilege of watching one his finest performances. For me he was clearly the man of the match.
But as with so many things in Barça, that individual brilliance was built on the context of the surrounding system. And in this match it was Busquets – more than even Iniesta – who allowed Xavi to play to his utter best.
This is not to say that Busquets has not made an outstanding partner for Xavi in the past. What I mean by this is the following: in yesterday’s match United took defensive resources and concentrated them on stopping Busquets. Usually teams will first and foremost devote all resources possible to stopping Xavi. In turn they leave Busquets as the player in midfield with the most time and space on the ball. A concrete example of this was the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid. In that match, Xavi completed 80 passes. Busquets completed 129. Madrid overplayed the advanced midfield position and challenged Busquets to control that match. They devoted intense defensive resources to stopping Xavi and chose to allow Busquets to have more time on the ball.
In the Champions League finals, Ferguson decided that he could not simply allow Busquets time and space on the ball. He would have to mark him and mark him strongly. Wayne Rooney focused on stopping Busquets for almost the entire match. Rooney was United’s best defender in the middle of the pitch – and he was playing Busquets. This also came at a real cost – because Rooney was defending Barça’s defensive midfielder, it was relatively easy for Busquets to snuff out counter attacks during fast transitions – Rooney was already close to him.
And even when Xavi took control of the game United still continued to allocate a defender to stop Busquets. This was partly because in his false 9 role Rooney could most readily track the Barça holding player. That said, overall, Busquets ability on the ball to dictate tempo from the back was considered such a threat that United maintained focus on him throughout. A major tactical dynamic in the finals was the fact that United felt compelled to defend Busquets, even if it meant ceding freedom to Xavi. This almost never happens. Few times has there been matches where the opposition felt so strongly about Busquets that they were willing to assume risk with Xavi so that both central midfielders could be defended.
With this freedom behind him, Xavi was able to not only control possession but to push forward to advance positions on the pitch to force the attack. Interestingly, Xavi almost played in as an advanced a position as Iniesta did in this match.
The diagram below summarizes Xavi’s dominance in controlling the game:
From the official UEFA statistical accounts, Xavi completed 124 passes out of 136 attempts (note there are some discrepancies in the passing statistics as officially kept by UEFA and those through Opta which supplies data for the passing charts included in this post). For contrast consider this – four United players were positioned in the midfield region either primarily or partially during this match: Giggs, Carrick, Park and Rooney. Together those four central players completed 113 passes. Xavi out passed United’s central attacking axis by himself.
And it wasn’t only the number of passes Xavi executed that were impressive. It was as always the quality of the passes coupled to an attacking intent. In the diagram notice the number of longer through balls to the front three Xavi attempted. We’ll take a look at a specific example of the brilliance of Barça’s cerebral dictator’s in the formal tactical review of the Champions League finals (next post).
Xavi’s play was built in front of the platform that Busquets formed. The Barça holding player played remarkable one touch football and understood the play in front of him. He moved the ball cleanly and rapidly and did so in ways which maximized Xavi’s ability to play balls forward quickly and do so from advanced position. Below is Busquets passing chart:
From the diagram one can see how Busquets prioritized moving the ball quickly through relatively short balls forward to Xavi and Iniesta. Busquets only completed seventy-four passes – but this was largely due to the fact that Barça were able to direct the match through Xavi. Busquets indirect influence on this match was enormous.
In addition, Busquets made one of the single most important plays of the entire match – a play which is not receiving nearly enough attention. It was Busquets pressing of the ball high up the pitch and dispossessing United that set up Villa’s goal.
Space Between the Lines: Barcelona Plays Out the Match Where They are Most Dangerous
Barcelona found space between the United’s midfield and defensive line all match. And it was play in this region of the pitch that generated one dangerous chance after another. And ultimately, all three of Barça’s goals were generated off this region of the pitch.
United were not playing a traditional holding player in midfield – and as such they were depending on defenders moving into this space dynamically. Carrick, Giggs, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra and Park were all tasked with playing in this region on the pitch. However, Barça were simply able to utilize off the ball movement and quick passing too well for these defenders to break up play in front of United’s back line.
Barça’s ability to create danger from this region of the pitch is summarized in the diagram showing where their shots on goal came from:
This distribution of shots on goal is very unusual for a Barcelona team that doesn’t frequently rely on shots from outside the box. In this match however Barça systematically looked to score from the space they found just in front of the United back four. This is a good example of Guardiola’s deep understanding of tactics. It was very clear that Barça was shooting from outside of the box as a tactic. And they did this consciously because Guardiola knew that his team would be able to find open space between the lines. It was important for Barça to use this space because United’s CB are very strong defenders in the box.
Barça were the first team to score two goals from outside of the box in the Champions League final. It would have been very difficult to anticipate that before the match as those kinds of long shots are simply not something the team uses frequently. But watching the match, the danger from those shots was apparent early on.
While Busquets and Xavi dominated the central axis of the pitch, Iniesta created havoc all night, gliding between the lines. Marked by Michael Carrick, Iniesta was able to ghost past his marker again and again. Below is the heat map of Iniesta’s touches:
When a player of Iniesta’s skill is able to operate in front of a back four in this fashion it becomes very difficult to maintain defensive shape. Iniesta is so skilled on the ball that he is going to breakdown the defenses ability to control space. Below is Iniesta’s passing chart:
Notice the density of completed passes near the advanced center of the pitch.
Finally, we arrive at Messi. What is there to say at this point. He is simply the greatest footballer in the game – and it’s not particularly close between him and whomever one wants to pick as second. Messi was brilliant. And it was in the region between the lines where he generated so much of the havoc he creates. Below is Messi’s heat map:
The sheer number of touches Messi has between the lines is remarkable. When allowed to operate in this region Messi is going to inflict tremendous damage on a defense. And he did not fail to do so in this match. His strike from outside of the box was complete genius because no one was expecting it. United was playing him for the run. On the play, Evra watches Messi and stays beside Vidic rather than going to close out the attacker because he didn’t want to get beat on a run (notice also on that play how Park simply stops running to close down Messi out of sheer exhaustion). Instead of running at the defenders however, Messi simply stopped in the open space he found in front of the back four and unleashed a low shot on target.
In this match Messi really didn’t need to drop deep into midfield to pick up the ball (see the heat map above). Rather he was able to simply drop in front of the back line. This meant that he was in goal scoring position almost every time he touched the ball. This constant danger wore down United and made it almost inevitable that Barça would score multiple goals on the night, whether through Messi directly scoring, assisting or both.
Barcelona’s Wide Attackers: Intelligent Runs With High Work Rates
David Villa had a very difficult run up to this final match scoring only once in his past sixteen matches. However, in the biggest match of the season Villa played a phenomenal match in all dimensions of the game. This may have been the most complete game Villa has played in his entire career. The match was not only encompassed Villa’s skill as one of the world’s premier strikers. It demonstrated his willingness to learn and to grow as a footballer by expanding the dimensions to his game after arriving at Barça, particularly on defense (more on this later).
Villa opened on the right flank but darted in and out of the middle of the pitch all night long serving both as a point of reference for link up play, creating danger between the lines, and making intelligent runs behind defenders. Coupled with his work rate Villa exemplified all match long what total football means.
Tactically, one of the most interesting things Villa did on the evening was to make it very difficult for Patric Evra to make decisions on who to mark. Evra was tasked with not only playing left back but also marking Messi when he dropped between the lines. Again and again in the match Villa positioned himself near or Evra to force the LB to not only mark him – but to track him as Villa would make diagonal runs off the center right position. This was a key reason why Messi had so much room to operate in between the lines.
With his play off the left flank, P! formed the perfect mirror to Villa’s complete all around play. That’s right – after a somewhat uneven start, Pedro fully earned back his ! . Pedro did a wonderful job of not only providing width along the left – but providing dangerous width. The key here was the quality of his runs off the ball, particularly on diagonals. Pedro’s finish on the goal he scored summarized so much of what makes P! such an unusual player. He plays all out all of the time. And he is prone to losing tactical discipline. But for a player whose game is so dependent on energy and work rate to be so composed in front of goal is remarkable. It’s that balance of energy and composure in finishing which make Pedro so unique. And in this match he was dangerous throughout.
Finally, both Pedro and Villa engineered one of the best moments of the entire match. It’s shown in the screen shot below:
Here Barcelona has played the ball into the box through a run of Messi’s off the right flank. There’s a scrum in the box as both sides fight for the ball. The key issue in this moment is that both Pique and Busquets have made runs forward into the box. Most attacking players in this situation would make a run to the ball to try to gain possession. But neither Villa nor Pedro do this.
Instead they stay in relatively deep positions. What they are doing is covering positionally for the two defensive players who have gone forward. Two attackers who have scored nearly fifty goals between them this season are playing defense for a CB and holding midfielder. That summarizes in a moment what Barça has become under Guardiola.
And all of this discipline and effort quickly became even sweeter a moment later. Busquets of course would go on to dispossess the ball on the press. Seeing this Villa would drop back to find space and provide an easy outlet for a Busquets. One pass later Villa would go on to curl the ball into the top corner of the net to score Barça’s third goal to finish off the match. That goal was built on defense, discipline, and unselfishness the entire way through. It was a goal executed through brilliant individual skill but built on commitment to all around team play.
Barça’s Backline: Solidity as the Foundation
Significant questions swirled around the Barça backline. After an unsettled opening ten minutes, the backline and team defense stifled United whenever they looked to attack.
With Puyol absent someone needed to take control of the backline. That player was Gerard Pique. Pique had an inconsistent season for stretches but rounded back into world class form over the past two months. In the finals, outside of a few stray mistakes, Pique was an absolute rock all match long. Of particular importance was how Pique controlled aerial play.
Over and over Pique beat the United attackers on balls in the air. And given that he was paired with an out of position Mascherano it was imperative that Pique control those balls in the air the way he did. Along with Abidal, Pique made a mistake in raising his hand and playing for offside rather than playing through on United’s goal but otherwise he was tremendous. It was interesting to see Pique make several runs forward in attack in the second half – it was clear that this was a tactical adjustment made by Pep at halftime.
Alongside Pique was Mascherano who was deputized to fill in for the Barça captain. It took Mascherano some time to settle into the match but once he did he was as solid as one could hope for. One of the most remarkable tactical aspects to how Barça played was the manner in which Guardiola elected to defend Hernandez.
Hernandez has been in strong form to end the season. He is one of the fastest strikers in the world. And Guardiola trusted Mascherano – playing out of position – to mark Hernandez by himself 1 vs. 1. In similar situations most managers would have insisted on playing both center backs against United’s most advanced striker. Instead, Pep trusted Mascherano and played the way Barça usually play. And Mascherano used his positional intelligence and pace to play solidly behind Pique as the cover center back.
Dani Alves had a relatively quite game. He opened looking off form and gave the ball away cheaply a few times. But that was the brief period when the entire team was off pace. Afterwards Alves played a very disciplined game. Given the space Barça was finding centrally and Villa’s effectiveness off the right Barça didn’t require their RB to bomb forward. Alves made himself available as an outlet should it be needed. And in the second half he made a few very dangerous runs that generated high quality chances. And when he had the chance it was good to see Dani chut the ball after all!
And finally we arrive at the most unlikely of Champions League starters and the most warming story of the finals. What can be said about Abidal that his actions don’t already express? I remember seeing those pictures of him in warm ups back on the pitch with his teammates shortly after surgery. When I saw those pictures the first thought that came to mind was that if Barça make the Champions League final Abi is going to play. He’s lost weight and looks thin. But he looked overjoyed to be playing again. And Abidal returning to play in this game – play when his team was extremely short and vulnerable at the back – was just amazing.
Coming into this match it appeared that United’s best chance to score would come off the match up of Valencia vs. Abidal. And United tested him very early. But Abidal was having none of it. He completely shut down Valencia and owned that flank. And with that, United’s best opportunity heading into the the match disappeared.
The Substitutes: The Captain, The Professional and 3M
The match was well in hand by the time any substitutions were required. But regardless – it was wonderful to see Puyol step back on the pitch and wrap that captains band around his arm. And it said so much about this legend and about this team when Puyol unwrapped that same arm band and handed it to Abidal so that he could raise the Champions League trophy on behalf of the team. Only one player has ever raised the European Championship trophy three times. That player was Beckenbauer. Puyol could have been the second if he chose to. Instead, he chose to be a teammate – and in that moment he showed by action what leadership really means.
Keita and Afellay were the final two substitutions and though each hardly played it was a beautiful gesture for Pep to put both of them on as they each deserved it. Keita for his tireless professionalism. Afellay for his desire to come to this team and do everything he could to fit in. Watching United play tonight there was little doubt that Afellay could have walked on to this United squad and moved directly into the starting line up in the midfield. He could have done that for several top sides in Europe. Instead he chose to join Barcelona. We’ll likely hear stories about both Keita and Afellay being sold this summer. Don’t believe them. Pep sent them onto the pitch because they are part of this team. They belong. They stay.
A Refreshed Squad
Watching this match it became very quickly apparent how fatigued the squad has been over the second half of the season. The two weeks off did wonders for their freshness. We were all wondering what was going on with David Villa these past many games. From how he played tonight it is clear that fatigue was a major part of his struggles. With two weeks off he returned to the pitch and played a dominant game along with the rest of his teammates. Straight away you could see that Barça were fresh and back to playing crisp football. In this sense, the most important thing Barça did to win the Champions League was to win La Liga outright early.
The Pep Guardiola Difference
There’s so much to say. And to truly do justice to the accomplishments of this man would require more space than a match review allows. But with this victory Pep can now take a place besides greats like Michels, Sachhi, Chapman and Herrera as a manger who has not only won trophies but changed the way the game is conceptualized and played at the strategic and tactical levels. He now establishes himself as the reference against which other managers of this generation will be measured. His accomplishments as a player and manager are enormous.
There has long been a belief in football that there is something that cannot be trusted about playing the game beautifully. That inevitably one must make trade offs between the romanticism of style and the pragmatism of trophies. And if a team plays with intense focus on style then disappointment will invariably follow. The Netherlands 1974. Brazil 1982. This belief has only heightened in the modern game due to the rapid development of athleticism and physicality across the pitch.
This Barcelona team has demonstrated that none of this has to be true.
Guardiola’s Barcelona found football in a certain shape and together they said this was not the only possible world. And that kind of longing is what makes history new all over again.