With the UEFA Champions League Final providing the climax to Manchester United’s season, the question for many is can the Red Devils overcome the favourites Barcelona?
By common consent, this season Manchester’s success has come from solid team performances rather than any outstanding player and this teamwork may be instrumental to winning the Wembley showpiece.
Barcelona’s tactics normally based on a fluid 4-3-3 formation involves playing a high defensive line, pressurising and compressing the game into final two thirds of the pitch (81% of play). As this tends to leaves no space for the fast break, Barca play the patient tika-taka, using this short passing game and keeping possession – (an average of 650 short passes and 73% possession per game) to create and probe for openings, the majority in a central axis –with the width coming from the full-backs.
These may be interdependent cogs, but the heartbeat to Barcelona’s play could be said to be Xavi. With a total of 1167 passes in the Champions League so far this season and with 93% pass accuracy, the little maestro is the engine that keeps the La Liga champions running. To triumph in the final, United may well have to frustrate Xavi and disrupt the Barca rhythm. In conceding this and with nearly a quarter of their goals in the Champions League this season coming on the fast break, Sir Alex could set United up to play the counter-attacking football they are adept at.
If Javier Hernandez plays on the shoulders of the Barcelona centre-backs and Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park on the flanks, United could exploit the considerable space behind the defence that Barca’s high pressing games leaves. Valencia and Park as well as being extremely industrious in tracking back to protect the United flanks, could occupy their attack minded full-backs and help nullify the width they provide. Rooney could drop deeper to trouble Busquets but also to run at the Barca defence and play the ball (he has made 14 key passes this season in the Champions League) to his striking partner and the flanks, again into the space, turning the defence. This should allow United’s central midfielders to concentrate on a more defensive role to negate Xavi.
In this, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher could be Manchester’s best pairing. Primarily, both have played a central/defensive midfield role for United, instrumental in closing down opposition space this season. Both are high in the United rankings for tackles won and passing for the Champions League, with Fletcher winning 86% of tackles and an 84% pass accuracy rate, whilst Carrick’s figures are 74% and 88% respectively. They have also created 11 goal attempts between them.
The balance between the attack and defence for United is crucial to avoid a repeat of the 2009 final. Carrick and Fletcher’s capability in denying space, winning tackles and starting attacking movements, spreading the ball wide and behind the Barcelona defence could be key to an overall team performance needed to beat the Catalans.