The talent of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team presents Sir Alex Ferguson with a number of selection and tactical dilemmas. It is expected that Barcelona will line up in their usual 4-3-3 formation with Sergio Busquets playing in front of the back four, behind Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, while upfront, Leo Messi plays through the middle as a false line with David Villa and Pedro flanking him. However, United’s formation and personal remain less predictable.
As the season has progressed Ferguson has favoured a 4-4-1-1 formation in important games, with Wayne Rooney playing behind Javier Hernandez, in midfield, hard working wingers Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung flank a central midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs. United used this formation successfully in their games against Chelsea in the League and the Champions League quarter final. In these fixtures, especially the game at Old Trafford in the league, United pressed very effectively and they may try a repeat this against Barcelona on Saturday.
To stop, or at least disrupt Barcelona’s passing game, sides have targeted Xavi Hernandez, Barca’s chief playmaker and Busquets, the side’s metronome – who links play from the back to the midfield and offers a get out ball for the men in front of him. When Real Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra time of the Copa del Ray final they employed a high pressing game early in the tie, specifically targeting Xavi and Busquets. This forced the two deeper to receive possession and made it hard for the Catalans to get the ball to Messi and the rest of the front line, blunting their attack. It was also notable that Jose Mourinho used Pepe in midfield to effectively pressure Xavi. If United line up 4-4-1-1 they may use Rooney to hassle Busquets and prefer Darren Fletcher in central midfield to track Xavi.
Another alternative may be deploying Park in central midfield to shadow Barcelona’s Xavi. Against AC Milan in the Champions League last season the Red Devils made use of a 4-2-3-1 formation with Park in the attacking midfield role to relentlessly press AC Milan’s deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo. As a result, Milan showed a complete lack of fluency, losing the tie 7-2 on aggregate. The drawback of playing with Park in a similar role on Saturday would be splitting up the Rooney/Hernandez partnership which has been so fruitful in the second half of the season. The benefit of playing Hernandez is his pace. He likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender and willingly runs in behind. His presence may force Barca’s backline deeper giving United more space to play. If United were to go with Hernandez leading the line Rooney would move out to the left wing, as he did in the ’09 final. It is also worth noting that the sides that have beaten Barcelona this season within 90 minutes (Hercules, Arsenal and Real Sociedad) used a 4-2-3-1.
A final option for Man United would be using a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation, as they have done effectively against Arsenal in recent years, packing the midfield and defending deep. It is a certainty that United will play on the counter regardless of what formation they play, but this system seems purpose built to frustrate teams who have better ball retention skills than United. Barca’ are vulnerable to counter attacking football and loading the centre of midfield will help United where they are most inferior to the Spanish Champions. Again a drawback of this formation is the Rooney/Hernandez pairing gets split. Furthermore, if Sir Alex wants to include the energy, pace and tactical awareness of both Valencia and Park it is likely that Chicharito would miss out all together.