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Missed Opportunity: Manchester United Refuse to Abandon Old Principles and the Barcelona Myth Rolls On

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“Totally outlcassed”; “you just can’t argue with that – they’re just too good!”; “we’re the best of the rest, at least…”. But a selection of the comments I have heard from Manchester United fans in the wake of their club’s second capitulation to Barcelona’s incomparable passing football in three years.

These are comments from Manchester United supporters. You know, the aristocrats of British football to whom legions of young supporters flock in search of glory, the club which claims to be the most widely-supported in the world and which recently overtook Liverpool as the most successful in the history of English football. They’ve seen Cristiano Ronaldo, the Giggs-Scholes-Beckham-Keane generation, Schmeichel and Cantona grace their turf during the 25-year tenure of their legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Their club has had epic encounters with the Real Madrid galacticos, won a Champions’ League Final in two minutes and beaten the Arsenal Invincibles. Why have they suddenly imposed a limit on their own expectations?

Pure folklore. The fatalistic acceptance surrounding the build-up to the game, as well as afterwards,was reminiscent of the fear among the noblest of warriors in ancient times ahead of a battle with an unknown enemy, believing they faced not men, but beasts; an acceptance that their fate was in the hands of the Gods.

Manchester United’s fate was in the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson, who allowed his team to be exposed to the exact same problems that have undone his side at the highest level for years. Why a proper defensive midfielder has not yet been signed is as mysterious as Arséne Wenger’s policy on central defenders; however, as I have argued in another piece, United could easily have brought in the energetic Anderson to cover the space in between the defence and midfield into which Lionel Messi loves to drift. Fergie could have stationed two midfielders in front of him, including Park in a dual left-wing/central midfield role. Admittedly, the Korean did appear to have instuctions to support the central area, but most of his time was spent out wide.

The biggest reason why this past decade or so will be remembered as that of the Galacticos of Madrid giving way to the ‘pure’ ingenuity of Barcelona  and not as Manchester United’s great European era is actually rather a small section of grass, no more than ten square metres. But it’s this little section of the pitch where the great players of the past ten years have most enjoyed playing which has hurt United time and again, whether it’s been Messi, Kaká or even Zidane.

Last night, Sir Alex’s apparently unshakeable belief in the high-tempo English style combined with a bit of long-range passing from midfield and width meant using a central midfield pairing of Carrick and Giggs which left that same old gap completely exposed. It left United flat-footed for the opening goal; it gave Messi all the time in the world to line up an average shot which was tragically misjudged by the departing Edwin van der Sar for the second; it might even be argued that David Villa might not have had the space for a third – but by then the game was lost, changes had been made and this argument might have become academic.

The actual match ended up being nearly identical to the one two years ago in Rome, the only difference being Rooney’s equaliser. United, matching Barcelona’s pressing game, were able to create pressure for the opening ten minutes. The trouble is that once Barca get into their rhythm, you end up pressing for much longer than they do, and you get tired. Thus, Barca took control of the game and United were only able to manage sporadic forays forward which, after Rooney’s goal, never really threatened. For Barca, Messi was yet again able to skip freely into the aforementioned space, which meant Villa and Pedro’s runs inside became a real threat, Xavi had a free choice of passes and Iniesta was able to burst beyond him.

Of course, all that will get talked about is the ‘brilliance’ of Barcelona, the ‘genius’ of Lionel Messi and martyr-like passion with which United threw themselves into the jaws of pre-ordained defeat. But the truth is that, as Barcelona may well discover before long, no team is unbeatable. United have, more than anything, their own tactics to blame for making 2011 a repeat of 2009.

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Comments (20)

  1. Finally someone judges the final sensibly. Sir Alex tried the same tactics that didn’t work in Rome again. I don’t think Anderson would have helped much though, a fit Fletcher could have made a big difference. Barca are not the greatest team ever like everyone keeps saying and they will find that out soon enough.

    • I think 2 champions league trophies in 3 seasons accompanied by three league titles, a Spanish cup, a world club championship trophy, 2 spanish supercups and a european supercup somewhat ruin your argument.

      Adding to this, look at the opposition they’ve had to overcome in the Champions League this season: Arsenal, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. Coupled with Manchester United again in 2009.

      Look at the 5-0 demolition of Real in the liga in November. Look at the record points total from last season, the ridiculous amount of goals they’re scoring, the sublime defensive record they’ve had over the past two years.

      Look at the dazzling interplay between the midfield and forward players, the beauty of the passing, the intensity of their pressing game.

      I don’t think I really need to go on much more apart from to say that I don’t think you will ever be able to pick out one singular greatest team ever, but that Barcelona are very much at the top of the shortlist.

    • Oh, and by the way, I’m a Manchester United fan and even I’m prepared to admit that we lost to one of the greatest footballing teams in history.

  2. Ferguson said before they would not man mark Messi and play their own game, Earth to Ferguson you have to have the ball to play your own game !
    And are you for real, even when United had the first 10 minutes of pressure Barca allowed them how many shots ? Answer ZERO ! and one the whole first half, that should have been called for offside anyway, before Rooneys strike !
    That was the greatest team performance since the 1970 World Cup Final if you can’t see or appreciate that you have no right to be writing about football, Barcelona were unbeatable last night regardless of who United put on the field, 70 odd % possesion and total domination says it all the score was a lot kinder to United than the game !

  3. In all fairness, watching every Barcelona match of the past few seasons, many teams in and outside of La Liga have played Barcelona with that 10 meters well covered and not faired much better. Actually, just a look at the four recent “clasicos” last month is proof enough.
    They’re just a wonderful team. Not just philosophically or because their style is one I prefer, but the combination of that, talent and sheer graft. This is not a team that dances on its god given talent. Each player covers more ground during a match than their opposition in almost any team they play, their focus is extraordinary, the standards they set themselves severe, and their teamwork memorable.
    An excellent combination for success, as well as a thrill for observers.

    • The four recent Clásicos prove my point rather than yours, I think. When Pepe was on the field and Madrid had 11 players, Barcelona played with far less space, had a much more limited scope and Real looked, if not favourites, at least equal to them. That’s how they won the Copa del Rey; whether they could have won the Champions’ League tie with 11 men and no mysteriously disallowed goal is different, but definitely worth rational consideration.

      • Sure, you do increase your chances of NOT LOSING against Barcelona if you park the bus. Real Madrid proved that, as did Inter last year, Chelsea in 09 and indeed even your own ManU in 08.

  4. So Manchester United would have won if they had parked the bus, basically. You believe?

    Of course SAF was probably overconfident and too brave, but we say this because United lost. If he had parked the bus and the outcome would have been the same, then this article would be about how SAF betrayed his convictions, didn’t play the team that thrashed Schalke and that the only way to beat Barça is trying to have more time the ball than their rivals do in average and hurt them with fast quality players.

    Yes, another example of what football opinions are about: oportunism.

    • How on earth does making sure you have the space between the back four and the midfield covered involve ‘parking the bus’? There is a massive difference between trying to win a match by using the resources you have and just defending and hoping for the best.

      Can you explain how my views are oportunistic? It would appear that suggesting Barcelona are anything short of the greatest side ever is tantamount to blasphemy. I invite you to read my previous articles on this site.

  5. average Man Utd side! Gave barca far too much time and space making them look even better.

    we put 3 up Utd and we were ‘lucky’??
    barca put 3 past em and they’re the Best Team Ever????

    5 Times

  6. Ferguson’s tactics were spot on last night. In two teams of roughly equal quality, a 4-4-1-1 is the correct choice of system for taking on a side who play a 4-3-3, as evidenced by the long term disappearance of 4-3-3 from the late 70s until its recent revival under Wenger and Guardiola (Mourinho plays 4-5-1 against all but the very weakest opponents) and United’s recent dominance over Arsenal and Chelsea in the Premier league.

    The key phrase there is “In two teams of *roughly equal quality*…” Manchester United couldn’t win with 4-4-1-1 against this current Barcelona side, for much the same reason Scotland in 78 wouldn’t have been able to beat Holland. So what else could United have done? Played a defensive 4-5-1, like Madrid tried? A 4-3-3 like in 2009? If Barcelona are paper tigers like so many people seem insistent on claiming, shouldn’t United have been able to put out their own team without giving Barca a second thought and won the match?

    As for the nonsense suggestion of man-marking Messi, where would the spare man come from? Step out from the back line to follow Messi and leave the back line a man short? Drop from midfield and leave the midfield a man short in covering the passes made by Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Alves? Play a third central defender, two wing backs, four central midfielders and a lone striker, perhaps? All of these suggestions are regressive and play into exactly what the writer suggests is the problem, people treating Barcelona as preordained winners of any match they take part in.

    Of course no team is unbeatable, but some teams are going to win a lot more matches than others and this current Barcelona side is one of them. While I find the endless fawning and suggestions from fans and commentators that everyone should play the game the exact same way as they do tiresome, I find this silly notion that Barcelona are a gang of lightweight pretty boys who can be beaten by a side who just set out nullify them out equally wearying. Class will out in the vast majority of games.

    And this all comes from a United fan. It’s not up to United, or any other team, to try and nullify Barcelona, that approach is regressive and bad for any club that aspires to long term success to adopt (hence Mourinho’s butterfly-like tendency to move clubs every couple of years); it’s up to every other team to try and rise to the standard Barcelona have set.

    One final note. Since 2000 (“the last decade or so”), Barcelona, Milan and Man United have reached 3 CL finals each and Madrid, Bayern and Liverpool 2; Madrid reached their two in 2000 and 2002. Not exactly a domination of the tournament by Los Galacticos for the better part of a decade, was it? Even if they reach the next final, it will have been 10 years since their last appearance in it. Los Galacticos were paper and tigers and ruthlessly exposed as such at the highest level once the shock value of seeing all those names on the same team sheet had worn off. Barcelona, on the other hand, are the real deal, a team who’ve made stars of their players rather than a side who brought in stars and hoped for the best. A side comparable to Madrid in the 50s, Ajax in the 70s and Liverpool in the 80s.

    • Rather a long-winded reply, this, consider the article itself explains perfectly well how United might have covered the midfield better without resorting to one man up front.

      As for the comments on Madrid, I defined the era as one of the Galacticos giving way to Barcelona, not an even split. My argument is that United might have beaten Milan in 2007 and gone on to win, as well as Barcelona in 2009, making the decade very much a ‘United’ decade.

      • Augusto Neto, ManU were a PK away from becoming a footnote in the annals of the decade. Please keep this in mind when even contemplating the opposite.

  7. isn’t the article just saying that Man U should have parked the bus?

  8. By your own statement, perhaps Manchester United need to be more fit, so they can pressure the ball as well as Barcelona can. I don’t know what game you were watching, but I saw Pedro crossing the width of the field back and forth multiple times to chase a ball, while Vidic stood lamely as two goals were scored on his team. Look at the slow motion replay, and it’s Evra sprinting to get in the way while Vidic stands like he’s entitled not to pitch in on the defense.

    And as for ‘the myth of Barcelona’, seriously ‘you people’. How many titles, how many finals will it take for you to see how great of a team they are these last few years. You’re being pathetic.

    • No, the article claims that United can’t pressure the ball like Barcelona can for 90 minutes because they are pressing 70% of the time, whereas Barca have so much possession they only need to press for 30. I was saying that the sheer intensity you need to press with in a strict 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 is just too much if you hardly have the ball.

  9. Congratulations. Your “Barcelona Myth” article along with your “Mess not the best player in the world” piece is making you look the complete tool rather than the “expert” you’re thinking they make you look.

  10. Mr.Augusto Nesto, I dont know where you are from, but judging from your few articles I am sure you loathe FC barcelona and its players to the core.Why have you such a grudge against them? Would be quite interesting to understand that, considering the fact that you have written urself as neutral somewhere,I guess or am I wrong??

  11. I never actually claimed to be neutral, but yes, I am.

    I don’t hate Barcelona. I greatly admire them as a team. My recent list of the world’s best players included four of the current squad in the top 10, with Iniesta as the best (which people took great offence to).

    I don’t understand why people find it so earth-shatteringly rude to suggest that Manchester United MIGHT have won if they had played differently.

    I have written a lot about Barcelona in recent weeks. Much of it has been complimentary, but I don’t write in order to waste people’s time or mine. If you want to read about how wonderful Lionel Messi is, all you have to do is type ‘football’ into a search engine.

  12. The tactics were wrong to begin with, and the ManU players were inferior both in technique, overall talent and tactical positioning (both with and without the ball).