There’s no doubt that United were beaten by a truly exceptional team on Saturday. I don’t know whether they can be considered the greatest ever, but they are certainly the best side I’ve ever seen, and in Messi they boast a player who has reached a ‘Playstation’ level of fantasy, as Arsene Wenger put it. It’s unfortunate for us that, just as United seemed to have ‘worked out’ European football, this Barcelona team have taken their game to new heights, blowing open accepted styles and tactics in the process.
In their victories in this season’s Champions League, Barca have despatched perhaps the only three sides who could have considered themselves worthy of the challenge: Arsenal – ‘Barca lite’ – whose formation, style and ethos echoes so much of the Catalan club, but who ultimately lacked the discipline, maturity and ruthlessness to keep up with them; Real Madrid, who, even with Barca’s nemesis, Jose Mourinho, at the helm and another summer of lavish spending, couldn’t summon up a football as effective as Barca’s homegrown tiki-taka; and United, the most experienced of all the current European squads and managers, who found themselves ‘mesmerised’ and outplayed, in London as in Rome, by a side whose metronomic carousel of swirling triangles seems tantamount to a kind of footballing brujería.
So far, the teams who have managed to overcome this gnomic witchcraft in big games (United in 2008, Inter in 2010, and Real in the 2011 Spanish Cup) have done so by parking the bus, nicking a goal and smothering Barca’s midfield as best they could. This approach is a common-sense way to try and tackle Barca, but it puts tremendous pressure on the defence and will always need a healthy dose of luck.
In many ways, our 2009 final marked a ‘Hungary 1953 moment’: Barca’s formation, style and approach was a different kind of football, distinct from both the cagey and slower-paced European approach and the more high-tempo and imprecise brand on offer in the Premier League. From 2000 onwards, Fergie had attempted a series of variations on the 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 theme in Europe, where he had decided that ball retention and solidity were essential components for success. More often than not, United played with only a single striker and sought to crowd out the midfield.
When Ronaldo was in his pomp between 2007 and 2009, this proved a successful strategy. But Barca’s convincing victory in Rome 2009 marked the ascendency of a new footballing style based on short-passing, fluid triangles of movement, a deep-lying forward – a ‘false no. 9’ – and an intensive pressing game high up the pitch. Possession was the key and United, too reliant on Ronaldo, had no answer in the middle of the park. We were comprehensively outplayed and left considering a future without Ronaldo. In Rome we learned that you cannot concede the centre of the park to Barca. We also learned that cagey 4-5-1 variations no longer represented European football’s avant-garde.
Unplayable as a False #9?
Notwithstanding Barca’s brilliance, the most frustrating aspect about Saturday’s game was that, in spite of all the talk about lessons learned, the Rome surrender was repeated – perhaps even more glaringly. By playing Hernandez up front and Rooney in a withdrawn role in front of the midfield, United chose to be bold. But after the frantic, Premier League-style opening, they were soon outnumbered in midfield once again.
Each of Barca’s goals probably could have been prevented from a defensive point of view, but no team, no matter how good they are defensively, can concentrate without the ball for so long. That is why Barca’s possession-based game is so effective from a defensive as well as an attacking point of view: playing without the ball is mentally and physically exhausting. As players tire, Messi seems to scent blood, upping his own game by committing players, pulling them out of position and opening up the space for Villa and Pedro. At his best, he may be unplayable.
Still, there were things United could have done better. Most strikingly, if Rooney had been played deeper – as a third midfielder rather than a withdrawn forward – they would have had a better chance of winning and keeping possession. It was telling that he began the move that led to his goal by picking up the ball in a midfield position, and the altercation between him and Fergie on the touchline seemed to be related to this issue. Shackling the distribution of Busquets was evidently Rooney’s job, and whether through his own indiscipline or the limitations of Fergie’s formation, he was unable to do so.
In the Premier League a 4-4-1-1 formation may be sufficient to beat most teams. But in Europe, particularly if United are to vanquish Barca in the coming years, they will have to work out a way of developing a three-man midfield that can be both preventative and creative. Defining Rooney’s role once and for all will be pivotal to solving this conundrum. We know that Rooney can play as a striker, and that, as in 2009/10, with the right service he can score goals aplenty. We also know that Rooney can be devastating in a deeper role, where his creativity and explosiveness is the key to United’s counterattacks.
Fergie needs to work out, therefore, which of these roles he wants for Rooney: attacking midfielder or free-roaming forward. Though the difference between the two roles may seem slight, at the highest level it is a difference that translates into space: the space, that is, that the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi thrive on. Asking Rooney to perform both roles, as Fergie did on Saturday, will get the best of neither, and will end up leaving United exposed.
If United were to mimic Barca’s formation, they would need two ball-playing midfielders sitting ahead of a holding midfielder. Rooney could take on the role of the more advanced of these two – let’s call it the Iniesta role. But he would have to accept that this is a midfield role, with all the defensive responsibilities that such a role entails.
How to Overcome the Barca Midfield?
If he couldn’t accept those responsibilities, as perhaps was the case on Saturday, he would be better taking on a role more akin to Messi’s: the deep-lying/free ‘false no. 9’. Of course this wouldn’t have to be a deep-lying/false position, but given Rooney’s propensity to hair around the pitch, it might make sense to give him this freedom. Such a move would mean Hernandez sitting out big European games, with another midfielder taking the Iniesta slot.
So what other personnel changes would United need in order to make this tactical shift? First of all, they would need a specialist, ball-winning defensive midfielder in the Busquets mould. Both Carrick and Fletcher have played deeper positions for United, but I’m not convinced either are specialist enough for the holding role.
United have tracked Jack Rodwell for some time, but perhaps more intriguing is the potential of Ryan Tunnicliffe, the tough-tackling captain of the Youth Cup winning team who has drawn comparisons with Nicky Butt, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. Elsewhere, the likes of Lassana Diarra of Real Madrid might fit the bill, but it’d be more rewarding to see Tunnicliffe given his chance in the long-term.
This of course leaves points to the gaping hole in the creative midfield department, where United urgently require at least one top class player. Transfer rumours abound concerning Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric and Samir Nasri, all of whom would be very exciting signings. But there can be no guarantee that any of these will sign, and we should be prepared for the possibility that none of them will. Fergie may have other targets, of course, but it has been a consistently difficult berth to fill for a number of years (see Veron, Miller, Kleberson, Anderson, etc.).
Once again, however, there are several intriguing prospects closer to home, in the shape of the returning Tom Cleverley, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison. Cleverley’s talent is undoubted, but how far he can go remains unknown. Interestingly, however, he is the closest thing we have to a Modric/Sneijder type of player, and now has several years of first-team experience under his belt with Leicester, Watford and Wigan. The hope is that being surrounded by better players will see him lift his game accordingly.
FAYC Winning Side 2010/2011
Pogba oozes potential and is far more than the ‘Vieira’ tag that many journalists have used to bracket him. Morrison, like Pogba, is still young, and is evidently a youngster with other issues at hand. He will need to be handled carefully, but if he can step up United have on their hands a tremendously talented player who could play either at the tip of a central three (the Iniesta role), or as a roving attacking forward, either cutting in from wide areas or in a free, central role.
We can’t be sure what will happen with these youngsters, and it may take Fergie three years to merge the best of our current crop into a new ‘cycle’ with the current ‘mid-cycle’ players such as Rooney. But if we accept that United will need a tactical shift if we are to win in Europe again, a group of talented youngsters who already know each other may be the best way of achieving this.
Barca have reminded us – not that Manchester United should need reminding – of the benefits of keeping a group of players together long-term. If this midfield current crop can be managed and moulded in the correct way, and if Rooney’s position can finally be decided upon, United could be on the verge of another truly great side. Over to you, Sir Alex.
About Matt Wilde
In his day job, Matt Wilde is an itinerant social scientist and fantasy football fiend. A descendent of several generations of Reds, he writes about tactics, the politics and finance of football and whatever else takes his fancy. Follow him on Twitter here.