Farley: How can Ferguson solve Barca?
We know what Barcelona’s going to do in their Champions League final against Manchester United Saturday (live on FOX, 2pm ET), and we know it will most likely work. They’ll start four at the back, throwing Dani Alves and Eric Abidal forward from the flanks. Sergio Busquets’ deep-lying midfield role will often see him in the middle of the three-man defense, sitting between Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. Xavi will play quarterback in central midfield, with Andres Iniesta deployed slightly higher. Lionel Messi will play off deeper than Barcelona’s other forwards, with David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez both ready to pounce from wider positions.
For Sir Alex Ferguson – the man tasked with devising a plan to stop Barcelona - the deployment represents a somewhat stationary target, the only major question being whether Barca spends more time in their base 4-3-3 or elects to push Alves and Abidal and play three at the back.
With both scenarios, Manchester United’s priorities remain the same. United must be able to compete with Barcelona through the middle of the park, lest Hernandez and Iniesta have time to pick apart United’s defense. They need to guard against a Lionel Messi masterpiece, and since it’s difficult (though not impossible) to win a match in which you don’t score, United needs a path to goals.
Here are five steps Manchester United can take toward those ends, ends which could see the Red Devils find redemption for Rome:
1. Learn from Real Madrid
A funny thing happened to Barcelona on the way to Wembley. They hit a roadblock, were stopped in their tracks, yet nobody remembers their delay.
It came in the first leg of their semifinal against Real Madrid, when Jose Mourinho’s decision to play Pepe in midfield created a stalemate. Assuming a position he’s frequently occupied for Portugal, Pepe (normally a central defender) was the key to Mourinho’s plan . Along with Xabi Alonso and (when healthy) Sami Khedira, Pepe was part of a fluid man-marking scheme which was not only beautiful to watch but also highly effective. Xavi, the heartbeat of Barcelona’s attack, was completely neutralized.
Mourinho’s plans were laid to waste when Daniel Alves enticed a red card on Pepe. Barcelona would advance, but over the course of this spring’s four Clasicos, Real Madrid actually outscored Barcelona 2-1 when Pepe was on the pitch, with Barcelona failing to score from open play.
Manchester United can reproduce this strategy, and they need not deploy a defender in central midfield to do so. Where man marking Xavi Hernandez was the key to Mourinho’s limited success, Ferguson can do the same by having Park Ji-sung – a player better suited to the pest’s role – do the same. Just as Park assumed a central role in spring 2010 when Ferguson had him disrupt AC Milan’s Andrea Pirlo, the South Korean can do the same against Xavi.
If Xavi is neutralized, Andres Iniesta has to drop deeper to pick up the ball. Same goes for Messi, meaning two of Barcelona’s most dangerous players are pulled farther from Edwin Van der Sar’s goal.
The drawback: Park becomes useless to United’s attack. It’s a trade-off Ferguson should willingly make.
2. Be willing to sacrifice
One of the most important things Josh Waitzkin had to do in order to beat Jonathan Poe (in “Searching For Bobby Fischer”) was to sacrifice a piece, his rook, before he could gain an advantage on his opponent. To give up a valuable piece like a rook without getting a piece in return was counter intuitive, thought the strategy worked. Moments later, Josh finally beat Jonathan.
Because slowing down Xavi needs to be United’s top priority, they’re going to have to make sacrifices elsewhere. Park isn’t going to be able to mark Dani Alves, and as you look at United’s squad, you see the next in line to assume the role would be Wayne Rooney. That would make Rooney less threatening in attack, taking him out of the playmaker’s role he’s assumed in 2011, a sacrifice that can be made up elsewhere.
The alternatives – letting Alves have an advantage or putting Park out left as opposed to on Xavi – are worse options.
United can augment their attack on the right flank. It’s assumed Antonio Valencia will start at right wing, but with Eric Abidal posing little of the attacking threat of Alves, Valencia’s tracking back is not as needed. Ferguson can start Nani, a better goal scoring option.
With Nani at right wing, Barcelona may start attacking down the left, something that should suit United. If Barcelona can be enticed to go away from Alves’s flank – the side of the park where Messi is slightly more dangerous – the Red Devils are better off. Start John O’Shea over either da Silva, play a double pivot so a midfielder will be able to help, and play Nani as a wide forward. Invite Barcelona away from their right.
The approach may end up pinning Abidal back, the left back electing to guard against Nani’s threat. On the opposite flank, Rooney may give Alves reason to act like a fullback instead of a wingback.
3. Double pivot
Manchester United doesn’t have an elite defensive midfielder, but with Messi doing most of his damage from the middle of the park, strength at that level of the pitch will be crucial to containing the world’s best player. United will have to use numbers, play a double pivot, something that may actually help their attack. If Ferguson starts both Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, United will have two players with the passing range to put balls into the areas often vacated by Alves and Abidal, areas Rooney and Nani can use to spring United’s attacks.
4. Use the wide areas
Against Barcelona, the wide areas behind the wing backs can be vulnerable, though brilliant reads by Carles Puyol often break up attacks before they start. On the other side, Pique doesn’t have Puyol’s clairvoyance. Balls played wide right could prove a reliable way of stretching Barcelona’s defense, opening up space within their line that can be exploited by Javier Hernandez. With Nani - the Premier League leader in assists -United has a player capable to delivering a final ball.
5. Be patient, maintain your shape
Scoring chances will be rare. Manchester United will have to assume the mentality they had during the 2009 semifinals, where they stayed compact and patient at the back.
If Park can make life difficult for Xavi, Barcelona will have to break down one of the world’s best defenses without their best playmaker being given his usual freedom. On the occasions that Barcelona’s forays are thwarted, United should quickly play the ball to Rooney and Nani. They should rely on surprise, not numbers. Bringing either of their double pivots out of position or having Park leave Xavi could do more harm than good.
Have Carrick and Scholes ping passes wide, allowing Rooney and Nani to exploit the space they’re afforded. As the defense adjusts, space will open up, and Chicharito’s predatory instincts will take over.
On Saturday, none of Paul Scholes, Nani, or even John O’Shea are likely starters. Ferguson is likely to go with the 4-4-1-1 approach that’s been so successful throughout the spring, preferring to stay with the approach that’s seen his team gel.
But if there’s a manager that is likely to make tweaks like these, it’s Ferguson, and given the respect Ferguson and Mourinho have for each other, it would not be shocking if the United boss noticed the success Jose had in man marking Xavi.
Richard Farley is the editor of and a contributing writer to FoxSoccer.com. He can be reached on Twitter at @richardfarley.