Manchester United's tactics last night had been two years in the planning. Ever since Barcelona made his team look ordinary in the 2009 Champions' League final, Sir Alex Ferguson has been plotting a way to reverse that defeat. The first lesson was not to pick players who were short of fitness, as he had in Rome with Rio Ferdinand and Anderson. So Darren Fletcher, whose absence through suspension that night was retrospectively felt to be critical, was on the bench.
That decision dictated Ferguson's selection, for it left Manchester United a little short of energy in the crucial midfield battleground. The solution was to play Wayne Rooney deep – arguably his best position in any case – and Javier Hernandez ahead of him.
The Mexican's inclusion gave United real pace in attack, which helped them execute the first part of the defensive element of the gameplan. Barcelona prefer to play the ball out from goalkeeper Victor Valdes, then either through Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, or along the flanks. The Premier League champions sought to prevent them doing this by pressing high up the pitch. This is easier said than done as it requires huge amounts of energy, but Hernandez, Rooney and Antonio Valencia have plenty of that. Twice in the opening minutes Dani Alves was forced to concede possession and both Valdes and Pique made to kick long and aimlessly. Indeed, Rooney's equaliser came from this tactic. Valencia pressed Eric Abidal and forced a throw-in deep in Barcelona's half, from which United stole possession.
Ferguson knew Barcelona would still bring the ball forward more often than not and, eventually, would get it to Lionel Messi. Ferguson had talked about having a "plan" to deal with the world player of the year but in reality this was just the old mind games. To begin with, Nemanja Vidic tracked Messi when he dropped off and prevented him turning. Messi's solution was to drop deeper knowing the Serb would not want to follow and leave a hole in behind.
Messi should then have been picked up by Michael Carrick but he had his hands full trying to stay close enough to Xavi and Andres Iniesta in order to break up their passing. Messi was thus free to pick up the ball between the lines and either run with it or shoot, as he did in the 54th minute to devastating effect.
When it came to attacking, Ferguson had clearly been talking to Jose Mourinho. Mourinho may have been defeated by Barcelona this season but his Internazionale team knocked them out of the Champions' League last year. Reflecting on that victory, he said the key was to play the ball long out of defence because Barcelona press so well that they will otherwise win possession in dangerous areas.
United like to pass the ball around but last night they played it far longer than normal. Edwin van der Sar looked to hit Rooney 50 yards away, Hernandez then tried to get on to the flick-on. Twice in the first half this nearly worked; once Valdes had to rush from his goal to clear.
As in Rome, Barcelona began very nervously and had United scored first the night might have turned out very differently. Instead Barcelona settled and began to solve the problems Ferguson had set them. Park Ji-Sung was forced to come inside to help Carrick and Ryan Giggs, which meant Dani Alves began to find space on the flanks.
Suddenly United were on "the carousel" Ferguson talked about after Rome with bitter admiration. With their opponents rotating the ball and switching positions with bewildering speed and telepathic understanding it was no surprise that even players as experienced as Patrice Evra could be pulled out of position, as he was for the opening goal; nor that first Messi, then David Villa should find clear space 20 yards out to pick and despatch a shot.
United never gave up but by the end, despite Ferguson making changes, they were just another exhausted team feeding off scraps of possession and chasing shadows. As Michael Laudrup, the former Real Madrid and Barça striker now managing Real Mallorca, said earlier this season, "we all know how to beat Barcelona, but actually doing it is different".Reuse content