When they were at their best, playing against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona could be a soul-destroying experience, and I should know: I played in two Champions League finals against them and lost both times.
It was not only the fact that we lost a European Cup final, although that still hurts, it was also that at times you did not feel you were in a position to do the things that came naturally as a Manchester United footballer. By that I mean having plenty of the possession, setting the tempo and controlling the match. When you played Barcelona, they did all that themselves.
Even when we beat Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final second leg at Old Trafford, my main memory – the goal aside – was that they had possession for long periods. We did not go toe-to-toe with them, but instead contained them as best we could and defended our lead.
In that era Barcelona were special. They were undoubtedly the best team in the world and so I was interested to see them in person this season with that attacking combination of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. I went to see them play away at the Mestalla on Sunday with my old team-mate Phil Neville, as guests of Peter Lim, who owns Valencia and has an investment with us in Salford City.
I watch Barça as much as I can on television, and this was just a snapshot of their season so far, but for much of the game I felt they were a ghost of the side they had once been. They still pass the ball relentlessly, but that old drive and tempo are not nearly as urgent. The breathtaking speed and penetration have gone. They won the game in injury time but even in those final stages they hardly created chances.
When I try to find a way of summarising the attitude of the team, and of some longer-serving individuals, I keep alighting on the word “bored”. It is not meant to sound flippant, but it just seems the most accurate way to describe the way the team seem to treat the style of football that once made them the best side on the planet – and some of them have been playing that way a long time. The midfield on Sunday was Xavi, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets.
This was not one of Barcelona’s finest days, one in which Suarez struggled and Neymar looked a bit lightweight. At right-back, Dani Alves seemed under the impression he did not have any defensive role to play. Valencia were well-organised and they should have won the game.
To put it in context, Barcelona have only dropped eight points in the league this season and they are second, just two points behind Real Madrid. But in terms of the way they are playing it feels like something is missing.
As for Messi, his achievements put him in a different category to the rest of us who played the game. But even so, in him, as much as anyone, I detected that mood of boredom. He has never been a player given to chasing the full-back when his team lose the ball, but now, more than ever, he keeps his movement to an absolute minimum.
For a young manager like Luis Enrique, it will be hard to change the way Messi, and the rest of the stars in this team, play the game. They have won it all. They have conquered the world. Now Enrique has to find a way of persuading them to do it all over again, on his terms. You could see him on the touchline trying, and largely failing, to get them to play with greater urgency.
It made me think about the great years at United and how we, as a team, would pick ourselves up year after year. First of all there was our manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who would push us on. Also, as a United player, you always feared the summer arrivals in the transfer market and how they might affect your place in the team. I can see the parallels between United without Ferguson and Barcelona without Guardiola.
When we came back for pre-season in late July of 2009, you could sense that Sir Alex was still angry even then about the defeat to Barcelona in the final in Rome the previous May. There were always matches to win, targets to achieve.
Watching Barcelona, albeit just one game, I felt the era of the great team Guardiola built was coming to an end. That does not mean some of those players will not go on to be part of another great side, just that they need to find another way of playing. The game moves on and Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have found new ways of playing, especially against Barcelona.
On Sunday they were without Andres Iniesta, a fine player who would be a miss for any side. I still have Iniesta’s shirt from the 2011 final. He asked me to swap at the end of the game. His shirt is in my garage somewhere. I mean no disrespect, it is just I have never been one for memorabilia from my playing days. There is nothing of mine on display at home, apart from my 2008 Champions League winning shirt, which my oldest son has on his bedroom wall.
There would have been more Champions League triumphs for United were it not for Barcelona. I do not begrudge them their success. They were a wonderful team. I just wonder if they need a new direction if they are to hit those heights again.
It feels too late for Gerrard to leave Liverpool now
For all the debate over where Steven Gerrard plays out his days at Liverpool, I do not see his role as anything other than a holding midfielder. Playing in that No 10 playmaker role can be very difficult in your thirties. There is always a danger the game can pass you by, especially if the midfield behind you are not at the very top of their game.
In my days playing off the striker at United I had Nicky Butt and Roy Keane behind me controlling the game and making sure I was on the ball a lot of the time. Gerrard is Liverpool’s best passer from deep and capable of linking the play. Lucas Leiva has his strengths but you could see in the game against Leicester that he struggles to get attacks moving when he is taking the ball from his own defence.
As for Gerrard, I would not be surprised if he is still suffering a hangover from the World Cup and the disappointment of last season. It takes a long time to get that out of your system. There were signs on Tuesday night that he looks a bit sharper and he will get better as the season goes on.
It seems natural to me that Gerrard would stay at Liverpool for the rest of his career. The time to move, if ever, was a decade ago when he would have had a better chance of winning a league title elsewhere, most likely Chelsea. He decided against that and now I imagine in his hometown, with his children that bit older, a move would be more of a wrench for the family. He might not win that league title, but he still has another two years in him at Liverpool.
Lampard left Chelsea too soon for the MLS
I was never tempted by a move to the American MLS, but then I should also add that they never asked me! Perhaps Frank Lampard made that move a little early, given how well he has been playing for Manchester City. He could play up to 25 games for City if he were to stay the rest of the season, and what an asset he would be.
Will Chelsea feel a stab of regret about letting him go? Their problem last season was the lack of a reliable centre-forward, and Lampard was always a good bet for a goal from midfield. That strength will earn City some important points this season.
Schweinsteiger would be my Ballon d’Or winner
The three nominees for the Ballon d’Or are all wonderful footballers, but I do find it difficult to accept that no German footballer, beyond Manuel Neuer, got a nomination. If I was to pick my standout it would have to be, in a World Cup year, a World Cup winner.
Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger were all excellent, but if I had to pick one as my player of the year it would be Schweinsteiger.
Scholes’ week: What caught my eye
Man of the week: Frank Lampard Followed up a fine performance against Bayern with a goal against Southampton.
Manager of the week: Oldham Athletic's Lee Johnson Who else? His team won 3-0 away at Rochdale, one of the great derbies in world football, and are up to sixth in League One.
Goal of the week: Marouane Fellaini’s first goal at Old Trafford He has shown great character.
Match of the week: Queen’s Park Rangers vs Leicester City QPR's victory showed a bit of steel in Harry Redknapp’s team.Reuse content