(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Now that Manchester United are on the brink of a record 19th league title, the focus for many, at least for the supporters, has shifted to the UEFA Champions League final at Wembley versus F.C Barcelona. Barring a catastrophic collapse, one that might cause this writer to have a Charlie Sheen sort of meltdown, United should be able to earn a single point to clinch the domestic title sometime in their final two matches. Despite being a side that supposedly lacks "fantasy" according to Olympique de Marseille manager Didier Dechamps, and amongst others, the Red Devils have yet to enter a match as a decided underdog this season in any competition. However, the English side will certainly be that to their Catalan counterpart at Wembley come 28 May.
Now, I don't necessarily share this sentiment that seems to have become lazy rhetoric about United. However, I do concede that we should be underdogs in this European final. For the most part, I'd argue that this Barcelona side has earned all the praise and adulation that has come their way. Their semi-final tie versus bitter rival Real Madrid may have brought out the worst in Barcelona in terms of theatrics on the pitch, however, their football is undeniably brilliant; and this current edition has a collection of winner's medals.
There is recent history between the two clubs; United were victorious three seasons ago in a Champions League semi-final tie after Paul Scholes' cracker at Old Trafford sent his side to the final; where they went on to defeat Chelsea FC on penalties for the club's 3rd European Cup. Just a year later, Barcelona earned vengeance in Rome during the final; a convincing 2-0 victory over United. Now just two years later, the two giant clubs, who arguably are the most successful in Europe during the past half-decade, are set to clash again for European glory in London.
Barcelona generally play in a 4-3-3 shape, but it often resembles a 3-4-3 shape when they are in possession or when they are pressing in their opponent's half. The Spanish side play compact and high up the pitch; this results from a high line in defense and pressing that begins from their attackers. Vertically, they generally are spread no further than 25-30 yards apart from front to back.
In attack, David Villa usually plays on the left but he likes to cut in and onto his right-foot. Lionel Messi has moved to the center of the attacking line in the past year or so, however, the Argentine often comes deep for the ball and acts as a "false-nine;" this often results in a shape that some describe as a 4-3-1-2. Pedro is the other first-choice attacker and he often is deployed on the right. All three attackers are very versatile and their movements make them them very fluid and interchangeable; the three will often change positions in between or during matches.
In the midfield, Sergio Busquets sits in front of the center-backs as the holding player, but he is also renowned for his ability to use one-touch passes to quickly swing the ball around. Xavi is the heartbeat of Barcelona as he's the passer or link player; is it nearly guaranteed that he will have more touches on the ball than anyone else during the final. Andres Iniesta plays highest up the pitch in a creator's role; he often provides the more direct passes that supplies the attackers and unlocks defenses.
In defense, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique are the first-choice center-back tandem; the former is the more physical of the two whilst the latter often ignites attacks from the back with his ability on the ball. The full-backs bomb forward in attack; especially the energetic right-back Dani Alves. The video below does well to show how Busquets often drops deep in between the center-backs when Barcelona are building an attack; the center-backs then spread wide and a three-man defense is created. The full-backs are then free to go forward and provide width in attack.
Fc Barcelona - Off the ball movements (via allasFCB)
The Catalonians are famously known worldwide for their impressive attack. They arguably boast the world's greatest player in Messi, another prolific goal-scorer in Villa, two superb passers and creators in Xavi and Iniesta, and the most dangerous attacking full-back in the world in Alves. But despite the individual brilliance of Barcelona's players, which includes all three Ballon d'Or finalists from this year (Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi), it's arguable that the system is greater than the sum of the parts.
Johan Cruyff is famously synonymous with the philosophy of "Total Football." The Dutchman learned this influence as a player from his mentor Rinus Michels. The most basic principle of the system is fluidity; the movement of players is interchangeable, thus there is no restriction on mobility. However, the basic intended shape is maintained through the intelligent choice of movement. In turn, current manager Pep Guardiola learned this influence as a player at Barcelona under then manger Cruyff. Under Guardiola, there have been slight alterations to the system; there's a larger focus on positional awareness, organized pressing, and keeping possession.
As previously mentioned, the basic shape of choice is the 4-3-3/3-4-3. This structure offers passing triangles all throughout the pitch. Barcelona's fluid movement, their shape, and their compactness in between the lines makes it easier for them to control possession with short passes. This diagram below shows the basic passing triangles offered:
While sensational in attack, Barcelona's defense, specifically their pressing, is probably just as impressive. Rumors exist that Guardiola stresses to his side that they must win the ball back within 6 seconds if they are dispossessed. As mentioned, Barcelona play with a very high line and they relentlessly press in their opponent's half when out of possession. This pressing high up the pitch is the principal core to their defense, and arguably even their attack.
It's a little bit of a chicken or the egg scenario; does Barcelona's pressing work well because they typically dominate possession in their opponent's half or do they keep possession so well and offer a continual threat in attack due to their pressing? Either way, each are certainly related to each other. The instant that the Catalan side lose possession, the wheels go in motion: their attackers begin to pressure the opposing defenders, their full-backs, who are already high up the pitch in attack, close down the wide attackers, Xavi and Iniesta press their counterparts in the central midfield, Busquets is either free to roam or he can close down a withdrawn forward, and the two center-backs occupy either a lone striker or they mark a striker pairing with Busquets sweeping. This basic diagram offers a visual (because of space constraints, footballs are used to reference the opposition):
What often results is the opposition panicking in their own half and this can lead to a number of outcomes that favor Barcelona: (1) a giveaway near the goal; with the quality and precision of the attack, this creates waves of goal-scoring chances. (2) opponents wildly attempting to relieve pressure by aimlessly punting the ball away; Barcelona's organization typically allows them to regain possession and quickly build-up the attack again. (3) Fatigue setting in for the opponent due to the continual chasing of Barcelona and their possession; and also due to the constant energy exerted in the attempts to relieve pressure near one's own goal.
There have been numerous attempts to counter Barcelona's tactics in recent seasons and patterns are emerging as to what can be successful. In the lead-up to the final, I'll look to provide a series of articles; I'll examine various strategies that can be used by United against Barcelona's tactics, United's lineup possibilities will be discussed, specific match-ups -- both individually and units will be examined, and any other interesting topics that emerge in the discussion here at The Busby Babe. For now, the idea was to give an introduction of our opponent and to get the discussion going.