The reinvention of Ryan Giggs as a central player has reinvigorated Manchester United during their run-in. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
When it comes to tactics, I'm generally on the practical and conservative side. Like so many others that love the game of football, I've come to appreciate F.C. Barcelona and their recent sides. I too am a sucker for the subtle genius of Xavi, the sublimeness of Andres Iniesta, the mesmerization of Lionel Messi, the darting and daring runs of Daniel Alves, and the bravery of Carlos Puyol. I've come to admire this Catalan side, and in the case to our upcoming match-up in the UEFA Champions League final, I've led myself to become somewhat (foolishly?) fearful. However, the more that I ponder about it all, I think that we can have a go...
In recent months, and through many season-defining matches, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has appeared to discover his first-choice lineup for the current run-in. It's involved the introduction of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez to the football world's grandest stages, the reinvention of both Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney in central and playmaking roles, the valiant return from injury for Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia, the re-birth of Michael Carrick as a deep-lying midfield maestro, and the cool comeback of Rio Ferdinand. So much rhetoric has been made of United lacking "fantasy," but only now, and in relatively deaf tones, has the resurgence of our side been recognized. There's certainly a deserving and romanticized reverence for this Barca side by both their worldwide supporters and the media, and a cold, calculated criticism of this current United side by many critics. However, the true and lasting legacies of these sides will be determined at Wembley come 28 May.
During the run-in, Ferguson has shifted from his preference of 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation in big matches to a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 shape. The genesis of this recent preference started when Rooney began to thrive in a role that he seems to enjoy most, that of being a creator in a withdrawn role. The arrival of Chicharito to the club has resulted in a partnership that is beginning to blossom. The pace and intelligent movement of the little Mexican striker stretches defenses, thus, more space is being opened between the defense and midfield lines for Rooney to move into and operate in. This is an ideal scenario for a central playmaker with the vision and range of passing of United's number ten.
In addition to his attacking abilities, both Wazza's willingness and ability to defend has had tremendous tactical importance to his side's successful run-in this season. Rooney's consistency in a withdrawn role to track back and get goal-side of the opposition's deepest lying midfielder has helped prevent United from being overrun in the midfield against side's that deploy three central midfielders.
Initially, during this shift away from 4-3-3/4-5-1, United began to play in a 4-2-3-1 shape; with Carrick and Paul Scholes as 'double-pivots.' Both tended to play more side-by-side and as deep-lying playmakers. The introduction of Giggs to the starting lineup, in a central role, has shifted the shape to more of a 4-4-1-1 shape. The Welshman has had a free role to get forward and join the attack; this has also resulted in Carrick playing a bit deeper while shielding the defense.
With Park and Valencia establishing themselves as first-choice wingers in big matches, the attack has really flourished. Valencia hugs his touchline and provides a direct route of attack down the right side whilst Park often comes inside off the left. With Giggs' free-role and his natural instinct to play from the left side, he often interchanges with Park and this provides fluidity to the attack. Park's work-rate is well documented but his intelligent movement and his ability to find pockets of space are undervalued by many.
The work-rate of Rooney and Park, and their willingness to come into the center of the pitch, has helped their side from being overrun by opponents that play with three central midfielders. In addition, the intelligent movements of Rooney, Park, Giggs, and Chicharito have created a fluidity in attack due to the creation of space. Supplement this with the brilliant direct play of Valencia and you have a United side that is peaking in form.
How does match up with Barcelona?
Here is how, on a simple tactical diagram, a seemingly first-choice Barcelona side would look like against the recent United first-choice side:
In their recent four-match El Clasico with Barcelona, Real Madrid deviated away from their typical 4-2-3-1 shape that they've used for much of this season and instead, they played in a conservative 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. Manager Jose Mourinho took a lot stick for these tactics, however, I saw merit and practicality in it. Real Madrid flustered the Catalan side during the first leg of the Champions League semi-final tie with Pepe and Lassana Diarra disrupting their midfield counterparts. The match only changed seemingly soon after Pepe was sent off after a controversial sending-off.
As an observer of this El Clasico series, I spent some time wondering what tactics might suit United best in a hypothetical match-up with either side. As it became apparent that United would likely face Barcelona in the final, I began to think that United would need to revert back to their 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape and apply similar tactics to what Mourinho used. This would possibly involve using the vigor of Darren Fletcher, the energy of Anderson, or the industry of Park in the central midfield. Essentially, I didn't care if United "parked the bus" and looked to hit Barca on the counter if this was the best tactical option available. Well, the more that I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I would have a go at Barcelona if I were the one to choose the tactics.
As previously mentioned, our recent attack has shown potency and fluidity in recent big matches, especially so in the three matches versus Chelsea and also over the two-legged tie versus Schalke 04. However, the real reason that I'd advocate for the recent first-choice lineup to be chosen against this dangerous Barcelona side is because of the mentioned work-rate of Park and Rooney. I don't have any wild fantasies that we'll be able to control possession against Barcelona, therefore, the defending from our attackers will be crucial.
When deployed on the left-side, Park does well to link play from both the touchline and from an inside-left position. His industry also allows him to either track a dangerous full-back when United are out of position, or to come inside and provide cover for his central midfielders. This chalkboard below displays Park's vital contribution against Chelsea FC in the recent title-decider at Old Trafford. If Park is tasked as the wide left player versus Barcelona, his tireless work-rate and intelligence will be crucial in tracking the dangerous runs of Alves and also for providing cover in the central midfield, mainly on Iniesta.
As for Rooney, he will need to continue getting goal-side of the deepest lying midfielder; in the case of Barcelona, this is Sergio Busquets. The holding midfielder not only does a tremendous job providing cover for his full-backs when they get forward with surging runs, but he also does well to use one-touch passes to quickly swing the ball around. Rooney must harass Busquets and do his best to limit the supply of passes to Xavi, Iniesta, and Alves.
If Park and Rooney are able to effectively do their part defensively, this will free up Giggs and Carrick to do battle with Xavi and Iniesta. Although this in itself might cause concern for United and their supporters, at least it won't provide a numerical advantage in the central midfield for Barcelona.
Jonathan Wilson recently wrote that, in theory, the Giggs and Carrick partnership should be a liability in defense. Neither is regarded as a crunching tackler and Giggs' natural position is as a winger. However, the partnership has thrived. Much of this can be attributed to the mentioned contributions of Park and Rooney, however, much of this can also be credited to the intelligence of the midfield duo and the organization of the United defense. Carrick is criminally underrated as a defender and much of his value comes from his reading of the game. The England international has done well to shield his defense, intercept passes, and ignite the attack from deep. The threat of Giggs going forward and his running at defenders has often made his counterparts wary, therefore, the threat of Giggs' attacking has helped him in defense. Giggs will obviously need to be extremely aware of Xavi in a possible match-up, but the Spaniard must also be very wary of his Welsh counterpart as well.
Edwin van der Sar, Ferdinad, Nemanja Vidic, and Patrice Evra are all guaranteed to start in defense, assuming full health. Right-back is the only area in defense where there currently isn't a clear first-choice. The recent starter has been Fabio, however, the veteran John O'Shea may get the start. Fabio's twin brother, Rafael, will be considered as well. O'Shea might provide the most assuredness and a cool temperament, but his lack of quickness for a full-back can be a liability at times versus tricky wingers. I do worry a bit that David Villa might cause O'Shea some trouble. The da Silva twins both provide a bit more quickness and both are tenacious in tackle, but both can be prone to picking up bookings. This for me is the most undecided lineup choice and at the moment, I have a slight preference for Fabio.
In summary, I think that Ferguson's recent first-choice lineup, one that has carried his side during the run-in, should be the choice; not only because I don't want to see stagnant football on this grand stage, but also because I feel it's the most practical approach. Let's have a go....
Feel free to discuss your opinions and choice for United's Champions League final lineup in the comments below.