A possible Dani Alves vs Park Ji-sung may be the most important tactical match-up in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
A few years back, the brilliant Sid Lowe audaciously claimed Daniel Alves to be the world's 2nd best player. While this is certainly exclamatory, an assertion that even Lowe might not fully believe himself, it certainly gets the point across to Alves' extraordinary ability to influence a match from his position at right-back. This heart of the superb F.C. Barcelona side lies up the middle: Victor Valdes provides sure hands in goal, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique are brave in defense, Sergio Busquets shields the defense whilst passing tidily, Xavi is the midfield maestro, Andres Iniesta's silky sublimeness slips his strikers through, and Lionel Messi mesmerizes with his plethora of goals. Perhaps though, it is the daring and dynamic runs of Dani Alves, tirelessly up and down Barcelona's right flank, that provides the extra dimension of fantasy that makes them arguably one of the greatest sides ever to step on a football pitch.
Quite simply, Alves' work-rate is tremendous. It is his intelligent and tireless running that allows him to essentially act as as a wing-back during his dashing runs down the touchline. Note, many tacticians will you tell you that sides with a back four don't have wing-backs, but rather full-backs that attack. Often in a back three, you have three center-backs as your defense, two holding midfielders, and two wings-backs that are free to get forward and provide width in attack. However, I'd argue that Barcelona plays in a shape that fluidity blends the elements of a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3.
When the Catalan side are in possession, their shape often resembles this latter shape. Busquets drops deep in between the center-backs to create a three-man defense whilst the full-backs are free to get forward and provide width in the attack. Alves, in particular, plays very high up the pitch and the average positioning charts for Barcelona often show his positioning to be level, or even higher than his own midfielders. .
In Barca's attack line, Messi plays centrally and often comes deep for the ball in a "false-nine" role. David Villa and Pedro cut inward from their wide-attacking positions and into the space that Messi is leaving. This movement can result in defenders being moved around like chess pieces, thus creating space for midfield runners; and for the darting run of Alves down the right flank. In this movement, Messi can drag a center-back deep whilst the inward movement of Pedro and Villa cause the opposition full-backs to play very narrow. What often results is Xavi or Iniesta providing a killer pass through an exposed passing channel. Alves can move into the acres of space down the touchline or he can angle his run so that he can receive through an exposed passing channel that has been opened through the movement of Barca's attackers.
When Alves does receive in a wide area, he is lethal with his cut-back passes; this is evident by the astonishing 18 assists he has in all competitions this season. He can equally create havoc with surging runs through the heart (0:49 mark) of a defense as well. In this linked youtube clip, you can see Messi operate deep in the space between the opposition's defense and midfield lines. The wide attacking player drags the full-back wide by hugging the touchline. Alves plays the ball into Messi in between the lines but smartly continues his run through the center of the pitch. In confusion, both center-backs and both holding midfielders hesitate for a moment and this allows time for Messi to turn and face goal. For someone as lethal as Messi, this is an open invitation to terrorize and he is further helped by Alves' continued (intelligent) run dragging a center-back wide. What results is Messi knifing through the defense and clinically scoring another goal.
Despite his spirited journeys into the attack, Alves is still a right-back, thus still a defender. His high positioning, work-rate, and pace allow the Brazilian to do one thing really well: press. Barca are rightly regarded as the best possession team in the world, but their pressing as a unit is just as important to their success. Alves' ability to win the ball back in the opposition's half of the pitch is a tremendous asset to Barcelona and their cohesive pressing.
Because of this high-positioning, when both in and out of possession, logic might lead one to rightfully assume that acres of space exist in the area behind Alves. One could further conclude this when factoring in the extremely high line that Barcelona play with in defense.
The Catalan side typically nullify this threat in multiple ways. Some opposing sides simply can't get out of their own half of the field due to Barca's relentless pressing. Others simply fail in getting an attacker into this exposed space because they often deploy a defensive-minded player to track Alves, thus giving up on intent to attack down that side. In addition, even when some sides do get the attack ignited down that side, they simply fail in attack because of Alves's pace and work-rate often allows him to track back in time and stymie it. Furthermore, in the times that Alves is beaten in behind, Busquets and Puyol often do well to clean up.
Sound hopeless? Possibly. But possibly not. I believe that Manchester United potentially have the right personnel in Park Ji-sung, Wayne Rooney, and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez; and also the right recent tactics to exploit their Catalan counterparts.
Park's role, if deployed on the left-flank as expected, will be simple: the Korean must track the runs of Alves. The task may be simple in design, but the application of the design and it's degree of success (or failure) will be crucial; it quite possibly will be the most important tactical match-up in the Champions League final. Park's work-rate is tremendous as well, and also like Alves, he possesses an intelligent tactical brain. Barcelona will likely control anywhere from 55-75% of possession in this match and during this time, Park must man-mark Alves. When the Korean does decide to leave Alves, it must be selective, necessary, and intelligent.
Whilst the ability of Park to track and defend Alves will be crucial on Saturday in order for United to contain the Barca attack, the Korean's underrated ability in attack, particularly on the counter, might be a key component for the English side to potentially hurt their Catalan counterpart on the break. Park was involved in one of the greatest counter-attacking goals (3:37 mark) in recent memory versus Arsenal FC in 2008-09 Champions League play. Cristiano Ronaldo played a cheeky backheel to Park after a clearance in defense, Park used a sublime first-touch to quickly set up a low cross in for Rooney, the United number ten slipped Ronaldo through after a lung-busting run and the Portuguese great calmly finished.
As previously mentioned, Busquets does well to cover for Alves in defense because of Barca's occasional 3-4-3 shape. If the ball is played behind Alves, Busquets often sweeps for the defense or Puyol simply slides over to cover the space. In Rooney's recent role as a central playmaker, one that has him essentially as an auxiliary central midfielder, it allows him to track back and continually get goal-side of the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder. In Barcelona's case, this is Busquets.
With Rooney's deep positioning in between the defense and midfield lines, either Puyol or Pique will get dragged out of position if they track him or Busquets will occupy him in this space. If the former happens, the lone center-back is exposed one-on-one with the remaining striker - in United's case, this is Chicharito. With the young Mexican's pace and Barca's high-line in defense, this would be an immensely vulnerable situation for the Spanish side. If the latter situation happens (see tactical diagram below), Busquets will be occupied by Rooney and he won't be in position to cover for Alves. This is especially dangerous when you consider that Chicharito is intelligent in his movement and he's excellent moving into open space near the flanks. What could result is his marker, likely either Puyol or Pique, getting dragged out too far wide and leaving space for midfield runners through the middle (Rooney, Park, Valencia, Giggs). This simply would be too much horizontal space for one center-back to cover.
This example is contingent on United playing in their recent 4-4-1-1 shape, one that they likely will use on Saturday at Wembley. The first priority for the Reds will be to stay organized and narrow in defense; attempt to contain the goal-scoring chances of Barca's attackers through the middle. If they can successfully do this, something that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to be preparing for, then the next key will be to contain the attacking Alves from the flank. Park must track him but United must also expose Alves by surgically and quickly hitting Barcelona on the break. Barcelona likely will control possession and have more goal-scoring chances, but if United are organized and clinical, they may be able to earn more threatening and genuine chances by hitting Barca right behind an area of strength.