Sir Alex Ferguson has overcome all his adversaries that he has faced over the course of his time as the coach of Manchester United. Be it Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Sir Bobby Robson, Kenny Dalglish, Caludio Ranieri, Kevin Keegan, Gerrard Houllier, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Roberto Mancini, Carlo Ancelotti or any of the greats that have graced European Football, and all have fallen victim to the Wiley Scot’s Red Devils.
With 26 Premier League Manager of the Month awards, far outnumbering the second placed Arsene Wenger with 11, Fergie is quickly running out of competition and a challenge. The one manager who has gotten the better of him twice and in the big European stage is a young coach by the name of Josep Guardiola. Football is an evolving game with strategies, players and style of play evolving over the course of time and sometimes even within a season. What kind of evolution does the manager of the red devils have in his mind to avoid a three in a row defeat to Pep’s Barca.
An interesting fact about the first defeat United had against Barca managed by Pep was that the Barca team in 2008/2009 was not very different from the team they beat the previous season under Frank Rijkaard. With seven of the same players from the 2008 semifinals starting in 2009 finals in Rome, and another five players who were on the same squad in bench, the biggest change was the coach. The other notable changes were Henry, Sylvinho, Pique and Busquets were now starters. Yes, Messi, Iniesta and Xavi had now come on to their own but so were Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. Man for man, the teams were even until one coach’s strategy and philosophy trumped the other.
While the 2008/2009 Champions League Final looked one sided, there was much expectation from United and Ferguson with the 2010/2011 Champions League Final being played in their own backyard at Wembley. There was talk of revenge before the match and there were two shining new stars for ManU with Xavier Hernandez and Nani having a great season till then. Still this United team was considered one of the weakest in their recent past and it showed when it came to big stage with a thumping 3-1 defeat to Barca again. One thing that would have certainly gone through Sir Alex’s mind during those emotionless moments watching his side demolished by a dominant Barca in successive Champions League Finals appearance would have been, how to defeat this Barcelona side proclaimed by many as a greatest footballing team in history. No one could beat Barca at their own game. Arsenal tried and came close. ManU do not possess the kind of players or years of practice to play that way. Mourinho’s Inter and Madrid came close with their ultra defensive game plan but that is not Fergueson’s cup of tea. So how do you defeat a team of Barca’s caliber?
The only other time Barca have looked nervous or were defeated were by teams playing as unit defensively but were quick on the counter attack to strike lethal blows as Rubin Kazan and Hercules showed were possible. Most of the goals scored against Barca either come from pacey counter attacks or from set pieces. This was even more evident from the recent Barca and Milan Champions’ League group stage match. Two goals untypical of Milan to score and typical of Barca to concede. Each one coming at the beginning and end of the game, and each with its own style. This style of play also suits well with the existing strategy and players at United. With the pace and guile of Nani and Valencia and deadly finishing skill of Rooney and Hernandez, Sir Alex only needed a few players to complement and make this team more of well oiled machine. In came Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck, two very quick players who can also defend well and position themselves of the ball well. With both Nani and Ashley Young more than capable of charging down the line with pace, guile and accuracy, Alves and Abidal will have their hands full and are less likely to be adventurous. Then comes the centre of the park where Busquets, Pique and Mascherano/Puyol will be against Rooney, Hernandez/Welbeck and likely Giggs. There is enough pace in at least the former four to cause some major problems to Barca’s rear guard which is not the quickest and can be static at times.
Based on the indication of the first few games, Manchester United does indeed seem to banking on the counter attacking style and a collective defense and offense to propel them through their early challenges. A lot of the attacking moves have come down the flank with no less than three players in Rooney, Welbeck/Hernandez and Giggs/Anderson/Park providing outlet for Nani and Young effectively changing the formation to 4-1-5 during attack. When United do not have the ball, Ashley Young, Rooney and Nani get back to offer defensive cover thus changing the formation to a more 4-4-1-1 looking unit. The players seem to suit the system really well and the strategy is as good as it gets to defeat Barcelona. The inexperience of players in the big stage seems to be the only problem but hopefully United face Barca really late in the tournament to get some experience for the still inexperienced but highly talented youngsters available at the club.
If Manchester United continues to use this system and improve upon it, this might be the year when they bring back the honor and joy to Old Trafford having defeated one of the greatest if not the greatest teams football has ever seen.