Champions League Final: Barcelona v Man Utd Tactical Preview

The champions of Spain will take on the champions of England on Saturday night in Wembley Stadium in a match for the ages.

Two of club football’s greatest teams will go head to head in a repeat of the Champions League Final in 2009 where La Blaugrana dominated the Red Devils in a very one sided affair. Armed with a better team ethic and with revenge in mind, Alex Ferguson will lead his side out against Pep Guardiola and a team that many feel is the greatest club side of all time.

4-3-3 vs. 4-4-2

There are no two ways about. Old Trafford and the Camp Nou are two of the greatest houses of football worship on the planet. Their very names evoke visions of football being played the right way. Disciplined defending, intelligent movement, sabre like attacks, and above all – great players and great managers.

Barcelona has been one of the worlds great sides for the last five or six years. They have dominated the domestic game to such an extent that their chief rivals, Real, have changed their footballing philosophy in an effort at catching them by bending the knee to accept Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic views on the game. And they have become the team you need to beat if you want to have any say in the Champions League.

Their dominance though, can be traced back to a little farm house renovation in 1979.

Inspired by the Dutch school of football and Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff in particular, the then club president, Josep Nunez, decided to change the club residence to a youth academy with a view to changing the clubs playing style to the Total Football style of Ajax and La Masia as we know it today was born.

4-3-3 as a system can be quite complicated for the average footballer to play and it requires great discipline and awareness to make it look as seamless as La Blaugrana do. In essence, the basic idea is that every player can do every job and that as they move out of position, a team mate moves in to cover and offer support. Movement wise, many formations were built upon “triangles” and always having an option left and right. This can be difficult enough to achieve but Total Football goes one step further and asks for the supporting players for the minimum of three choices, thus creating a “diamond” of options.

This added player/option always offers depth and penetration and in a team where everyone’s technical, physical, and tactical skills are at the top of their game it makes them extremely hard to close down as possession is retained due to the superior movement of its players. It therefore comes as little wonder to find that Barcelona have set a Champions League record and have enjoyed an average of 62 percent possession across their 12 matches thus far.

It must be pointed out though, that the role of the goalkeeper is to instigate every move, and while the two central defenders pull wide to offer him width, the two full backs push on past their markers into midfield while a midfielder drops to the centre of the box. This quick change essentially makes the 4-3-3 become something of a 3-4-3 in a mere matter of seconds. It is further complicated by the central striker dropping deep into midfield.

This gives defending centre halves a huge headache, as the full backs are occupied by the wide forwards and they then have to make the decision to either follow their counterpart or pass him onto a midfielder. With such fluid motion of movement, Barcelona becomes extremely hard to mark or pick up.

Manchester United are no slouches either though.

The Red Devils have traditionally used a 4-4-2 system over the years and it is only recently that Sir Alex Ferguson has moved towards a 4-2-3-1 which has been en vogue since Jose Mourinho appeared in the game.

However, more recently, Ferguson has moved back to a tried and trusted 4-4-2 and despite tactical criticism at the beginning his team have proved more than a match for anyone they have encountered either domestically or in Europe this season. 4-4-2 is a formation that is seen by many a being something of a “simple” system but it offers far more flexibility than perhaps any other formation. It is this flexibility that Sir Alex Ferguson has exploited so well and with the right weapons in the right positions 4-4-2 can become as defensive as a Roman Tortoise or as attack minded as Brazil in 1970.

Ferguson, by his nature, is a very attack minded manager and usually employs a striker who can drop deep into midfield and act as something of a play-maker while the two wide players make penetrative runs to either receive the ball or to move the defensive shape of the opposing team. While this is happening, the two full backs will push on and tighten the space for the opponent’s midfield as the 4-4-2 becomes something of a 2-4-3-1 with options everywhere but primarily out wide.

It is in the backdrop of last years dismal Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan and the abysmal World Cup Final between Spain and Holland where three of the four teams involved used a defensive 4-3-2-1 system that we can be thankful that two attack minded managers who instruct their teams to play the right way have got to the final using formations, systems, and philosophies that are based on attack.

Whichever system wins the Champions League Final will be the one that is adopted up and down pitches across the world. Where Sunday League superstars and the schoolboy superstars of tomorrow will represent the hearts and minds that Barcelona and Man United are battling to conquer.

Barcelona: how they got here

Barcelona, quite simply, play the best brand of attacking football on the planet.

They strolled through an easy group featuring FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan, and Panathinikos without ever really having to get out of second gear. After winning the group in the easiest of fashion they were drawn against Arsenal in the Last 16, but despite losing 2-1 at the Emirates, they moved on to the quarter-finals without ever really having to break sweat.

The Arsenal win came courtesy of a team who had dominated the game to such an extent that they substituted their best players and they literally turned off for the final 20 minutes. That will happen in the final.

From there they played Shaktar Donetsk and unfortunately for the Ukrainians, the tie was all over after just 53 minutes as Barca raced into a 3-0 lead in a game they went on to win 5-1. Real Madrid stood waiting in the Semi Finals were arguably the first real opposition that La Blaugrana had to face in the competition. A bad tempered affair at the Bernabeu was settled by none other than Lionel Messi and the tie was as good as over before a ball was even kicked in the second leg.

Key Player: Xavi

The little Catalan maestro is the best practitioner of central midfield play in decades and is certain to go down in history as one of the greats of the game. In a team that boasts such talent as Andres Iniesta, David Villa, and Lionel Messi; it is Xavi who provides the pivot upon which the entire Barcelona axis rotates.

His movement to support his team mates and his ability to instigate attacks with one deft touch mark him out as the best passer of ball in the world and his eye for a killer pass goes unmatched in the game.

Xavi provides the heartbeat of the team and pops up in every area of the pitch and armed with his phenomenal technique and range of passing he has the ability to unlock any team from anywhere.

The key to beating Manchester Utd

Barcelona does not usually worry about the opposition tactics because they have such a fundamental belief in their system and style of play. Be it FC Copenhagen, Real Madrid, or United – Pep Guardiola’s team will play the same way. With that in mind, Barca will be keen to exploit any weaknesses that United may show.

The Red Devils midfield, no matter who Sir Alex Ferguson picks, is very slow and static. So Barca will make sure to zip the ball around as they chase shadows. Lionel Messi will drop deep and ask questions of Ferdinand, Vidic, and Michael Carrick and who should pick the little wizard up.

Carrick will most probably already have enough to deal with Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets so one of the central defenders may have to follow the Argentinean and disrupt the shape of the team. If and when that happens, gaps will open up between the wide defence and then United will be vulnerable to angled through balls for Pedro or Villa.

If the central pairing decides to let Messi go, then he will provide the option to receive the ball and you might end up seeing a replica of his wonder goal against Real Madrid.

It will also be important for Barcelona’s two full backs to push up and occupy United’s wide players. This has to be done in the opponents half to force United into using long out balls to the wings. Where a deep lying three man defence will be able to sweep wide and have the time to see the danger coming. Barca’s defence should be under strict instruction to stay that little bit deeper so as to negate a through ball for Hernandez or Rooney.

Pep Guardiola

“Manchester United is extraordinarily strong, very similar to Real Madrid. They are a hard-working side and it’s very hard to hurt them.”

“We have to be very careful because they can score against you on the break. We have to know how to interpret the final, depending on how they play, and play the game on our terms.”

Manchester United: how they got here

United are unbeaten in the Champions League, only conceding four goals in the entire competition and none away from home and sailed into the Champions League Final without even having to break sweat.

Group C contained Valencia, Bursapor, and Rangers with United topping the group with relative ease.

The Last 16 draw against Marseille looked tricky on paper but once again Sir Alex Ferguson’s side showed their experience and Champions League nous to keep the French champions at arms length across the two games.

Next up was a Battle of Britain decider against the team United beat in the Final in 2008, Chelsea. Again, this looked like a game that could really go any way, but once again, United stepped up to the plate and destroyed the Blues at Stamford Bridge with their best performance of the season despite the 1-0 scoreline. It was more of the same one week later as a shell shocked Chelsea side’s season literally came to an end.

German hopeful’s Schalke 04 waited in the semi-finals but in truth they were hopeless and are quite possibly the worst team ever to make it that far into the competition. United slaughtered them in Germany to such an extent that Sir Alex Ferguson sent his second string XI out to play them in the second leg despite only having a 2-0 lead. Fergie knew best though as his reserves hammered Schalke 4-1.

Arguably, United and Barcelona have yet to face a challenge in this Champions League.

Key Player: Javier Hernandez

The Little Pea, Chicharito, Hernandez, or Javier as his mother calls his has had nothing less than a sensational debut season for United.

When you further consider that Hernandez is a young man, displaced half way around the world in a culture that is strange to him, as well as adapting to playing for a club with the kind of demands that United has, you realise that he has had to overcome huge hurdles in less time than experienced players like Dimitar Berbatov who took a long time to settle.

His movement and positioning will be the key to unlocking Barcelona’s defence.

When Barca have the ball he will have to back track to the half way line and force either Pique or Puyol to follow him. If he can achieve this then he will instantly be a better option for a through ball or a one on one situation with his marker.

While achieving this, he will also be doing a second job by freeing space for Rooney to operate it and disrupting the shape of the Barcelona defence at the same time.

The key to beating Barcelona

How do you eat an elephant? It is an age old question, but once you put your mind to the start of the task ahead and concentrate it becomes smaller by definition. In other words – it can be done!

Barcelona will not change their style of play for anyone and it is with that in mind that Ferguson will be studying match tapes as he searches for weaknesses. As mentioned before, every Barcelona move begins with Valdes, Puyol and Pique. Their importance to the whole effort cannot be underestimated.

For that reason, it is important that when Barcelona has the ball that Wayne Rooney pushes up as far as possible to help Hernandez split the back three or four of Barcelona. While they push up, United will have to go one-on-one across the rest of the pitch with, most probably, Rio Ferdinand acting as a sweeper.

Xavi and Iniesta must be picked up as quickly as possible to stop quick passes through central midfield and to shut the supply to the forwards off while Lionel Messi must either be passed on or shadowed as he roams across the final third.

With the supply lines to Messi, Villa, and Pedro now closed down, Barcelona should be forced to move the ball out wide to the roaming full backs.

It is here, with great discipline and courage, that United have the best chance of exploiting La Blaugrana’s biggest weakness, the space behind their marauding full backs and the lack of pace of their main central defensive pair.

If United can get in behind them and onto the backline with pace to cross, they should get the Barcelona defence on the half turn as Rooney and the wide midfielders arrive late into the box.

Simple? Not really, it still requires every United player to have an 8/10 or 9/10 game to succeed.

Patrice Evra

“Two years ago, everyone said we were going to beat Barcelona easily in Rome. Maybe the opposite will happen this time.

“Barcelona is very good at keeping the ball but football is not about keeping the ball, it is about scoring goals.”

“This year twisted on that game against Bursaspor. We won but everyone was criticising us.

“But, for all the trouble that was around the club [at the time], I felt then this team was more of a unit [than in 2009]. I just knew Manchester United was going to come together.”

Didier Deschamps

“I love the competition and it was a huge joy to win it with OM and Juventus as a player. The Champions League is a chance to play against the biggest European sides.

“Barcelona and United are great teams, the best in the world, with two different styles but one obsession, one aim: having the ball at their feet. With Barcelona, it’s fabulous; with United, it’s more controlled. The English side, unlike the Catalans, don’t mind coming under pressure – they can hold tight 30 metres from their goal, lying in wait, and when they launch a counterattack they are so precise.

“I prefer Barca because attacking play is the aim of football – getting the right result by having more possession than your opponent. They have played together for five, six, seven or eight years now. They are steeped in this style, it’s natural to them. Watching their movement, you can only marvel at how they manage to instil their way of playing into players from all backgrounds – it is an impressive feat. Barca is strong in the middle with players like Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and then spectacular attackers like Lionel Messi.

“United defend very well and attack very sharply. Their plus point for this final will be Wayne Rooney because he is less tired than the others, he can make the difference. As well as being able to play four different positions, he never makes a mistake with his passing. He has great stamina and aggression.

“The relationship between Rooney and Javier Hernandez impresses me; in terms of movement, the latter is awesome. They always know where the other is, it is a perfect passing relationship. Playing them gave my players invaluable experience.”


Lionel Messi is the top scorer in the Champions League with 11 goals in 12 games and has had more attempts on target than any other player in the competition with 31 shots.

Wayne Rooney by comparison has scored 3 goals from 8 games with just 15 shots on target.

Lionel Messi is the most fouled player in the competition having being fouled 30 times.

Barcelona has the highest average possession rate with 62 percent.

Manchester United is just behind with 58 percent possession.

Barcelona has scored 27 goals and average 2.25 goals per game while United average 1.5 goals per game.

Manchester United only concedes 0.33 goals per game compared to Barcelona who concede 0.67 goals per game.

Barcelona and United have held the ball for longer than any other teams at 487 and 448 minutes respectively.

In fouls for; United average 13 per game to Barca’s 11 per game, the 4th and 5th highest in this years competition.

Barcelona is the most fouled team in the competition with 195 fouls while United have been fouled 137 times.

1968: The total number of goals scored in the Premier League this season, and the same year that Manchester United won their first European Cup, at Wembley.

Final Thoughts

Undoubtedly, these are the two best teams in European football and it is highly intriguing to see how they go about each other in a game that promises to be as calculating as a game chess.

Both managers have had questions asked of them domestically and in Europe, and they have come up with the answers time after time, so it is going to be a titanic battle of wits come the final.

Barcelona is the better footballing outfit, their free flowing style is very easy on the eye and they have the ability to open up any side. While United are equally comfortable on the ball, they possess more direct weapons than the Spanish and like to move the ball wide with pace for counter attacks.

It is very hard to call a winner as both teams are on form, but when push comes to shove, I think Barcelona should win a tight game.

The Author

Willie Gannon

Willie Gannon is a football writer with a number of coaching badges who is lucky enough to cover the greatest and most debated sport in the world for Backpage Football. He specializes in the English Premier League, Champions League, European and International football. His work has been featured on Fox Sports, CBSSports, the Daily Mirror Football Online, the LA Times Online, Tiger Beer Football, Bleacher Report and the International Business Times.

3 thoughts on “Champions League Final: Barcelona v Man Utd Tactical Preview

  1. Normally I root against ManU, but Barca lost me with all their dives, whining, and gamesmanship against Real. Still, can’t wait for the game though!

    1. Sounds like a bit of an excuse pointing at the games against Real, rather than the standard football Barcelona plays……

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