This 3-1 victory was no fluke. Barcelona were by far the best team in Europe, and the universe beyond, this season and it was fitting that they gallantly carved up a Manchester United side with delirious, ultimately, silly pretensions to the European throne, exposing them to the world as the vulnerable, opportunistic paper tigers hapless English sides have been unable to unmask.
As the great Phil Ball writes, commenting on the English press’s dogged half-time insistence that United could still somehow win the match:
“It seemed a reasonable assessment, given the random nature of the universe, and the probability that anything, anywhere, can happen.”
These improbable quirks and shudders of fate that constitute a random universe; a bad bounce; a sketchy penalty late in the match; a dubious redcard…all weighed on my mind in the buildup to the match as the only real factors capable of producing a Barca defeat.
As superior as Barca would prove to be, United were not helped much by the baffling decisions of their mumbling, knighted Scottish manager who seemingly picked the United players least suited to stifling Barca’s relentless possession game, as Nani, Anderson and Dimitar Berbatov were left off the team sheet to begin the game (Berbatov was apparently not even dressed). Berbatov is not the paciest player around but he is nothing if not a ruthless opportunist around the net, capable of scoring goals in droves. To my eyes, Nani was United’s best player, outside of Nemanja Vidic, for large stretches of the season. Players like these were left on the bench to accommodate Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, lest their feelings be hurt. Ferguson and the people around the club, and in the press who hang on and worship his every word, seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of mind where the calender always reads 1999 and the lads are on the bounce to the fountain of youth.
But these omissions were not the only signs of strikingly careless tactical preparation as Ball duly noted Vidic’s surprising post-match comment that Barca “don’t play with a striker.”
Ball puts Vidic’s revelation in the proper context:
“Bingo. They certainly don’t. Which is why playing with two deep-lying centre-backs is always going to allow the Catalans even more freedom on the ball than they normally enjoy, and isolating your own striker (Hernandez) in the vain hope that he might get some scraps to feed on just takes another body out of the equation.”
After weeks to prepare tactically, why on Earth would the Premier League’s player of the season appear to be surprised by Barca’s alignment and shape. Why would United intentionally, as Ball describes, continue to employ a shape that actually allowed Barca to maximize the potential and efficiency of their own preferred alignment? These are serious questions I wish somebody would ask Ferguson. Pep Guardiola never gets much respect (I guess people generally think anyone could run out Messi, Xavi, Iniesta et.al and get results), but he outcoached Sir Alex with the same graceful ease that Messi and co. used to wear United out on the pitch. It was masterful.
Two final thoughts:
Real Madrid would have served United up a similarly thorough beatdown, imo.
Xavi’s performance from the World Cup all the way through to yesterday at Wembley was a yearlong piece of absolute genius. Iniesta deserves mention as well, but Xavi was otherworldly.
Here are some links to commentary, analysis and recaps I found interesting: