Don’t Write Off Manchester United: Lessons from 2008 and 2009

Posted on May 28, 2011 by

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Champions League fever has hit the footballing world like it was Wembley 1665, a plague of discussions, tweets and opinion pieces. It’s been talked about so much already, and discussions will continue way in to the summer. It’s understandable too, because not only is it a contest fought between Europe’s two biggest and best teams – it’s also fascinating tactically. And from that we seamlessly go into another preview.

Barcelona for the most part are an easy team to predict, they’ve been using their usual 4-3-3 system (with minor variations) for a long time now, and it’s worked wonders for the Catalan side too. It’s not so much the formation that you need to consider with Barça, as when you know the players selected – the system becomes obvious.

Manchester United on the other hand are a much trickier side to guess before hand. Sir Alex Ferguson has started using a heavy rotation policy with his team since the beginning of the 2007-2008 season. It seems to have been as a result of United’s trip to the San Siro back in the 2006-2007 edition of the Champions League, in which they were defeated 3-0 by Ancelotti’s AC Milan team, who also went on to the win the competition.

United looked tired and leggy that night in Milan. Perhaps Fergie thought that it was no coincidence since, for the most part of the season, Manchester United had lined up the same way and played many games. The team usually consisted of: Van Der Sar; G. Neville, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes, Ronaldo, Giggs; Rooney, Saha. Of course there were the usual changes due to injury but for the most part that was the mean, median and mode first XI that season.

Champions League Final 2008:

The 2007-2008 edition of United could not be more different in respects of squad rotation. United bought in more players to bring greater depth into the squad, especially in midfield with the signings of Nani, Hargreaves and Anderson. United’s path to the final that year included a mouth-watering semi-final clash with Barcelona. Barça were then managed by Frank Rijkaard, and they were a different animal to the team they are today – although it was a team that still included Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Puyol, and Abidal. It wasn’t the couple of games that many expected, the tactical naivety of United’s attacking 1999 was gone, and so were the 3-3 score lines to go with it.

Chelsea would be a United’s opponents for the 2008 final in Moscow. The two teams had faced off twice before in that season. The first, a 2-0 win to United at Old Trafford, had United playing a 4-4-2. The second, a 1-0 win for Chelsea, had United playing a 4-5-1 to counter a Chelsea team that had to attack to save their title challenge. Ashley Cole was a standout player that day, and was dangerous went going forward from his left back position.

Alex Ferguson was not afraid to tinker with his team selection for that final. Perhaps the first surprise was the exclusion of one of United’s big game players and perhaps their best tactical asset in European competition, Park Ji-Sung. The all-around midfield man had played in both legs of the quarter and semi finals and was a key part in stifling Barcelona in the Nou Camp and at Old Trafford. Park Ji-Sung didn’t even make the bench that night.

Owen Hargreaves moved into right midfield. This was most likely to counter the threat of Ashley Cole going forward, perhaps a similar job to what Park Ji-Sung would have been given, but Hargreaves does (perhaps now, did) possess good ability going forward. Hargreaves had Champions League final experience under his belt with Bayern Munich and perhaps that influenced Sir Alex Ferguson into selecting him that night. Indeed, his stellar performance that in Moscow (and much of that season too) is viewed by many as the reason for United’s patience with Hargreaves in more recent injury-killed seasons, it seems now thought that United’s patience, like the England international’s contract, has ran out.

Cristiano Ronaldo started out on the left hand-side of midfield, and it was another selection that was rewarded. A neat one two played between Wes Brown and Paul Scholes sent a cross from right-back Wes Brown, and Cristiano Ronaldo towered above makeshift right-back Michael Essien to head home. Frank Lampard’s equaliser just before half time was made more by fortune than the by-product of tactical astuteness.

Luck was on Manchester United’s side in the shootout, Sir Alex Ferguson’s 3 substitutes: Nani, Anderson (who was brought on only to take a penalty) and Ryan Giggs all scored their spot kicks. Of course, Chelsea fans and John Terry will eternally look back at the football of John Terry slipping as he went to take his penalty and wonder. At the end of it all Manchester Untied were European Champions.

Champions League Final 2009:

Manchester United made the final for second time in 2009, in an attempt to be the first team of the Champions League era to regain their trophy.  This time things were entirely different, Sir Alex Ferguson’s changes to his line up were not so much an attempt to help take the game to the opposition, as they were against Chelsea, but more to counter the threats that Barcelona posed. They had failed to fully impose their game on Porto in the quarterfinals and only scraped through, this against a team who played a similar way to Barcelona, just without as much mastery. This Barcelona team had blown many away and won plaudits from anyone who watched them, and brought tiqui-taca into club football and perfected it.

Many will point to the absence of Darren Fletcher as a huge factor in deciding the fate of the 2009 Champions League final after his unfair dismissal against Arsenal in the semi-final leg. Owen Hargreaves, a hero of 2008 was crocked and it had been Fletcher’s vast improvement that had meant United hadn’t really been in need of his services that much. It had been Darren Fletcher breaking up opposition attacks, leaving Michael Carrick to pass and dictate the play.

Anderson, Carrick and Giggs filled a 3-man central midfield that night, taking on the Barça midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. Anderson failed to make the desired impact that Darren Fletcher would have done, his qualities are far more forward thinking despite his large physique meaning naturally he can be a battler in the middle of the park. Unsurprisingly, Anderson was substituted at half time.

Wayne Rooney was used as a left-side attack midfielder, which meant Cristiano Ronaldo was given a free role up front, a stark contrast to how Ronaldo lined up against Chelsea just one year earlier. It’s a switch that would have been more understandable had super-adventurous right-back Dani Alves not been suspended for the final. Carles Puyol is many things but he is not a bombarding Cafu-like figure, and it adds to the surprise that Ronaldo was not deployed on the left hand side once again.

In spite of that, United did not play as badly as many people frequently tell. In the opening of the first half Barcelona were trapped inside their own half and United really should have scored early on. Samuel Eto’o opened the scoring, as Barça preyed on some uncharacteristic lax United play at the back. This was the very same Manchester United defence that had gone from December 16th 2007 to February 21st 2008 without conceding a league goal.

In truth Barcelona were worthy winners, and they have continued to be worth under Josep Guardiola, who has created a team that will fondly be remembered as one of the all-time great sides.

Champions League Final 2011:

The set-up for this year’s final is entirely different once more. Manchester United have change from the 1st gear team that many saw after Bayern Munich eliminated them from the Champions League in 2010.

Sir Alex Ferguson has openly admitted he knew what went wrong during the Champions League final in Rome, and this Saturday is a test to see just what he has learned from it. Now Ferguson has many more options to pick, despite many saying this United squad is not as good as it was back in 2009. Gone are Carlos Tévez and Cristiano Ronaldo, but in come some players who have something very different to offer.

In comes Antonio Valencia, a right-winger whose comeback from his early-season leg break has sparked Manchester United’s new way of playing. His crossing ability is probably the best United have seen since David Beckham, and his defence work is stellar too. He filled in at the right-back slot for the second half of the quarterfinal game against Chelsea with ease.

Perhaps the biggest weapon available to Sir Alex Ferguson this time is Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the Mexican’s first season has seen him impress many and become an instant hit in Manchester. His pace is a huge option to attack the Barcelona back line with and it seems likely that instead of, as in 2009, United having to set out their stall to counter Barcelona’s tactics, that they will certainly have to set their stall to counter Hernández.

Regardless, Barcelona are the favourites, and it’s entirely understandable. They have Lionel Messi, one of the finest players to have ever played the game. Add on top of that the brilliance of Xavi, Iniesta and Villa and it’s understandable why so many will go with Barcelona. They probably will win, but it’s likely to be much closer that many people predict. Certainly it may not be Rome 2009 but United fans will hope it will be a bit more Moscow 2008.

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Twitter – @filippoinzaghi

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Posted in: Europe