Thursday, May 28, 2009


Barca on Points

Congratulations Barcelona, worthy champions of Europe for 2009.

An early goal can certainly set the tone of a game, and this morning's game provided a textbook example. United had come out of the blocks quickly, Victor Valdes had already fumbled a sighter from Cristiano Ronaldo into the path of Park Ji-Sung (how crucial Carles Puyol's challenge was, in the grand scheme of things), and Ronaldo had flashed a shot just wide after a well-executed move. Then came Samuel Eto'o's opener, from Barca's first real attack...and all was different thereafter.

In all truth, United looked a beaten side from that moment on. Sloppy in their passing, leaden-footed in midfield and largely unwilling to support each other with movement off the ball, they looked anything like defending champions. Barca, by contrast, gave a masterful display of possession football throughout.

The star of the show, as he has so often been for Barca (although not always recognised as such) was the superb Andres Iniesta. I've long been a fan of the Catalans' peerlessly adroit little strategist, and although his assist (to use an inadequate term) for the first goal was his most telling contribution, he was always in control of the midfield. Xavi Hernandez was an excellent foil as always, providing his own killer blow with his deft cross for Lionel Messi on the occasion of Barca's second.

One of the most interesting aspects of the game for me was Pep Guardiola's use of a subtle tactical approach which I've described previously, and which seems to be slowly gaining ground in world football.

Messi, usually employed on the right, shifted infield for this one...but he didn't play as an out-and-out forward. Instead, he lurked just between the United lines, allowing Thierry Henry (left) and Eto'o (right) to make the thrusts out wide. Guardiola's thinking was clear: the much-lauded United defensive pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic are highly effective when they have a definite frontman (or front two) to "police", but when they have men running at them, it's a different story. And so Eto'o proved, ridiculing Vidic when he swooped from the right to score Barca's first. In the second half, there was a mirror image move, when Henry came surging in from the left to glide easily past Ferdinand, although he failed to finish the move off.

Another advantage of the compressed formation was that it made it even easier for Barca to build from the back, as they love to do. With Messi making an "extra" man in the centre, there was always a man within ten yards of the defence to receive, when Barca's back four were on the ball. Contrast this with United's periods of possession at the back, when the likes of Carrick and Anderson were hanging forlornly around in the centre, not sure whether to drop deep to receive or stay alert for a "second ball".

A new tactical trend? Perhaps. But the essence of Barca's victory was not really any particular tactical design, but rather their individual players' ability to control the ball, move intelligently off it, make good decisions quickly, and pass accurately. Hats off to the champions, the finest football side in the world at the moment.

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