BARCELONA VS MANCHESTER UNITED
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: 2011
Put on John Coltrane’s Blue Train, load the 2011 Champions League Final onto Youtube, mute the game, and get ready to melt. It's Barcelona against Manchester United, and for some reason the jazz really does it*.
Pep Guardiola looks giddy during his pre-game handshake with Sir Alex Ferguson.
He gets to face a master of the craft, and it looks as though he knows he’s got the stuff to beat him.
Ferguson sends out a line-up that is ready to play rough. At the time, that was a strategy teams used to try to beat Barcelona. They tried to break up the tika-taka with a sledgehammer and flame.
The strategy’s failure seems to be best summarized by Muhammed Ali: you can’t hit what you can’t see.
Most of the time, the United players can't get to the guy on the ball in time to deliver their blows.
When they do, the Barcelona players look unaffected.
When you watch the game, count how many times Messi runs at the United defense.
He’s a triple-threat player: he can dribble, he can pass, he can shoot **.
He can score with his left foot. He can score with his right.
He runs at you with control that is supernatural.
There is nothing more formidable to stop.
One example of this comes in the 20th minute. Messi drifts behind the shifting defense, receives the ball at his feet, at about the halfway line, then turns and gallops at the goal.
He does similar moves in the 40th and the 43rd. Throughout the game, United leave him space usually reserved for lepers. To defeat a team Messi plays on, he has to be given little-to-no space, or there just isn’t any point in trying to defend him. He will run, pass, and shoot through you.
In the center of the field, Guardiola has Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, and Andres Iniesta playing against, for the most part, Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia, and Michael Carrick. That’s world-class against old, second-rate, and discount shop.
From about the 20th minute on, Barcelona run the majority of the play through this contingent. The usual possesion sees Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi form a small triangle, probably ten yards between each man. This triangle can shift, it’s blobby, it expands and shrinks. Messi is most often at the tip of it, waiting for a chance to turn and run at defenders. Usually, one or two United players get stuck in the middle (most often players coming from the previously mentioned three), and the Barca triplet just plays a little game of 3 v 2 all the way up the field.
Below, you can see the Messi, Iniesta, Xavi Triangle in action. This one forms around Giggs then Carrick. The Barca players work the ball between the three of them. They suck in Giggs, beat him. Right in is Carrick, which creates a big gap between the United midfielders and the defenders. Carrick is beat, so Iniesta can run through that big gap and head for the United back-line. Messi and Xavi run with him. The ball is slotted to Messi, and United’s Nemanja Vidic makes a last-ditch effort that keeps Messi out, but that’s not going to happen every time.
Attacks are converted to goals at a rate less than that of a baseball player’s batting average.
However, statistics have shown, attacks Messi is a part of succeed more often than any others.
This Champions League Final was reduced to a situation where Barcelona had a major advantage. Guardiola made it a possession game between three world-class players, in their prime, and three guys who were nothing close to that.
It’s like watching a bullet shoot through a watermelon in slow-motion***.
Here was Sir Alex’s only solution:
Barcelona won 3-1.
* Full match and Full album
** Through the last 4 years, Messi has been the world’s top goal scorer, a leader in assists, and had an over 50% 1 v 1 success rate.
*** Footage of a bullet shooting through numerous household items (in slow-motion). Any of which are analogous to Messi, Iniesta, Xavi versus Giggs, Valencia, and Carrick.