Date: 28th May 2009 at 1:05pm
Written by:

Often the reasons of defeat are hard to find. Bad luck can play a part, individual mistakes, too and bad tactics can be disastrous as well. This time, however, there’s not a great deal of investigation required: United lost the Champions League final because Barcelona easily won the midfield battle which proved crucial.

Why could they do so? Well, first I must repeat myself: Xavi and Iniesta are the best midfielders in the world right now. They have fantastic quality and on their day are unstoppable. How do you stop them? You need two energetic, quick tacklers and a third midfielder to tie up the loose ends.

Chelsea’s midfield was physical enough in the second leg of the semi-final but could barely get out of their own half because it wasn’t balanced enough. United’s midfield yesterday was neither physical nor balanced enough. And it is easy to see why.

Carrick is a fine player – if he’s allowed to dictate the game from deep, if he’s got the time to read the patterns and make timely interceptions. In order to do that against such a strong team like Barcelona he would have needed another pair of legs in front of him, doing the dirty work.

Anderson tried but he rarely knew which way to turn as one of Xavi, Iniesta or Busquets was always available. Why? Because our third midfielder, Ryan Giggs, played too far ahead and he tracked back way too rarely. And Carrick, well, it would have been unreasonable to expect him to follow either Xavi or Iniesta everywhere as they are both much quicker than him.

So, my conclusion is predictable: what we desperately missed was either Hargreaves or Fletcher. I’m not saying we would have won the game with them – but we would have offered a sterner resistance, would have given a better account of ourselves.

Of course, all of this is that wonderful thing, hindsight. I was all for starting Ryan Giggs and still can’t think of a better midfield in the absence of the aforementioned players. What is slightly baffling for me, though, is that why was Giggs positioned so far ahead? He was effectively a second striker behind Ronaldo for much of the game so it wasn’t really 4-3-3, more like a 4-2-3-1. But for the latter formation, either Tevez or Berbatov would have been better (possibly).

And even so, it could have worked. Oh yes. Barcelona were really nervous in the opening minutes and we came out of the blocks flying. Valdes could not hold Ronaldo’s free-kick and if only Park had been that little bit quicker to react… And a few minutes later, Ronaldo had a chance from inside the box but his shot just eluded the far corner.

Had we taken the lead it would have been a vastly different game and we had the chances to do so. But when Barcelona first crossed the halfway line Iniesta brutally exposed the limitations of our midfield: Carrick and Anderson were waiting for each other, neither attempted to tackle him so he had time and space to pick out a pass to Samuel Eto’o who embarassed Vidic (really, why he couldn’t keep him on the outside? That would have been harmless) and scored.

Our mental collapse afterwards had a simple reason: we were set up to counter-attack and that was impossible with these lightning-quick front players pressing us all the time. Our unbalanced midfield wasn’t allowed time on the ball and they aggravated the problem by being in a hurry even on the rare occasions when we had the chance to bring the ball out of defence and do some nice build-up play.

I think it was somewhat of a tactical decision: Fergie knew that in the absence of the tacklers we have we cannot pass ourselves through the midfield so he urged the troops to get the ball quickly to the front line to test Barcelona’s supposedly weak defence. But these long ball were desperately inaccurate and rarely found their target.

And there’s another thing, too. Barcelona sacrificed much of their attacking threat in order to ensure their defending remains disciplined and focused. Their midfield players closed down even the tiniest bit of spaces and even Eto’o and Henry tracked back on occasions. They didn’t have as much possession as usually, only 52% but they defended better than any time I’ve ever seen them. They were constantly threatening in attack, of course but their safety-first approach was clear – and very efficient.

They deserved to win. It wasn’t a ‘battering’, as Oliver Holt put it in the Mirror, barely concealing his delight and we weren’t ‘outclassed’: quite simply we lost to a team which was in better form and had a better line-up on the night. Their midfield ensured they did not feel the absence of their defenders and that we had reasons to lament the suspension of Fletcher and the injury of Hargreaves. End of.