Rafa Benítez Blog RSS Rafa Benítez Blog

Sep 2011
Analysis of the Champions League Final

General Articles

Rafa Benítez

Barcelona vs Manchester United, 3-1 Saturday 28.05.11

There was a lot of talk for days before this massive game played in London as is usual with such a big final. The styles were compared of Manchester United, much stronger physically and with a more English style, to that of Barcelona, with a pass and move style, as in the Spanish national team, which has as its spine the Barcelona players.

Analysis prior to the Match

As we outlined in the article published in The Times prior to the final, with data compiled by Opta and Amisco, the first and most important decision Ferguson had to make was how to play. It was obvious that Barcelona would play their usual system and style but United would have to show their winning mentality and either play in their own way or adapt to playing against Barcelona. In the above mentioned article, we mentioned that Barcelona were better than United in terms of number of passes in all areas of the pitch and were also more accurate in their passing. Their players were more able to unbalance the opposition having more dribbles and runs with the ball than United. They also had more shots at goal.

United, for their part, we said, would have to do the things they do better than Barcelona, long balls and counter attack, set pieces as an alternative option and try to impose their better physical strength on Barcelona in tackles and in the air.

The Match


Barcelona: Valdés; Dani Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro.
Manchester United: Van der Sar; Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney, Javier Hernández

United started the match true to these ideas, with pressure from the start high up the pitch, not letting Barcelona move the ball easily, forcing mistakes which confirmed the idea that Man United could stop Guardiola’s men and impose their own game. However, this was only fleeting and lasted barely 10 minutes. So the game became routine for Barcelona who after 32 minutes already had 66% possession and 265 passes completed compared to United’s 100. Barca were imposing their style and were doing it with ease.

Ferguson had instructed his players, especially the centre backs, on how to control Messi in particular, a key player for Barcelona who has free movement between the lines starting from a central striker position. In practice, Guardiola surprised Ferguson with Villa playing more centrally, almost a striker, which prevented Vidic and Ferdinand being able to follow Messi, and this left Evra on the left with no-one to mark because they were expecting Villa or Pedro to occupy that area of the pitch.
Barca’s first goal highlighted this defensive disorganisation of United with Park and Evra trying to help Giggs and Carrick control Messi. With Evra out of position, Xavi’s pass to Pedro exposed that space.

Barcelona were imposing themselves on the game and they were much better in midfield because of the quality of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta linking with Messi and the full backs getting forward, especially Dani Alves on the right. Meanwhile, United were defending as best they could and, because of their character and quality, they managed to score with good play which ended with Rooney showing his finishing ability.

Half time arrived with the hope that Man United could make it more difficult for Barca as a result of the confidence they could gain from scoring.

Second Half

However, the switching of positions between Giggs and Park did not help at all in the need to control midfield where Barca’s players continued to have superiority. Carrick was left on his own, as Park pressed higher up, and could not stop the rapid ball movement of the quick and small Barca midfield. In addition, Dani Alves was getting the better of Giggs, getting behind him twice and creating 2 very dangerous situations for the United defence. Messi’s goal from outside the box making it 2-1 showed the Barca quality and the defensive problems of the English side who were defending deeper but without clear ideas of how to prevent the continual Barcelona penetration.

The stat of 5 shots on goal for Barca against 0 for United in only the first 15 minutes of the second half was significant and confirmed the superiority of the Catalan team.

Pressing and Physical Presence

United wanted to use both but couldn’t. In the 75th minute another situation arose which we had seen repeatedly. A United attempt at pressing, more with the heart than the head, saw Park press high and Carrick was left isolated. Barcelona were dominating the play, the ball and the match and United could not impose their believed physical superiority. Not even on corners, where they could have been dangerous, as they didn’t get one, nor at free kicks because Barcelona only gave 5 away, and only one in a dangerous area. The 63% possession and 17 attempts on goal by Barcelona compared to 3 by United is evidence of Barcelona’s dominance.

The third goal by Villa only pressed home the Barcelona superiority with a touch of class.

The Key

Everyone was talking about the brilliance of Messi, and they are not wrong, but I think the most important feature of Barcelona’s play was the ball movement. In this regard, the 91% passing accuracy by Messi and Xavi explains the defeat of United. Barcelona’s quality players had a lot of the ball and very good precision in passing. The United player with the best passing accuracy was Vidic with 83%, more evidence of the Barca superiority and their high pressing when they lost the ball, because normally the centre backs have good possession and accuracy figures as they play a lot of short passes to each other supported by the goalkeeper.

Another unusual aspect is that normally the wide players run the most in games. But with Barcelona, their positional play means that their centre midfield players cover the greatest distances. They run a lot, participate in the possession phase, and they have ability. With these qualities it is logical that they would win games and trophies, and taking in to account their young age, it would be strange if they didn’t win more in the future.

In conclusion, Barcelona’s style, like that of the Spanish national team, current world champions, with their speed of ball movement, accuracy in passing and their belief in the way of playing were able to dominate the team that usually dominates the Premier League. And this opens another irreconcilable debate: “which is better, the Premier League or La Liga?”