United played with no discipline and defended on their own 18-yard line, the same problems they have had all season. While they got away with it in an unusually toothless Premiership, Barcelona weren’t going to forsake the opportunities presented to them.
Just look at the Guardian football page. Paul Wilson on “Barca’s Messi Masterclass“. Paul Hayward on their “dizzying brilliance“. Richard Williams saw “a triumph of artistry, patience, imagination.” And if you think this was just north London lefties getting on the nostalgic republican bus, think again. Over at the Telegraph, in Duncan White’s words Barcelona “ascended new heights“. Henry Winter crowns them “kings of the Beautiful Game“. I’m sure somebody wrote something similar at the Mail, but I’m not dignifying their website with clicks.
We know how football journalism has to work: the articles are often written before the game; small changes are made during the match (goalscorers, sendings-off, tactical surprises); and at the final whistle the article is sent to ‘press’ to capitalise on our modern need for an immediate definitive last word on the matter. All those articles have the air of something written in the run-up to the final and they all tell the same story: United were dogged and honest but Barcelona (the clear pre-match favourites) played their trademark beautiful passing game and opened up the United defence, Messi and co. providing moments of brilliance which separated the teams.
Except that wasn’t the game I saw. Not even close. That was probably the game I was expecting to see, but it wasn’t what happened at Wembley last night. Barcelona barely had to break sweat, and they certainly didn’t have to put on a ‘brilliant masterclass’. They merely had to be good; to play their pressing game without playing their beautiful game. Too many things went wrong for United for it to be a truly compelling contest, and it was one-sided in that most disappointing way: when the weaker contender has the hope of holding out gradually diminished through their own flaws. It was frustrating, disappointing and to some extent angering.
Yet, of course, the incentive is for everybody to join in with the media narrative. First, the manager: Ferguson was straight out of the blocks to applaud their brilliance, saying “they are the best team we’ve ever faced“. They weren’t even as good as Barca 2009, in my view. But this is an important meme for Sir Alex to get out there as soon as possible, as it will help cover up what was actually a pretty rotten season for him – full of tactical errors, the usual man-management problems* and a default Premiership victory that is only just working as a sticking plaster.
The fans also benefit from this delusional line: we can say that actually this was a very successful season, reaching the FA Cup semi-final, the Champions’ League final and winning the Premiership. This triumphalism takes the sting out of reality, whereby there is a terrific gloom hanging over next year when (undoubtedly) all our major domestic rivals will be back stronger and fitter, our ageing squad will still have four or five overpaid warm bodies too many, our manager increasingly can’t pick a team to save his life and our debt payments continue to creep ever nearer £50m a year. None of that matters because we are a successful team.
Well, I’m not buying it. United got lucky this year in winning anything at all, and without major restructuring they are going to continue to need huge slices of luck to compete at all. I had hoped the abject display last night would prompt the difficult questions that need asking this summer: should 2011/2 be written off as a title challenge in favour of rebuilding (with an influx of younger players like Eden Hazard, Jack Rodwell, David De Gea etc); or should the team be augmented with a star, a Modric figure? Would a midfield general be the final puzzle piece or a mere stitch in time? Instead we are presented with this numbing anaesthetic of a brilliant Barcelona victory. The opium fug of a season in which we were remarkably close to a treble, instead of the cold water in the face of a trouncing in two competitions from opposition we were too loose to tie down.
So how did Barca win? I refer you back to Richard Williams’ quote at the beginning and I say not through artistry, nor through imagination, but through patience. They played keep-ball, as they do so well, in the top third of the pitch. This should not under ordinary circumstances be enough to beat a great team. United, having aspirations to be best in Europe, should be able to deal with such a simple tactic. Should be able to. Instead, though, they invited Barcelona on, defending along an imaginary line just outside their penalty area in suicidal fashion (as they did in so many hair-raising games this year – no lessons learned by the managerial genius). The abiding image of the game is Barca player X running forward in midfield, at no great speed and with no immediate danger presented, yet being shadowed (and not impeded in the slightest) by a United player jogging backwards as if watching the ball intently equated to defending (in my mind it was always Michael Carrick – it wasn’t, and that’s a bit harsh, but he dithered and faffed often enough to be the abiding villain for me).
Time and again the attack was invited. The ball moved slowly towards the goal with United stupefied, their absurd conviction that defending deep was a suitable tactic against the world’s best team. Time and again Evra, Carrick, Park and Giggs were caught napping, marking with no discipline, not tracking runners off the ball, or tracking the runner on the ball without ever interfering. They played as if they were a training ground opposition. No, that’s not right. They played as if they were watching the game and not taking part in it.**
And who recognised this? The centre backs. Interviewed after the game, Ferdinand (whose position – like Giggs, Scholes, Carrick and [yes, still banging that drum] Ferguson – must, after this season, be under severe threat) noted that “from memory we could have done better with a couple of the goals“. Vidic said “the goals we lost, we didn’t do what we had to do to close their players down.” The game was lost, not won. Barcelona never had to utilise their brilliant passing or individual skills because at the key moments United were half-asleep. Those key moments should never have been allowed of course, only coming about because of the ridiculous deep defence, but when they did, the defence and midfield simply stood off and allowed Pedro to run through unmarked for the first goal, and Messi and Villa to get away unchallenged shots from dangerous, unguarded positions for the second and third.
The fault lies largely with Ferguson, I continue to argue, because his negative tactics have shifted the line of defence so close to the United goal as to invite all sorts of trouble. The conceding of penalties this season has bothered me a lot (the Chelsea league game still rankles) for this reason – it is an unnecessary risk. On top of that, Evra, Carrick, Giggs and Park all played poorly, standing off their markers and leaving a huge amount for the centre-backs and centre-forwards to do (in terms of ball-winning) in their respective areas of the pitch. And Van der Sar graced his exit (after a wonderful season) with a couple of pretty poor positional decisions on the goals. None was his fault precisely, but he could certainly have been more aware on the first and less flat-footed for the other two.
All told it was disappointing. To win last night would have been a huge ask given the disparity in skill between the two teams, but such a disparity can be overcome with discipline – see Fulham under Hodgson, or Stoke this year. United simply didn’t have the defensive discipline to deal with a good attacking side at thirty yards from goal, and thanks to the manager’s negative tactics, they were in that position for far too much of the game. Poor.
*Capped, finally, with the disgraceful omission of Premiership top-scorer Berbatov from the CL squad on the grounds that Michael Owen would be more likely to score. Good god. Not only is Ferguson a tactical dunce, he is also a callous bastard.
**I have only focussed on defending here because that is where the game was lost. In attack United looked nervous and tired themselves out instead of slowing the tempo. Another major problem this season has been the inaccuracy of simple passes and last night was no exception. A second issue specific to last night was the creeping pseudo-4-5-1 which left Hernandez up alone and Rooney on the left wing at many points, meaning there was one person in the Barca box to aim at against four or more defenders. There was no chance of adding to Rooney’s wonderful – but freakish – goal in those circumstances.