Knowing how to beat a team is much harder than knowing how you could have beaten a team. We can all reflect after 90 minutes of football and suggest how Sir Alex Ferguson could have beaten Barcelona. However, the one thing we have learned from history is that it teaches us nothing. For United and Ferguson to recover from their comprehensive 3-1 defeat, a lot needs to be taken from the match, and acted upon.
To criticise Sir Alex Ferguson takes a lot of nerve, but as a manager the ultimate responsibility lies with him. In my opinion, United lost because of one key reason: formation. Ferguson should have, like many of us, known what to expect from Barcelona. Their 4-3-3 system is tried and tested, and Guardiola would not have dared to change it, given the enormity of the occasion. So why did Ferguson not produce a system to beat it?
He surely saw how Real Madrid and Inter Milan saw off Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey and the Champions League respectively? Perhaps, but his formation suggests otherwise. Playing two strikers aided Barcelona immensely, as this allowed them to push through and dominate the four man midfield. Also, United had no Sergio Busquets – a holding midfielder that both protected the defence and played the ball.
United needed to pack the midfield. Playing Carrick and replacing a forward with Fletcher would have allowed a defensive midfielder to always be present, whilst letting the other four midfielders provide service for the lone man. Admittedly, Hernandez’s form made it very difficult for Ferguson to leave him out, but you have to make those big decisions, especially on a big night against a big team. Having a midfielder that always protected Ferdinand and Vidic would have reduced Messi’s impact, as it would have not meant drawing a defender away from the defensive line – leaving only three. Both Vidic and Ferdinand were scared to commit, giving Messi much wanted time on the ball.
For United, it was also important not to be defeated mentally. The reputation of Barcelona makes it hard for any team to think that they can win. United’s mindset told a great story. Their fear to attack Barcelona caused the defence to become very deep, making any attack start from at least 50 yards back. From that kind of distance, it was very difficult to provide service to Hernandez or Rooney. If you opt to play two up front, providing service is a must, and United failed.
What we must remember, is that an analysis like this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. One can forget that this Barcelona team is the best in the world – and I challenge anyone to argue otherwise. However, they have been beaten, they are not invincible and quite frankly, I expected better from a United side who are mature enough to know how to win. Better luck next time boys, you are going to need it!