Barcelona started with probably their first choice eleven, other than Javier Mascherano coming in for Puyol at centre back. Manchester United started with the team that has been their main side for their big games in the last few weeks with no room for their most destructive attacking forces in Nani and Berbatov, the latter of whom didn't even make the bench.
For the first 5 to 10 minutes Man United were on top, pressing Barcelona high up the pitch and causing them to be sloppy in possession. In the first 10 minutes, Barcelona were tackled 7 times and gave the ball away 12 times, a far worse statistic for them seeing as most of this took place in their half. This meant that United had a good amount of possession early on and they passed it around quickly with Evra notably high on a couple of occasions and a couple of shots on goal early on.
However, the pattern of the game turned out to be similar to the 2009 final between the two sides. The first 10 minutes United were aggressive and had Barcelona mainly penned back in their half but Barcelona soon settled into the game and United were soon chasing shadows.
United's centre midfield on paper, Giggs and Carrick, didn't look able to deal Iniesta and Xavi with a lack of ball winning skill, so it was no surprise to see Valencia and mainly Park moving inside to help out in the middle and only going out wide when the full backs had the ball. Park's energy was good early on, setting the tempo for United's early dominance with a tackle on Dani Alves and was generally lively. Unfortunately for him, for a lot of the first half he spent his time in the middle helping track Messi's runs from deep and cover for Carrick and Giggs, so much so that on a number of occasions he ended up closer to the right flank than to the left flank. Valencia meanwhile wasn't as good positionally and didn't look as comfortable in the centre, committing 7 fouls.
A notable feature of Barcelona's play was not only Messi dropping deeper than usual but also David Villa's positioning when Messi did drop deep. Villa was far more central than we've been used to seeing and at points when Messi dropped deep, Villa seemed to take up the normal position of a centre forward, occupying the centre backs while Alves stretched the play high up on the right. Only when Messi moved further forward or ran at the centre backs did Villa move out wide to the right. This is easily identifiable when you see the average positions taken up in the first half:
A lot of Man United's attacking features came from long balls, testing out particularly Mascherano and Alves in the air against Wayne Rooney, a clearly deliberate tactic. This was successful when United got bodies forward, especially early on, but as the game went by and United had many bodies back defending, the long ball was not really a threat with Javier Hernandez being unable to make much of it against the two centre backs while Rooney couldn't do much to support as he was tracking Sergio Busquets in defensive midfield. Rooney didn't do a great job here because he wanted the ball and this shows as Busquets started a lot of the moves, making 82 passes with a 94% success rate. This meant that as United got the ball clear it came straight back at them just as fast and Barca tired them out with their lengthy periods of possession and brilliant interchanging of positions. Hernandez himself was quiet for most of the match even though his positioning was mainly between Mascherano, the midfielder playing centre back and Alves, who left lots of space as he went forward.
The main attacking feature from United when they had the ball in Barcelona's half, was to attack the flanks. One of United's main strengths this season and indeed under Ferguson has been their dominance out wide. The fact that Nani, who has 18 assists in the league this season (the highest in the league), didn't even make the starting eleven shows their strength out wide and it was a tactic that caused no surprise for Barcelona. The energetic Evra and Fabio looked to get forward when United had the ball and with Valencia and Park on the wings this was always going to be a key point of the game for them. Indeed even when Park cut inside, Giggs often interchanged with him, causing no real damage to United's structure - both players are happy either in the centre or on the left hand side so can play very well there. However this didn't particularly work out for United with Barcelona blocking out the space for the wide players with clever use of the full backs and centre midfielders.
|The tactic used by Barcelona to shut out Man United's wide players on the ball.|