The Element of Suicide, Or What Must Go Right For Manchester United To Win

May 25, 2011 — by Adam

[Editors’ note: We welcome back Adam Novy for a preview of this Saturday’s little match in London–Manchester United versus FC Barcelona, meeting at Wembley for the 2011 UEFA Champions League final.]

Suicidal tendencies?

Manchester United is a cunning team who play a vintage 4-4-2 formation and, when focused, do well controlling games against big teams, as with their three recent wins against Chelsea, a side who always used to kill them. While Barcelona my be slightly overrated by a droolingly uncritical press who’ve made them poster kids for liberal self-congratulation despite their racist players, they play the best and most attractive football of any club in memory, and have five or six of the best position players in the world, including Leo Messi, who’s in a class by himself. To beat Barcelona, Utd will need a number of things to go their way, and, if any single one of them doesn’t, they will lose. (You should probably be told, gentle reader, that I’m a Man Utd fan.) It’s not impossible for Utd to pull this off, but it’s highly unlikely.

Here is a list of things Utd need to do to win:

Squeeze Out Service To Messi

Lionel Messi is almost impossible to stop, except when he plays for Argentina, when he never gets the ball in dangerous places and has almost no influence at all. Germany contained him without sweating, and, to do the same, Utd will need to keep the ball from getting to him in the box. Because he moves back and forth and side-to-side, Utd will cede possession if he’s far from the goal, but try to angle him away if he’s in the area. Also, once he gets the ball, he’ll need to be smothered. He cannot be allowed to pass to open teammates.

Don’t Lose Sight Of David Villa/Pedro

David Villa was just about the game’s best forward before he joined Barcelona. Now he’s the game’s most overgifted role player, and, recent goal drought notwithstanding, he can end this match any time he wants by waiting for Utd to mob Messi, wriggling into space and reminding everyone how lethal he is. The other forward in Messi’s shadow, Pedro, is even more suited to the role of torturing defenses who are overwrought with Messi, and scores big goals in such conditions all the time, as opposed to Villa, who, despite some excellent performances this season, wasn’t born to play the wingman. Still, this is a horrifying assignment for Utd.

Disrupt Xaviesta

Iniesta and Xavi are the game’s best midfield players. Their vision and technique make it almost impossible to stop them without fouling. To win this particular battle, Utd will have to be too dumb to believe to the odds.

Xavi likes to spray the ball out to the right to fullback Dani Alves. Utd will have to stop this pass before he makes it, and funnel him inside, into a traffic jam. Iniesta can be shunted to the left and isolated, or driven toward Xavi to create a pile-up, but he can dribble his way out of anything and receive a pass at any angle. Apart from letting them run around and giving them no outlet for the ball, I don’t know what Utd’s plan will be.

If Messi is stifled, maybe they’ll get upset. This will probably be the plan: let them run around but give them nowhere to pass.

Control The Wings, Especially Dani Alves

The news get slightly better for Utd when considering Barcelona’s defense. Barca have some excellent defenders, but they’re rarely actually tested because their midfield always has the ball. The wings are probably the only place where Utd are clearly superior. Barcelona’s regular left back, Eric Abidal, is coming back from cancer, and even when he’s healthy, Antonio Valencia and Nani would both make a meal of him, while the understudy, Maxwell, doesn’t scare anyone. The right back, Dani Alves, is a big part of Barca’s attack, but he doesn’t love defending, and Utd may like the matchup with Ji-Sung Park, whose industry and big-game goals knocked Chelsea out of the tournament. The wings are the place Utd dominate, and if they can get players like Iniesta, Sergi Busquests and Carles Puyol to run backwards and sideways all afternoon to stop the ball, they’ll like their odds.

Run Barcelona’s Backline Ragged

Pique, Carles Puyol and Sergi Busquets are three of the world’s best players at their positions. Puyol is a warrior and a leader, Pique’s class and elegance transcend the brutal nature of defending, and Busquets flawlessly covers two positions at once while keeping Xavi supplied. Nevertheless, these are players who seldom actually run, because Xavi always has the ball and opponents can’t spare numbers in attack.

If Utd play as they’ve been playing, then Busquets will chase Wayne Rooney around while Puyol and Pique will need to find the tricky Chicharito, who’s as fast and hard to stifle as a cockroach. The problem with stopping Chicharito is this: he is blindingly fast and quick, and he moves around the box in unpredictable ways. Because he’s small, he’s not a natural outlet when Utd get possession—unlike, say, Didier Drogba or Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who check to the ball and keep it while their teammates pour forward—but he still needs to be chased, which is exhausting to defenders. He scores when play breaks down, when the player who is marking him loses touch with him for an instant. In the recent match against Chelsea, David Luiz and John Terry both thought they had him sandwiched, but he was actually free and killed the game before it started. He demoralizes players and opens space for Rooney to move around.

The way to defend Chicharito is to force him to the ball and make him dribble and pass. His close control and vision are not so good; if he played basketball, we’d say he can’t “pass from the post.” To dominate the Barcelona backline, Chicharito cannot have the ball. He needs to pop up unexpectedly here and there and shoot immediately; he needs to make the match a horror film in which he is the ghost that no one sees until he kills someone.

On the other hand: Utd may not feel that they can spare the extra forward; they may leave Chicharito on the bench and plump for Anderson instead. If this happens, they may not be able to move the ball with sufficient speed against the excellent Busquets, and they’ll probably lose, like everyone does against Barcelona. This decision—whether or not start Chicharito—appears to be the only major known unknown. There is an element of suicide in playing Chicharito, but it’s probably the only way to win.

On Wayne Rooney: athletic midfielder players like Alex Song and Cheik Tiote found some joy in smothering him recently. Busquets is not that kind of player, though he is better than they are otherwise. This will be a fascinating matchup.

Contain The Game

Utd midfielders Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick cannot get run off the park in the game if Utd are to have a chance of staying close. Barcelona do not just win matches, they make other teams look stupid, like an affront to art and decency and beauty, which is why they can call black players monkeys and everyone looks the other way. Utd need to keep Messi contained, frustrate the players around him and move the ball back-to-front with speed. They need to make Barcelona run around and yell at each other.

Vengeance and Fatigue

Utd got destroyed by Barcelona in the final in 2009, for various reasons, including what seemed to be internal dissent. They will be desperate to prove their value in this match. There is a notion on the internet, fueled in part by Arsene Wenger, that Utd have more energy than Barcelona now; that they’re fresher and less exhausted from the season and the exertions of last summer. So maybe it’s Barcelona’s turn to suffer from ennui.

These are all intangibles, which means they’re fun to talk about but also invisible. Still, Utd have something to prove in a way that Barcelona don’t, and this hunger may give them power, maybe enough to tip the scales, or at least unbalance Barcelona and make a game of it. I kept picking Chelsea to flatten Utd, so what do I know? Sometimes a weaker team can win precisely because they aren’t as good, as with AC Milan and Liverpool. If Utd win, they will have to use their weakness as their strength.