BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 29: FC Barcelona players celebrate during the celebrations after winning the UEFA Champions League Final against Manchester United at Camp Nou Stadium on May 29, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Anyone who watched this Champions League final can really take into perspective that the biggest gulf in class between Manchester United and Barcelona, was in the center of the park. While United had the hard working players, Barcelona had not only the work ethic but the skills to go with it as well. Let's analyze then how the midfield of each team fared.
Barcelona's midfield works as a team, they attack together, defend together, and everyone among them worked last night to attack United relentlessly. Of note especially, is the peppering of United's goal in the second half.
In the first half Barcelona's midfield asserted its dominance within 20 minutes. The reason United had such few shots on target was their inability to break up the passing dictatorship of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. It was obvious in the first half that they were not having any trouble in penetrating United's defense since it was repeatedly calling into action to tackle Messi, Villa, or Pedro.
Xavi's run from the half-way line to assist Pedro for the opener what the highlight of their work in the first half since with three passes; Iniesta to Busquets, Busquets to Iniesta, and Iniesta to Xavi, most of United's midfield was left behind completely. In that movement it was Xavi and the Trident, vs Manchester United's defense and Giggs. The passing was simple, effective, and brilliant.
The second half was even more one-sided since they compartmentalized with Busquets really showing his worth to Barcelona's defense and Xavi and Iniesta adding more force to the attack.
When Rooney would drop deep to try and help his struggling midfield, Busquets was always his shadow and was a wall in the center of the pitch. On numerous occasions he intercepted passes from United midfielders and defenders and recommenced the attack, giving them no relief. Any pass attempted from United to Hernandez and others were rushed because Busquets was constantly there harassing anyone who intended to send the ball forward. It seemed as though he was out there with a point to prove and he did. United also had a harder time attacking because Busquets would drop between center-backs to form a line of three with them against any onrushing United players. In effect he was Barcelona's fifth defender.
Xavi and Iniesta cannot be more effective than they were in the second half. Every time United cleared, Barcelona would recover and reengage through one of them. Van der Sar's goal was besieged by these two men for a spell of over 20 minutes in the second half. Xavi and Iniesta both had numerous long range efforts parred away by the Dutchman which kept the pressure at a boil and caused United to panic with clearances that only temporarily relived them.
Busquet's and Iniesta's assists to Villa and Messi, were simply the culmination of bad marking, mistakes, and shell shock. No team since Arsenal in 2009 was besieged to the degree United were between minute 50 and 70 of the final. The effective passing between them, the peppering of United's goal, the recover of almost every United clearance, created a cycle of inevitability. When the goals arrived no one was genuinely shocked but a feeling of despair was clearly seen on United's players.
If Sir Alex Ferguson would pick an area where United failed completely he'd would probably choose his midfield. From the midfield of Park-Carrick-Giggs-Valencia, Ryan Giggs was the only one who was really in the game even for brief moments. United's only successful attack and goal, originated from Ryan Giggs providing an outlet and return pass, like a true midfielder.
Park, Carrick, and Valencia were completely ineffective against Barcelona and perhaps should of all been off by half-time.
Although Park and Carrick showed good work ethic running down Barcelona's midfield, they largely failed to contain them. Yes they would pursue them, but at times this was aimless. They showed no genuine intention of actually challenging them but instead to pressure them into the pass. In their chasing, Barcelona would reshuffle into triangles to easily by pass them and leave them behind in every attack and moment of action.
Almost every goal that Barcelona managed to score was largely due to Carrick and Park failing to do any real marking of Barcelona's midfield. For goal one, they both were left astray by a triangular play as mentioned. This left them far up the pitch while four Barcelona players ran at a United defense with Ryan Giggs as the only support. No shield what so ever was afforded. For Messi's goal again, Park and Carrick just stood there and watched as Iniesta passed to Messi and he shot. For the goal from David Villa, they were nowhere to be seen in the play.
Valencia was perhaps the worst of United's midfielders since he took on a task he wasn't even suppose to be doing. Valencia was providing the hard tackles and muscle in midfield but really this should have been the job of Michael Carrick. In undertaking this task Valencia achieved nothing except a yellow card. Yes he stopped United from perhaps having received another goal, or being scored on quicker than it happened but, he afforded nothing to United in attack which, was really needed. In the whole game he made perhaps one bad cross and that's all he contributed. For a player of his ability much more was expected of him. Valencia did not stick to the plan and decided instead to do the job of a defensive midfielder when he really is a tricky winger that United needed on that night.
When Nani finally relieved Valencia the damage was done, but, Nani asserted more influence and even tested Valdes goal in his short time on. Nani was the genuine attacking threat that Valencia never planned to carry out and one which United needed from the start.
All in all what also really did not help United's attack was very bad passing from this area. All of United's midfield was guilty of very bad passing, be it short that never reached its man or long that was aimless, as Barcelona's defense constantly intercepted. It has to be noted by United that their only successful attack and goal originated from precise and controlled passing on the ground and perhaps, had they stuck to quick passing on the ground, they would of caused much more damage. To meet this demand more midfielders of Ryan Giggs caliber, who can control and give such passes, where needed on that night but, no others were available inside the pitch.