They have made it to two finals since then (2009 and 2011), but on both occasions were given a harsh schooling by the team often praised as the best to ever play the game, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The fact that the two other finals since 2008 have not featured Barcelona will only compound their misery.
Three weeks ago, this article would have had to speculate over Pep’s immediate future, as with every other publication. But with Bayern Munich having tied the Spaniard to a three-year deal beginning this summer, we can now cogitate as to where his next destination might be. And at the moment, the most probable option is Manchester United.
Of course, this is all speculation. However, there are several factors which seem to indicate that the former Barcelona gaffer might one day head for the North-west of England.
In the days after the 2009 Champions League final in Rome, the media salivated over the well-established talents of Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Eto’o, and the relatively early stages of the phenomenon that is now Lionel Messi. They had outclassed United on all fronts; the Manchester team not offering any sign that they would pull the game back once Samuel Eto’o had given the Catalans the lead in the ninth minute, and Barca not giving them any real opportunity to.
It was a perfect example of how devastating tiki-taka can be even against the best teams, especially when said teams are still using what may soon become an outdated system.
In 2011 Barcelona did it again, yet somehow even more convincingly. They had lost world-class players Henry and Eto’o since 2009, but trumped their previous display, sending United on what Alex Ferguson has described as “that carousel” and winning—more comfortably than the score line suggests—3-1.
To impress on you how comprehensively outplayed United were that night, here are some stats: Barcelona retained 68% possession, while managing 13 shots on target to United’s one.
In the years between the encounters, star player Cristiano Ronaldo moved on and Ferguson had neglected to find a suitable replacement. Dimitar Berbatov was apparently not stylistically suitable, while Luis Nani failed to fulfill his potential and has since become peripheral—both players failed to make the United starting lineup in the 2011 final.
The next year United surrendered the title to Manchester City on goal difference, having been eight points clear with six games to go. This led to a summer spree in which a peaking Robin van Persie and promising Shinji Kagawa were added to the squad in an effort to bring more goals the next term. Understudy Nick Powell is also in that vein, though he will need a few years to develop.
And, so far, it has worked. Although, it is not just a change in personnel that has been noticeable at Old Trafford recently.
In spite of much cynicism from his critics, Ferguson has completely abandoned his once trademark winger-reliant formations in favour of something, you could say, more ‘modern.’
Rather than relying on the pace of nippy wingers to spread the opposition’s back four and knock crosses in from the by-line, the manager has all but done away with the idea.
At the beginning of last season, United were scoring at will. But the susceptibility when countered became startlingly evident during the 1-6 mauling at the hands of fierce rivals City, who subsequently went on to win the title. If the manager began to tweak his system after the Wembley master class, then by the time the City game had ended he was a tactician reborn.
Last night against Southampton, United began the game with two midfielders feeding a roaming front four. Van Persie and Rooney headed the attack, with Kagawa and Welbeck operating on the left and right of midfield respectively. With full-backs Evra and Jones overlapping and acting as wingers (well, in Jones’ cases, trying to), and the score 2-1 in United’s favour by the thirty minute mark, there appeared to be no need for an out-and-out wide man.
Which other team uses interchangeable, loose forwards supplied by two holding players? Barcelona.
The approach has been the standard for this season, with Ferguson using formerly centrally-based players such as Tom Cleverly on the left-midfield, while roping in natural winger Ashley Young and deploying him behind the strikers.
Of course, this change in tactics could have been necessitated by the drop in form of the previously integral Antonio Valencia and having no appropriate back-up, or perhaps to facilitate the overabundance of talented strikers.
Somehow though, it is doubtful. Ferguson may have made some dodgy transfers in the past, but he would not fall into the folly of buying too many players in one position, let alone allow himself to be thin in any area.
It is surely premeditated, and it is this radical change to United’s style that has me wondering. For a team to go from a tradition of throwing men forward on the counter and spreading to the wings, to adopt a much more conservative approach is surely risking the fans’ ire. But not if the results are going the right way, which at the moment, they are.
This is anything but definitive, but it appears that United are beginning to play in a way that is more in sync with Barcelona; though more importantly, it is the style that Guardiola fostered during his five years at the Nou Camp.
Fergie and Pep are known to get along, and the Scot visited Guardiola during the Catalan’s sabbatical in New York. The Spaniard has already spoken of his intention to one day manage in the Premier League, and there will be a relentless battle for his signature.
Chelsea will be first to try and snap him up, but going by the manner in which Guardiola rejected their very public, and somewhat aggressive advances, the London club will have to prove that they are at least capable of holding onto a manager for more than 12 months.
Arsenal are also in among it, and style-wise would fit Guardiola’s ethos more comfortably than the other contenders. However, an uncertainty over qualification for Europe and concerns over their spending power could render the Gunners unsuitable. That, and the fact that Arsene Wenger doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in the near future.
City? Well, they have the money, ambition and more importantly, two of Guardiola’s ex-Barca colleagues in Txiki Beguiristain and Ferran Soriano, who are City’s Director of Football and CEO respectively. And unlike Chelsea, they have demonstrated that they are willing to give their manager the time he craves.
For me though, it is between the two Manchester clubs, both in terms of where they are in the table, and suitability to Guardiola’s requirements. However, I believe that United have the slightly upper hand, in that Ferguson is retiring in the next couple of years and Pep is Munich-bound. No disrespect to Bayern, they are a fantastic team, but I just can’t see them as a long term option for Guardiola. No real logic to that; it just doesn’t ring with me.
Sir Alex will have a major say when United are deciding on his replacement, and the Scot will surely recognise the Spaniard's achievements. Not just his Champions League and La Liga titles, but his part in developing and bringing in players—not least Lionel Messi—through the La Masia academy, an aspect that Ferguson will certainly admire.
And besides, with Ferguson remoulding his team in a shape not dissimilar to that of a certain Catalan club, Pep’s work is already half done for him.