When asked about facing Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona side, Alex Ferguson famously said, ‘They get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing’.
The Scot was referring to the passing wizardry led by Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández, which was never more evident than in the Champions League final in Rome, 8 years ago this week. While the match finished 2-0 to Barcelona in 2009, Xavi and Iniesta helped to engineer one of the most dominant and assured victories over Ferguson’s United throughout his entire tenure.
That evening, Iniesta and Xavi stretched and manipulated the Manchester United midfield with a display of passing perfection. In an attempt to thwart the threat of the ‘carousel’ in 2009, Ferguson brought in Ryan Giggs for the suspended Darren Fletcher, who proved to be a great loss, the latter having been sent off in the semi-final against Arsenal. United’s midfield three of Anderson, Carrick and Giggs showed early promise but came unstuck in the face of Iniesta and Xavi’s sharp control of the ball and shrewd misdirection.
The billing before the match, unsurprisingly, centred around the head-to-head between Ronaldo and Messi. Ronaldo was restricted to shots from range, often being forced into wide pockets of the pitch. He cut an increasingly frustrated figure, a sight we have now become so accustomed to, regardless of the result. In the end, although Ronaldo looked dangerous in the opening stages, this was firmly Messi’s night.
Before kick-off, the build-up also revolved around scouting reports which revealed Barcelona’s apparent weakness in the air, a flaw which United attempted to expose repeatedly. Early crosses into Barcelona’s penalty box proved fruitless. Aside from Ronaldo, United’s aerial threat was limited. The in-form Dimitar Berbatov may have benefitted, although, alongside strike-partner Carlos Tevez, he also had to watch most of the final from the bench.
After enduring United’s initial dominance, Samuel Eto’o opened the scoring with 10 minutes on the clock. It was a characteristic finish from the Cameroonian, evading Vidic to power a finish past Van der Sar from a tight angle. From that moment on, United were fresh lambs to the slaughter.
The carousel continued apace for much of the game. In the 70th minute, as though a nod to their critics, Barcelona did to United what they were expected to do to them, as 5ft 7in Messi leapt to head past a dumbfounded Van der Sar. Although Xavi did well to find the cross, Messi, while in mid-air, had to adjust his position to lean back and gain true purchase on the ball. A stunning header. Take a look at the goal here. In this month’s FourFourTwo, Messi said this header was ‘still one of my favourite goals’, the Argentinian adding that his best goals are based on their importance to the team, rather than their supposed beauty.
The magnificence of Barcelona’s football that season, though, could scarcely be believed. While analysts continue to label this style ‘tiki-taka’, you’d be advised not to use that term in Pep Guardiola’s presence. ‘It’s bull***t. I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose.’ Instead, he views his style as a passing model used deliberately to build possession in one area of the pitch, but to then switch the play and strike their opponents in a rapid burst. It’s a distraction technique. ‘You have to pass the ball with a clear intention. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.’
However you summarise the spirit and approach of that team, their dominance in possession became the blueprint to follow. Xavi agreed, and claimed that Guardiola was solely responsible for their revitalised style of play, ‘The rhythm and the speed of our play has changed. Everything is one-touch now with no unnecessary elaboration.’ This match coming only a year after being named ‘Player of the Tournament’ at Euro 2008, Xavi owed much to Guardiola’s persistence, a man he claimed was his ‘midfield idol’.
As a side note to those key members of the carousel, in certain footballing circles, it still rankles that neither Xavi nor Iniesta has ever won the Ballon D’or. Former team-mate Dani Alves, who missed the 2009 final through suspension, calls their continued omission from the top spot a ‘travesty’. 2010, the year they both lifted the World Cup, was their best chance, but they were both beaten to the trophy by, of course, Lionel Messi.
In his post-match interview back in 2009 though, Guardiola reserved special praise for Messi for the dismantling of Manchester United. He said he moved Messi back into the midfield in order to increase the team’s effectiveness when in possession of the ball. The carousel did not merely rely on Iniesta and Xavi, but was actually built around a wide array of component parts across the team. The success of this, Guardiola says, all hinges on the team’s ability, as a whole, to take risks in attack.
As Barcelona lifted the Champions League trophy in the warm summer air in Rome, Ronaldo criticised his team’s tactics, ‘Everything went wrong’. Carlos Tevez also later pointed the finger at Ferguson for leaving him on the bench, adding that it was the only final which United lost during the Argentinian’s time at the club. Although no doubt unrelated to this result, this game proved to be both men’s last in a United shirt.
Rooney, who was quiet from the left-flank all evening, was more magnanimous than his fellow forwards. He simply pointed to United being outplayed, while also claiming Iniesta was ‘the best player in the world.’ High praise, although a statement which, at the time, must have compounded Ronaldo’s misery no end.
While Ferguson was right to be wary of Barcelona’s relentless style of passing, he also admitted in the post-match interview that there was little more his side could have done to prevent the damage. Since retiring, Ferguson detailed his regret at relying on Giggs and Scholes for too long, also offering harsh critiques of Keane, Hargreaves, Anderson and Kleberson among many others.
Whatever the reaction, the carousel was in full flow that night. When looking back on his stellar managerial career, it is perhaps Ferguson’s greatest regret, aside from his admission of not winning more Champions League honours, that he never masterminded the midfield which could truly cope with that great Barcelona side.
Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here