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Would a radical 3-3-3-1/4-2-3-1 shape have allowed Manchester United to battle better vs FC Barcelona?

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Hindsight is always 20/20, and after FC Barcelona's convincing 3-1 victory over Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final, some questioned whether manager Sir Alex Ferguson got his tactics right or not. Perhaps the fairest thing to do is not declare that the manager got things wrong, or even that his intent was right and that United were simply outclassed - but maybe instead to decipher what problems United had at Wembley and attempt to reason tactics that may have prevented these troubles. 

United started brightly in the opening 10 minutes of the match, just as they had two years ago versus Barcelona during the final in Rome. The main tactical reason for this was that United aggressively pressed high up the pitch and disrupted their counterparts. The Catalan side grew into the match when both Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi began to come deep in search of space between the lines; the former in between United's midfield and attack while the latter between their defense and midfield. Once Barcelona became settled, they simply overwhelmed United in attack with a constant 3 v 2 numerical advantage in the center of the pitch - with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs (or Park Ji-sung) occupying Xavi and Andres Iniesta and they had no one there to contest Messi when he drifted toward the midfield. Basically, you had Carrick and Giggs attempting to do battle with arguably the world's three greatest players - they had no chance. 

Because of the problems that United had with Messi's movement between the lines, they may have given themselves a better chance to battle in the center had they employed a true holding midfielder - one that sits right in front of the defense and behind the other midfielders. If two more midfielders are deployed, to occupy both Xavi and Iniesta, then you have a true 3-man central midfield. Wayne Rooney did what was asked of him from his withdrawn role as a striker - occupy the deep-lying Sergio Busquets of Barcelona. But because Carrick and Giggs were mainly tasked to marking Xavi and Iniesta, United had no one to consistently track Messi when he came deep - center-backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were clearly uncomfortable with consistently coming that high up the pitch. In summary, United's 4-4-1-1 shape allowed Rooney to occupy Busquets deep positioning between the lines, but it also allowed for no one to compete with Messi when he came to the midfield. 

What are some possible remedies to this? Ideas after the jump...

4-1-4-1

In the recent El Clasico series, Real Madrid frustrated Barcelona with their 4-1-4-1 shape - especially in the Copa del Rey final. Manager Jose Mourinho successfully combined the use of pressing Barcelona high up the pitch and the use of Xabi Alonso sitting deep between the lines. Although Barcelona dominated possession and looked bright in stretches, they found it difficult to break down Real Madrid's tight defense. The use of a holding midfielder helped Real defend well.

However, they weren't able to consistently build much in attack through the counter. This looked to be because of two reasons: (1) They simply didn't have enough numbers in attack and they were reliant (and hoping) that their attackers could create an individual moment of brilliance, especially Cristiano Ronaldo. (2) Barcelona were able to quickly regroup when they won the ball back - Busquets and co. simply passed the ball around comfortably in the back while re-igniting the attack from deep. In summary, Real's 4-1-4-1 shape allowed Alonso to sit deep and attempt to contend with Messi, but they were always short in numbers on the counter-attack. 

3-3-3-1

Just a few days before the final at Wembley, football writer Jonathan Wilson published a piece for Sports Illustrated that discussed the varied options that United had at their disposal to deploy against Barcelona. Assuming the basic rule is that you always need a spare man in defense, he discussed a radical, but interesting theory - the use of a 3-3-3-1 shape versus Barcelona. Admittedly, this radical change in shape was never going to be used by Fergie, especially considering that it potentially breaks up the exceptional center-back tandem of Vidic and Ferdinand. However, it's still worth discussing.

Because Messi tends to drop deep so often in his false-nine role, he's essentially an auxiliary midfielder. In a 3-3-3-1's three-man defense, the two outside defenders, whether they be full-backs or center-backs, would mark Barcelona's wider attackers - Pedro and David Villa. The third man in the back, the central defender, would be the spare man and free to sweep. Wilson's three-man midfield would be similar to Mourinho's 4-1-4-1 midfield- there would be a holding midfielder that occupies the space between the defense and midfield. The other two midfielders in this middle band of 3 would occupy Xavi and Iniesta. In the attack band of three, the two wide players are available to track Barcelona's marauding full-backs and the central player is positioned as a natural foil to Busquets.

So not only does this 3-3-3-1 shape allow you to occupy the Barcelona players that like to operate between the lines (Messi & Busquets), it also gives you more numbers in the counter attack. You still have a striker to stretch the defense, yet you also have a link player in a center-attacking-midfielder or withdrawn striker. 

Barcelona is brilliant, that should go without saying by now. They would still create goal-scoring chances but at least this theoretical shape might allow a side to compete a little better. 

There is counter-tactic that could be used though by Barcelona against this 3-3-3-1 shape. Messi simply could adjust and stay higher up the pitch - therefore, you have a 3 v 3 situation in attack and no spare man in defense. Although Barcelona's midfield would be outnumbered, the genius of Xavi and Iniesta would undoubtedly still be able to provide service for their attackers, even if less consistently. But when that service did get through, Barcelona would likely be deadly in attack with 3 v 3. 

In summary, a 3-3-3-1 shape versus Barcelona would allow a side to battle better, and also provide numbers in attack along with a link player - but it could be countered tactically by simply pushing Messi higher up the pitch and having him play as true No 9.

3-3-3-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid shape

So, in theory, 3-3-3-1 has it's tactical merits against Barcelona. But, how might one counter the possible counter-tactic of pushing Messi higher versus this radical shape? Maybe with versatile defenders.

If a side tried this 3-3-3-1 shape and Barcelona simply countered by pushing higher, a possible counter to this is switching to a 4-man defense - then there's a spare man in the back against Barcelona's 3 attackers. In the 3-man defense, each defender will be narrowly positioned. However, a switch to a 4-man defense pushes the two wide defenders wide into full-back roles while the holding player would need to drop back into a center-back's role. Therefore, in an ideal situation, a holding player that is versatile enough to feel comfortable as both a holding-midfielder and center-back is desired as are wide defenders in a 3-man defense comfortable enough to switch into a full-back's role. 

This resulting 4-2-3-1 shape allows the same benefits as the 3-3-3-1 shape did when Messi drops deep: a spare man in defense, two central players to occupy Xavi and Iniesta, a central-attacking-midfielder to occupy Busquets, and wide players to occupy Barcelona's full-backs - and also numbers for the counter attack. If Messi drops deep again in search of space, a simple switch back to a 3-3-3-1 is all that is required. Therefore, having versatile defenders could allow a side to fluidly shift from a 3-3-3-1 to a 4-2-3-1, and vice versa, depending on what Barcelona does. 

Manchester United's application of 3-3-3-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid

It's important to consider the personnel that Manchester United had at their disposal and their form and fitness ahead of the final. Darren Fletcher made the bench for the final, but his fitness and form were in doubt. Anderson made the bench as well, but his fitness was in doubt too. Paul Scholes was on the bench, but it seemed certain that either him or Carrick would start. 

Starting with the midfield, the area of the pitch that likely lost United the final, Carrick might be the most ideal player for the holding role. Although not a ferocious tackler, Carrick's reading of the game and positioning is terrific - this is further exemplified by the exceptional number of interceptions he averages per match. In addition, he had no fitness concerns and his range of passing from deep could help ignite counter-attacks. Furthermore, he is capable of playing center-back in a pinch if United switched from a 3-3-3-1 to a 4-2-3-1. 

As for the other midfield roles, perhaps Fergie could have asked Anderson and Fletcher to start and track Xavi and Iniesta with every bit of energy that they had - and then stock the bench with other center midfield options (Scholes & Darron Gibson) for when they eventually fatigued. The versatility of Park or Giggs could have allowed them to switch into the center if wide players were to be brought on for either Ando or Fletch. Another option would have been to bring on Scholes in a deep-lying role and use Carrick for either Ando or Fletch. 

In defense is where it may have been a bit more tricky - benching Ferdinand doesn't even seem like a logical choice. Patrice Evra and Vidic certainly would start, but either Ferdinand, Fabio, or Chris Smalling could be a third defender. If Ferdinand is comfortable enough to play wide, he certainly starts. However, the former England skipper might have been fine anyway because against Barcelona, if a switch from 3-3-3-1 to 4-2-3-1 occurred, the back 4 would be more narrowly positioned than normal because of the inward movements of Pedro and Villa. 

Here is a diagram that shows the hypothetical example - the arrows show the moments that would indicate a shift in formation (3-3-3-1 to 4-2-3-1)

 

Conclusion

These tactics were simply never going to be used by Fergie, yet I believe the idea merits discussion. Nonetheless, deploying a true holding midfielder may have allowed United to battle better in the center of the pitch - they were simply overrun using by Xavi, Iniesta, and the deep-lying Messi in their 4-4-1-1. Due to the almost consensus belief that this Barcelona side is amongst the greatest ever, it would be ludicrous to say that these possible tactics would have allowed United to defeat Barcelona. The better discussion point may be whether these tactics would have given United a better chance to battle at Wembley.