Tactical Analysis: Barcelona vs Manchester United 2011 UCL Final

6 min read

It’s been nine years since Barcelona silenced the world with their Tiki-Taka‘ football and winning the coveted UCL trophy against their rivals Manchester United. In this Barcelona vs Manchester United tactical analysis, we will be analysing how Barcelona tactically outplayed Manchester United.

Line-ups: Barcelona vs Manchester United
Barcelona vs Manchester United: Barcelona starting eleven
Barcelona starting eleven

Barcelona went with their custom 4-3-3 formation with Mascherano coming in for the injured Carles Puyol who hardly made it to the bench.

Barcelona vs Manchester United: Manchester United starting eleven
Manchester United starting eleven

On the other hand, Manchester United placed a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 with Carrick and Giggs as Double pivot and Rooney playing behind Mexican Javier Hernandez.

Tactical Analysis

Barcelona enjoyed having possession for the majority of the game since Manchester United formed a 4-4-1-1 midblock and took their chances during the transition. Barcelona took the majority of the shots from zone 14, and both the goals from Messi and Villa were from zone 14.

Barcelona never faced problems during the buildup from the back. In the starting minutes of the game, United initiated high men to men press with the hope that Barcelona defenders might lose the ball in their half, but Barcelona had answers to that. So to maintain the structure in behind, Only Rooney and Hernandez pressed Barcelona during phase one.

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4v2 numerical superiority

As you can see, Hernandez marked Pique and Rooney instead of marking Mascherano covered Busquets in an attempt to halt Barcelona’s progression. This left Mascherano to attempt a long ball to the forwards, but instead, Xavi was regularly dropping deep to receive the ball and dribble to the mid-third.

So to mark Xavi, Giggs used to jump ahead, but that left a daunting horizontal space between the United’s 2nd line of press. So to compensate, Giggs quickly returned to the midfield line and formed four men midfield.

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Organizing 2nd and 3rd line of press
Barcelona conquering central region to their advantage
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Central mid-third region

Pep Guardiola’s main principle was to dominate this whole marked region and use it to win matches. Since Busquets was staying back to protect the centre-backs, the question remains that how did Xavi and Iniesta alone overcame the likes Giggs, Carrick, Park, Valencia?

This is where Messi, as a false nine, came into the play. False nine roles can be best described as a player who doesn’t play as a traditional striker but regularly drops in midfield as an extra man to collect the ball and work in between the lines.

Messi as False nine came into existence when Barcelona completely humiliated Real Madrid with a 6-2 scoreline at Santiago Bernabeu. Let me explain the importance of Messi’s role against United and how they were easily able to overcome United’s midfield line with an example.

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3 vs 3 in midfield

We can see that Xavi, Iniesta, Messi are now facing United’s midfielders Carrick, Giggs, Valencia. Here the major mistake Valencia did was to not get involved in this particular instance which left Carrick and Giggs vs Messi, Xavi and Iniesta(Messi dropping in midfield helped Barcelona to gain an advantage).

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Manipulation to create space

When Xavi received the ball, he quickly dribbled towards Iniesta taking Giggs with him. Since Carrick had his eyes set on Iniesta’s movement, Messi slowly shifted towards the space vacated by Giggs.

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Body angle giving a clue

Messi was now successfully in Gigg’s earlier position and was also on the blindside of Carrick. But if you carefully observe Xavi, he did something which Giggs or any of United players aren’t aware of. His body gave a major clue.

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Xavi making a run

Xavi makes a run to the major space in between United’s midfield and Defence line. But this doesn’t end here.

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Mission accomplished

Iniesta has now dribbled past Giggs, and the Barcelona trio was utterly free to make a darting run triggering the whole United’s defensive line to collapse their organisation. This way, Barcelona overcame United’s midfield throughout the entire game by manipulating them and pulling them out of their positions.

Pillars that made the primary plan to function effectively

The obvious thing United could have done was to narrow down their block and squeeze all the available spaces and could have stopped the midfield. But that’s when Villa, Pedro, Dani Alves came to light.

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Explaining the scenario

Manchester United went clueless as to how to stop Barcelona. Sir Alex Ferguson went with men marking approach giving his players their specific task while marking the opposition. Pep used it as an advantage. When we say Pep’s Barcelona, one of the first words which occur are ‘short passing’, ‘beautiful football’ etc. etc. But the most underrated weapon was the usage of width.

In the above image, I have given numbers in white colour, to explain the analogy. Number 1 is Dani Alves and Park Ji Sung. Dani Alves majorly operated high on the right spaces halfspace. The reason was to provide ball protection whenever Ji Sung or any United players retrieved the ball. When David Villa( number 2) shifted inside, Alves would than make an overlapping run to provide cutback or crosses. Alves and Villa constantly rotated to confuse their markers.

But the most important job was done by Pedro and Villa, especially Pedro. On the left side of the image, see the number 3 region. Pedro for the majority of the game stayed very close to the touchline providing width and mostly pinning Fabio.

On the right, Villa did the same when Barcelona had the ball. Valencia(no 4)was instructed to mark Abidal, and this helped Barcelona to gain the entire central region by themselves.

United’s options on how to stop Barcelona

United was in deep trouble. If they sat back, somehow Barcelona was able to get them out of position. So, United tried to press Barcelona from their half, but this instead leads Barcelona to score their first goal.

Barcelona’s first goal explanation

United’s buildup was Van Der Saar giving long balls to Rooney and United then counting on second balls to shape their attack directly. The sole reason for doing this was Barcelona’s press. Once the GK passed to the CB’s, Messi, Villa and Pedro directly pressed them, making it hard for them to build anything from the back.

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Pique winning the aerial duel

Pique won Van der Saar’s long ball which was meant for Rooney. Pique headers it towards Xavi.

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Xavi has his back to United’s half, and he passes it back to Iniesta. United midfield instead of going back to their half went to press Barcelona midfielders.

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Xavi ready to make the run

Carrick and Giggs are so engaged watching Iniesta and Busquets that Xavi is now on their blindside with acres of space to attack and exactly that happened.

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Iniesta made a vertical pass to Xavi who was free to dribble into the final third area.

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Evra’s mistake costing United

Here, when Xavi reached the final third, Evra spotted Messi free, and instead of staying with the defence, he jumped to cover Messi, but this was a huge mistake.

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Pedro movement

Pedro now saw the vacated space and made off the ball movement with Vidic engaged watching Xavi. Xavi makes a diagonal ball, but Vidic is late to make a tackle and Pedro scores.


Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t figure out a way on how to stop Barcelona. This Barcelona tactically outclassed him in every aspect in this champions league finals. The UEFA Champions League trophy was back at nou camp for the 4th time. This Barcelona team was something which the football world never witnessed. Indeed, the greatest team of all time.

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