Man Utd were the real caricatures in the final
In a nod to the Guardian one will attempt five things we learned from the Man Utd vs Barca Champions League final which will for obvious reasons not go down as a classic. It takes two teams to make one. And I will clench my fists a la Sir Alex and resist the urge for redundancies like, ” Messi is a genius.”
The system won: The aftermath has led predictably to finger pointing. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have been slagged most charitably as “old” and at its most vituperative “crap”. There is some weight to the former as Giggs and Scholes are now in their late 30s but the adage “old” in this case is synonymous for “ineffective”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Giggs was celebrated as a genius till the last day of the Premiership as part of Sir Alex’s vaunted man management. He is still very much so and this match should not be used to belittle a player of his quality.
Instead lets look at why Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi will not play for another side other than Barca. It is precisely days like these. Xavi would be a fish out of water at Man Utd or Real Madrid because of their premium on counterattacking. Messi does not score enough for Argentina burdened with the creation of his own goals. All those triangles work because they have honed a system which has been in place for four decades. Without that system these footballers would be merely technically gifted. With it they’re practically geniuses. Giggs on the other hand would improve an attack in any side he’s on.
Rinus Michels’s football philosophy put into place at Ajax in the late 60’s was brought to Barca over the years through Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal. Pep Guardiola played under that system and he now is its most visible practitioner. Behind the scenes Liverpool is quietly putting together their version of tiki taka under the tutelage of two former La Masia assistants as are fifteen other teams. Laurent Blanc guilty of racial perversion last month insists on a similar direction for Les Bleus.
Barcelona are not a cheating, diving, whingeing team: The final saw one player with his hand on the ejection button and it was not a Barca player. Antonio Valencia failing in his attempt to be a Pepe. The usual suspects Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Mascherano, and Dani Alves were part of the upstanding citizens brigade letting their feet do the talking. They did not crowd Viktor Kassai and badger him about his decisions as previously feared.
Giggs was marginally offside when he passed to Wayne Rooney for the equalizer but the Blaugrana instead of moaning used it to put in one of the most commanding second half performances. The ugliness of El Crassico left everyone in need of a cold shower. Jose Mourinho used the Stockholm syndrome to batter Barca’s reputation on and off the pitch. Yesterday’s final saw Barca put to rest all that negativity.
Chicharito Hernandez has a lot to learn: He cannot hold up well, he cannot create his own goals, and he’s naive about the offside rule. Sir Alex was still right in playing the Mexican up front because that is not what he was there for. He’s a goalscorer and if he jumped the gun it was because the lack of service rightly made him anxious. Again the debate wrongly centres around whether he’s ready for the big league.
He’s just 22 years old and some of those goals he scored proved pivotal to the Premiership and Champions League. Dimitar Berbatov might have had a prolific season but by the same token scores a lot of garbage goals.
Sir Alex had little choice: The 2009 Champions League final saw Barca execute their tactics of “sterile domination” to perfection. Their form of defense was to keep the ball away from Man Utd while doing enough to win. After that display, Sir Alex vowed not to repeat the same mistakes. But playing in the Premiership in its present form is probably one of the toughest tasks at hands with considerable resources and craft devoted to winning it.
One can get sidetracked from European ambitions having to contend with Chelsea, Arsenal, and City with the last two years proving it is only going to get harder with an even bigger group now clamouring for the top spots. La Liga has no such illusions. The gap between the top two clubs and the rest is now a rift valley and getting bigger. Barca is relatively less distracted in its quest for world domination.
Sir Alex’s patchwork midfield worked well enough to win them the Premiership but came apart at the seams faced against Barca. It brings to the surface questions that first surfaced a couple of years ago. Who exactly are the heirs apparent to Messrs Scholes and Giggs? Nani and Anderson have shown improvement but at the same time are works in progress. The Portugese is shedding his showboating but continues to lack the craft and vision. Anderson has arrested his decline into a tough tackling clean up man but he lacks the passing abilities of Scholes. Holding onto the veteran duo was an imperative forced on by the exigencies of the Premiership. Now comes the hard part of replacing an era.
The Premiership came off second best: Barcelona comes to Wembley and contemptuously dismantles the league’s top team. We could examine from that narrow perspective but in its broader implication it puts the rest of the league under the microscope.
The corollary to the most competitive league is that it also suffers in quality. Supporters love to point to the number of Premiership clubs in the final stages of the Champions League as an indicator of its omnipotence. But running numbers is not a sign of that at all. It’s a bit like saying the USA produces the largest amount of beef but going to an Argentinian steakhouse for its cut.
The best passing English club Arsenal has had its fair share of encounters over the years with Barca and come out looking like Stoke. Utd were more like Birmingham. And one would be really stretching if Chelsea would have made more of a match. If Giggs, Carrick, Park Ji Sung, and Valencia were no shows think of where that would leave John Obi Mikel, Malouda, Lampard, and Essien. City with its stable of three holding midfielders might have formed a bulwark to keep the score down but then there again is the question of Mancini’s attacking intent.
I’ll add one more: The ABU crowd is huge and growing. They were out in full force yesterday. And yes, Messi is a genius. There I said it – now I can unclench my fists and bowels.