Jewel in the Crown

The evening of the 15th of May 1991 will go down as one of the most famous nights in Manchester United history, with the club once again experiencing European glory and the realization that the man in charge was capable of delivering on the big stage.

Thousands of United supporters made the pilgrimage across the channel to the Netherlands, where they would see their side take on FC Barcelona in the final of European Cup Winners’ Cup at De Kuip Stadium, the home of Dutch side Feyenoord.

Two second half goals from Mark Hughes put United ahead, before a trademark free kick from Ronald Koeman cut their lead in half. A late goal line clearance from United’s Clyaton Blackmore prevented Michael Laudrup from equalizing for Barcelona, only adding to the nerves as the game reached its conclusion.

The eruption of emotion that came from those associated with Manchester United as the final whistle blew not only represented the joy that accompanies winning a European prize, but also the release of a subconscious burden that had been carried since the heydays of the 1960s.

When asked for his reaction after the match Alex Ferguson responded with, “This is what Manchester United is all about, winning the biggest things you could possibly win.” He continued, “They’ve (the players) distinguished themselves as far as I’m concerned tonight, they’re heroes, legends.”

While the smile etched on Ferguson’s face during the interview is genuine and heart felt, beneath his blissful veneer lay the mental fatigue accumulated during a highly challenging season.

United’s march to the Cup Winners Cup Final in Spring of 1991 provided a welcome respite from a domestic campaign that was fraught with disappointment.

An exit at the 5th round stage of the FA Cup at the hands of Norwich, was followed by a 1-0 loss in the League Cup Final to Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday. In the First Division United went on a winless streak lasting between January and mid-March, culminating with only seven wins from a possible seventeen as they closed out season 90/91.

To compound matters further, in the week leading up to the Cup Winners Cup Final Ferguson would lose his long-term assistant and confidant, Archie Knox, in controversial fashion.

With a handful of games left in the Scottish season Walter Smith was appointed as the new manager of Rangers, following Graeme Souness departure to take over at Liverpool. Smith made Knox the offer to join him at Ibrox on the condition that he move right away, which when accepted left Ferguson aghast at the timing of the departure. This led to the promotion of youth team coach, and former United player, Brian Kidd to fill the void.

While United stood on the edge of European glory, they did so against a backdrop of unrest within the wider support, many of whom still unsure if Ferguson could deliver genuine success. We’ll never know what failure to win in Rotterdam would have done to the future of Manchester United, but one thing we can be sure of is time was steadily running out for Ferguson and perhaps this was the true tipping point in what would herald the start of a dynasty.

Successful Consequences

In September of 1998 as United prepared to face off once more against FC Barcelona in European competition, the club found itself yet again mired in supporter unrest. They say the more things change in football the more they stay the same, well in this case Ferguson was now a much-revered figure in the eyes of the support, instead the supporters attention had turned to a much deeper concern within the boardroom.

In the seven years that followed the 1991 Cup Winners Cup Final, United embarked upon a trophy haul that would include four League Championships, two FA Cups and a European Super Cup. Ferguson had carefully curated a side that maintained a healthy balance between local representation and elite level European talent, all while fostering a connection between the players and support that hadn’t been felt since the Matt Busby’s time in charge.

United’s on field trajectory would also coincide with significant commercial growth, initially brought about due to their PLC listing on the London stock exchange, but laterally as part of the success felt by the formation of the Premier League.

Working alongside the Premier League were the broadcaster BSkyB, who would provide weekly coverage through its satellite TV platform. In a time when the growing appetite for live football was arguably at its most insatiable, they too profited from an ever-increasing customer base in the UK as well selling their rights internationally. After months of speculation throughout the start of 1998, it was finally announced they would embark upon a plan to purchase Manchester United in a landmark deal.

In this article released in the Irish Times on Wednesday 9th September 1998, it states:

“British Sky Broadcasting, the satellite operator in which Mr Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has a 40 per cent stake, will today announce a £625 million agreed deal to buy Manchester United football club.

United’s board has unanimously accepted the offer despite protests from politicians and fans. The price is higher than expected and was agreed after the board held out during 36 hours of meetings for a better deal.”

The exponential growth of Manchester United, and more importantly their global corporate entity, made them an interesting proposition for investment. It would, however, seem a rather odd decision for the leading broadcast company in England to purchase arguably its largest club, especially when it was expected to cover them impartially.

While figures such as Martin Edwards and Peter Schmeichel were quick to quash any concern about the future running of the club, the announcement led to the formation of what is now the biggest supporters trust in the UK. The group founded as ‘Shareholders United Against Murdoch’ and worked quickly to raise the issue of Murdoch’s proposed purchase of the club with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, leading to a delay of the transfer of shares while it’s legitimacy was debated in the UK parliament.

On Field Matters

Following the disappointment of their loss to Arsenal in the FA Charity Shield, United kicked off their Champions League qualification three days later with a comprehensive 2-0 victory over Polish champions ŁKS Łódź at Old Trafford, thanks to goals from Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole.

As United sought to build on the momentum of their midweek victory on the opening day of the Premier League Season, Emile Heskey had other ideas when he opened the scoring to give Martin O’Neil’s Leicester the lead on 7 minutes. Tony Cottee looked to have secured all three points on 76 minutes when he doubled Leicester’s advantage, however a late fight back would see a deflected effort from Sheringham cut the lead to one on 79 minutes and Beckham would give United a 2-2 draw after a superb stoppage time free kick.

On Friday 21st August 1998, Alex Ferguson added what was to become the jewel in the United crown, when he secured the signature of Dwight Yorke in a £12M move from Aston Villa. It had been stated by Ferguson that the move was “dead in the water” just a few days earlier, which clearly put pressure on Aston Villa to sell rather than be left with an unhappy striker. The timing of the signing also guaranteed Yorke would meet the registration deadline for the Champions League should, as was expected, United qualify.

Yorke was immediately placed into United’s starting eleven for their first away Premier League game of the season, when they travelled to Upton Park to take on West Ham United the following day.

The match was best remembered for the torrid reception David Beckham received, in this his first away league game since his infamous sending off in the World Cup.

Stones and bottles were thrown at the Manchester United team coach as a group of taunting West Ham fans lined the streets around Upton Park, bringing with them an effigy to hang from a nearby lamp post wearing a Beckham England jersey.

There were few chances of note in this match, with the only major on field talking point being Neil Ruddock’s hand ball inside the box going unnoticed by the officials. The crowd did get to see a few glimpses from the burgeoning partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, but in the end the match would finish 0-0.

United would close out a busy August with a midweek trip to Poland, where they would face LKS Lodz in the second leg of the qualifying round of the Champions League. Ferguson rotated his strike force by pairing a more creative front two in Scholes and Sheringham, however despite their best efforts United would play out their second 0-0 draw in a week.

Any lingering disappointment of the score line in Poland was quickly extinguished as United progressed into the Champions’ League group stage draw the following day in Monaco.

Champions League Draw

With English football’s co-efficient ranking significantly lower than it does today, United would be placed into Pot 3 prior to the draw, ensuring they would meet at least two heavy hitters in the opening round.

United would be drawn into Group D alongside FC Barcelona from Pot 1, automatic qualifiers and reigning La Liga champions, as well as FC Bayern Munich from Pot 2, also an entrant via the qualifying round having finished 2nd behind Kaiserslautern in the 97/98 Bundesliga. Following United’s selection came Danish champions Brondby from Pot 4, entrants at the 2nd round of qualifying having overcome Kosice from Slovakia 2-1 on aggregate.

September began with the first international break of the season, which saw Glenn Hoddle’s England kick off their Euro 2000 qualification in Stockholm against Sweden. Suspension had ruled David Beckham out of the match, as had injury to Gary Neville, so Paul Scholes was the only United player selected to start.

Alan Shearer opened the scoring after just two minutes, curling home a well struck free kick past Coventry City’s Magnus Hedman in the Sweden goal. Shearer’s Newcastle teammate Andreas Andersson brought the Swedes back level on the half hour mark, turning home a strike from close range following a David Seaman save from Stefan Schwartz’s free kick. Just a few moments after England’s restart and Sweden had the ball in the net once more, this time it was a header from Johan Mjallby who would put the hosts in front. England were reduced to ten in the second half when Paul Ince was sent packing following a second yellow card, which all but ended the match as a contest as Sweden went on to secure a 2-1 win.

United would return to league action just four days after England’s defeat in Stockholm, where they welcomed the visit of newly promoted Charlton Athletic.

There was much anticipation at the first home appearances for new signings Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist, however excitement soon turned into shock as Mark Kinsella put Charlton ahead on 32 minutes.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer quickly brought United level, with a terrific strike from the edge of the area rifiling into the net. Dwight Yorke would score his first goal for United on the stroke of half-time, heading home from a wonderfully flighted David Beckham free kick. Yorke and Solskjaer each added another goal to their tally in the second half, rounding off a terrific performance that saw United win 4-1.

United were at home once more three days later, this time it was Coventry City who made the journey to Manchester. A Paul Scholes cross was turned into the net by Dwight Yorke to open the scoring on 20 minutes, and Scholes was involved once more when his shot was deflected past the keeper by the outstretched leg of Ronnie Johnsen to double the lead. This comfortable victory was the perfect runway into the start of United’s Champions League group stage, which would kick off against one of the tournament favorites in Louis Van Gaal’s FC Barcelona the following Wednesday evening.

Manchester United vs FC Barcelona Match Analysis

Starting Line Ups:

Manchester United

Phil Neville had deputized for both Gary Neville and Dennis Irwin in the weeks leading up to this game, however as both found themselves back to full fitness Ferguson went with his more experienced full back pairing. A late injury in United’s game with Coventry would see Ronnie Johnsen miss out on this match, with Ferguson electing to bring in his Norwegian compatriot Henning Berg to partner Jaap Stam.

While Scholes had started the season in the forward positions, Yorke’s signing ensured that he made the move back to central midfield to partner Roy Keane on a more permanent basis. Giggs and Beckham took their place on the wings, both of which would prove to be key contributors to how United attacked in transition.

In attack Ferguson would pair Solskjaer and Yorke, a partnership that had already accounted for 5 goals in their opening 2 games. Albeit FC Barcelona are a far higher level of competition, it was evident that both players shared a natural synergy from the off.

Ferguson’s default shape of 4-4-2 morphed into a 4-2-4 at times in attack, with Beckham and Giggs working to expose the spaces behind FC Barcelona’s full backs in moments of transition.

While United began to press FC Barcelona aggressively, when the game settled down Ferguson dropped the lines of confrontation to give his midfield and back line greater connectivity. Yorke and Solskjaer still worked to press the ball albeit from deeper starting positions, but the entire shape relied heavily on zonal ball pressure and coverage in behind.

On the bench for United was back up keeper Raymond van Der Gouw, defenders David May and Phil Neville, midfielders Nicky Butt and Jesper Blomqvist, accompanied by strikers Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham.

FC Barcelona

Louis Van Gaal had led FC Barcelona to the La Liga title in his first season in charge, however a dismal performance in the 97/98 Champions League led to a squad overhaul that included no fewer than nine first team departures.

Joining the club in the summer of 1998 was Argentine defender Mauricio Pellegrino from Velez Sarsfield on a short-term deal. He was joined by Dutch duo Philip Cocu and Boudewijn Zenden, both of whom joined from PSV Eindhoven. Without doubt the biggest signing of the summer was Patrick Kluivert’s arrival from AC Milan, where he would be re-united with his former Ajax coach in a deal worth £9M.

Having qualified automatically for the Champions League, FC Barcelona were only three games into their season when group stage play began. They kicked off La Liga with a 0-0 draw away to Racing Santander, followed by a 1-0 win over Extremadura at the Camp Nou courtesy of a Luis Figo strike. They faced a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu on the weekend prior to their match at Old Trafford, to face a Real Madrid side coached by Guus Hidink who was taking part in his first El Classico. Despite Kluivert converting his first goal the club, a Raul double gave Real a 2-1 lead headed into the closing stages of the match. Just as the game looked out of reach FC Barcelona’s Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson was on hand to help his side claim a 2-2 draw.

Van Gaal would name a similar line up in his sides opening Group D match with United, with the notable exceptions being Mauricio Pellegrino and Patrick Kluivert who missed out through injury.

Versatile Dutch defender Michael Reiziger would partner Abelardo in central defense, moving away from his more traditional placement as an attacking right back. Sergi Barjuan would partner Luis Enrique in the full back positions to complete the back four, two footballers who are extremely comfortable in carrying the ball forward as well as stepping into midfield to combine.

The midfield trio of Cocu, Giovanni and Rivaldo are an extremely attack minded group of players, all of whom play a key role in how FC Barcelona move the ball forward into the final third.

On the flanks are Boudewijn Zenden and Luis Figo, both of whom are extremely competent in attacking like traditional wingers by driving to the end line, however we will also see them demonstrate their ability to come inside and attack from central positions.

At center forward Sonny Anderson is a Brazilian international that operates at the elite level, his only misfortune is that he is playing at time when his national team are blessed with so many attacking options. His movement to create shooting opportunities is further complimented by his clinical finishing, leading to him being a major threat that United will be wary of.

First Half Tactical Analysis

Barcelona Build Up Play

In the early moments of the match Louis Van Gaal’s side opted for several direct passes into Sonny Anderson at the point of the attack, but when play settled down the role of Philip Cocu became immediately apparent. When picking play up from the center backs Cocu receives the ball so well that he can play forward as well as switch play horizontally, pulling United out of their natural defensive shape as he operates so effectively between the lines.

At either side of Cocu was a trio of players who were given license to rotate and combine as they attempted to overload United in wide areas and create attacks in the final third.

On the right side we saw Geovanni and Figo frequently interchanging position, both supported by Luis Enrique who combined attacking the flank with pulling inside like a central midfielder to offer deep support.

On the left, Zenden operated more like a traditional winger with Rivaldo given license to attack the inside left channel or move into a traditional number 10 spot. When both Zenden and Rivaldo left the flank open, Sergi used the space well to overlap from left back and serve crosses from the end line.

While the movement from the trio on either side of Cocu was predicated upon what space was available to penetrate, the core principle was that Van Gaal didn’t want a situation where winger and full back were on the same vertical line. By inverting and contracting the space with these outside overloads, it made life especially hard for United’s full back/winger partnership to press effectively and prevent the flow of attack.

Breaking Forward

With Ferguson opting to pair Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in attack, the defensive positioning of his remaining eight players were going to be integral to how they remained connected and create turn overs.

Given Van Gaal’s possession style there is no doubt Ferguson sent out his players to press aggressively in the opening stages of the match, looking to capitalize upon how few Barcelona players were kept back to defend transitions.

When United’s midfield line had dropped back deeper to protect the space in their own half, they had players who showed excellent anticipatory skills to intercept passes and counterattack on goal.

One such example came on the 10-minute mark and almost opened the scoring. A loose pass from Abelardo led to Beckham supplying a wonderful through pass to Giggs, his first time cross was then met by Solskjaer at the front post but the Norweigan’s effort would only clip the cross bar.

United Link Up Play

As United began to rely more on transitions as the first half progressed, it heightened the need for the strikers to link the play while the supporting cast of midfielders made runs into the final third.

Dwight Yorke did a terrific job of showing to receive the ball into feet or chest, before spreading the play and letting loose the quality of Beckham and Giggs on the flanks. In the second clip we see how well Yorke and Solksjaer work to unsettle the Barcelona back line, before Giggs joins them inside the box to attack a sublime Beckham cross to open the scoring.  

Beat The Press

As United began to build play from the back it was clear that Ferguson had targeted Barcelona’s ability to defend high balls as a potential weakness. Yorke frequently moved onto the side of Barca defender Michael Reiziger, known better as an attacking full back but deputizing centrally, and dropping off the high line to flick the ball onto his strike partner Solskjaer.

After numerous successful aerial challenges by the United strikers the Barcelona defense was in such disarray that when Beckham moved inside as a potential target, drawing pressure from left back Sergi, the ball sailed over both players totally unopposed. Solskjaer then latched onto the ball and would help set up a move that led to United doubling their lead.

Barcelona Central Focus

With a two-goal lead to protect Ferguson dialed down his side’s pressing during moments of transition, instead opting for his players to drop and collect into a deeper zonal defensive shape. Van Gaal had clearly prepared for such eventuality and almost immediately we saw Figo drifting inside to pick up possession, like the movements of a number 10 as Barcelona progressed the ball through the middle of the field.

At the point in which he picked up the ball, central striker Sonny Anderson would bend his run to draw Stam’s attention away from the ball, leaving Figo to face Henning Berg in a 1v1. While this didn’t materialize into many concrete chances, it was a glimpse into what we would see more of in the second half.

Even with United two goals ahead in the match, and an agonizing miss from Solskjaer away from a third, when Italian referee Stefano Braschi brought an end to the opening forty-five minutes this contest still felt far from over.

While FC Barcelona had looked rattled in the opening twenty minutes, the slower tempo of the match allowed them to establish more control and led to dominating large parts of possession. Let’s not forget Barcelona also had the ball in the net on 32 minutes when Rivaldo’s deflected shot whistled past Schmeichel, but the effort was ruled out when a foul was given for Sonny Anderson’s push on Henning Berg in the build up to the goal.

The bigger question for United wasn’t so much could they protect their lead, but more could they regain their grip on a match they had appeared to be in total control of after 24minutes. Their neat play in transition remained a constant threat throughout the half, however the movement of Rivaldo and Figo had caused United some serious structural damage given a lack of pressure on the ball.

Second Half Tactical Analysis

Figo Between the Lines

United began the second half in bullish fashion, launching two attacks over to the right wing with the view of Yorke and Beckham combining to create another chance on goal. When Barcelona broke up play they moved forward on the counter, moving their entire unit forward as United sank back into their deeper zonal defensive shape.

A series of switches in play followed as Barcelona pushed and probed United, attempting to create small 2v1 situations in areas that United were structurally vulnerable. One such area was in the center of midfield, as Keane and Scholes struggled to prevent Figo and Rivaldo from combining.

The Brazilian’s first touch is met with four lunging blocks by United defenders and just as he swings back to strike the ball he is brought to the ground by a slide tackle from Dennis Irwin. The ball inadvertently cannons off Berg and onto Rivaldo’s head, before falling to Sonny Anderson inside the box who applies a predatory finish to cut the deficit to one goal. 

United Defensive Switch

In the moments after Barcelona’s goal Ferguson chose to add more steel into his midfield by removing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and replacing him with Nicky Butt. Structurally this move gave United more numbers centrally, however Ferguson would also use the move to up the intensity of his team who had started the half in such passive fashion.

Players who had remained connected in the team shape now began frequently leaving their zones to aggressively press the ball, which did bring about more interceptions and blocks but with it came bigger gaps for Barcelona to exploit should they evade the pressure.

Right Side Imbalance

Van Gaal reacted to Butt’s substitution by inverting the position of Luis Figo off the wing, thus maintaining the central numerical superiority as well as opening the right flank for Luis Enrique to attack forward into.  

Just as the game reached the hour mark a simple attacking move on the right side would see Luis Enrique feed a pass into Rivaldo, who’s movement inside the box saw him create separation from the advances of Jaap Stam. Upon receiving the ball Rivaldo’s first touch was toward the end line, fully aware that the impending contact coming from Jaap Stam could lead to a foul inside the box. Italian referee Braschi immediately pointed to the spot, leaving Ferguson utterly furious on the sideline given the minimal contact that had led to the penalty award.

Midfielder Giovanni stepped forward and would apply a cool finish, lifting his strike just over the outstretched Peter Schmeichel to bring Barcelona back level to 2-2.

Beckham Stroke of Genius

It didn’t take long for United to regain their lead, when just four minutes after the Barcelona equalizer they were awarded a free kick in perfect shooting range.

A forward pass from Luis Figo to spark a counterattack was thwarted when Jaap Stam raced out to intercept Sonny Anderson, his subsequent clearance fell to the feet of Dwight Yorke just inside Barcelona’s defensive third, at which point he was brought to the ground following a mis-timed recovery tackle from Philip Cocu.

There was a giddy anticipation throughout the Old Trafford crowd as David Beckham strode forward to take the kick, with it’s positioning almost identical to that of his goal for England against Colombia at France 98. Beckham caressed a wonderful curling strike into the top corner, leading to an explosion of noise throughout Old Trafford as United went 3-2 ahead.

Barcelona Tactical Shift

Following Beckham’s goal Van Gaal decided he needed to up the ante, so morphed the shape of the team into a 3-4-3.

On 65 minutes he would replace attacking midfielder Giovanni for the more conservative option of Xavi Hernandez, who even as an 18-year-old rookie it was apparent how comfortable he was in moving the ball at speed. Working within a double pivot beside Cocu this allowed FC Barcelona to maintain the rhythm of the attacks, all while maintaining their numerical advantage centrally.

Luis Enrique would maintain his advanced positioning but now had the license to step into the forward line, giving Reiziger space in which to attack the flank like a full back. Figo and Rivaldo now had complete autonomy as to where they moved to occupy the best spaces centrally, frequently combining with Sonny Anderson using give and go’s to penetrate the United 18 yard box.

Red Card Controversy

On 70 minutes a goal mouth scramble inside the United 18-yard box led to Nicky Butt inadvertently handling an instinctive shot by Sonny Anderson, the result of which was Luis Figo prodding home the ball after it had cannoned off Butt’s arm.

As the Barcelona captain raised his arm in celebration the referee blew his whistle frantically, motioning that he had awarded the Catalans a penalty prior to Figo’s rebound hitting the net. To make matters worse referee Braschi turned to show Nicky Butt the red card, citing that his block was a deliberate handball.

Luis Enrique stepped up to take the penalty this time, calmly stroking the ball into the bottom left corner to bring Barcelona back level at 3-3.

After dropping to ten men Ferguson would replace Dennis Irwin with the fresh legs of Phil Neville at left back, and when Ryan Giggs picked up a facial injury he would be replaced with Jesper Blomqvist.

Despite United’s best efforts to attack on the counter, Barcelona worked diligently to extinguish any threat by swarming around the ball to win back possession. While Van Gaal’s side appeared to lack the zip and urgency of a team going all out to win the game, they pulled United apart at will as they struggled to compensate for being a man down.

Throughout the final twenty minutes FC Barcelona went close on several occasions, registering six more efforts on goal while United failed to do so once. Given the circumstances Alex Ferguson will be content with a point, but there was little doubt as to where his attention was directed in his post-match interviews.

In this article on the BBC website Ferguson states referee Braschi has had “a real shocker” given the harshness surrounding both Barcelona penalties. He also conceded, “We just lost impetus and we lost our gameplan and our shape. I’m quite happy with the result at the end of day because we could have lost.”

Elsewhere in UCL Group D

Bayern Munich would travel to the Parken Stadium, Copenhagen as they opened their Champions League campaign against Danish champions Brondby. 76 minutes of relatively conservative football had passed before Stefan Effenberg supplied a wonderful free kick delivery to the back post and Markus Babbel opened the scoring with a powerful headed finish.

Brondby fought back in the closing moments, claiming an equalizing goal when Bayern defender Thomas Helmer turned the ball into his own net when attempting to clear a driven Soren Colding cross.

In a frantic final few minutes Brondby would seal a shock victory following a speculative effort from midfielder Allan Ravn. Bayern were on the attack when a turnover in possession led to a neat Brondby move that ended with Ravn flicking the ball over the head of Thomas Helmer and, despite the advances of Markus Babbel, the Dane’s highly audacious half volley clipped the inside of the post as his shot flew past Bayern keeper Oliver Kahn.  


In Part 2 of this series, I listed several areas of concern within United’s performance against Arsenal in the Charity Shield. I did so to give us a starting point in which to gauge the team’s development throughout the season, so let’s take a quick look at how the team faired against these metrics as well as listing any new areas of focus.

How can United better protect the back line in transition?

Ferguson would again line up using a 4-4-2 formation, which is always going to provide the opponent with an ability to overload centrally should they use a 3-man central midfield system.

Naturally there are ways to combat this central problem while starting from a 4-4-2 default, options include using the forwards to force play wide and pull in the weakside midfielder, or simply drop a striker back to cover the deep midfield and force the opponent to play around them.

If we work from a position of the structure not changing, we see that Ferguson instead positioned Scholes and Keane closer to the back line to limit the space in which Anderson could pick up the ball, allied to the narrow defensive positioning of Beckham and Giggs to force Barcelona into passing the ball wide.

By limiting the passing options this gave United more trigger points in which to step forward and intercept the ball, as we saw on multiple occasions throughout the first half.

Where problems began to occur for United was when Barcelona began carrying the ball into attacking positions, or dribbling the ball from the flank into central positions and penetrating the final third.

In a zonal pressing system, it relies heavily on the player engaging the ball to do so quickly but using a body angle that takes away passing lanes around them. As we see in this graphic Scholes presses Figo’s diagonal dribble but affords him the space to pass square to Rivaldo, who would eventually create a scoring opportunity for Sonny Anderson at the top of the box. 

While United did a much better job of slowing down Barcelona’s counter attacks than those of Arsenal at Wembley, the system in which Ferguson uses as his template will always place more onus on his midfield and back line to defend well in 1v1 battles. While central players often have support defensively, if the wingers are caught out of position there becomes some clear gaps the opponent can exploit.

Furthermore, the risk/reward that comes with leaving two strikers in attack when in defensive transition is going to be an interesting area of analysis as the season moves forward, especially when United come up against higher level opponents who use a three-man central midfield.

Can United’s strikers penetrate centrally when using this narrow system?

As United had less of the possession in this match Ferguson moved away from the positioning of Giggs and Beckham behind the midfield lines, so that analysis will be better served in a match where his side has more significantly more of the ball.

With that said, what was immediately apparent to me was the impact new signing Dwight Yorke has had on this United side. While Barcelona did afford United more space in which to play between the lines, Yorke and Solskjaer appeared to have far more duality in their movement and worked extremely well in support of each other. The supporting movements of Giggs and Beckham were like clockwork, which will make for interesting viewing throughout the campaign.

Who provides the width when building forward?

Ferguson’s conservative positioning of his full backs lead to a greater emphasis on Giggs and Beckham to dominate their 1v1 battles in attack, therefore the staff will be delighted at how well their wide men performed even if most passages of play began in transition.

With that said, as the team sat deeper and deeper it all but removed their ability to attack using width, which will lead to questions as to how they solve that moving forward. By placing the responsibility onto the strikers to hold the ball up as the wide players advance, it allows the opponent to maintain their back line and counter press. Perhaps there is more penetrative runs into wide areas that can be made by the forwards, thus creating bigger gaps for the supporting runs to be made into.

Looking Ahead

Attention quickly turned back to domestic affairs for United following their 3-3 draw with FC Barcelona, with a trip to North London in the offing where they’d take on title rivals Arsenal at Highbury.

Despite their impressive display in the FA Charity Shield, Arsene Wenger’s side had made a slow start to the new campaign, recording a solitary victory from their opening six matches. A 92nd minute equalizer saw them drop two points in their opening Champions League match with French champions Lens, a goal that would no doubt have an impact on Arsenal’s psyche heading into this early season crunch match with United.

Join us next time as we assess the twists and turns of September and October in this iconic Manchester United season, culminating with a league match against the blue half of Merseyside when Ferguson’s preferred strike partnership would become fully formed.

About the Author

Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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