We’ve reached the 21st century in this week’s edition of our history of the European Cup, as we take a look at the 2009 final between Barcelona and Manchester United. Nearly a decade and a half on from the last one we covered, this is now recognisably the football of the modern age.
This is the fifth entry in our series.
We’ve already analysed:
There were some familiar faces from some of those finals in this one. Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van de Sar had started for Ajax in 1995; Patrick Kluivert, scorer of the winning goal in that match, was in amongst the Barcelona support; Johan Cruyff, scorer of both goals is the 1972 final, was watching on from a more tranquil post.
Less directly, a then 18-year-old Sir Alex Ferguson had attended the 1960 final at Hampden Park and been left spellbound by the brilliance of that Real Madrid side.
United were the competition holders following their penalty shoot out win over Chelsea in the 2008 final, and had just wrapped up the Premier League title. Barcelona, in Pep Guardiola’s first season as head coach, had already secured a domestic double.
United Start Strong, Barcelona Gain Control
United were considered the pre-match favourites (marginally by the bookmakers; more robustly by the more insulated members of the British sporting press), and began on the front foot with a series of quick-fire attacks that saw them register five shots within the opening nine minutes. Only a sliding block from Gerard Piqué prevented Park Ji-Sung from turning in the rebound from a parried Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick.
With both of their regular full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended, and central defensive option Rafael Márquez also out injured, Barcelona fielded a makeshift backline that featured Yaya Touré alongside Piqué in the centre of defence. Touré played as if he was still in midfield, stepping out, shadowing opponents and taking time to regain his position. He settled in a bit as the match went on, but he was still regularly found in advance of his defensive colleagues.
Not that it mattered all that much because after that initial United flurry, Barcelona took control of the match off the back of a goal from Samuel Eto’o. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi combined through the centre for the first time, Iniesta moved the ball on to Eto’o, and he skipped inside Nemanja Vidic before prodding home in the 10th minute of play.
As in Barcelona’s 6-2 victory over Real Madrid in the league earlier the same month (a match we covered in detail as part of our series on Messi’s evolution), Messi lined up here as a False 9, with Eto’o and Thierry Henry either side of him as wide forwards.
Just as in that match, it was Barcelona’s numerical superiority in the centre of pitch, with Messi essentially at the head of a diamond that had Sergio Busquets at its base, that allowed them to take control. For a while, there were still spaces for United to attack in transition. Piqué obstructed Ronaldo to prevent him getting into the area from a nice diagonal pass from Ryan Giggs. But those opportunities all but disappeared as Barcelona started to string together long sequences of controlled and progressive possession.
This sequence, which ended with a foul on Iniesta, acts as a good example of the way in which Guardiola’s side were able to move the ball and keep it away from United. Iniesta, Messi and Xavi were all heavily involved.
United seemed to have little response. From Barcelona’s opener until the 72nd minute, by which time Messi had doubled their lead, they mustered just three shots, including just one from open play. They got off none at all for almost 50 minutes after Ronaldo’s header wide from a corner on 23 minutes. Their offence was a flatline for over half the match despite the presence of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and following his half-time introduction, Carlos Tevez.
In fact, with Tevez on the field in place of Anderson, United found it even harder to get on the ball, and Barcelona began to close in on a second goal. A lovely piece of footwork from Iniesta began a swift attack that ended in a presentable Henry chance saved; Xavi hit the post with a free-kick from the edge of the area; and then, after a lull, Messi rose to head home Xavi’s pinpoint cross and all but end the match as a contest.
Xavi had an excellent match, as did Iniesta, whose touches left the Spanish commentators purring on multiple occasions. He was a reliable receiver under pressure, and a very able ball carrier. He advanced the ball into the final third more often than any other Barcelona player.
United came close to getting one back almost straight from kickoff following Barcelona’s second goal, but Giggs mis-kicked before Ronaldo had his low effort saved behind by Victor Valdés. From then on, they never looked likely to get back into it. Over the full course of the match, the two teams were evenly matched in terms of chances, but the timing of that first goal changed the complexion of the contest. From then on, Barcelona were in charge.
A Sign of Things to Come
There were spells in this match in which in contrast with the supple shifting of their opponents, United looked decidedly leaden-footed on the ball. While extended Barcelona possessions often eventually resulted in progress towards goal, United’s longer sequences regularly produced a steadily decreasing possibility of meaningful advancement. The counter-attack was their most dangerous weapon, and Barcelona swiftly neutered it.
This match acted as a preview of the prevailing style clash of the following years. Spain had won the European Championship the year previous, and they and Barcelona set a template that other teams were forced to adapt to. Their approach was dissected and counter-measures created. In La Liga, this 2008-09 Barcelona side still has the best expected goal difference of any in the Messi era. Subsequently, both their and Spain’s use of possession as a means of control became ever-more pronounced.
Not that the intervening couple of years and various demonstrations of ways of potentially countering Guardiola’s Barcelona did United any good. By the time the two teams met again in the 2011 final, the gap between them had widened considerably.
This match felt like one from the modern era partly because it was the first we’ve seen that featured a reasonable spread of shots of decent average quality. Aside from a few speculative efforts from Ronaldo (after one of which, the sadly recently deceased Michael Robinson noted: “I’m more than happy for him to shoot from there. If it goes in, we’ll take off our hats to him, but very few are going to go in from there.”) and others, it was a set of shots of an average quality much closer to the contemporary average.
Over the last four finals of this series, there has been a consistent decrease in both the average shot distance and the percentage of efforts from outside the area.
The only outlier is the 1960 final, likely because the heaviness of the ball in that age rendered long-range efforts inefficient. The only other relatively contemporaneous match in our system is the 1953 friendly between Hungary and England at Wembley, which had an even closer average shot distance and featured a lower percentage of efforts from outside the area.