By Jonathan Wilson
April 27, 2011

Tactical observations from Champions League action this week:

So where did it all go wrong? Better, perhaps, to ask where it didn't. United was so crushingly in control in Tuesday's 2-0 win that it was hard to believe Schalke 04 was the same side that put out Internazionale, the defending champion, in the last round. Then Schalke had looked a side far better than its mid-table position in the Bundesliga suggested; against United, it looked far worse.

The injury to the center back Benedikt Howedes clearly didn't help. That forced Joel Matip to drop back to center back to replace him, and so removed a defensive presence from the center of midfield. With Jose Manuel Jurado, a far more attacking player, deployed in Matip's place, Kyriakos Papadopoulos was left like King Canute, hopelessy trying to holding back the tide.

Ralf Rangnick, the Schalke coach, is noted for his love of pressing, which is a way of getting attack-minded players to perform a defensive job, but after four weeks in the job, he has clearly not yet been able to impose his vision -- if that is how he hoped to stop United. Wayne Rooney can rarely have had an easier game. Gifted acres of space, he made the most of it, reveling in the easy possession and spraying passes for Javier Hernandez and the runners from midfield. Hernandez's movement across the front line was superb, and but for the excellence of Manuel Neuer, he could easily have had a hat trick.

Michael Carrick, who seemingly has two states -- ultra-composed and shell-shocked -- was never pressured and had a gentle game mopping up the odd loose ball in front of the back four, allowing Ryan Giggs to focus on getting forward. His runs were never picked up, and the result was a series of chances that, as he pointed out, kept falling on his weaker right foot. Eventually, inevitably, one of his runs did create an opening that was taken, and the only disappointment -- as both Rooney and Giggs acknowledged afterwards -- was that United had won only 2-0.

Against Inter, Schalke's two key presences from an attacking point of view had been the fullbacks, Atsuto Uchida and Hans Sarpei, who were given space to charge into by the narrow system adopted by Leonardo's side. Up against wide players who played high up the field in Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia, though, both were much more subdued. Uchida offered fleeting glimpses early on of his attacking talent, but after Rooney and Park had both drawn excellent saves from Neuer following moves that originated on his flank, the Japan international played far more conservatively and he and Park effectively canceled each other out. Sarpei, asked to defend against Valencia, who has recovered remarkably quickly after his broken leg, simply looked lost, and having been booked for a foul on Hernandez, it was little surprise when he was withdrawn.

Those were the tactical areas United exploited, but there was a sense on Tuesday that United could have played almost any system and still won comfortably: Schalke seemed terrified by the occasion, and the truth is probably that United is simply a much better team.

A good tactic is not necessarily a winning tactic, but one that manipulates the percentages. Jose Mourinho's first clasico in charge of Real Madrid ended in a 5-0 defeat; after Wednesday's 2-0 loss in the first leg of the semifinal, he will almost certainly not reach this season's Champions League final. But over the course of the season he has reduced the gulf between the sides, if not by imbuing Madrid with greater quality, then by making it harder for Barcelona to show its own. The methods he used may be distasteful, but their effectiveness cannot be doubted.

Having created a poisonous atmosphere in which tackles flew in and every decision was disputed, though, Mourinho was hoist by his own petard. Was Pepe's foul on Dani Alves worthy of a straight red? Perhaps not, although the foot was high and the studs raised, but in the febrile conditions, a red card was always likely. What was strange then was Mourinho's reaction. It wasn't just that he was sent off -- an appalling dereliction when his side needed his leadership -- but that he seemingly made no effort to counter Barca's man advantage.

It wasn't just that Pepe, who had done a superb job of neutralizing Xavi, wasn't there any more, although it was obvious how much greater the Barca playmaker's influence was after the red card; it was also that Xabi Alonso's role changed. Instead of sitting behind Pepe and Lassana Diarra, protecting the two centerbacks, he ended up playing in a line of four midfielders. That caused two problems. Firstly, it left space between the defense and the midfield, and secondly, it meant Barca was facing a line with a triangle. It is a basic axiom of tactical theory that a triangle will always beat a line; after a few minutes of increased Madrid tempo, Barca settled into its rhythm, and it was in that space in front of the back four that Messi found the space from which he began the run that led to the second goal.

The first came from a cross from Ibrahim Afellay, whose introduction increased Barca's potency. In the first half, with Pedro cutting in from the flanks, it had struggled to find chinks in Madrid's armor, despite David Villa's efforts to stay wide. Afellay, as a more natural winger, changed the angle of attack, stretching Madrid, and pressuring Marcelo. In the hurly-burly of the game, the significance of his arrival will probably be overlooked, but bringing him on gave Barca's attack exactly the extra option it needed.

He was certainly far more effective than Cristiano Ronaldo, who started as a center forward, spent 17 minutes in two spells on the right in the first half, presumably to try to expose Barca's leftback Carles Puyol, out of position and not fully fit, and moved permanently to the right in the second as Emmanuel Adebayor came on to play center forward, but did little other than belting free-kicks into the wall.

The game may have been played on Mourinho's terms, but Barcelona was a deserving winner.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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