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The best of Barça: Tactical analysis of the 2011 Champions League final

Samuel Gustafson



Header Image by Imago

In May of 2011, Barcelona traveled to Wembley Stadium for the biggest match of the season. Against the champions of England, Barça rose to the occasion and produced one of the club’s most memorable victories. This is the tactical analysis on how Barça did it against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final.

With Barcelona knocking out Real Madrid in an El Clásico semi-final of the 2010/11 Champions League, and Manchester United breezing past Schalke 04 in their tie, the stage was set for a rematch of the 2009 final. There were legendary managers and players on both sides, and the two clubs had already won their domestic leagues that season. It was truly set up to be a remarkable event, and the pinnacle of the footballing world.

When it was all over, though, there was no doubt which side had been superior. Let’s go further into Barça’s play, and find the key aspects that created such an excellent performance.

Control in midfield

Barcelona’s midfield on the night was made up of the legendary trio of Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xavi Hernández. The chemistry, intelligence, and technique possessed by each of them allowed Barça to completely dictate the tempo of the match. Here are the locations taken up by the trio to receive the ball:

Iniesta stayed in his traditional area, a bit advanced and to the left, where he would often find pockets of space to open up a passing lane. As the pivot, Busquets stayed central and was usually the deepest of the three. Looking at Xavi‘s positioning, though, you can see that he would pick the ball up mainly to the right side of the pitch when Barça were building out from the back. However, going further into the attacking half he would shift to a very central area.

The positioning of these three is perfectly highlighted just before Lionel Messi’s goal. As Barça had beaten the initial pressure and were looking to break down the United defense, Xavi pushed up and moved central. Iniesta stayed in his area to the left of Xavi, while Busquets stayed deeper.

Andrés Iniesta Lionel Messi Barça Manchester United 2011 Champions League final tactical analysis

With Xavi pushing up and in, Messi then dropped to become almost the right part of the midfield trio. In short, when Barça were building up, the midfield would have its traditional shape with Iniesta on the left and Xavi on the right just ahead of Busquets in the center. But as the ball advanced, Busquets would usually stay back, leaving the center of the trio open for Xavi to slot into, which then left the right interior space for Messi. Adjustments and fluctuations in positioning like this allowed Barcelona to dominate possession and wear down United.

The Red Devils could not figure out how to deal with this positional flexibility, and in the end, the numbers show just how dominant Barça’s midfield was. Iniesta, Busquets, and Xavi combined for 329 completed passes on the night, while Manchester United as a whole managed just 302. This was done with extreme efficiency as well, as the trio combined for a 93.2% pass completion rate. Even without mentioning that they supplied all three of Barça’s assists – one each – it’s clear how unstoppable this midfield was.

Messi at his best

While it may be impossible to choose one match as the best in the illustrious career of Lionel Messi, this one has to be a candidate. The Argentine was unplayable on the night. It was a performance that goes far beyond any words or numbers, but they can still paint some of the picture. To start, let’s look at the area Messi was positioned in for the match.

Messi was clearly in false nine mode, as he picked up the ball in very central positions. With Pedro Rodríguez and David Villa supplying the width in the front three, Leo had plenty of room to operate. He took full advantage of this space by constantly taking on United defenders, and he ended with an astonishing 13 successful dribbles. Here’s where those dribbles occured:

To put this tally of 13 in context, the whole Manchester United squad combined for the same number of dribble attempts as Messi (15), but they only completed 7. Out-dribbling the entire opposition is far from unheard of for Messi, but against a side of this caliber, with some legendary defenders and midfielders, it was a truly remarkable feat.

Looking at those locations also shows the centrality of Messi, with many being completed right through the spine of the pitch. Nonetheless, the most important and memorable of these dribbles has to be the one you see furthest on the right wing.

For this play, Messi did come out wide from his central position. When he got on the ball, Nani was the United player who closed him down. Let’s just say that if United’s defenders were having no luck stopping Messi, the Portuguese winger had absolutely no chance.

Lionel Messi Barça Manchester United 2011 Champions League final tactical analysis

Messi drew Nani in, and then completely fooled him with a body feint to the left. This left Nani stumbling as the Argentinian burst to the right and took the ball into the box.

Lionel Messi Barça Manchester United 2011 Champions League final tactical analysis

Then, after cutting inside of Patrice Evra, the ball bounced around and fell to Sergio Busquets. The Catalan laid the ball off to David Villa at the edge of the box, who supplied one of the all time great Champions League final finishes to give Barcelona a two goal lead.

That goal, along with so many more Barcelona attacks, began with one of many dynamic runs from the phenomenon that is Lionel Messi. On top of his dribbles, Leo finished the match with 4 key passes (passes assisting shots), 5 shots, and 1 incredible goal – which we’ll look further into.

Outstanding finishes

We have discussed how Barça dictated the tempo of the match and progressed the ball through the midfield’s passing and Messi’s dribbling, but now we look at the end product of those moves. In total, Barcelona out-shot Manchester United 22 to 4. When examining the locations and expected goals of these shots, Barça’s dominance is even more clear.

Wayne Rooney scored with United’s only shot from inside the box, but after that the Red Devils were completely shut down. Barça on the other hand, racked up an abundance of shots from inside the United penalty area. The blaugranas best chances based on expected goals were actually missed from close range. Notwithstanding, the shots that did find the back of the net were of exceptional quality.

The first of these came from one of the unsung heroes of the Barça side: Pedro. Similar to the winger’s overall play, his goal may not have been the most spectacular or flashy, but it was just as important for the team. After receiving a pass from Xavi, Pedro still had much work to do to stay composed and slot his finish to the near post of Edwin van der Sar.

The Spaniard made it look easy in the end, despite Nemanja Vidić closing in on him, and despite the pressure of the game still being at 0–0. In a crucial moment, Pedro gave their much-desired lead.

Manchester United did respond well after conceding, and got their equalizer just seven minutes later through a Wayne Rooney strike. But once Barcelona calmed down again, it became clear that it was only a matter of time until they broke the deadlock a second time. That ended up occurring early on in the second half, with one of Lionel Messi’s best ever goals.

Pressure from Patrice Evra, another defender blocking the path to goal, and the massive frame of van der Sar could do nothing to stop this Messi thunderbolt. Barça had their lead back, and looked on their way to the trophy, but there was one more wonder-goal to cap it all off.

About fifteen minutes after the strike by Messi, David Villa clinched the victory with a finish of just as high quality. Following that Messi dribble down the right, Busquets teed up Villa for a shot from just outside the area. The composure, the technique, and the placement involved in the shot are a testament to the player Villa was.

All the boxes were ticked in Barcelona’s attacking performance on the night. The passing, the dribbling, and the finishing on display seemed to be unstoppable. However, the performance of the defense can’t be forgotten either.

Smart, efficient play from the center backs

The pair at the heart of Barça’s defense was Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué. While their impact on the match wasn’t as entertaining as the more advanced players, they played a crucial role in the victory. In terms of their ball playing, the duo easily dealt with Manchester United’s attempts to press, and they progressed the ball efficiently. These are the passes made by the two center backs, with their completions in white, and incompletions in red:

The two combined for 97 completions at an 84% completion rate, which allowed Barça to advance the ball and not lose it in dangerous areas. The defensive performance of the duo may have been even better, though.

We’ve discussed already how United managed only 1 shot from inside the box and 1 shot on target the whole match, and this was largely due to the play of Piqué and Mascherano. Both of them were extremely efficient when challenging to win the ball. Piqué attempted 4 tackles in the match, and all 4 were successful. Mascherano then chipped in with 2 successful tackles out of 3 attempts, as well as 2 successful interceptions out of 3 attempts.

In total, these two accounted for 8 out of Barcelona’s 13 successful ball wins, or 62%. The fact that they did so at an 80% success rate shows their intelligence and ability to read the game as well. Clearly, these two deserve a bit more praise for their efforts in almost completely silencing the Red Devils’ attack.

Final thoughts

This Barcelona side are widely regarded as one of the best to ever grace a football pitch, and this match is seen by many as their most prestigious display. Both of those reputations are definitely deserved. The quality, dynamism, and chemistry on display across all areas of the pitch and all aspects of the game was truly something to behold.

There may never be a side like this again, but at the very least, we have to learn from them. The current Barcelona board, managers, players and fans have to recognise the things that made this team so successful. The spacing, positioning, fluidity, the chemistry and understanding of the system by La Masía graduates, these are all things that have to be better applied in the present day. While this may be challenging, this match is one example of the results when it all comes together.

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“Més que un club” is the saying that everyone knows, and for me it’s 100% accurate. Barça have given me so much over the years. Through all the highs, lows, triumphs, and heartbreaks, nothing can take away from the joy and entertainment I’ve received through watching this club play. Now, I hope that I can help spread these emotions with other supporters like me around the world.



Detailed Analysis: Dynamo Kyiv 0-4 FC Barcelona

Anurag Agate



Photo via Getty Images

In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.

Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced experienced manager Mircea Lucescu’s Dynamo Kyiv at the Olimpiysky National Sports Complex as the Blaugrana looked to continue their perfect UEFA Champions League campaign.

After a 2-1 victory in the home fixture for Barcelona, they now faced Dynamo Kyiv away from home in the Ukrainian capital. With both sides missing many key players due to injuries, as well as the pandemic in the case of Kyiv, it wasn’t a very promising fixture.

After the first half with some flashes of brilliance from Barcelona, the second half was what made the difference. Find out the tactics used, and the patterns seen throughout the match in this tactical analysis of Dynamo Kyiv vs FC Barcelona.

System: Dynamo Kyiv

Lucescu’s Kyiv side started out in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. Striker Benjamin Verbic would often be lower down the field than attacking midfielder Buyalskiy, primarily because the former had more defensive duties.

The midfield four was staggered, with Denys Harmash having more of an anchoring job and Shepelev moving up the field to join the attack.  As the pass-map below shows us, the staggered midfield was a characteristic of the Kyiv side.        

There was a clearly better attack down their right wing for Kyiv. The full-back and winger on the left, Karavaev and de Pena respectively, were much more defensive than Kedziora and Sharapenko on the right as we can see from the heatmap below.

This was due to two reasons. Shepeliev, who was one of the two central-midfielders with more attacking duties, was a passing option on the right which was further up the field than the other midfielder, Harmash on the left.

The other reason was that with Pedri and Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona had two players who could play both as attacking midfielders as well as left-wingers. There were many rotations down Barcelona’s left, with a lack of directness a pure left-winger provides that Kyiv were able to use to their advantage to have a higher point to start the attack from.

System: Barcelona

Koeman’s Barcelona has rigidly stuck to a double-pivot system throughout this season. This match was no exception as Carles Alena and Miralem Pjanic started in the centre of the pitch, with Frenki de Jong and Sergio Busquets out of contention. Pedri and Coutinho would switch frequently among themselves, due to them both being able to play through the middle as well as down the left.

Down the right, Fransisco Trincao would look to get further up the field and then come in narrow. This would open up space for Sergino Dest to run into behind him as we can see from the pass-map shown below.

As expected from Barcelona, building-up from the back was a priority. In midfield, Alena and Pjanic would circulate possession, with Pedri or Coutinho playing through the middle and looking for passing lanes. Something that helped Barcelona immensely was Alena’s quick-passing. The La Masia product was on the top of his game, and the directness and more impressively, the consistency he provided with the passing helped Barcelona switch the play quickly.

In the second half, as more and more substitutions were made, Koeman would implement a 4-4-2, with Alena and Matheus Fernandes as the central-midfielders.

There was a clear contrast of duties of the two midfielders, with the Spaniard dropping deep to collect the ball while Matheus stayed up. This was not a particularly effective formation, but with Kyiv drained out and frustrated, Barcelona were able to capitalize.

Buildups and Passing Characteristics

The Barcelona team was clearly skewed in terms of the formation, with the right-side being more attacking than the left. Down the left, in the first half the full-back Firpo would look to underlap rather than overlap, and in the second half, as Alba came on, more overlaps were visible.

This was mostly down to the left-back’s decision making, as Pedri and Coutinho would often switch positions between left-wing and attacking midfield, which is shown in the similar-looking heatmaps in the viz below.

In Koeman’s Barcelona, usually, one pivot is more of an anchor with the other having more attacking duties. However, this time around both pivots would drop deep based on the situation and passing lanes, often moving apart to create new lanes down the middle. This was similar to Koeman’s system at Southampton where he would have the double-pivot acting as more of a reference for the team than it is at Barcelona.

Taking a look at Kyiv, their build-ups were rarely lateral. They looked to play directly in terms of their passing. The two images shown below illustrate the recurring theme we saw from the Ukrainians. They would look to pass vertically, and they had the most chances in the final-third after quick combinations to catch Barcelona flat-footed.

Game Stats

Barcelona produced an excellent second-half display to turn the tides in their favour. Even though the first half was even, Barcelona finished the game very strongly. Here are the game stats at a glance:

Barcelona not only enjoyed a ton of possession, but they also out-shot their opponents by quite a margin. Barcelona’s pressing was also much better comparatively. Barcelona allowed Kyiv to have only 76% passing accuracy and registered a higher pressing intensity (indicated by the lower value of PPDA – a metric to measure pressing).

Next, we take a look at the quality of chances created in the shotmaps and xG flow:

As can be seen, Barcelona fully deserved their victory margin by generating very high-quality chances and converting them extremely efficiently. Interestingly enough, all of the high-quality chances came in the second half.

Barcelona’s territorial superiority is shown in the following figure. Field tilt – a metric to measure final third passing share, and hence territorial dominance –was overwhelmingly in Barcelona’s favor.

However, perhaps a bit more context is required here. Barcelona did spend their lion’s share of possession in opposition territory in the first half but were unable to generate clear-cut chances. There were moments where choosing to shoot would have been a better option, as indecision and a penchant for excessive passing led to nothing.

Buildup to shots and goals

Here we take a look at the goals Barcelona scored. Having been restricted to poor quality shots in the first half, it took some skill to unlock Kyiv’s defence in the second half. A neat interchange of passes involving Dest, Pedri, and Braithwaite led to Dest practically taking the ball away inside the box from Braithwaite’s feet and shooting low past Kyiv’s goalkeeper.

The second goal came soon after. A corner taken by Alena was flicked on Oscar Mingueza. Braithwaite met the flick at the far post to score his first ever Champions League goal. Soon after, Braithwaite doubled his tally from the spot after being fouled inside the box trying to score from a header.

Antoine Griezmann came on as a substitute late in the second half and bolstered his confidence by scoring Barcelona’s fourth and final goal.

Apart from this, Barcelona could have possibly increased their goal tally even further had second-half substitute Riqui Puig not missed a glorious opportunity. Following a wonderfully intricate buildup that stretched and tore Kyiv apart, Puig failed to score from close range. But the buildup itself was testimony that the youngsters of Barcelona can truly play some beautiful football.


Barcelona had a fairly comfortable day in defence. Their pressing up the field was much more intense compared to the La Liga game against Atletico, as shown by the PPDA time-flow chart here:

 By virtue of fielding a bulk of young, energetic players, Barcelona could actually afford to maintain intensity all game. Here is Barcelona’s defensive heatmap:

Barcelona pressed aggressively through the center higher up the pitch, forching Kyiv to go wide and play long balls to escape pressure. And while Kyiv did that a few times, Lenglet and Mingueza aggressively won the ball back along each flank.

On the few occasions that Kyiv completely evaded pressure and progressed the ball high up, Mingueza showed brilliant skills to block shots or cut out dangerous passes. The following graphics – displaying Kyiv’s unsuccessful passes – clearly show how they had to play long balls from the deep to escape the press, and that they were unsuccessful fairly often.

Kyiv, on the other hand, chose not to press high. As shown, Barcelona had no problem passing out from the back.

Their major pressure areas were the middle and the defensive thirds. They tried their best to stifle all progression in the first half. They dealt with Dest’s crosses fairly well too. However, intricate passing and better movements by Barcelona in the second half unlocked their defence easily.

La Masia and youth to the forefront

Oscar Mingueza deserves a special mention along with Sergino Dest. Both youngsters produced sterling displays. Mingueza was calm and composed in defence, and very tidy in passing bar a couple of mishit long balls. He did not shy away physically from any duel and made some excellent blocks.

Dest used his recovery speed to great effect in sniffing out attacks down his side. But his biggest quality was in the offence. Fearless in taking on multiple players, playing neat passing combos with Trincao and Pedri in particular, he fully deserved his first goal in the Garnet and Blue, or we can say Black and Golden.

Carles Alena also got a rare start and justified his cause with a very assured and composed display. With an astonishing 99.1 % passing accuracy (106 out of 107), he kept the Barcelona midfield ticking. He also had two key passes to his name.

Riqui Puig finally got some minutes to play. He found himself in wide midfield role after Barcelona’s system changed to a 4-4-2 later in the second half. While he was not at his sparkliest best, he could easily have scored a goal had he kept his composure.

Matheus Fernandes and Konrad de la Fuente also made their first-team debuts in this game. Limited game time meant they could not particularly assert themselves.


The previous weekend was harsh for the Blaugrana. They succumbed to the battle on the field to Atletico Madrid and lost two senior members of the squad in Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto to possibly long term injuries. Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong were rested for this game, and Sergio Busquets was already ruled out with a previous injury.

Given all these setbacks, it was a wonderful display from the team and the youth in particular to overcome a tricky fixture. This display should also bolster the team’s confidence as they return to La Liga action next weekend against Osasuna.

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