Most of us know this, but it took just 36 seconds for Chicharito and Manchester United to find the net against Chelsea on Sunday. I tuned in, but took a moment, just a moment, to go grab a glass of water from the kitchen and I missed the whole thing. Replays showed me what had happened, of course, and while perhaps David Luiz should have done better, it was terrific play all around that deserves credit. For me, the vast bulk of that credit should go to the man many have fervently ignored despite his obvious quality: Park Ji-Sung.
The South Korean midfielder is exactly what Jose Mourinho would have liked Sami Khedira to be and Park is also exactly how Manchester United could beat Barcelona. He may not play a monstrous amount for United, but he has racked up 175 appearances in all competitions since his move from PSV Eindhoven in 2005 and has proven to be a steady, tireless force in midfield. It’s his combative nature and willingness to engage all over the pitch that could stymie Barça. And not just that: against Chelsea he looked capable of playing another 90 minutes at full bore.
For those of you who don’t watch much Barça or haven’t paid attention to tactical formations over the last few weeks, there is a lot to be said for what Jose Mourinho did in an attempt to stifle Barça’s midfield creativity. He deployed Pepe, a center back, as a defensive midfielder tasked with stopping anything that came his way. He then put two defensive midfielders - Xabi Alonso and either Lassana Diarra or Sami Khedira (injuries warranted switching) - next to Pepe and let them rove alongside Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi. While there is certainly a case to be made for Mourinho’s tactics being too negative and too violent, it is definitely an approach that can stop Barça. When Pepe was sent off in the Champions League semi-final first leg, Mourinho’s tactic backfired and the resulting 0-2 scoreline ushered Barça into the next round, but in the previous match, the Copa del Rey final, it worked and Madrid took home the trophy with a single goal in extra time.
I do not expect Ferguson to deploy exactly the same way, but he will want - and need - midfielders who can work relentlessly in defence while also being able to spring the counter attack. That is where Park comes in. He is efficient if not overly fast, smart if not creative, and strong if not dominating. It’s unlikely he’ll score a goal despite having broken his previous best by netting 7 overall this season, but he can certainly get the other players - Nani, Valencia, Rooney, or Chicharito - off to the races. Perhaps most importantly, he can make up for any defensive lapses on the part of his midfield teammates.
One of the major reasons Barça were able to beat Madrid was Mesut Ozil’s inability to play the 90 minutes at such a high tempo. This could also be United’s weakness if they deploy too many attackers, but late on, the ability to introduce a fresh forward instead of replacing an exhausted midfielder with a like-for-like substitution could prove the difference. Keeping up the kind of running required to control Xavi is near impossible - the Catalan has typically covered more distance than any other player on the field, though Messi’s deployment as an extremely false 9 (a 10, shall we say…) has reduced his stats in that department - but if anyone at United can do it, it’s Park. And if Ferguson can avoid replacing a defensive cog, all the better for their goal scoring chances.
Barça’s high defensive line is exploitable on the counter-attack in a variety of ways, all of which are obviously dependent on getting the ball. Park’s ability to steal the ball off a player or just push it into the path of another player could easily cause havoc for the slower Pique and Puyol. That, in turn, can lead to numbers on the break for the Red Devils, who are no Espanyol and will convert their chances more often than not.
There is much to fear in the rest of United’s line-up, but their defensive organization should release Park to do his worst - and cleanly - against Barça. Cules should fear him and hope that Ferguson is foolish enough to keep him on the bench in favour of Anderson or Carrick. Perhaps that’s harsh on the Brazilian and Englishman, but I mean it more to highlight Park’s abilities than to denigrate the others. Park can also provide protection on the left for O’Shea, who will be faced with the twin pronged attacked of Pedro and Alves, along with the odd incursion by Messi and Xavi. If Park is capable of covering deep and pressuring forward, life will be quite difficult given United’s rather stingy defence.
Dear Alex Ferguson,
Please don’t play Park Ji-Sung.
PS If you could convince Real Madrid to buy Frank Lampard, that’d be great too.
[Update: a snarky comment below made the point that O'Shea isn't United's starting left back, which is true. For whatever reason - I have some theories - I was thinking of Evra on the right side. Odd, given that I spent a little while today planning a LB comparison post between Abidal and Evra as my next article... Ah the wonders of the mind. Thanks for the correction.]
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