Game Previews Opinion

Barça vs. Manchester United – Match Preview

[Source: @EuropaLeague,]

Tonight, on the luscious Spotify Camp Nou grass that has seen countless historic European encounters, FC Barcelona and Manchester United face off in the first leg of the Europa League play-off round. In what feels like a bonus Champions League tie for neutrals, Spain’s league leaders and England’s third-best team find themselves squaring off far away from Europe’s elites.

Both teams have strengthened considerably over the past 2 years, and what might have been a deadrubber game last season is now a nailbiting affair. Xavi and Erik ten Hag have revamped the internal cultures within their respective dressing rooms, with either set of fans as optimistic as they have ever been. But how will the teams set up?

First, both sides have notable absences. Barça are missing club captain Sergio Busquets and the high-flying Ousmane Dembélé, while United are missing Lisandro Martínez, Marcel Sabitzer, Christian Eriksen, Scott McTominay, Antony, Martial, and van de Beek. The absences will condition the eventual line-ups, simplifying the jobs of either manager in predicting how the opponent will set up.

Barça’s Tactical Shape

Ever since returning from the World Cup break, Xavi has altered the way Barça set up. Deviating from the classic symmetrical 4-3-3, Xavi has opted for a 4-4-1-1 structure in static defending which morphs into a lopsided 3-2-2-3 “box” shape when attacking. What seems like a drastic shift from defence to attack is actually a fluid, almost intuitive adaptation given the nature of Barça’s backline.

Offensively, Koundé, a centerback by trade, tucks in beside Araujo and Christensen. Kessié and Frenkie form a pivot in front of the centerbacks, while Pedri and Gavi operate in the half-spaces as advanced midfielders. Raphina and Baldé stretch out the pitch as far as it goes, while Lewandowski drops deep as a focal point for long balls. Defensively, Koundé and Balde occupy the fullback roles, Gavi and Raphina drop deeper to cover the wings, and Pedri plays as a “mediapunta” behind Lewandowski. Barça rely on counter-pressing as their main vessel of chance creation, and the 3-2-2-3 structure allows for multiple waves of sustained pressure that suffocate opponent teams regardless of their quality. The level of coordination in the press improves from game to game, and as Christensen and Koundé become more comfortable in stepping up aggressively into midfield to press, this leaves Araujo as the last line of defence. This style may seem gung-ho, sure, but its success speaks for itself. The qualities of all the players on the pitch, especially physically, allow for the sustenance of an otherwise untenable structure, but it may be key in Barça’s quest to defeat United.

Manchester United’s Tactical Shape

On the other hand, Erik ten Hag has maintained largely the same shape as he did before the World Cup, with the uplift in form coming back to the improvement of the players in their automatisms and their enhanced understanding of positional play. United hold the same structure defensively and offensively: 4-2-3-1. Where ten Hag experiments, though, is who occupies what role. Bruno Fernandes has played on either flank and as a number 10, while Rashford has played in all four of the forward spots at some point in the last month. In bigger games, United mainly rely on quick, one-touch sequences of passing before a long ball releases a runner in behind to wrongfoot the opponents defence. Their zonal defending is now among the best in the Premier League, especially with Casemiro’s arrival and Lisandro Martinez settling in.

Their press is not to be underestimated either. While it is not as coordinated as Barça’s press, Erik ten Hag identifies the press triggers of rivals well, and his team aggressively hounds that player all game to force turnovers. Lisandro Martinez’s suspension puts a damper on their build out from the back and their pressing, but United are still formidable in both aspects either way. The arrival of Weghorst has granted ten Hag a new offensive dimension as well, using Weghorst as a screen for long balls in build-up and a decoy for Rashford’s runs in settled offence. Given their absences, United may line up as follows: De Gea; Dalot, Varane, Shaw, Malacia; Casemiro, Fred; Bruno, Rashford, Garnacho; Weghorst. Although Sancho has recently come back into favor with ten Hag, the Dutchman may perceive this match as beyond Sancho’s current form, particularly given Garnacho’s electric nature. It’s not unlikely that ten Hag also pushes Bruno to the right for crossing, playing Rashford as a shadow striker to Weghorst, to provide the team with more central channels.

The Tactical Battle

From a tactical perspective, the match is probably too close to call. Barça will almost definitely use Casemiro and Varane as their press triggers in addition to Malacia. Barça players know both well, especially their downfalls when placed under pressure. Pep Guardiola has shown several times the merit of pressing those two in particular, and Xavi will likely follow suit. Xavi might try to task Gavi with Casemiro, partly to give Pedri some time away from the Brazilian’s defensive capabilities. Xavi will also look to expose the spaces left behind Dalot as he overlaps, with Pedri leaning left in those cases to link up with Gavi and leaving Balde to run the channel. Raphinha may tuck in centrally in some cases as he’s done in recent matches, to link up with Lewandowski and attract Shaw to press them. On the other hand, United will have identified Kessié and Araujo as Barça’s easiest players to press, and United will look to expose the spaces left behind Balde as other teams have throughout this season (to varying levels of success). Casemiro will charge forward, as he always does, to push back Barça’s lines, and Malacia and Dalot will peel wide to occupy the lanes. Garnacho will look to play as an inside forward to create some separation from Koundé, and Rashford will also drift to the left to overload the Koundé-Araujo side of Barça’s defence.

Overall Prediction

From the outside looking in, it appears that both teams have the perfect antidotes to neutralize one another. Casemiro’s bullish defensive nature, his crunching tackles, and his physical presence may reduce Pedri’s influence on the game. Araujo’s imposing stature, his blistering pace, and aerial dominance may reduce Rashford’s newfound goalscoring potency. There is a lot to be awaited from this watch; the tactical battle between two up-and-coming mainstays in the coaching world, the collision of two hungry squads, and of course, the extension of the legacy of great matches between these huge clubs.

Barça and Manchester United have squared off 6 times in the last 15 years, two of which were Champions League finals. Barça have won four of the duels, one was a goalless draw, and lost the second leg of the 2007/08 Champions League semifinal. In these matches, Barça scored 9 goals and conceded 2. Xavi’s side will look to continue this streak, while ten Hag will aim to be the manager to end this rut for Manchester United. On balance, Barça go into the tie as favorites, but Manchester United seem to be as good a team as any at the moment