BARCELONA vs MANCHESTER UNITED
25.07.2015

This was a much awaited match; a chance for United to test themselves against the current Champions of Europe, (albeit missing a few key players), but also as Van Gaal had indicated that he would give one set of players an hours football seemingly a signpost to a likely first choice selection for the start of the season.

First Half

United started with the eleven that had begun against San Jose but for one change; De Gea made his first appearance of the pre-season in goal. Van Gaal also chose to continue with a 4-2-3-1 shape. Barcelona lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape.

Initially United struggled to gain a foothold with Barcelona having the majority of possession and looking much more comfortable on the ball. They had a couple of early chances in the game with Suarez hitting the post from a free kick and De Gea saving in a one-on-one with Sergio Roberto as he ran through the inside right “half space”. The problem was that United were treating the ball like a hot potato hitting the ball forward too quickly and as a consequence giving the ball immediately back to Barcelona.

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But United scored after 8 minutes and this seemed to settle them down a bit. This goal came from a corner; delivered from the left by Young, met with a firm well directed header by Rooney as the Barcelona defence misjudged the flight of the ball. After the goal United now started to keep possession for longer periods and whilst both sides created chances across the rest of the half it was clear that after a shaky start United were now at least holding their own. Why, what had changed?

At the starts and for much of the half Barcelona pressed United and played a high defensive line. This is no surprise, it is what they do. But after a ponderous start United started to move the ball more quickly and play around the initial press rather than instantly hitting it long. Then having beaten the first press United were able to pick a longer pass and stretch the game. Barcelona had to drop back if United kept the ball. United were able to do this because of the assured and brave play of the defence and deep midfield. Shaw, Darmian, Carrick and Schneiderlin were all instrumental in this occasionally assisted by Blind and Jones. That is not to say that United retained possession at the back for very long, instead they sought to move the ball forward quickly usually via a couple of quick early passes and a directed ball forward and so to play football behind the line of the Barcelona forwards.

They did this often with some success down the left hand side with Young breaking into space towards Adriano, (selected at right back in place of Alves). Young had an excellent half and with support from Shaw; Adriano and Sergio Roberto struggled and it was no surprise to see Adriano replaced at half time. United were switching play well now, effectively stretching the game at the point where Barcelona were looking to compress the play.

There was another noticeable change as the half wore on. At the start Barcelona pressed the ball whilst United tended to cover space and keep their shape. As the half wore on United were more assertive in challenging for the ball in an attempt to win the ball back quickly and this allowed them to break up Barcelona’s passing and prevent the opponent from developing their passing rhythm.

That isn’t to say that Barcelona didn’t create chances and they had a good spell in the middle of the half and again just before half time with Iniesta pulling the strings and Suarez a handful at the front. Whilst United appeared to be hanging on as the half time whistle approach, with both sides having created chances this was a good contest and the 1-0 score line did not overly flatter United.

Second Half

For the first time this pre-season Van Gaal sent out the same team after the break and the first fifteen minutes of the second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Barcelona, as previously mentioned removed Adriano at half time and replaced him with Rakitic. Sergio Roberto moved to right back with Rakitic taking up position on the right side of midfield. This made Barcelona more solid on that side. They also changed goalkeeper.

Then on 60 minutes United made eleven substitutions and shortly after Barcelona made a handful of their own. Team shapes remained the same but an injection of youthful energy to both sides made for a more open, end to end game. This suited United and they scored again almost immediately. The difference here between the first half and post substitution play is that when United played their long pass to beat the press it was generally directed at one of our young quick players who immediately ran on towards the Barcelona back line giving the rest of their defence little time to recover ground. In the first half the front players, notably Rooney and Mata had tended to hold the ball up and await support; something Barcelona were usually more able to cope with.

Interestingly Januzaj was asked to play as the centre forward for this last 30 minutes with Wilson stationed out of the left. We say interesting as this demonstrates that Van Gaal is thinking of developing a system where there is an amount of lateral rotation and fluidity in the front four.

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United’s second goal was excellent and illustrated United’s approach well. It started with an interchange of passes in midfield in a relatively tight area before a switch of play stretched the game and exploited space on the opposite side of the pitch. Barcelona never recovered. It was an eight pass move; Fellaini to Herrera to Pereira to Fellaini to Perieira all in a small area on the right. Pereira then switched play with a long pass to Wilson on the left. He then laid a simple pass outside to Blackett racing up on the overlap who pulled the ball back across the box to Lingard. He calmly shot home. Beautiful.

Despite this and in the final minute Barcelona scored as United seemingly went to sleep. The goal came after a corner and with United’s not picking up Rafinha he had time and space to volley home from inside the box.

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This seemed to wake United up and 45 seconds later they went down the other end of the pitch and Scored. This goal was a breakaway with Herrera feeding Lingard who played a long pass for Januzaj to run on to. He twisted and turned back on himself leaving a Barcelona defender on his backside before shooting across the keeper into the far corner.

Keypoints

  • This was a good test for United, not that Barcelona were at full strength, but the standard and tactical problems posed were of a higher standard. United did well after a difficult start.
  • United clearly had a plan to cope with the Barcelona high press and high defensive line. That plan was to retain the ball via a series of quick short and at times brave passes in the deep to create time for a player to lift their head and pick out a longer pass forward which would stretch play. This worked well.
  • It worked to an even better extent in the last half hour when United had their young quick players on the pitch. Admittedly Barcelona had removed their first choice centre backs at this point and Iniesta was no longer on the pitch but United’s pace troubled Barcelona.
  • A number of good partnerships are developing; if the Depay/Rooney partnership clearly needs more time then the Young/Shaw and Schneiderlin/Carrick partnerships already look to be developing nicely.
  • Shaw and Darmian had excellent games but the defence still looks and feels like the weak area. The partnership which still needs a series “coat of looking at” is the central defensive one.