For their final game in the States United moved on to Washington DC to face Barcelona in their third International Cup game. To this point they had won three games plus an additional victory on penalties. Could they go unbeaten in the USA?

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United’s first half shape and the excellent Paul Pogba

Jose Mourinho was without Juan Mata and Anders Herrera for this match and chose a 4-2-3-1 strategy to start the game. That meant Carrick and Pogba in the double pivot with Mkhitaryan centrally as the number 10. Lingard, who has had a good tour started on the left with Rashford on the right and Lukaku leading the line. At the back Lindelof partnered Smalling in central defence. As expected Barcelona set up in their usual 4-3-3 with the front three being Suarez in the middle Neymar to the left and Messi to the right; those three however could be expected to be fairly fluid.

First Half Patterns

Barcelona were on top for most of the first half but contrary to popular opinion they did not overwhelm United. The Catalans looked generally more confident and composed in possession principally because they tended to keep it simple and moved so well giving the man in possession options. We have seen this many times from Barcelona; they circulate the ball simply and well moving it quickly into feet from where they use darting runs and the interchanging of positions to attempt to pull you out of shape and create pockets of space. Much of their passing is confident and played into the feet in areas where there is simply no room to manoeuvre, but the ability of their players, their quick feet and footballing brains causes problems. So it was here.

In response to this United’s players adjusted their positions with Carrick dropping into the back line and Lingard and Rashford dropping deep in the wider areas. This allowed Blind and Valencia to tuck in close to the centre backs so that United could concentrate on defending the width of the penalty areas. Rashford tried to stay slightly higher so that he was nearer to Lukaku in an attempt to prevent him from becoming isolated. United’s shape became more of a 5-3-2 or more often a 5-3-1-1. This allowed Barcelona to move easily up the pitch but made it harder for them to operate effectively close to the United goal.

For Barcelona Messi tended to drop deep centrally behind Suarez who stayed higher and tried to work the width of the penalty area. Neymar also came narrow. As previously stated Barcelona looked the more accomplished side and they did give United all sorts of problems but the reds weren’t overwhelmed because their strategy of containment restricted Barcelona and reduced the number of chances they created.


Paul Pogba who was Uniteds man of the match, Barcelona struggled to contain him

Paul Pogba who was Uniteds man of the match, Barcelona struggled to contain him

The relief valve for United was Pogba who seemed generally more composed than any of United’s other outfield payers. He was comfortable on the ball and surged forward several times into dangerous positions, notably on the United right. As a consequence United tended to attack that side when they got the ball and from their knocked in several long low crosses behind the Barcelona retreating back line. Barcelona coped with this but Rashford and Lukaku came close of a couple of occasions.

Pressing and containment

Of course Barcelona are specialists at pressing and usually press high leaving the space behind the defence which Pogba was targeting. Running at the Barcelona team in wide areas was an obvious thing to do, especially as their fullbacks Alba and Semedo tended to tuck inside as well as push high; that was where the space was. More interesting than their pressing though was their methods of controlling Pogba.

Barcelona are famed for trying to win the ball back quickly with an aggressive press, in the day of Guardiola they even had a target time to do so. Here their methods were slightly different. They would close Pogba down quickly but he is big, strong, skilful and powerful enough to hold the ball to resist the pressure and then break free of the attention. As a consequence, the nearest Barcelona player would get close to Pogba putting him under pressure but not necessarily challenging him. Another player and occasionally two other players would stand off him between 5 and 10 yards away so that if Pogba did not beat the first man cleanly they could get a foot in or sweep the ball away, Pogba was a handful for Barcelona, but they coped well with him.

Neymar’s Goal

Barcelona scored on the 30th minute mark. This goal came after Blind was caught up field and lost possession, Valencia was also up field at the same time which was perhaps significant as Barcelona moved up field. The loose ball fell to Suarez who raced away before switching to Neymar. Valencia seemed to have this covered but lost the ball appearing to hesitate. Neymar recovered the ball and shot home from the edge of the six-yard box past De Gea. Replays suggested that Valencia didn’t hesitate but was in fact pulled back by Neymar.



Second Half Changes

Both teams made changes at half time. For Barceloma Messi and Neymar were removed with Turan and Alcacer beng introduced. Suarez moved along the front line from the centre to the right. Raktic was replaced by Iniesta on the left hand side of midfield and now United old boy Gerard Pique partnered Arsenal old boy Thomas Vermaelen at the centre of defence in place of Liverpool old boy Javier Mascherano and Umitti.

United replace three of their four defenders and goalkeeper, so Romero replaced De Gea and Bailly, Jones and Darmian were introduced. In midfield Pogba changed sides to the right and Fellaini was introduced in place of Carrick. The shape initially remained as 4-2-3-1.

United far more Comfortable

United were far more comfortable after the break, they just instantly looked more confident and were noticeably playing far higher up the pitch. They made further changes during the second half; Lingard took a knock in the 60th minute and a couple of minutes later was replaced by Andreas Pereira. Antony Martial replaced Mkhitaryan at the same time. This change saw Rashford switch sides and Martial positioned on the right initially. Pogba moved further forward into the number 10 position with Pereira taking on the role of the more mobile of the two pivots linking front and back.

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United at the start of the second half and then after substitutions

This may have only really been a transitional arrangement however as before long Martial was playing as the second striker alongside and almost as high as Lukaku. This saw United almost as a 4-4-2 but becoming a 5-3-2 when Barcelona had the ball with Fellaini dropping deeper and Pogba, Pereira and Rashford as the central three. Perhaps this was an unusual role for Rashford but it functioned well as United looked to hit Barcelona with the running of Martial and Lukaku stretching the Catalans, supported by Rashford and Pogba arriving from deeper positions. United rallied in the last 15-20 minutes or so playing this way but didn’t create many clear cut chances and didn’t score.

The question is whether United would have dared to play this way if Neymar and importantly Messi had remained on the pitch; would they for example dared to play higher up the pitch as they did after the break? Their removal perhaps highlights how much players like that actually make a difference and make Barcelona’s way of playing work. Barcelona play neat and precise football, they pass and move well to reach the final third where they look to these type of players to make the difference with darting runs and overloads to pull teams apart. When those players aren’t there the patterns are still enjoyable to watch but the moments of crisis for opponents are fewer and so the pressure does not build to the same extent, often their isn’t an outlet further forward and the forward emphasis is lost. They make the difference. Without those players United were comfortably able to hold their own.