CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 21: Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United FC looks on during the MTN Football Invitational match between Ajax Cape Town and Manchester United at Cape Town Stadium on July 21, 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Luke Walker/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
In a rematch of last season’s 1-2 defeat, Barcelona will be looking for revenge tonight as they take to the field to face familiar foes Manchester United in a prestige friendly at the Ullevi stadium. However, compared to last season at least, it’s been all change at both clubs. At the time of meeting, both United and Barca were coming off the back of a UEFA Champions League final and a domestic league win, and both were being tipped to repeat the success of the previous season. But somewhere down the line, both sides fell of the rails. Neither won their domestic league, and both suffered the heartache of losing that title to their bitter rivals. Furthermore, both sides crashed out of the UEFA Champions League in unexpected and spectacular fashion. Now, one year on, these two titans will meet again, albeit with less expectation and with a few new faces. With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at tomorrow’s opposition, Manchester United.
Manager – Sir Alex Ferguson
If there ever was a manager so synonymous with his club, it would have to be Alex Ferguson. While it was difficult to imagine Barcelona without Pep Guardiola, I sometimes wonder whether there is a Manchester United without Sir Alex at the helm. As the years have passed, Ferguson has led countless United sides to glory, and unlike some managers who prefer to leave rather than change their system, SAF has not been afraid to change his own approach to get the best out of his players. One of the best man-managers, Ferguson has barely put a foot wrong throughout his illustrious career, but his decision-making has arguably declined over the past season. His hesitance to sign a world-class midfielder and his clear disdain for Dimitar Berbatov (despite the Bulgarian’s obvious goal-scoring qualities) may well have cost United the title. Considering that SAF still hasn’t signed that central midfielder his fan-base so crave, United may well find themselves slipping out of the top two altogether.
Tactics – 4-5-1/4-2-3-1
After last season’s experimentation with 4-4-1-1, it appears as though Manchester United are going to be reverting to a slightly more orthodox 4-5-1/4-2-3-1. Naturally, the 4-5-1 and its variants allow for a lot of tactical flexibility, so the 4-4-1-1 has not been necessarily dispensed with, and the 4-5-1 could also become a 4-3-3, a 4-2-1-3 (à la Jose’s Inter) or even a 4-6-0 if required. However, the facts are that the 4-4-1-1 restricted the wingers, and with players of the calibre of Nani, Young, Valencia and now Kagawa, that was supremely wasteful. Scholes is a great passer of the ball, but at his age he was unable to operate week-in and week-out as a box-to-box midfielder, while Carrick just doesn’t possess the skills required. With that in mind, SAF had to either find players capable of playing as a central midfielder in the Premier League, or rely on the returns of Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley. With Fletcher still sidelined indefinitely, and with no signings to fill that void, Ferguson instead chose to adapt his tactics.
With Rafael still away on Olympic duty, Antonio Valencia is being forced to fill in at right-back, presumably in a more offensive (think Dani Alves) role than SAF would grant Rafael. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are first choice at this point in time, although this could change when Chris Smalling returns from his injury. Patrice Evra plays at left-back, and despite being labelled as one of the best full-backs in world football, he is a weaklink in a United defense that, to be blunt, is full of holes. The emphasis in the midfield will be to grant total freedom to the attacking midfielder, whether it is Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young or even Wayne Rooney. A lot of the chance creation will come from each flank, but with Valencia stuck at full-back, they will suffer with regards to the quality of the delivery, not to mention that Rooney is far from the ideal target for aerial balls into the box. Expect United to sit deep, but at the same time stay true to their philosophy. They will be looking to counter at fast pace with every opportunity meaning that Alves and Alba will have to play responsibly, or hope that someone else can cover for them. Then, with Rooney as the CF, expect United to attack in diamond shape and by that I mean that they will get the ball out wide to stretch play in the middle of the field before narrowing their play (as the wingers cut inside) by the time they enter Barcelona’s defensive third. The onus will be on cutbacks to late midfielder runners, and potentially long-shots, so it would be beneficial for Barcelona to have one "mobile" centre-half in each pairing who can move and cut out or at least close down any chances.
Key Man – Shinji Kagawa
Usually, this would be the portion of the article where I would talk about Wayne Rooney, but as he is just one match into pre-season, Rooney is unlikely to be near his best. However, Kagawa has been involved with Manchester United’s pre-season from the very start, and on top of that, he might actually be a better player than the Englishman anyway. At just 23 years of age, Kagawa is still learning his trade, but as his performances at Borussia Dortmund show, he is already a fantastic player. Capable of scoring goals from midfield, he will control a game if given even the slightest amount of time and space on the ball. Kagawa weighed in with 17 goals for Dortmund last season, and has already got one for his new employers against Sergio Batista's Shanghai Shenua.
However, his influence on tonight’s game depends on one thing – his position. If Sir Alex opts to push him out wide, Barcelona can breathe a sigh of relief, but if he is given the luxury to play in his preferred spot as #10, the Blaugrana will need to keep a very close eye on him at all times. Bayern Munich gave him time on the ball in the DFB-Pokal final, and he proceeded to rip them to pieces with a goal and assist.
What do you think Barcelona need to do to secure victory tonight? What weaknesses can they exploit in the United line-up? Will a lack of pace at the back (and an out of position Valencia) lead to their downfall?