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Barcelona-Manchester United: Tactical Preview (UEFA Champions League)

Can Barça finally win away from home in Europe?

Barcelona v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

FC Barcelona take on Manchester United at Old Trafford in a match that pits one team that is in sync and looking to keep up their winning ways with a team that is fresh and rested. Ernesto Valverde’s Barça will be playing after just three days’ rest, while United will be coming in with seven days off.

Barcelona defeated Atlético Madrid 2-0 last weekend and put themselves in a commanding position in La Liga. They’re a team full of confidence. But are they physically up to the task?

Fitness and form

Not only are Barcelona coming off a big win, they have won eight of the last nine. The only one they didn’t win was a wild draw against Villarreal in which they scored two extremely late goals to steal a point at the death. For United, it’s a different story. They have lost three of the last four, the other game being a 2-1 win over Watford. However looking at it slightly more long-term, United had, previous to those four matches, won four out of five, including triumphs over Chelsea and Paris Saint Germain and a draw with Liverpool.

Barça are without Rafinha through a long-term injury and the oft-hurt Thomas Vermaelen. They also can’t play Jean-Clair Todibo as he’s not registered for the Champions League, while Ousmane Dembélé is yet to receive medical clearance but is expected to take part.

The latest news from the Red Devils’ training is that Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Matić, Eric Bailly, and Ander Herrera missed training. although that doesn’t completely rule them out. Meanwhile, Matteo Darmian, Marcus Rashford, and Alexis Sánchez are back in training and might be available.

Team selection

Ernesto Valverde has favored the 4-3-3 but has, upon occasion, called on the 4-2-3-1 when he wants more attacking oomph and width, as he did late against Atlético. Still, all signs point to Valverde keeping his same team and same formation. He wants his team in the best rhythm possible and the way to achieve that is to play the same team. For that reason, it’s widely expected that he’ll play the team that defeated Atléti: Marc-André ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Arthur, Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suárez, and Lionel Messi.

Nélson Semedo has an argument for starting ahead of Roberto, but that’s less likely. There’s also Malcom, who could either replace Coutinho or perhaps (less likely) Arthur in a 4-2-3-1 as he did in the previous match. The same could be said of Dembélé, who’d start if fit but likely will only have a substitute appearance. These are all options, I suppose, but we really are most likely to get that XI that cemented itself in the league.

For United, it’s a bit more tricky. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has shown a willingness to change formations depending on his players and opposition. He has played with three at the back, but will likely stick to a four-man defense, although it could be in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-1-2. At the beginning of his reign, Solskjær played with a bit more abandon but now, he wants his team to recover its solidity. I think we will see a cautious team that will try to pick its spots when attacking.

Of course David de Gea starts in goal. The Spanish keeper has been one of United’s best players for years now. Then Chris Smalling will start in defense, probably partnered by Victor Lindelöf, although Phil Jones is also an option. At left-back, Luke Shaw is the favorite with Ashley Young usually picked at right-back. Diogo Dalot is a possibility instead of Young, although not as likely.

Having established the base of the team, the rest is less predictable.

It starts with how you use Paul Pogba. Undoubtedly one of the team’s main stars, Pogba has been in relatively poor form of late. Solskjær has to get the best out of him, but in what system?

Scott McTominay is a favorite to take one of the central midfield spots, and he could pair Pogba in the center of either a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 system. Dalot can play as a winger in either case. Fred and Andreas Pereira are also possibilities in midfield. Fitness may prevent either of Matić or Herrera to start.

The attack will probably be led by Romelu Lukaku, although if you want to go for pure speed, you could, for example, start Anthony Martial or Rashford as the striker. In a 4-2-3-1, though, that 1 is Lukaku, and in the band of 3 we can expect Rashford, if fit, on the right, with Jesse Lingard through the middle, and Dalot or Martial on the left.

Another possibility is Juan Mata, who can be deployed as a #10 or perhaps in a wide role. However, he has not been as prominent in recent weeks for United and one sees Lingard more easily getting the chance if the manager wants that kind of player, an attacking midfielder.

Solskjær might be more cautious and play a 4-4-2, with perhaps only Rashford and Lukaku upfront, and a more defensively solid approach in midfield.


Barcelona have much more quality than United, although two keys can help the English side. One is their relative speed. They’re faster than Barcelona overall, and their most likely route to goal is through a counter attack and trying to beat the offside trap. Someone like Rashford or Martial can be a real problem for Barcelona if they get into the right situations. The other is the fact that they are at home and Barça have, for a while now, been lackluster away from home in Europe.

Since they’re at home, this might be the time for United to go for it a little and try to score some goals. The 4-2-3-1 can be a real threat in that sense, although it can leave them a bit more exposed if the wingers don’t track back as much.

On the other hand, in order to slow down Messi, United might want to clog the middle with more central midfielders alongside Pogba. This would give them less attacking threat but a bit more security. A 4-3-1-2 could achieve this, but Barcelona do have some threats, particularly Jordi Alba.

Apart from Messi and Suárez, Barcelona’s most important attacker is Alba. Coutinho is not the world’s fastest player, but he can still be a problem if he works well with Alba to cause overloads. Again, whether United play 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, their left winger will have to put in a defensive shift as Alba can be a huge problem. If they play with three central midfielders, one will have to shift out wide to cover.

Barcelona will miss Dembélé as he can create a lot of width and is a huge problem in fast-break situations. However, Coutinho has been getting back to his better form and he will surely, as an ex-Liverpool player, relish the chance to score at Old Trafford.

Rashford could get some joy, ankle permitting, if played as a left wing. Roberto is not the world’s fastest fullback and Messi doesn’t offer a lot of defensive support. Ivan Rakitić will have to do his share of covering. Of course, it’s not like Rashford would be the first fast winger Roberto has had to deal with in the past. There’s an argument that Semedo can match the speed better, but as we saw against Vinícius Júnior, another fast winger, Roberto can handle speedsters - perhaps even better than Semedo.

Roberto can be a threat with the ball, too, particularly as he’s a good dribbler and is known for making barreling runs even towards the end of the match.

Last of all comes Busquets. A lot of teams will try to press him into mistakes, and even have their #10 tasked with constantly chasing him. United could do that, but that comes usually at the sacrifice of an additional body in midfield closer to their own box. That can decongest the defense a bit, which is the last thing you want when facing Messi. However, if you don’t cut off Barça at the source, their possession can become truly overwhelming and you may be asking to defend 180 minutes of this tie, which is usually a losing strategy. Busquets is still a key part of that midfield, and despite taking a lot of liberties on the ball, and worth an occasional mistake from time to time, most of the time he comes out on top.

While he often cuts off attacks along the ground, his lack of recovery speed can be exploited when he’s asked to lead the press. United can hurt him if they are able to pick out a progressive pass when they recover the ball in defense. However, Busi is an expert at starting attacks as soon as he kills the opposition’s own move. That’s something else to look out for.

With Barça, it seems we know what we are getting. But with United, it’s harder to know, and not just in terms of formation or selection, but what version of this team will show up. Will it be the one that has looked moribund over the past few matches, or the team that seems to have destiny on their side that knocked PSG out?

Something good for United is that perhaps they are better suited to work as a counterattacking team, because in their recent losses, they were the team that had the initiative and failed to generate much danger when in possession. Of course, they are facing a much tougher opponent, but the strategy necessary to win might suit their players better.

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