Champions League 2018-19: FC Barcelona vs Manchester United 1st leg - Tactical Preview
Without a doubt, FC Barcelona have been in scintillating form throughout the whole season. Riding on the heroics of their talisman, Leo Messi, Barcelona look serious contenders for the Champions League title this season.
On the other hand, Manchester United have found a new lease of life under their new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Paul Pogba has been the biggest beneficiary. They are currently high on confidence after their amazing comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, even though their form has dipped over the last few domestic games.
So without any further ad let's get started on the tactical preview of this fixture.
Manchester United's probable tactics:
Manchester United could be expected to lineup in a 4-3-1-2 system, with Lingard or Mata playing in the hole.
Off the ball:
It is no secret that Barcelona often try to penetrate through the middle and with 4 men in the middle of the park, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will look to man-mark every Barcelona midfielder and stop them from building through the middle as shown in the figure below.
Even if Messi drops deep, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will look to mark him with the help of Matic and Luke Shaw, with one of them man marking him tightly while the other blocking all the passing lanes in front of him. On top of that, Pique and Lenglet should be marked tightly as well so as to prevent the buildup from back.
Moreover, Manchester United under Solksjaer often press high and they will look to do the same against Barcelona as well and win back the ball as quickly as possible. It is however, important to note that Manchester United must try to reduce the space between their midfield and defence while pressing because those are the most interesting zones for players like Messi and Coutinho to operate in.
By reducing the gap between midfield and the defense, and blocking the central passing lanes, Manchester United can force Barcelona out wide.
On the ball:
While having possession of the ball, Manchester United will try to play through Pogba, who will look to dictate the attacking play for the Red Devils. In addition to that, the fullbacks would push up higher and provide the necessary width to the narrow diamond midfield.
Just like Barcelona, Manchester United like to build from the back as well, but De Gea is not a very good ball playing keeper like Ter Stegen and they would most likely try to play long balls to their aerially strong players like Matic, Pogba and Lukaku to break Barcelona's press and move forward.
The two strikers (i.e. Rashford, Lukaku etc.) would operate more as wing forwards and operate in the space between the fullback and the centre backs rather than classic number 9s to create space for the attacking midfielder(i.e Lingard or Mata) to make occasional runs into the box while Pogba would also make attacking runs from deep as well and function as an auxiliary forward at times.
Barcelona are expected to play with a high defensive line, and with quick players in their arsenal like Rashford and Lingard, Manchester United can hit Barcelona on transitions and exploit the space behind the defence.
Barcelona's Probable Tactics
Barcelona are expected to play in their usual 4-3-3 in this fixture with Coutinho along with Messi and Suarez as a part of the front three.
Off the ball
Without possession, Barcelona would push players higher up the pitch to press the opposition except for Messi, who does not defend much.
It is important for Barcelona to mark Pogba out of the game and Rakitic would be the man most likely to be handed with that responsibility. Pogba is their main source of creativity and keeping him quiet can hamper United's attacking chances to a great extent.
Moreover, Pique and Busquets are the only players in the Barcelona players who are capable of dealing with aerial duels and these two players have to be on the top of their game because Manchester United are extremely strong from set pieces and crosses and they can hurt Barcelona due to the lack of height in the Barcelona backline.
Manchester United have extremely fast players in the forward line and a high defensive line can be dangerous for them. In such an event, it is important that Barcelona rarely lose possession in important areas and block the passing lanes in front of Pogba as mentioned above, to reduce the chances of quick transitions.
On the ball
As mentioned above, Barcelona like to build play through the middle. Keeping in mind that Solskjaer will try to block the central areas for Barcelona, building through the middle might be a bit difficult in such circumstances.
In such a case, Arthur might be the perfect man to help Barcelona build from the back. Just have a look at the picture below for the explanation.
As Arthur is being closed down, a passing lane to Coutinho opens up. Coutinho is someone who always likes to play in the half spaces and pick up the ball from deep and run at the opposition or take shots at goal from long range.
With Alba high up the pitch, and Coutinho operating in the half-space, Ashley Young could be caught in a 1 v 2 situation on the right side of Man United's defence with Alba making runs in behind the space left vacant by Coutinho.
On the right side of the attack it would be upto Roberto and Rakitic to attack the right flank while Messi drops deep.
The Bottom Line
While Barcelona are clear favourites for this fixture, Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should be underestimated at one's own risk. Moreover, Barcelona's defenders are often vulnerable on quick transitions and long balls.
In the end, it is fair enough to say that this quarter-final fixture could be an exciting one for the fans to behold.