Swissquote Tactical Analysis: How Manchester United's collective press troubled Barcelona
Monday, 20 February 2023
UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse the thrilling 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Man United in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League knockout round play-off tie.
Article top media content
The pulsating 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Manchester United in Thursday's UEFA Europa League knockout round play-offs certainly whetted the appetite for this week's deciding leg at Old Trafford.
And for the watching UEFA Technical Observer panel, it provided a showcase of the English side's evolution into a team with an excellent collective press. In this analysis brought to you by Swissquote, we look at United's impressive pressing work at the Camp Nou as they ended a run of four consecutive defeats by the Blaugrana.
1-0: Marcos Alonso (50)
Marcos Alonso's run from near the penalty spot to the far post earned its reward as he rose above Fred to meet a corner and headed into the turf and up inside the near post. An emotional moment for Alonso a week after the passing of his father, also Marcos Alonso and a former Barcelona player. Hence the pointed finger to the heavens.
1-1: Marcus Rashford (53)
United's pressing forced a loose pass from Jordi Alba which Raphaël Varane, on halfway, gathered. Cue an example of their threat when countering. With a fine first-time pass, Casemiro lifted the ball up to Fred, who in turn sent Marcus Rashford racing down the inside-right channel. Though forced away from goal by Alonso, he drilled a low shot into the gap between Marc-André ter Stegen and the near post for his 14th goal since returning from the FIFA World Cup – and 22nd goal in all competitions this term.
1-2: Jules Koundé og (59)
Collecting a short corner from Luke Shaw, Rashford dribbled past Raphinha and crossed from the byline to the near post, where Bruno Fernandes's back-heeled flick sent the ball to the far post. Koundé, with a white shirt either side of him, was the man to make contact but only to divert the ball into the net off his chest.
2-2: Raphinha (76)
Barcelona have won just once at home in Europe in 2022/23 but they at least avoided defeat via Raphinha's first goal for the club in UEFA competition. Under pressure, Luke Shaw and Casemiro each played a hurried pass and Koundé gathered the ball before feeding Raphinha out on the right. The Brazilian attempted more take-ons (11) than any other player on the Camp Nou pitch on Thursday, but this time he whipped in a low cross towards Robert Lewandowski, attacking the near post. The Poland striker could not make contact, yet the ball flew on past David de Gea and into the far corner.
The hosts' starting formation was a fluid 4-3-3 in which Gavi (30) would shift centrally into a false-nine position while Jordi Alba (18) pushed high on the left-hand side. At the tip, Lewandowski (9) operated between the full-backs and centre-backs.
Their midfield three set up as a triangle with Frenkie de Jong (21) as the anchor, impressive in his smooth technique when receiving under pressure. When it came to defending, Barcelona's shape was closer to a 4-1-4-1, with the wingers pressing high and the full-backs pushing on aggressively to the United full-backs.
United's line-up included Shaw (23) at centre-half owing to Lisandro Martínez's suspension, and their formation was a 4-1-4-1 with Rashford (10) as the spearhead and Casemiro (18) the anchor breaking up attacks and breaking the lines with his passes.
Our formation graphic shows them set up in a medium pressing shape with Bruno Fernandes (8) supporting on the right and Jadon Sancho (25) the left. At times, this morphed into a 4-4-2, with one of the wingers advancing to help Rashford press the centre-backs or – when in possession – with Fred (17) pushing high and Wout Weghorst (27) providing support. On the right, Bruno Fernandes, intelligent in his use of the ball, would come infield as full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka (29) stepped up.
The video above offers examples of the outstanding feature of United's performance in the eyes of UEFA's match observer – namely, their collective press.
This shared effort began with Rashford pressing the first pass. The purpose was to try to force the Barcelona centre-backs to play the ball sideways – to the other centre-back or a full-back – rather than into the midfield pivots. When the ball was played sideways, Bruno Fernandes or Sancho would either step up to press or, depending on the quality of the pass by the centre-back, would try to block the inside channel into which Barcelona wished to progress the ball.
For this approach to work effectively, compactness from front to back is key. The examples in the video show how short the distances were between United's defensive, midfield and attacking units: 31.9m in the first clip, 25.1m in the second, 25.4m in the third and 26.9 in the fourth. Varane could be seen urging the defensive line to squeeze up and United did this well as seen in the first sequence, which ends with Franck Kessie, pressed by Weghorst and then Fred, misplacing a ball that Sancho collects.
Another aspect of United's approach was their man-marking in midfield. According to the observer, coach Erik ten Hag employs a man-to-man approach in the middle to ensure immediate pressure in a bid to regain the ball swiftly.
Hence the sight in the second clip of Weghorst marking Kessie and Fred covering De Jong. With a man on each of that pair's shoulders, and Rashford closing him down, Koundé ends up overhitting a back pass to his goalkeeper.
In the third sequence, United's collective pressure leads to another Koundé error as Sancho intercepts his attempted ball out to the wing and, from there, combines with Rashford for a shot on goal by the striker.
The final clip is the sequence for Rashford's goal, which actually begins with him blocking the option for Andreas Christensen to play sideways to his fellow centre-back. Instead, the ball goes left to Jordi Alba, who, under immediate pressure from Bruno Fernandes, plays an errant pass up to halfway, where Varane intercepts. Within ten seconds, the ball is in the Barcelona net.
This was another feature of United's play at the Camp Nou as, when they did win the ball back, they attacked swiftly – and they ended the night having had five shots within 15 seconds of a turnover. Only PSV Eindhoven, in their game at Sevilla, had as many, and a further measure of United's threat was an xG of 2.18 compared with Barcelona's 1.05.
If there is a downside to United's man-marking in the midfield, it is the risk of leaving empty space between the midfield three and the back line, and the UEFA observer noted the constant movement of the home side to try to progress behind the visitors' midfield unit.
Gavi, from the left, would come inside into a false-nine position, with Pedri pushing on into high-eight position. This pair, both strong in one v ones, impressed the observer with their work between the lines. Pedri caught the eye for his positioning on the half-turn and vision to find a pass, and Gavi for his intelligence to take up positions and his speed and skill. Indeed, the latter ended the match with 22 passes into the final third – the third-highest number by any player in Europa League action last week.
The pity for Barcelona is that both of those players will be missing on Thursday – Gavi suspended after his yellow card in the first leg and Pedri sidelined by the muscle injury which forced him off early at the Camp Nou.
As an overall assessment, Barcelona were strong in their counterpressing and brave in their attempts to play through the opposition. This bravery, however, did make the Liga leaders vulnerable to the counter, not least on their left, where full-back Jordi Alba pushed high – something exposed by United's pressing triggers and ability to counter at speed.
Xavi Hernández, Barcelona coach: "We wanted to surprise United a little using Koundé and Alonso to bring the ball out, to link with Gavi, and I liked what we did there. But United are a terrific team, one of the best in Europe and they're really well coached.
"They play marvellous counterattacking football, Rashford getting in behind, Bruno [Fernandes] finding long passes. We wanted to calm things down from the constant end to end, but United are very good at playing the way they want to."
Erik ten Hag, United coach: "I think we dictated the game apart from maybe 15 minutes in the first half when we had some difficulties, but for the rest we dictated. We had so many chances I was a little bit disappointed at half-time it was 0-0. It was a great game with two attacking teams.
"I wanted Jadon and Bruno coming in the half-spaces, [to] get them on the ball and make runs from deep, with the full-backs joining in. We had a lot of variation and we had a lot of opportunities."