UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyses the absorbing Europa League knockout round play-off decider at Old Trafford, where Barcelona's fluidity caused problems before a switch in personnel and tactics turned the tie in Manchester United's favour.
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Manchester United's 2-1 comeback victory against Barcelona last Thursday was the consequence not just of a tactical switch but also their increased courage and intensity in the second half of an absorbing UEFA Europa League contest.
No team had overturned a half-time deficit against Barcelona since April 2021 yet United found a way. In this article brought to you by Swissquote, the UEFA Technical Observer panel analyses both the merits of the visitors' first-half display – marked by their midfield fluidity – and the keys to United's stirring response as they triumphed 4-3 on aggregate.
0-1: Robert Lewandowski (18, penalty)
After Bruno Fernandes was penalised for a tug on the arm of Alejandro Balde, who went to ground, Robert Lewandowski took his first successful penalty kick as a Barcelona player. David de Gea read the direction correctly but, diving to his left, got a hand to the ball in vain. For Lewandowski, it was his 25th goal of the season – a milestone he has now reached in 12 consecutive campaigns.
1-1: Fred (47)
With United's intensity levels rising after the restart, Sergio Busquets, under pressure from Bruno Fernandes, played a ball out of touch. Then, from the ensuing throw-in, Franck Kessie lost the ball, Jadon Sancho passed inside to Bruno Fernandes and he fed Fred, breaking forward. With one touch, the midfielder stepped into the area before firing low past Marc-André ter Stegen.
2-1: Antony (73)
The move originated with a searching diagonal ball by Lisandro Martínez out to the left-hand corner which Luke Shaw reached and back-heeled to Bruno Fernandes. Holding off Raphinha, the United captain laid the ball back for Alejandro Garnacho to attempt a shot which was blocked, along with a follow-up strike by Fred. It was third-time lucky as the ball bounced up to Antony, who drove first-time beneath the right hand of Ter Stegen. It was the Brazilian's first European goal for United and the 19th scored by a United substitute in all competitions this term, highlighting their strength in depth.
Erik ten Hag set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 and was able to restore to his central defence Martínez (6), suspended for the first leg, with Shaw (23) reverting to his usual role of left-back. At the other end of the field, Wout Weghorst (27) started as the central striker with Marcus Rashford (10) on the left, but Ten Hag withdrew his Dutch compatriot at half-time and sent on Antony (21), moving Rashford centrally – a decisive change that we will elaborate on below.
The Liga leaders lined up in a 4-3-3 and, with Gavi suspended, Sergi Roberto (20) began on the left side of the attack; behind him at full-back, Balde (28) was starting a European game for only the second time with the Blaugrana. "Sergi will play as a winger tonight so that he and Balde can try to open up the pitch," said Xavi Hernández beforehand, and Balde had some joy, recording more take-ons (ten, with a 50% success rate) than any other player in Thursday's match.
This was an intriguing play-off second leg in which both coaches found solutions to problems, starting with Xavi's response to United's man-marking system in midfield that Barcelona had encountered in their 2-2 first-leg draw at Camp Nou.
Xavi responded by rotating his central midfield players constantly in the first half. This made for a highly fluid approach, displayed in the first clip of the analysis video above, where we see Raphinha come in from the right, interchanging with Kessie, and left-winger Sergi Roberto move across the field into a menacing position on that same right side.
The second clip features the build-up to the penalty award for Barcelona's goal and this shows not just their fluid movement but also their ability to progress through the United lines in a move started at the feet of Ter Stegen. With United's players not close enough, the visitors are able to advance the ball deep into the opposition half, where a crossing opportunity leads to the penalty incident.
Another ploy used by Barcelona was the long diagonal pass to switch play, especially from right to left. In the third clip, we see one such example from Ronald Araújo. Sergi Roberto has moved infield, drawing United right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka inside with him, and this leaves space for Balde to attack following Araújo's crossfield ball. Back on the right touchline, Xavi's applause – captured by the TV cameras, if not shown here – suggested this was a clear part of the game plan.
Two other talking points feature in the first-half sequences that follow: Barcelona's high line (clip 4) and their winning of second balls around the box (clips 5 and 6).
In the first half, Xavi's men squeezed up the pitch and got players into good positions to pick up second balls, ensuring they kept the ball deep in United's half – and kept attacks going.
It was a risk they could take more readily as United, with Weghorst up front, could not counter vertically but instead had to look diagonally for players – as in clip 4 with the ball to Bruno Fernandes. On other occasions, by playing three or four passes, United gave Barcelona time to regain their shape
The second part of the UEFA observers' analysis considers how United then turned the tables in the second half.
The first point to make is that, with the introduction of Antony, Rashford stepped inside as the central striker. As the match observer reflected, this made United more direct in both structured possession and transitional moments.
Prior to this, they had the threat of Bruno Fernandes, with his ability to come inside and find pockets of space in front of a defence. With the pace of Rashford and Antony, however, they could get behind Barcelona's high defensive line too – something highlighted in the final two clips (9 and 10) of the analysis video.
When asked about Antony's introduction afterwards, Ten Hag touched on that reasoning: "We had to bring more speed and also a player who brings belief on the pitch."
This reference to belief is a reminder that football is not just about tactics. Mentality is key and United played with greater intensity and belief in the second period.
As he explained later, Ten Hag had asked his players at half-time for more bravery when pressing, and United began to win the second balls which enabled them to sustain their attacks. They ended up with twice as many shots (eight) in the second period as they had managed in the first (four).
In clip 7, which shows the winning goal, we can see the number of bodies United now have positioned in a ring outside the Barcelona box, ready to win the second ball – a notable contrast with the first half. We also see Bruno Fernandes hold off Raphinha before working the ball into the box, which underlines United's desire.
This left Xavi lamenting that "the two goals came from duels we lost", and citing the absence of the suspended Gavi and injured Pedri – two Barcelona players, he remarked, who "enjoy" competing for second balls. "We won fewer of the duels in the second half," he added. "They went up in intensity."
Clip 8 offers another example of this shift, with Barcelona able to clear no further than Casemiro, standing outside the box, ready to keep the ball moving for Ten Hag's side.
The Brazilian did it well, registering a match-best 14 recoveries. He was not the only man to shine as United won for the sixth time in eight Europa League games this season to set up a last-16 tie against another Spanish side, Real Betis.
Erik ten Hag, Man United coach: "The first half was flat. We had big chances but we were 1-0 down and it was unnecessary. We know if you bring on Antony and Garnacho [a 67th-minute replacement for Sancho], you get speed. They don't fear anyone.
"Antony is brave: he will go for it and he will fight. What he brought second half was what we needed – his running behind and his dribbles.
"Fred had an important role already last week in Barcelona because he had to first stop Frenkie de Jong playing, he had to play as a mosquito around him and go behind him, and he did it magnificently. Last week, he gave an assist and today he scored the goal.
"[At half-time] I emphasised the belief it was too flat first half. Our spare man Casemiro, we didn't use enough. Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a lot of space over on the right side and we didn't use him enough. In the pressing, we could be more brave."
Xavi Hernández, Barcelona coach: "In the second half, they showed more intensity, more rhythm and [with] the equaliser, the goal of Fred, we suffered a lot. After that, we controlled a little bit the game, but they continued with intensity and [then scored] the second one. Before both goals, we lost the duel; maybe physically they were stronger than us and that's why we conceded the two goals.
"We lacked calmness in the second half. We needed to show more patience. We lost the game due to details. Their two goals came from balls we gave away. In general, we played well, we competed and gave a good go of it against a top team, but it's a shame we lost."