Manchester United have been given the task of climbing Mount Everest in the Champions League quarter-finals after drawing Barcelona.
The Red Devils pulled off an incredible comeback against PSG in the previous round to get here and cannot be underestimated – especially given their turnaround since putting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the wheel.
However, in Barcelona, they’re facing an entirely different species to the one they dumped out in the round-of-16 as the Blaugrana are packed with Champions League experts, world-class ball-players and, well, that little guy who is the footballing equivalent of Master Yoda.
So, with this mouthwatering repeat of the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals on the horizon, we’ve taken a look at four Barcelona strengths that United must guard against if they hope to compete, as well as three weakness they can exploit to progress.
Strength: Width and space
Take a quick glance at Barcelona’s attacking patterns and one thing becomes predominantly clear – their full-backs push absurdly high.
We’ll get to the drawback to that in a moment. First, we need to take a look at what that does to their opponents. When playing against less talented or ambitious sides, the likes of Jordi Alba, Nelson Semedo and Sergi Roberto buccaneering forward serves to pin opposition full-backs, denying them the chance to break forward and support the attack, effectively stifling any chance of them hitting Barca with counter attacks.
Not only that, but the width they generate also pulls players out of position and creates chasms of space to allow Ousmane Dembele the chance to drive in between the full-back and centre-back, using his electric pace to terrify the slower players hidden in the middle. When Dembele plays, Barca will seek to create this space for him and Messi aside, he is arguably their greatest weapon. Dogged defending and strict positional discipline are absolutely paramount when defending against a Dembele-armed Barca.
However, Man Utd are not one of those aforementioned, ‘less ambitious’ teams.
As we’ve seen during Solskjaer’s reign, the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba are absolutely devastating on the break. Pogba can initiate a counter-attack by carrying the ball from box-to-box quicker than Lewis Hamilton on a home-straight, while Lingard’s expert movement allows him to arrive late in the box and simply tap home a cut-back.
However, the key against Barca could be Rashford and Martial. They are United’s true sprinters, possessing devastating pace to get in behind exposed high lines and dead-eye finishing should they get one-on-one.
Leopard’s don’t change their spots and Barca will not change their philosophy. Their full-backs will continue to push aggressively high as they always do, firm in their belief they can dominate any side on the planet. However, one quick transition through Pogba, or one clearance into the space the full-backs have vacated and the Blaugrana could have a serious problem on their hands.
Strength: Death by passing
What’s that? Barcelona like to pass the ball?
Yes, we’re all well aware of Barca’s undisputed possession dominance but honestly, it is one of their greatest strengths. You cannot score without the ball and you can get incredibly tired chasing it around.
The Spanish champions club have played the second-highest number of passes (4,786) and averaged the second-highest share of possession (62.59%) in this season’s Champions League, with the latter only being exceeded by none other than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
And shock, both of those sides rank among the top four for goals scored in this season’s competition, with Barca on 19 and City on 26. You can deploy the lowest of blocks, you can be the most disciplined defence on planet Earth, but if you spend 65-70% of the game without the ball, you will tire. Just as a boa constrictor will kill its prey slowly, Barca will suffocate you with possession and as we saw with Lyon’s late collapse at the Nou Camp, that is where they’ll devastate you.
Weakness: Crosses into the box
Of the 177 aerial duels they have faced in this season’s Champions League, Barcelona have lost 92 (51.98%) of them, while a look at Lucas Tousart’s goal against them for Lyon highlights a distinct weakness when defending crosses into the box.
None of Barca’s full-backs are particularly strong in the air, while Sergi Roberto has often been seen as a defensive liability for the Catalonians. A short corner, just like the one for Tousart’s goal, can easily disrupt Barca’s set-piece defending and present aerially dominant players such as Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling with the chance to use their height and bully smaller defenders once the cross is made.
Furthermore, it isn’t just deep crosses in the air that Barcelona struggle with. During their ding-dong clash with Sevilla in February, which they eventually won 4-2, the intense attacking nature of Barca’s full-backs came back to bite them once again. Sevilla’s second goal, scored by Gabriel Mercardo, came as a direct result of the Andalusians counter-attacking into the wide spaces. However, once the ball was worked into the box and the low cross was made, the slow rate of reaction from the Barcelona defence was remarkable and highlights another area where the likes of Rashford and Lingard can profit.
Honestly, compare this goal with the one scored by Lingard during United’s 3-1 FA Cup win at Arsenal earlier this season – the similarities are striking.
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Strength: Champions League experience
That being said, regardless of any weakness to balls into the box, Barcelona are European experts.
In Messi, Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and co, Ernesto Valverde has a bunch of players at his disposal that have gone deep in the Champions League, year after year. In fact, the aforementioned five players alone have a combined 12 Champions League winners medals between them.
Man Utd’s squad, on the other hand, is packed with players just coming to prominence, having played during the Red Devils’ toughest period of the Premier League era. The likes of Rashford, Lingard and Pogba may have won the Europa League, but that really doesn’t come close to matching the heat of a Nou Camp clash with Barcelona, especially when the chips are down.
Even if United were to race into a first-leg lead, Barca’s veterans are unlikely to wilt under the pressure – we all remember the 6-1 against PSG, right?
Weakness: Lack of pace
Dembele may be terrifyingly fast, but take him out of the Barcelona attack and they pretty much lose the ability to go in behind – especially with Luis Suarez advancing into his 30s and slowing down at an alarming rate.
The Frenchman is their only truly lighting player going forward, with Alba the only other player in the squad with a real sprint in his locker.
Dembele is only expected to return to action on the 8th April following a muscle injury, making him touch and go for the first leg at Old Trafford two days later. Should the 21-year-old miss out, Barca will be presented with the prospect of playing most of their football in front of United, who will undoubtedly line up with an extremely narrow, low block.
Messi might be a footballing god, but this compressed space will unquestionably dampen his ability to influence the game, while the sharp decline in form of Philippe Coutinho robs Barcelona of another player who can pick defensive locks in the tightest of areas.
Strength: They have a Messi
You can compress the space, man-mark him, or even put him in a space ship and blast him into orbit, but there is still often very little you can do to stop the relentless genius that is Lionel Messi.
Even if Dembele is missing and Barcelona cannot stretch United with his pace, the Argentine ace can operate in physics-defining parameters and is often mere seconds away from that match-defining moment.
Messi (98) is second only to Sofiane Boufal (100) for successful dribbles in La Liga this season, while the 31-year-old is level with Robert Lewandowski as this season’s Champions League top scorer with eight goals.
Do yourselves a favour and watch the third and fourth goals of Barca’s 5-1 win over Lyon to see the mind-bending, paradigm-shifting capabilities Messi possesses with the ball at his feet – he’ll sit you down, let you get back up, then put you on your back again before he scores. The only criticism of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is that he has scored that many improbable goals, he’s now made his highlights reel look completely normal.