It is, of course, unfair to compare Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side to Barcelona – the latter boasting possibly the best attacking trio ever. Yet, Barcelona is a side heavily influenced by Van Gaal – one that still adheres to some of the Dutch manager’s philosophy. Van Gaal’s current side faces Arsenal on Sunday and would do well to learn lessons from Barcelona, which swatted aside the Gunners at the Emirates in midweek.
In a deadlocked game – there have been many this season – Van Gaal’s side relies on Anthony Martial or Memphis Depay to carry the ball forward. In contrast Barcelona’s front three takes on an opposition defender only in clear one-on-one situations. Instead, Barça players – in particular Ivan Rakitic – gallop forward once possession is secure to create overloads. The more mobile of United midfielders, such as Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin, could be key in taking the game to Arsenal.
Commitment to the philosophy
In Barcelona’s recent Champions League game against Arsenal the North London side consistently put heavy pressure on Barça defenders. Van Gaal’s side also likes to play out from the back and Arsene Wenger will probably insist upon even greater pressure to unsettle Daley Blind and his colleagues. Even Barcelona has struggled against sides intent on using a high block this season – in fact this is how Van Gaal’s Netherlands beat Spain in the 2014 World Cup.
Yet, Gerard Pique and his defensive colleagues are comfortable on the ball, playing out from the back where Chris Smalling might simply punt the ball upfield.
This comfort helped Barcelona break down an Arsenal side set up to defend deep and hit the visitors on the break. Pique and Javier Mascherano kept the ball so well against Olivier Giroud and Mesuit Ozil that Arsenal’s midfielders were dragged into the fight. Andres Iniesta enjoyed more space as a result and the Spaniard could release Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi into the gaps left by Arsenal defenders who were forced into a higher line.
Of course, there were periods where Arsenal simply let Barcelona be, particularly in the first half. Recently Sunderland managed to defeat United by adopting the same approach. The Catalan side still managed to carve out half chances, with Rakitic constantly motoring forward. By being mobile – specifically, by being vertical – Barcelona successfully dragged Arsenal’s midfield out of shape. Again, United’s midfielders should take note.
Messi, initially on the right, alternated from the flank to coming inside to become Barcelona’s number 10. United fans have seen this with Juan Mata this season. When the Argentinean came inside, however, either Suarez or Dani Alves occupied a place out right and made sure that there was some presence on the wing. Messi’s sudden move into more central areas, accompanied by a new presence out right, momentarily confused Arsenal into leaving Suarez or Alves completely unmarked.
By contrast Jesse Lingard’s positioning and role has been very unclear this season. With much of the Reds’ play channelled through the left flank, the Englishman has frequently cut into the centre. There is little discernible need to do so and it leaves the right flank empty while making United overly narrow.
Lingard has used his pace to burst into the box whenever the ball is whipped in from the left – most memorably against Chelsea – but this is predicated upon United dominating the left flank. This is not a foregone conclusion against a side as strong as Arsenal. By being so narrow on the right side of the pitch, the Reds will be forced into attacking through the left, rendering United predictable.
Under Van Gaal United has always had trouble shifting gears. Against Arsenal, Barcelona was more than happy to simply pass the ball back and forth. Yet, the players always seized opportunities by quickly upping the tempo when Arsenal’s defensive structure broke down. In the attacking third, Iniesta and Rakitic were more than happy to attempt direct passes. Indeed, this is why Luis Enrique is so fanatical about maintaining Barça’s width – there is no better way of opening up gaps than quickly spreading the ball wide.
In United’s victory over Midtjylland Marcus Rashford may have gotten the headlines, but it was Memphis Depay who almost singlehandedly destroyed the Danes. Anthony Martial is expected to miss the clash with Arsenal through injury and Memphis winger will have to offer the “stardust” in the Frenchman’s absence. United must help Memphis out, though, by keeping up with him.
(Lack of) crossing
Barcelona almost never crossed against Arsenal – the away side even took almost all corners short. This is standard practice for Barça, a side that lacks any significant height. Still, refraining from crossing makes much sense to United as well. After all, Van Gaal’s side also lacks a decent aerial presence without Maroune Fellaini. Per Mertesacker, at six feet five inches, makes for a formidable barrier as well.
Van Gaal places premium on possession too – much more so than Enrique’s Barcelona side. Crossing is inherently inaccurate and United has to expand much energy pressing to regain the ball. This can actually be dangerous with United lacking a ‘defensive forward’ – the goal scored by James Vardy on the counter-attack in the Reds’ 1-1 draw against Leicester City started from United’s own corner. Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all have the speed to take advantage of any stray United cross.
The gap between United and Barcelona goes beyond the tactical of course, but the tactical differences actually speak to the struggles of Van Gaal’s men. With Martial, Smalling and David De Gea all potentially out for the Sunday game, tactics will have to come to rescue.