European football returns to Camp Nou with an absolute thriller of a game as Barcelona and Manchester United share the points in a 2-2 draw. In general, Erik ten Hag’s team looked sharper as their plan worked well to overcome the Catalans’ far-from-flawless structure, giving them a boost of confidence heading into the all-deciding second leg at Old Trafford next week.
First of all, the tactical debate started even before the starting whistle blew. Xavi decided to field Marcos Alonso instead of the in-form Andreas Christensen in the heart of the defense, while Jordi Alba was granted the starting spot over Baldé on the left-hand. These decisions raised eyebrows from many uncomprehending Barcelona fans – which, later, turned out to be rightful.
On the other hand, ten Hag made a sensible tweak in his attacking setup which came as a surprise for the Spanish manager, who was unable to react properly in time. Instead of the usual setup, Rashford was placed centrally, with Weghorst essentially becoming an attacking midfielder and Fernandes moving to the right flank.
Thus, Xavi’s plan to stop Rashford fell flat as the initial plan was to move Araújo to the right to neutralize the threat posed by the in-form English forward. But, ten Hag’s tweak to put Rashford in the striking position fooled the Catalans as neither was Araújo as effective in this position as he used to be in the center, while Koundé and Alonso failed to contain Rashford’s brilliance.
However, the response from Xavi was delayed. The Mancunians’ dangerous counterattacks – and especially, Rashford’s pace – were too much to handle for a quite insecure Koundé and a slow Alonso, and it took 66 minutes to make a change, bringing in Christensen for Alonso and switching Koundé and Araújo back. And what was the reason why it didn’t even start like this? Rotation… for Cádiz?!?
Nevertheless, it wasn’t that bad of a game from Barcelona even though ten Hag has outthought Xavi in certain crucial areas, and essentially, created more in order to win (2.1 xG vs 1.2 xG). They still managed to dominate often as they wanted, and their rotations worked well, especially the one on the left.
Starting from his false left-winger position which slowly starts to be his primary position, Gavi frequently drifted infield, drawing Wan-Bissaka with him and opening the wide channel for Alba to exploit. This particular pattern was visible often on the left, and Alba did get into good positions to create goalscoring chances, but his final pass wasn’t on point yesterday. Maybe an earlier switch for Baldé there could have served the Blaugrana better.
Another major threat – arguably the best player of the night – was our Brazilian magician, Raphinha. The 26-year-old constantly threatened the left side of the visitors, fooling Malacia several times, while his sharp passes and shot volume made him the standout performer in the Blaugrana frontline. In the end, he played a crucial part in sealing this result as he directly contributed to both of Barcelona’s goals. His anger at his substitution, though, was understandable given he was our best player on the pitch.
Such an eventful, thrilling, dramatic night it was – everything a fanatic would desire. However, given the quality of the game and the chances both teams created, the goals were unworthy of the magnitude of the encounter.
At first, Alonso’s headed opener came from a set-piece, while Raphinha’s equalizer to make it 2-2 was a cross that failed to be met by Lewandowski somehow falling into the net. Koundé’s own goal was simply an unlucky touch, only Rashford’s goal could be directly deducted from a deeper tactical situation (concretely the Alonso–Rashford mismatch on the left).
At the end of the day, the 2-2 is a debatable result, whether it is a good or a bad result, but the fact that there is still a decisive game to be played, yesterday’s casualties hurt even more. Not only had we already Dembélé and Busquets injured, now the young midfield duo of Pedri and Gavi will also be unavailable for the second leg.
Pedri, unfortunately, picked up a worrying thigh injury, which will keep him on the sidelines for several weeks, whereas Gavi will be suspended due to claiming his third yellow card in this campaign on the European stage. Their absence will be a sensible loss for Xavi as they – despite their tender age – are already the cornerstone of the Catalans, and replacing them with similar quality is practically impossible.
So, ultimately, is it a rather positive or negative result for Barcelona? Based on the image of the game, the result might be compelling to the Blaugranas, but despite the aggravating factors, there is surely much more potential in the team. Essentially, the 2-2 leaves the question open, promising a fierce, do-or-die duel at Old Trafford next week.