Down but not out. Manchester United will come away from their narrow 1-0 first-leg defeat to Barcelona frustrated, yet oddly encouraged, by their performance at Old Trafford. Make no mistake about it, United would have been miles better off if they did not have to once again attempt the very improbable and overturn a deficit away from home. But United’s attacking players were a constant thorn in Barcelona’s side, while the trio of Pogba, McTominay, and Fred more than held their own against the Blaugrana midfield. Imagine saying that 6 months ago. Three big takeaways from today’s match:
1) United shouldn’t expect a miracle
It would have been an affront to the game if Barcelona’s 12thminute goal had been ruled out by the linesman’s inexplicably raised flag. United, only in the quarterfinals through the mercy of VAR, can have no complaints about the decision to award the goal. Luke Shaw, who acquitted himself well otherwise, failed to pick up Suarez’s diagonal run across the penalty box and United
If I had to guess, it was the sight of Paul O. Smaldini ploughing through the diminutive Leo Messi like a runaway train that galvanized the troops.
It’s hard enough to beat Barcelona in 90 minutes; in La Liga this season, they’ve only lost to Leganes and Real Betis, and haven’t lost since November. If either Leganes or Betis had started their respective games a goal behind, they wouldn’t have won. There’s more bad news for United. They’re going to have to score at least twice. Not just to win, although that is true too. They’re going to have to score twice to avoid
Need a good omen, United fans? Since Messi made his professional debut, the teams that have won the Champions League can be classified into 4 groups: teams with Messi (Barca); teams with Ronaldo (United; R. Madrid); teams with a manager with past UEFA success (Liverpool-Benitez; AC Milan-Ancelotti; Inter-Mourinho; Bayern-Heynckes); and ENGLISH TEAMS LED AT THE START OF THE SEASON BY A PORTUGUESE MANAGER WHO RECENTLY WON THE EUROPA LEAGUE, WHO WAS SACKED DUE TO UNDERWHELMING LEAGUE RESULTS, AND REPLACED BY A FORMER PLAYER WHO FORMERLY HAD VERY LITTLE SUCCESS AS A PREMIER LEAGUE MANAGER (Chelsea, with Villas-Boas/Di Matteo).
At least we have that on Liverpool this year.
2) Familiar failings in United lineup
Once the apparently imminent departure of Ander Herrera to PSG is confirmed, I’ll share my thoughts on United’s decision not to match terms. For now, United’s performance confirmed a lot of things, both encouraging and wanting, about the team’s transfer needs this summer. Diogo Dalot has improved tremendously and looks like he will be our marauding right-back for the coming years. United’s woes in front of goal will be organically resolved as Marcus Rashford blossoms into a world-class centre forward. Unfortunately, we also saw the beginning of the end of Ashley Young’s Manchester United career. And while Solskjaer rightly deployed a third centre back, he was forced to play Luke Shaw out of position. United surely sign a centre-back this summer but should consider adding players to cover for and compete with both young fullbacks.
United also need more outlets than Rashford and Lukaku going forward; it was too easy for Barcelona to stymie United counters. With fan favourite Juan Mata’s contract unlikely to be renewed, United need to recruit a young, elite winger to round out their stable of attacking weapons. Signing one of Joao Felix or Jadon Sancho would be a breathtaking coup for the squad.
3) Fred can be a Red
I’ve long believed that the single hardest position to play in European football is centre midfield in the Premier League. If you think about it, it’s rare for centre midfielders to be considered world-class before they turn 25 years old, which is far later than other positions. You need to have a comprehensive and well-rounded skillset when you’re always in the thick of it and have to be aware of everything around you, all the time. Factor in the breakneck pace of play and physical nature of the Premier League and you start to appreciate what an overwhelming experience a midfield battle in the Premier League can be. This is especially so for players who sign from leagues that may be more tactically deliberate, or less competitive. Because of this, it has been necessary to be patient with Fred as he finds his feet.
He showed an initial glimpse of promise against PSG, before conceding a penalty and losing his confidence. Against Barcelona, Fred and his fellow midfield workhorse, McTominay, were terrific. They played out of their skins and protected United’s defence with passion. There is some reason to believe Fred could fill Ander Herrera’s role if he chooses to leave the club at the end of the season. Encouraging signs for two players who had been on the fringes of the team, and for whom fans had limited expectations.