Manchester United vs FC Barcelona

Phil Neville had deputized for both Gary Neville and Dennis Irwin in the weeks leading up to this game, however as both found themselves back to full fitness Ferguson went with his more experienced full back pairing. A late injury in United’s game with Coventry would see Ronnie Johnsen miss out on this match, with Ferguson electing to bring in his Norwegian compatriot Henning Berg to partner Jaap Stam.

While Scholes had started the season in the forward positions, Yorke’s signing ensured that he made the move back to central midfield to partner Roy Keane on a more permanent basis. Giggs and Beckham took their place on the wings, both of which would prove to be key contributors to how United attacked in transition.

In attack Ferguson would pair Solskjaer and Yorke, a partnership that had already accounted for 5 goals in their opening 2 games. Albeit FC Barcelona are a far higher level of competition, it was evident that both players shared a natural synergy from the off.

Ferguson’s default shape of 4-4-2 morphed into a 4-2-4 at times in attack, with Beckham and Giggs working to expose the spaces behind FC Barcelona’s full backs in moments of transition.

While United began to press FC Barcelona aggressively, when the game settled down Ferguson dropped the lines of confrontation to give his midfield and back line greater connectivity. Yorke and Solskjaer still worked to press the ball albeit from deeper starting positions, but the entire shape relied heavily on zonal ball pressure and coverage in behind.

On the bench for United was back up keeper Raymond van Der Gouw, defenders David May and Phil Neville, midfielders Nicky Butt and Jesper Blomqvist, accompanied by strikers Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham.

FC Barcelona

Louis Van Gaal had led FC Barcelona to the La Liga title in his first season in charge, however a dismal performance in the 97/98 Champions League led to a squad overhaul that included no fewer than nine first team departures.

Joining the club in the summer of 1998 was Argentine defender Mauricio Pellegrino from Velez Sarsfield on a short-term deal. He was joined by Dutch duo Philip Cocu and Boudewijn Zenden, both of whom joined from PSV Eindhoven. Without doubt the biggest signing of the summer was Patrick Kluivert’s arrival from AC Milan, where he would be re-united with his former Ajax coach in a deal worth £9M.

Having qualified automatically for the Champions League, FC Barcelona were only three games into their season when group stage play began. They kicked off La Liga with a 0-0 draw away to Racing Santander, followed by a 1-0 win over Extremadura at the Camp Nou courtesy of a Luis Figo strike. They faced a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu on the weekend prior to their match at Old Trafford, to face a Real Madrid side coached by Guus Hidink who was taking part in his first El Classico. Despite Kluivert converting his first goal the club, a Raul double gave Real a 2-1 lead headed into the closing stages of the match. Just as the game looked out of reach FC Barcelona’s Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson was on hand to help his side claim a 2-2 draw.

Van Gaal would name a similar line up in his sides opening Group D match with United, with the notable exceptions being Mauricio Pellegrino and Patrick Kluivert who missed out through injury.

Versatile Dutch defender Michael Reiziger would partner Abelardo in central defense, moving away from his more traditional placement as an attacking right back. Sergi Barjuan would partner Luis Enrique in the full back positions to complete the back four, two footballers who are extremely comfortable in carrying the ball forward as well as stepping into midfield to combine.

The midfield trio of Cocu, Giovanni and Rivaldo are an extremely attack minded group of players, all of whom play a key role in how FC Barcelona move the ball forward into the final third.

On the flanks are Boudewijn Zenden and Luis Figo, both of whom are extremely competent in attacking like traditional wingers by driving to the end line, however we will also see them demonstrate their ability to come inside and attack from central positions.

At center forward Sonny Anderson is a Brazilian international that operates at the elite level, his only misfortune is that he is playing at time when his national team are blessed with so many attacking options. His movement to create shooting opportunities is further complimented by his clinical finishing, leading to him being a major threat that United will be wary of.

First Half Tactical Analysis

Barcelona Build Up Play

In the early moments of the match Louis Van Gaal’s side opted for several direct passes into Sonny Anderson at the point of the attack, but when play settled down the role of Philip Cocu became immediately apparent. When picking play up from the center backs Cocu receives the ball so well that he can play forward as well as switch play horizontally, pulling United out of their natural defensive shape as he operates so effectively between the lines.

At either side of Cocu was a trio of players who were given license to rotate and combine as they attempted to overload United in wide areas and create attacks in the final third.

On the right side we saw Geovanni and Figo frequently interchanging position, both supported by Luis Enrique who combined attacking the flank with pulling inside like a central midfielder to offer deep support.

On the left, Zenden operated more like a traditional winger with Rivaldo given license to attack the inside left channel or move into a traditional number 10 spot. When both Zenden and Rivaldo left the flank open, Sergi used the space well to overlap from left back and serve crosses from the end line.

While the movement from the trio on either side of Cocu was predicated upon what space was available to penetrate, the core principle was that Van Gaal didn’t want a situation where winger and full back were on the same vertical line. By inverting and contracting the space with these outside overloads, it made life especially hard for United’s full back/winger partnership to press effectively and prevent the flow of attack.

Breaking Forward

With Ferguson opting to pair Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in attack, the defensive positioning of his remaining eight players were going to be integral to how they remained connected and create turn overs.

Given Van Gaal’s possession style there is no doubt Ferguson sent out his players to press aggressively in the opening stages of the match, looking to capitalize upon how few Barcelona players were kept back to defend transitions.

When United’s midfield line had dropped back deeper to protect the space in their own half, they had players who showed excellent anticipatory skills to intercept passes and counterattack on goal.

One such example came on the 10-minute mark and almost opened the scoring. A loose pass from Abelardo led to Beckham supplying a wonderful through pass to Giggs, his first time cross was then met by Solskjaer at the front post but the Norweigan’s effort would only clip the cross bar.

United Link Up Play

As United began to rely more on transitions as the first half progressed, it heightened the need for the strikers to link the play while the supporting cast of midfielders made runs into the final third.

Dwight Yorke did a terrific job of showing to receive the ball into feet or chest, before spreading the play and letting loose the quality of Beckham and Giggs on the flanks. In the second clip we see how well Yorke and Solksjaer work to unsettle the Barcelona back line, before Giggs joins them inside the box to attack a sublime Beckham cross to open the scoring.  

Beat The Press

As United began to build play from the back it was clear that Ferguson had targeted Barcelona’s ability to defend high balls as a potential weakness. Yorke frequently moved onto the side of Barca defender Michael Reiziger, known better as an attacking full back but deputizing centrally, and dropping off the high line to flick the ball onto his strike partner Solskjaer.

After numerous successful aerial challenges by the United strikers the Barcelona defense was in such disarray that when Beckham moved inside as a potential target, drawing pressure from left back Sergi, the ball sailed over both players totally unopposed. Solskjaer then latched onto the ball and would help set up a move that led to United doubling their lead.

Barcelona Central Focus

With a two-goal lead to protect Ferguson dialed down his side’s pressing during moments of transition, instead opting for his players to drop and collect into a deeper zonal defensive shape. Van Gaal had clearly prepared for such eventuality and almost immediately we saw Figo drifting inside to pick up possession, like the movements of a number 10 as Barcelona progressed the ball through the middle of the field.

At the point in which he picked up the ball, central striker Sonny Anderson would bend his run to draw Stam’s attention away from the ball, leaving Figo to face Henning Berg in a 1v1. While this didn’t materialize into many concrete chances, it was a glimpse into what we would see more of in the second half.

Even with United two goals ahead in the match, and an agonizing miss from Solskjaer away from a third, when Italian referee Stefano Braschi brought an end to the opening forty-five minutes this contest still felt far from over.

While FC Barcelona had looked rattled in the opening twenty minutes, the slower tempo of the match allowed them to establish more control and led to dominating large parts of possession. Let’s not forget Barcelona also had the ball in the net on 32 minutes when Rivaldo’s deflected shot whistled past Schmeichel, but the effort was ruled out when a foul was given for Sonny Anderson’s push on Henning Berg in the build up to the goal.

The bigger question for United wasn’t so much could they protect their lead, but more could they regain their grip on a match they had appeared to be in total control of after 24minutes. Their neat play in transition remained a constant threat throughout the half, however the movement of Rivaldo and Figo had caused United some serious structural damage given a lack of pressure on the ball.

Second Half Tactical Analysis

Figo Between the Lines

United began the second half in bullish fashion, launching two attacks over to the right wing with the view of Yorke and Beckham combining to create another chance on goal. When Barcelona broke up play they moved forward on the counter, moving their entire unit forward as United sank back into their deeper zonal defensive shape.

A series of switches in play followed as Barcelona pushed and probed United, attempting to create small 2v1 situations in areas that United were structurally vulnerable. One such area was in the center of midfield, as Keane and Scholes struggled to prevent Figo and Rivaldo from combining.

The Brazilian’s first touch is met with four lunging blocks by United defenders and just as he swings back to strike the ball he is brought to the ground by a slide tackle from Dennis Irwin. The ball inadvertently cannons off Berg and onto Rivaldo’s head, before falling to Sonny Anderson inside the box who applies a predatory finish to cut the deficit to one goal. 

United Defensive Switch

In the moments after Barcelona’s goal Ferguson chose to add more steel into his midfield by removing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and replacing him with Nicky Butt. Structurally this move gave United more numbers centrally, however Ferguson would also use the move to up the intensity of his team who had started the half in such passive fashion.

Players who had remained connected in the team shape now began frequently leaving their zones to aggressively press the ball, which did bring about more interceptions and blocks but with it came bigger gaps for Barcelona to exploit should they evade the pressure.

Right Side Imbalance

Van Gaal reacted to Butt’s substitution by inverting the position of Luis Figo off the wing, thus maintaining the central numerical superiority as well as opening the right flank for Luis Enrique to attack forward into.  

Just as the game reached the hour mark a simple attacking move on the right side would see Luis Enrique feed a pass into Rivaldo, who’s movement inside the box saw him create separation from the advances of Jaap Stam. Upon receiving the ball Rivaldo’s first touch was toward the end line, fully aware that the impending contact coming from Jaap Stam could lead to a foul inside the box. Italian referee Braschi immediately pointed to the spot, leaving Ferguson utterly furious on the sideline given the minimal contact that had led to the penalty award.

Midfielder Giovanni stepped forward and would apply a cool finish, lifting his strike just over the outstretched Peter Schmeichel to bring Barcelona back level to 2-2.

Beckham Stroke of Genius

It didn’t take long for United to regain their lead, when just four minutes after the Barcelona equalizer they were awarded a free kick in perfect shooting range.

A forward pass from Luis Figo to spark a counterattack was thwarted when Jaap Stam raced out to intercept Sonny Anderson, his subsequent clearance fell to the feet of Dwight Yorke just inside Barcelona’s defensive third, at which point he was brought to the ground following a mis-timed recovery tackle from Philip Cocu.

There was a giddy anticipation throughout the Old Trafford crowd as David Beckham strode forward to take the kick, with it’s positioning almost identical to that of his goal for England against Colombia at France 98. Beckham caressed a wonderful curling strike into the top corner, leading to an explosion of noise throughout Old Trafford as United went 3-2 ahead.

Barcelona Tactical Shift

Following Beckham’s goal Van Gaal decided he needed to up the ante, so morphed the shape of the team into a 3-4-3.

On 65 minutes he would replace attacking midfielder Giovanni for the more conservative option of Xavi Hernandez, who even as an 18-year-old rookie it was apparent how comfortable he was in moving the ball at speed. Working within a double pivot beside Cocu this allowed FC Barcelona to maintain the rhythm of the attacks, all while maintaining their numerical advantage centrally.

Luis Enrique would maintain his advanced positioning but now had the license to step into the forward line, giving Reiziger space in which to attack the flank like a full back. Figo and Rivaldo now had complete autonomy as to where they moved to occupy the best spaces centrally, frequently combining with Sonny Anderson using give and go’s to penetrate the United 18 yard box.

Red Card Controversy

On 70 minutes a goal mouth scramble inside the United 18-yard box led to Nicky Butt inadvertently handling an instinctive shot by Sonny Anderson, the result of which was Luis Figo prodding home the ball after it had cannoned off Butt’s arm.

As the Barcelona captain raised his arm in celebration the referee blew his whistle frantically, motioning that he had awarded the Catalans a penalty prior to Figo’s rebound hitting the net. To make matters worse referee Braschi turned to show Nicky Butt the red card, citing that his block was a deliberate handball.

Luis Enrique stepped up to take the penalty this time, calmly stroking the ball into the bottom left corner to bring Barcelona back level at 3-3.

After dropping to ten men Ferguson would replace Dennis Irwin with the fresh legs of Phil Neville at left back, and when Ryan Giggs picked up a facial injury he would be replaced with Jesper Blomqvist.

Despite United’s best efforts to attack on the counter, Barcelona worked diligently to extinguish any threat by swarming around the ball to win back possession. While Van Gaal’s side appeared to lack the zip and urgency of a team going all out to win the game, they pulled United apart at will as they struggled to compensate for being a man down.

Throughout the final twenty minutes FC Barcelona went close on several occasions, registering six more efforts on goal while United failed to do so once. Given the circumstances Alex Ferguson will be content with a point, but there was little doubt as to where his attention was directed in his post-match interviews.

In this article on the BBC website Ferguson states referee Braschi has had “a real shocker” given the harshness surrounding both Barcelona penalties. He also conceded, “We just lost impetus and we lost our gameplan and our shape. I’m quite happy with the result at the end of day because we could have lost.”

About the Author

Picture of Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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