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Man Utd vs Barcelona: How Solskjaer can stop Messi & Co

Manchester United's upcoming Champions League quarter-final clash with Barcelona has provided pundits with some wonderful storylines. The two teams have an intriguing shared recent history, having met in the final of the competition in both 2009 and 2011. There is also the narrative focusing on new United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored the winning goal in the club's epic 1999 victory over Bayern Munich, which took place in Barcelona.

Storylines, however, do not win games. In order to progress to the last four of Europe's most prestigious club tournament, Solskjaer will need to get his strategy absolutely spot on, beginning with the home game at Old Trafford this Wednesday.

While La Liga leaders Barcelona will present this Manchester United side with a formidable challenge there are tactics the English giants can use to give themselves a chance of success. Here, we at Tribal Football break down how they should approach this week's first leg.

Barcelona are renowned for their quality with the ball, which might lead some to suggest it would be wise if Manchester United applied a high press and tried to take away some of the Catalan side's possession. However, the reality is the pressure would probably be bypassed and the space behind would be ruthlessly exploited by Lionel Messi and Co.

Instead, Solskjaer should set his team up to surrender possession. The priority for United in the home leg has to be to keep a clean sheet, or at least minimise the attacking threat of potent opposition, to avoid conceding away goals and give themselves a chance for the return at the Camp Nou in a week's time. By allowing Barcelona the ball, the Premier League side can focus completely on retaining their defensive shape and reducing the time and space available to their opponents in the final third.

Atletico Madrid are one of the best teams in the world when it comes to defending, and their performance against Barcelona last weekend can give Solskjaer something to think about.



Despite being down to 10 men fairly early on due to Diego Costa's sending off, Diego Simeone's men stayed organised and compact without the ball and kept the score level until the 85th minute, when a Luis Suarez strike broke the deadlock. Despite having one less man and just 36 per cent of possession, Atletico competed with Barca purely through controlled defensive play.

Solskjaer didn't have much success with a 3-5-1-1 system in the recent 2-1 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he may want to persist with a similar shape for this Wednesday's game. By selecting three centre-backs and three central midfielders he can look to get numbers centrally and close off the central and inside channels, forcing Barcelona wide. A low 3-5-2 block could also look to congest the space between the lines for Messi to roam in.

No player can afford to be uninvolved defensively if Manchester United are to win this tie, so whoever is picked up front must put in a shift even when the ball moves beyond them. They should be instructed to press backwards so that, when Barca do go wide to their attack-minded full-backs, there is no easy inside pass to Ivan Rakitic or Arthur.

Another of the major benefits United can gain by surrendering possession is avoiding Barcelona's counter-attacks. By refusing to compete for the ball and keeping a low defensive block, they won't get drawn out and exposed in defensive transition. The simple reality is that – with the pace and precision of Messi, Suarez and Jordi Alba – the Catalans are even more clinical on the counter than they are in organised possession. Only Manchester City have scored more on the break than them in this season's Champions League, and Tottenham Hotspur felt the full force of this threat at Wembley earlier in the campaign.




Barcelona tend to attack in a rough 3-4-3 shape. Their full-backs act more as wing-backs, with both pushing on down their flanks during the offensive phase. These movements are enabled by Sergio Busquets dropping between, or close to, the two centre-backs. This shape could present opportunities for Manchester United in attacking transition.

When they do regain possession, Solskjaer's men must stay focused on their clean sheet and commit few players forward for counter-attacks. Rather than getting a good number of runners, their aim should be to isolate one or two players up in 1v1 instances. Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku have the upper hand against Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet, so should look to drift out into the wider areas to get into situations of isolation against their slower, weaker individual opponents.

By defending deep, congesting the central areas and the space between the lines, avoiding opposition counter-attacks and breaking directly by getting two forwards into good positions, Manchester United can look to secure a clean sheet and possibly even sneak a win to take with them to Barcelona.

Blair Newman
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Blair Newman

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