europa league knockout round playoffs, february 23 2023
Lewandowski (18 pen)
Manchester United booked their place in the last 16 of the Europa League with a hard-fought but ultimately deserved victory over Barcelona at Old Trafford. The visitors took the lead through a Robert Lewandowski penalty early in the first half, after a clumsy Bruno Fernandes challenge on Alejandro Balde. Erik ten Hag replaced the ineffective Wout Weghorst with Antony at half-time, however, and the change reaped instant reward when Fred equalised with a crisp finish from the edge of the area. Antony himself scored the eventual winner with an even better finish into the far corner 20 minutes from time, with United earning a last-16 tie against Real Betis at the expense of Xavi's La Liga leaders.
"It was a magnificent night," said Ten Hag after the game. "I think this is another step because when you can beat Barcelona – one of the best teams in this moment in Europe – your belief can be really strong. Everyone has a such a strong belief in this team, and you can see it with the subs. They are bringing energy and quality and a different dynamic in games."
SHOTS / ON TARGET
ATTACKS INTO AREA
EXPECTED GOALS (XG)
Manager Erik ten Hag set Manchester United up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Casemiro and Fred as a double pivot behind Jadon Sancho in the number 10 position. During periods of possession, however, Sancho would drop around Casemiro, with Fred then advancing. When United built around Barcelona’s out-of-possession two-man top line of Robert Lewandowski and Sergi Roberto, Lisandro Martínez widened to the left, allowing Luke Shaw to push forward from left-back, often alongside the very wide Marcus Rashford. Build-up or transitions on this left side often led to crosses or switches of play to Bruno Fernandes, who operated wide on the right (below) and looked to exploit the high positioning of Barcelona left-back Alejandro Balde. This proved United’s best route to goal in the first half, with Fernandes missing a glorious chance after being played in by Casemiro with the score still at 0-0.
Roberto continued to narrow from the Barcelona left to press the United centre-backs alongside Lewandowski. As a result, right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka emerged as a key option for United to progress down their right (below) without the need for switches from the left. Raphinha worked back to track Shaw’s advances down the United left, but Barcelona’s midfield three seemed happy to stay central and not cover the space Wan-Bissaka had to advance and connect with Fernandes on the right. When this happened, central forward Wout Weghorst moved towards the ball, on to Barcelona’s closest centre-back, to link with runners and provide a presence in the penalty area.
A goal down at half-time, Ten Hag removed Weghorst. Rashford became the central forward, with Sancho moving to the left, Fernandes attacking as the main number 10 between Barcelona’s lines, and substitute Antony now introduced on the right. For all their right-sided progress in the first half, United lacked a dangerous one-on-one presence, and had struggled to connect and combine in close spaces. These changes had an impact early in the second half, however. Sancho and Fernandes combined between the lines before Fernandes found Fred (below) to equalise from the edge of the penalty area.
As Barcelona pushed forward, United were able to take advantage of the large spaces in behind an increasingly high line (below) – particularly with the pace offered by Rashford, Antony and Sancho, who was later replaced by Alejandro Garnacho. Antony had one excellent chance to put the hosts ahead from a direct pass over the top, before another ball in behind by Martínez led to the move that ended with the Brazilian finishing brilliantly for what proved to be the tie’s winning goal. United saw the game out in a low block, with Casemiro and Fred offering protection in front of the back four.
Xavi set his Barcelona team up in a 4-3-3 shape, with Sergi Roberto and Raphinha operating as the wide attackers outside central forward Robert Lewandowski. Roberto soon moved inside, however, to add an extra player in midfield and attempt to overload the United midfield three (below). He was initially followed there by Aaron Wan-Bissaka, although in time Fred took on that responsibility – this in turn stopped the Brazilian from marking one of Barcelona’s deeper midfield pivots, as both Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong dropped towards the ball. The visitors were able to find the spare man in midfield in the opening exchanges, with their early pressure leading to the penalty from which Lewandowski put them ahead.
Andreas Christensen looked to drive into midfield from centre-back, avoiding the press of Wout Weghorst and contributing to the Barcelona overload in midfield – particularly as Roberto maintained his inside movements from the left. One of Busquets or De Jong would drop alongside Ronald Araújo when Christensen did advance, with rotations and build-up on the left allowing Raphinha to isolate Luke Shaw on the Barcelona right (below). The visitors’ best play came from this approach, with the Brazilian repeatedly receiving in space, cutting inside and working attempts on goal. They failed to register enough shots on target to truly trouble United, however, and were unable to build on their opening goal.
In the second half, Barcelona started to look to play over United’s mid-block. Balls into the midfield three were increasingly broken up by Casemiro and Fred, and with Wan-Bissaka still being pulled inside by Roberto’s movement, space opened up for the visitors to look direct to Alejandro Balde’s advancing runs from left-back (below). This proved the most effective approach for a Barça team looking to retake the lead after United’s equaliser.
Xavi introduced both Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres midway through the second half, with both narrowing inside as the full-backs overlapped to provide the team’s width. De Jong and Busquets continued to support underneath the team’s attacks, with Franck Kessié advancing in central areas (below) to offer more presence around Lewandowski. Despite their increased numbers in advanced areas, however, the visitors offered only limited threat in the closing stages. Their early departure from both the Champions League and Europa League represents a desperately disappointing European season for the La Liga leaders.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice