Red Devils Continue Strong Pre-Season with 3-1 Win Over European Champions

Rich North was in San Jose for United’s 3-1 win over Barcelona. Here is his take on the game…

As we awaited kick-off, United’s team was announced – no Angel Di Maria in the staring XI or on the subs bench, which was of great disappointment to me. Regardless of his form or performance in the latter half of last season, he is an undoubted talent who should enhance Manchester United or indeed any other club. Just ask Carlo Ancelotti.

Despite this, United fielded a strong team with Wayne Rooney spearheading a front three, with Juan Mata and Memphis Depay either side. David De Gea was reinstated – a welcome sight for all United fans, behind a defence of Darmian, Jones, Blind and Shaw. The midfield of Schneiderlin, Carrick and Young seemed a strange balance to me.

Shortly after kick off, I realised that the 4-3-3 I expected to see actuality operated as an orthodox 4-4-2 in possession, with Depay and Rooney as the front two. When United didn’t have the ball, it was a 4-4-1-1, with Depay operating in the hole.

It was also immediately apparent that a fluid passing game would be difficult to implement with the pitch appearing heavily sanded. This would be of more benefit to United than Barcelona, despite Louis Van Gaal’s preference for possession-based football.

Barcelona were the first team to see any goalmouth action though.  Some good build up play down United’s left between Iniesta and Adriano resulted in Sergi Roberto being put through on goal. De Gea stood tall and refused to commit himself, which forced Roberto to attempt to put the ball through his legs. De Gea anticipated the Catalunyan’s decision, reacted, and ended up saving comfortably before clearing the danger.

Almost straight away, United forced a corner which Ashley Young swung dead onto the penalty spot.  Barcelona elected to man mark all United players, except for arguably the best offensive header of a ball in Europe; Wayne Rooney duly accepted their sloppiness and placed his header into the corner of the net. United 1-0 Barcelona.

The remaining 35 minutes were edged by Barcelona, with rumoured United target Pedro and the indefatigable Luis Suarez a particular nuisance. The latter hit the post twice, once with a free kick from just outside the area and the other a turn and swivel onto his left from a similar range.

The partnerships of Jones and Blind, and in turn Blind and Shaw, would seem the most pressing area to address for the remainder of pre-season. The aggression and commitment that Jones exhibits is admirable but also smacks of naivety.  At 23 years old with over 150 games at the top level (including 17 England caps) he really should be adding an element of canniness to his game. Without this I’m not sure if he’s a long term United centre half. Alongside him Blind has the organisation and canniness in abundance to compensate for his lack of physicality (in defender’s terms). He’s also comfortable with Van Gaal’s philosophy of slow build up play from the back. However, he and Shaw were exposed numerous times by Adriano and Pedro, which must have concerned the Dutchman.  With Smalling and Rojo waiting in the wings, and United targeting defensive reinforcements, it will be interesting to see whether this trio line up together come August 8th.

New signing Darmian went about his defensive duties unassumingly, and he linked up well with Mata on the right hand side (GIF). He seems a far more manageable personality than Rafael, and a far more reliable one to boot.

At the front end of the pitch, Ashley Young rarely gave the ball away and looked a threat down the left hand side, where he was ably supported by Luke Shaw on his forays forward.

Rooney was his usual self – always in the game, looking to get on the ball and make things happen.

The player that will need to raise his game based on his first half showing is Morgan Schneiderlin, who was dispossessed a couple of times in dangerous positions.

The second half brought with it a raft of changes for both sides. Champions League final goal-scorer Ivan Rakitic was introduced at half time and he imposed himself immediately, but breaking down the United rearguard was proving just as infuriating as in the first half, with Barca’s best moves ending in a disallowed goal and more woodwork action.

On 60 minutes, United changed the whole team. On came Johnstone, Valencia, Smalling, McNair, Blackett, Herrera, Pereira, Fellaini, Lingard, Wilson and Januzaj, and the new boys needed only 5 minutes to double United’s lead.  Blackett found himself racing clear down the left hand side, and he calmly cut back to Herrera who laid onto Lingard to calmly slot home.

The game became more disjointed as Barca made more changes of their own, but there were some highlights, including some exquisite interplay between Herrera and Pereira, and some good movement from Januzaj, who looked a real threat.

Barca pulled one goal back through a nicely taken left-foot volley by Rafinha, but then almost straight from kick off United restored their two goal advantage via a well-taken finish by Januzaj, who was looking increasingly comfortable in the central striker position.

All in all, this was a good continuation of United’s pre-season preparation, but a bit of perspective is worthwhile. This was Barcelona shorn of Messi, Neymar and Mascherano, whose pre-season campaign is two weeks behind that of United’s. Beating European Champions at any time isn’t bad though is it?