It certainly wasn’t their best night, but the circumstances could have fared much worse. Manchester United welcomed Barcelona to Old Trafford Wednesday evening for the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final. Still marred from a shock loss against Wolves in the Premier League last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were looking to make a convincing argument as to why they rightfully deserved to advance to the semi-finals.
Even a so-so performance from Lionel Messi couldn’t inspire United to land on the scoresheet, as a Luke Shaw own goal in the 12th minute gave the visitors an early advantage in the contentious matchup. Consequently, this makes Ernesto Valverde’s side the favorites when the Red Devils travel to Camp Nou next week for the second leg.
Here are three things we learned from Manchester United’s 1-0 loss against Barcelona.
United’s roster simply unimpressive
Despite possessing the likes of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial on the first-team, it’s clear United’s roster as a whole is seriously deficient in talent that can perform in matches of this caliber. Pogba was uninspiring in the midfield, making way for Scott McTominay to have one of his best performance in a United shirt. In the back, Ashley Young appeared just a few seconds short of each pass or challenge, which triggered moves of desperation for the veteran.
He rightfully deserves credit for returning to improved form, but Romelu Lukaku had a night to forget under the bright lights of Old Trafford. The Belgian never seemed to rival Gerard Pique’s skill, and his massive frame that has often served him well in previous matches was his biggest detriment Wednesday night. Nonetheless, it was Lukaku’s intellect that scored him a contract with England’s most successful club, and if given the chance redeem himself, its imperative the 25-year-old must employ that expertise when both sides meet again next week.
Set piece chances wasted match after match
In the 180 minutes of Champions League knockout stage football played at Old Trafford, the Red Devils have only registered one shot on target. It’s an abysmal number that contributes to much of the criticism United has faced when discussing some of their more disappointing performances. Rashford began the evening with a nearly precise free kick that lacked the slightest amount of curl to open the scoring, but after that provided few flashes up brilliance up top.
With how efficient Barcelona are in the back, the only way United can truthfully score next week is on a set piece. As it stands, United lack a dedicated set piece specialist capable of firing it home when necessary. Juan Mata has normally excelled, but these days it appears the Spaniard has transitioned into the role of a United ambassador rather than a first-team playmaker.
Now that he has assumed permanent responsibilities of the club, it’s imperative Solskjaer dedicate the summer to identifying which current or incoming player can embody the expertise of one David Beckham and save his side from enduring yet another missed opportunity to land on the scoresheet.
All hope is not lost
Wednesday’s final score gives Barcelona the advantage in next week’s rematch, but United still have a chance to shock their rivals if certain things go their way. Solskjaer must revert back to the attacking style of play that separated him from his predecessor, which means relinquishing a conservative mindset against far superior squads. Lukaku must be reserved as a substitute, and starting Martial in place of him or Rashford could be the difference in United’s Champions League campaign continuing past next week.
With Shaw suspended for the second leg, it could be time for Bailly to return as a left centre-back. While the 3-5-2 formation was risky, it seemed to keep Barcelona’s attack quiet for a considerable portion of the match. Traveling to Camp Nou knowing you must secure a win to advance is a big challenge, but fans can only hope Manchester United deliver another memorable showing on Barcelona’s pitch similar to the one Solskjaer and his mates delivered two decades ago.