United’s ugly run of losses continued in the UEFA Champions League in a 1-0 first leg quarterfinal loss to Barcelona. Despite the loss, however, United once again displayed a will to attack and create chances. Barcelona, who are heavily favored in the tie, only looked in control of the match very early and very late, and scored only through a Luke Shaw own goal, forced by a Luis Suarez pass towards Philippe Coutinho. Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, though ultimately ineffective, were active throughout their time on the pitch, and were aided by good midfield play. Scott McTominay and Fred in particular had very good games, arguably their best in a United shirt, and they are proving their worth to their new manager and to fans who quickly labelled them as lost causes. This recent run of good performances should not cross central midfield off the list of needs this summer, but McTominay and Fred should absolutely be a part of United’s squad as they hunt for a top 4 spot and European glory.
Fred’s game by numbers vs. Barcelona:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 10, 2019
87% pass accuracy
15 ball recoveries
3/3 long balls
3 shots (all blocked)
2 fouls suffered
2 tackles won
Lead Man Utd in: successful passes, final third passes & recoveries. pic.twitter.com/8UiiQwOWfl
Scott McTominay’s game by numbers vs. Barcelona:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 10, 2019
100% defensive aerials won
100% tackles won
80% pass accuracy
5 ball recoveries
3 fouls in middle third
Back-to-back standout UCL games against PSG & Juventus. pic.twitter.com/6qrQm1PEED
McTominay and Fred gave United a huge boost in midfield against Barcelona. Arthur and Sergio Busquets struggled to give Barca any control, and Ivan Rakitic was nowhere to be seen for much of the match. Their contributions were matched by brilliant defending from Gerard Pique and company, but United looked the more dangerous team for most of the game because of the midfield’s ability to isolate Barca’s attackers and quickly regain possession. Paul Pogba may not have been at his best, but he hardly ever had to worry about being caught out going forward because of McTominay and Fred’s work as a defensive screen. Pogba was able to get involved in the attack and try to create chances for Lukaku and Rashford. United’s biggest issue was certainly the wing play and execution in the final third.
Diogo Dalot out on the left did not work out well. It never seemed very clear whether he was meant to play as another full back or a wide forward, but either way was a non-factor. On the other wing, Ashley Young had plenty of room to go forward from the back, but his contributions in the attack were anything but effective. Stray passes, miscommunication, and poor crossing further cut off United’s forwards from meaningful involvement. United failed to capitalize on having the majority of possession and creating the most chances. In fact, they didn’t have a single effort on target the entire match. United have scored only a handful of goals over the last few matches, and have just the one win over Watford in their last 5 in all competitions.
The comeback in Paris just last month serves as a warning that this United team is capable of producing the spectacular, but their form since that game has gone from a couple explainable losses to an actual bad stretch of results that threaten United’s hopes for the rest of the season. Arsenal has recovered from their annual mid season crisis to strengthen their own top 4 bid while Chelsea have also found their feet and have bounced back into third for the time being. Solskjaer and his team have only 6 league games to get back into the top 4, and face a tough 2nd leg at the Nou Camp to overcome the deficit against the Catalans. With Ander Herrera’s fitness and future both shrouded in uncertainty and Nemanja Matić’s clearly deteriorating form, McTominay and Fred are showing they can be relied on. United just have to take advantage of it.
The health of Manchester United’s attackers will be crucial down the stretch, but in theory it should only be a matter of time before the goals start flowing again if McTominay and Fred can continue to anchor the midfield successfully. Dalot as a left winger may not be the way going forward, but a healthy return of the Martial-Rashford-Lingard front 3 with Pogba in behind may not be far off. Martial and Lingard aren’t 100% yet, and Rashford and Lukaku don’t seem fully fit yet either, but with only minor setbacks it shouldn’t be long until Solskjaer has all of his attackers at his disposal once again. With the Manchester Derby and a visit from Chelsea just over the horizon it will be a welcome sight.