How Manchester United should line up against Barcelona ahead of Newcastle clash
Manchester United’s players hadn’t vacated the Old Trafford pitch by the time Erik ten Hag was gesturing with his arms aloft at the Stretford End following victory against Leicester City on Sunday.
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The Red Devils had just moved to within five points of leaders Arsenal in the Premier League but the Dutchman’s attention had already switched to Barcelona, and he was making a call of arms to supporters in the west stand to ask them to act as United’s 12th man this Thursday.
The pulsating first leg at the Camp Nou was a fitting new edition to a fixture steeped in history between two of Europe’s biggest sides, and fully befitting of a grander occasion than a Europa League play-off.
With Erik ten Hag and Xaxi reviving their respective clubs, it won’t be long until these two return to the Champions League but Thursday’s second-leg is the current reality for these two giants of European football.
For United, it’s the second game of a ten-day spell that sees the Red Devils play in four different competitions. Sunday’s win against Leicester resurrected the club’s slim title hopes but they face Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup final less than 72 hours after playing Barcelona, with an FA Cup clash against West Ham on the horizon next Wednesday.
Ten Hag’s seen the positives in United’s fixture pile-up, insisting that players ‘prefer to play than to train’ but it’s a headache for the Dutchman to have to manage his squad with a game every three days.
Though he’ll claim otherwise, Ten Hag will have to have one eye on Sunday’s Wembley showpiece, where United can end their six-year trophy drought against the Magpies.
With that in mind, his selection against Barcelona must cater for both games.
Wan-Bissaka & Varane to return
It was an indication of Ten Hag’s thinking that Raphael Varane was rested for the clash against Leicester last weekend. The Frenchman has been an integral part to a backline that’s kept 15 clean sheets in 34 matches this term but his minutes must be managed and he’ll need to be at his brilliant best alongside Lisandro Martinez to keep out Robert Lewandowski.
Varane’s return means Luke Shaw can shift to his orthodox left-back position and on the right, the more defensively-minded Aaron Wan-Bissaka is better suited than Diogo Dalot, who will be needed to breakdown Newcastle on Sunday.
Save Sabitzer for Wembley
United may have collected seven points from nine during Casemiro’s three-match suspension in the Premier League, but they have still looked a shadow of their former selves without the Brazilian in midfield.
The former Real Madrid star has been exceptional since moving to Old Trafford and he displayed all of his experience and nous with another fine performance at the Camp Nou.
United simply cannot afford to go without Casemiro, even if there would be a slight temptation to keep him fresh for Newcastle.
The bigger question mark is over who partners him in midfield. Fred’s performance at the Camp Nou last week was a condensed summary of his time at Old Trafford, with the Brazilian struggling in the first half before growing into the game in the second and providing a key assist for Rashford.
Nights like Thursday require a calm head and Fred is guilty of allowing the occasion to get to him. But his off-the-ball efficiency and expertise in the press will be needed against the Spaniards.
On the flip side, Sabitzer’s big-game experience could be better utilised at Wembley and the Austrian possesses a superior passing range to Fred, which could hurt Newcastle.
Weghorst to keep no.10 position
It raised eyebrows at the Camp Nou last Thursday when Ten Hag started Wout Weghorst in an attacking midfield position but he had excelled there in the last 20 minutes of United’s win against Leeds just four days earlier.
Playing the Dutchman in a deeper position allows United to play Rashford centrally, meaning less running for the in-form England striker and a greater threat of runs in behind. That’s perfect for the likes of Bruno Fernandes, who put in his best performance of the season from the right flank in Sunday’s win against the Foxes.
Alejandro Garnacho’s form has been up and down in recent weeks, as is to be expected from an 18-year-old winger. But a game against Barcelona at Old Trafford is precisely the type of occasion that the confident Argentine would thrive on and United will need pace on the flanks with Rashford up front.
Jadon Sancho’s return to form has been timely, what with injuries to Antony and Anthony Martial. The England winger scored from the bench during the 3-0 win against Leicester and he did so from an attacking midfield position, which affords him more options on the ball and the ability to go both ways at opponents.
But with Barcelona expected to dominate possession, Sancho could be a better option from the bench and he’s more suited to playing against a side like Newcastle, who will likely line up with a five-man defence at Wembley.
Antony is set to return to the matchday squad after missing the last three fixtures in all competitions but the Brazilian should be eased back into action.
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