How Erik ten Hag changed the game for Manchester United vs Barcelona

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag before the match in the Premier League.

Reuters/Peter Cziborra

Erik ten Hag was at it again. The Dutch genius’ in game management left yet another rival manager scratching their head, as Manchester United secured a 2-1 comeback win over Barcelona to advance to the Europa League round of 16 4-3 on aggregate.

Apart from the opening quarter, the Red Devils’ aggressive approach out of possession didn’t trouble Barca much. If anything, their urgency played into the visitor’s hands.

Barcelona grabbed an early lead through Robert Lewandowski, who beat David de Gea from the spot after Bruno Fernandes brought down Alejandro Balde inside the box in his eagerness to win back the ball.

After their 18th-minute lead, Xavi’s men got even more comfortable, with United’s pressing in Barcelona’s defensive third proving ineffective due to Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong’s technical abilities.

As has been the case several times this season, United came out a different side after the break courtesy of Ten Hag’s changes – both in personnel and tactics.

The 53-year-old seemingly dropped the idea of pressing Barcelona high up the field and replaced Wout Weghorst with Antony. The Brazilian’s presence out wide stretched the pitch, opening up space for Fred to run into and score the equaliser.

Further, Antony’s threat also forced Balde to sit back, and whenever Barcelona tried to press, they risked leaving the United winger in plenty of space. Minutes after Fred’s goal, Raphael Varane found Antony’s run with Balde nowhere to be seen. It took Andreas Christensen’s desperate tackle to stop a quick second goal.

But Barcelona’s resolve didn’t last long, as Ten Hag threw more punches with another substitution – Alejandro Garnacho. The Argentine’s directness didn’t allow the opposing defence to rest. Six minutes later United made it 2-1.

After a brilliant bit of play from Luke Shaw and Fernandes, Garnacho saw his shot blocked, but United’s counter-pressing was so good that the ball never went out of the danger area and eventually fell in front of Antony, who coolly placed it past Ter Stegen and into the far bottom corner.

Meanwhile, Ten Hag’s counterpart, Xavi was slow in playing his cards and by the time he reacted, the tempo had already shifted at the Theatre of Dreams.