One of the biggest decisions facing Unai Emery ahead of tomorrow’s Europa League Final is the question of who to start up front. It seems that he will continue with the 442 shape he has implemented in recent weeks and throughout the knockout stages, and the question lies with who should partner Gerard Moreno in the front two.
On paper, it is a choice between Villarreal’s record signing Paco Alcácer, or a two-time Europa League winner, who is admittedly past his best. Carlos Bacca netted twice in the 2015 Europa League final against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk under Emery, although at the age of 35, his level is such that until a few weeks ago, he would not have even been considered when thinking of the final.
So what changed? Villarreal fans are suddenly very divided over who to start out of Paco Alcácer or Bacca, and recent events have caused this divide, a significant one being Bacca’s performance against his former club Sevilla. Villarreal ran riot, winning 4-0 in a stunning victory, and Bacca was the man of the match with a hattrick. Meanwhile, Paco is now 7 games without a goal, and has had a slightly disappointing season in the league, with 6 goals and 4 assists in 19 starts. His form in the Europa League is more impressive, with 6 goals in 6 starts.
When comparing pure numbers, Bacca has played significantly less than Paco, with 1217 minutes in La Liga and Europa, to Paco’s 2017. This means that with 8 goals, less than Paco’s 12, Bacca averages 0.59 goals per 90 minutes, whilst Paco averages a lower 0.54. It should also be noted that 2 of Alcácer’s goals came from the penalty spot.
These numbers indicate that both strikers have had fairly similar campaigns in terms of output on the face of it, but whilst neither stand out in terms of goal threat, they both differ in what kind of difficulty they can impose on the Manchester United back four. Club record signing centre back Harry Maguire is missing through injury, meaning that the likely partnership selected by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf. Neither ex-submarine Bailly nor Lindelöf are as strong in the air as Maguire, but both possess more speed.
If Maguire was to play, then the more mobile Paco Alcácer would have been the obvious choice; whilst Carlos Bacca can be physically imposing, when up against Maguire there remained a risk of him being dominated out of the game. Paco’s intelligent movement could have been used to find space in behind Maguire, but Bacca’s physicality could cause more problems for Lindelöf in particular. Bailly and Lindelöf both stand at 1.87m tall, with Maguire significantly taller at 1.94m. Bacca measures up at 1.81m whilst Paco is the shortest, at 1.75m.
Although Bacca has lost some pace, and may not last 90 minutes, he can cause problems for the centre backs which allow Gerard Moreno more space to attack the ball in the box. There would have been no point trying to win a physical battle with Maguire, but against a partnership which looked very shaky in United’s loss to Liverpool, using Bacca as a ‘battering ram’ could not only create more space, but maybe even force an error.
Overall I do prefer Paco Alcácer as a striker, and I think he receives a lot of criticism, and at the same time am not keen on Carlos Bacca having a long term future with the club, but given the respective form of both players, as well as thinking tactically, starting Bacca could be a gamble worth taking for this Europa League final.