PSG 3-2 Barcelona | One of the Marquee clashes of the group stage would be the two games between PSG and Barca. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi all ruled out due to injury, the Parisian side were definitely on the back foot and were second favourites for the clash. However a performance of tactical discipline and heart saw them emerge triumphant in a five goal thriller.
PSG: Sirigu, Van der Wiel, Marquinhos, Luiz, Maxwell, Verratti (Cabaye 71′), Motta, Matuidi, Moura (Bahebeck 90′), Cavani, Pastore (Chantome 86’)
Barcelona: Ter Stegen, Alves (Sandro 83′), Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba, Rakitic (Xavi 69′), Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro (Munir 62′), Messi, Neymar.
Goals: Luiz 10’, Verratti 26′, Matuidi 54′ // Messi 11’, Neymar 56′
We all expected Barca to set up the way they have for a good decade now. The real question was how PSG would set themselves up. Paris Saint German adopted a manner which has become essentially the norm to combat tiki-taka football. A sharp counter attacking 4-3-3 with a hardworking, dynamic and disciplined midfield behind a pacey three pronged attack ready to spring on the break is one of the simplest yet most devastatingly effective strategies. In the absence of talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the expectation was Edinson Cavani would slot back into his preferred number nine role. However, he began on the left hand side of the three pronged attack, with the obvious purpose of serving as a direct threat threat on the counter, cutting in on his favoured right foot. Laurent Blanc selected an enterprising midfield three of the box-to-box shuttler Matuidi, Anchor man Thiago Motta and deep lying playmaker Verratti. The fullbacks too played interesting roles, as Maxwell and Van Der Wiel were compact and narrow while they defended, and were fearless attackers too getting chalk on their boots ( Explained in depth a little later).
PSG’s calm centre-backs and complete full-backs
Barcelona’s false nine formation depends on one key battle i.e, as to how the opposition centre-backs deal with Messi dropping in between the lines. The sheer doubt and confusion created in the centre-backs’ minds as to whether they should drop back or push ahead causing chaos to the defensive shape. Many pundits and experts alike were very wary of how David Luiz would cope. Despite his many admirable qualities, 50 million pound man Luiz has never been awed for his positioning and decision making. Rushes of blood to the head often see him charge out of the defensive structure leaving gaping holes for the opposition to exploit with ease. The greatest example of this can be seen in Germany’s 7-1 massacring of Brazil . Messi was the clear cut favourite to win this battle on the night.
David Luiz quite surprisingly was pretty disciplined through the game. By his standards, the “Sideshow Bob” doppelganger was incident free, bar a crazy run down the left wing after winning the ball from his own penalty area. He was relatively calm and composed with his decision making spot on. Stastically, he had a big fat “zero” number of tackles. But in retrospect, that might have been for the better. The biggest danger against Barca around your own penalty box is to give them that inch of space to run into. Holding your ground and jockeying is not necessarily the worst decision you can make, especially when you have the healthy pace of David Luiz.
Young Marquinhos, Luiz’s partner at the back is very much a similar player to Luiz himself, utilizing his fantastic pace. But tactically, he played a very interesting and different role of essentially a sweeper. While Luiz would stay slightly ahead and provide a wave of closing down and blocking, Marqhinous would set himself up as what you’d call as the last man, denying space behind the defensive line.He was also used as an excellent ball distributor, On the occasions David Luiz was beat, the young Brazillian used his fantastic pace to run in and making vital tackles and clearances, the best and most symbolic of which came when he slid in amazingly to deny Jordi Alba in the 81st minute. The sheer emotion he displayed afterwards was every bit justified. He had just put in one of the best performances of his blossoming career.
Together the two Brazillians put in an admirable defensive shift and otherwise. In fact on the offensive front, both of them completed over 40 passes trying to pick out Lucas and Cavani in quick breaks.
Note the number of clearances & passes in the above graphic.
While facing a team like Barcelona, the standard idea is to make your fullbacks play narrow and compact, forcing them to play out wide and whip crosses in. Since Messi, Neymar and Pedro aren’t exactly blessed with the height of Peter Crouch, winning a header seems a one in a thousand chance. Out of Alves and Alba’s some 20 crosses combined, barely 2 connected and just one was converted that too after a few deflections. It’s a ploy used to great success by a number of teams to frustrate Barca. But normally, you’d see the fullbacks just sit deep, without pushing out and contributing in an attacking respect in fear of conceding space behind them. Laurent Blanc though, put a different spin on things. In the game, he not only encouraged PSG’s fullbacks Maxwell and Van der Wiel to get forward, he used them as one of his main attacking outputs. Most attacks would see them carry the ball forward and distribute it by crosses or passes to teammates. While the midfield three and the three attackers would be hounded mercilessly by Barca’s famed wolfpack like pressing, in theory the fullbacks were the only ones that had space to carry the ball forward considering the Blaugarana front three weren’t often too keen on their defensive responsibilities. As a result, the fullbacks saw much of the ball. Van der Wiel in particular was fantastic in bursting up and down the flank and was a massive attacking threat to the Barca fullbacks. PSG scored their vital third goal as a result of this, with a fantastic crosses slotted home by Matuidi.
While this aggressive strategy allowed PSG an attacking path, it’s repercussions at times were quite risky. While the first Barca goal was a splendid display of tiki taka at it’s finest which there was little that can be done about, it must be noted that Van der Wiel was the one who was dragged out of position and allowing Iniesta to run in and set up Messi. The second goal though, an unchallenged cross which ping ponged across defenders and into the path of Neymar, could have definitely been avoided. Barca never had the other dimension to combat this set up.
The Thiago Motta & friends show
It’s safe to say PSG’s midfield three all had great games. There’s Marco Veratti who passed the ball around calmly under immense Barca pressure and was even treated with a sneaky goal off a corner. Then there’s Blaise Matuidi, a man who was simply everywhere. You’d see him make a crunching tackle while covering at left back one second, and the next he’d be bursting into the opposition box. With his Iron lungs somehow powering him on, he too scored a fantastic goal which turned out to be the winner. But the best of them all was stand in skipper Thiago Motta. He truly was phenomenal throughout the game making over 8 tackles and 60 passes. His purposeful passing was fantastic in switching play from flank to flank and helping launch quick counter attacks with cutting through balls. If it hadn’t been for Edinson ”Blast it over the Bar” Cavani he would have had a couple more assists to his name adding to the set piece he took. The key part of the performance is that he never gave the ball away under Barca pressure. Instead of being overwhelmed by Barca’s pressing, he chose wisely to play simple passes and hit longer balls to Lucas and Pastore. All in all it was one of the most complete midfield performances.
Leo Messi: M.I.A
Different team, same issue. Leo Messi might just be the greatest player of our generation or otherwise. But an unfortunately recurring roadblock he is faced with when facing a highly pragmatic team like PSG is that he tends to be pushed away from the final third. Unable to get the right service or space to run into (like he was denied by Luiz and Marqhinous), he has a habit of dropping way too deep in a bid to pick the ball and run ahead. With a strong midfield presence like PSG had, he is forced to instead lay off simple passes at a distance from goal. The Leo Messi we all know is at his best when he’s in the final third, swooping in and around defenders, terrorizing them. In fact, he was at his usual best for most of the first half, even scoring an absolutely sublime goal.
The second half saw PSG get more defensive as they tried to conserve the goal advantage they already had. With the midfield beginning to drop deeper and deeper in a bid to cut off space between the lines, Messi was forced out of his habitat and made to drop deeper for the ball. Barca’s focal point was essentially distorted. In all honesty, Inesta and Rakitic both didn’t have very bad games from a creative perspective. They just weren’t able to create headway with any of the attacking players. Neymar didn’t really spring to life until he scored his goal and Pedro was looking lost most of them game after being denied of any space in the channels he thrives on. With Leo Messi only further trying to create by dropping deep and there was no one in to finish however good the ball. Hence Barca never really looked like breaking the deadlock.
Where do they go from here?
For PSG, this will go down as one of their greatest victories ever. For a team without their three key players in Zlatan, Thiago Silva and Lavezzi ,they had tremendous amounts of self belief to execute their plans and see the game through.
For Barca though, after a bright start to life under Luis Enrique, reality has hit them hard once again.The days of fear and invincibility are long gone, with every team now believing they have more than just a slim chance of beating them. Old problems of defending set-pieces and one dimensional play remain unsolved and will definitely need addressing if they are to seriously contend for this year’s Champions League trophy.
Written by Nikhil Krishna
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