A lot has happened since the Valentine’s day massacre in Paris. Barcelona obviously endured heavy criticism; the players and Luis Enrique were booed after winning against Leganes; it’s announced Enrique is leaving at the end of the season; the fans sing asking Enrique to stay; somewhere amongst that Barcelona switch to a 3-4-3 and start playing well again. A roller coaster couple of weeks that can be only be levelling out with the return of the Champions League. At 4-0, the tie is a foregone conclusion. Might as well not even bother watching.
Enrique continued with the recently successful 3-4-3, Lionel Messi looking for space at the tip of a midfield diamond but regularly pushing up alongside Luis Suarez to form a 3-3-4, while Unai Emery set up Paris Saint-Germain in the same shape as the first leg, with Thiago Silva and Lucas Moura coming in for Presnel Kimpembe and Angel di Maria respectively.
Gone was the heavy Parisian pressing of the first leg. With a 4-0 lead, they were happy to sit back and force Barcelona to break them down. Their defensive and midfield lines stayed compact vertically and horizontally and they paid close attention to the Barcelona players: Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti blocked passes into the feet of the midfielders, while Edinson Cavani followed Sergio Busquets around and Thomas Meunier stuck to Neymar high up the pitch away from the rest of his backline to ensure the Brazilian didn’t pick the ball up in space.
Due to the way this essentially handed the game to Barca, it would be easy to say that this strategy is where they lost, but in truth it worked fairly well. While Barcelona had complete control of the ball and looked on song, they also generally failed to create clear cut chances as the gaps they had to target were so small it was easy to overhit passes and allow PSG to clear up. Also, admittedly perhaps because the centre-backs had so much time on the ball, Barcelona were incredibly keen to go long from the off. Despite his frame, Suarez is one of the best in the world at scrapping for the ball off direct passes, so while he was his usual determined self, keeping everyone behind the ball meant there wasn’t really anything clear for Barca to aim at. Pushing up may have given PSG more of a footing in the game, but it also would have meant conceding more space close to their goal against arguably the man you would least like to have it and the pressing wouldn’t necessarily have even worked against a team who displayed they were more than happy to go straight from back to front.
The flipside of this was that there was never any respite for PSG. Busquets appeared unfazed by Cavani’s marking, positioning himself quite high in midfield to give the centre-backs more space without really looking to collect it himself. Due to this, you could easily say (ignoring that Busquets would then be free to do as he pleased) that Cavani could be left up front to give PSG an outlet, yet what would this really have achieved? He’s not particularly quick and even if he was Barcelona would be likely to recover with three defenders. If he was able to win the ball against them, who would he hold it up for? Ideally against Barca’s shape you want Julian Draxler and Lucas stretching play, but they were so deep and narrow they would never have been able to offer support. Whenever PSG did win the ball back they were all so tight together and deep in their half that there was no one to give it to for a breakaway and Barcelona were straight back on top of them.
The main conclusion we drew from the first leg was that Barcelona’s lethargy and lack of support both offensively and defensively gifted the game to PSG. Comparing it to the second leg is like night and day. Barcelona were incredible, although not necessarily in the way we have come to expect from them. Their close control in what little space they could muster in the attacking third was often immaculate as they bounced passes off each other before firing it to the free man out wide, yet with that corridor so small the final pass that would see them put it past Kevin Trapp was often found wanting. While many of the same components were there, this wasn’t the same Barcelona as what we saw under Pep Guardiola – instead they came closer to resembling Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
They flew into challenges and fought for headers in the air, aware that if they missed it there was another two men on hand to cover. Barcelona were happy to send those long balls forward because they were aware that they don’t necessarily lose the ball: a PSG defender might head it away, but three Barca players can then fight for that second ball and ground is won. The change in formation goes some way to facilitating this as it meant there were 8 outfield players staggered up the pitch in central areas – and PSG had little way of exploiting the defensive frailties that could come from stretching them with width – however the real change was in mentality. World class players in the first leg looked slow because they were slow of mind. Here there was a constant focus; they got into position immediately, always looking for if their teammates needed cover or support and went the extra mile chasing balls in the hope that if they scrapped to win a yard it could give them a goal.
The opening goal was the best example of this. Neymar had to take it past two to get into the area but the combination with Suarez falls flat, however he immediately pounces on Adrien Rabiot to win it back, squeezing it out to Busquets behind him despite being surrounded. Busquets squares it to Javier Mascherano, who quickly slides it out to Rafinha, who comes inside to send in an aerial ball to 5″ 7 Messi and 5″ 11 Suarez in an area with five PSG defenders. Thiago Silva is able to head it, but not away, and Messi makes a nuisance of himself so that Verratti can’t clear the bouncing ball and Suarez is on hand to just about scramble it over the line. It’s an ugly goal but it doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from their willingness to scrap.
PSG looked understandably rattled to lose a goal so early but they reacted well as far as their strategy would let them. They disrupted Barcelona’s flow with niggling fouls and Cavani was on hand to bicker with the referee and ensure free-kicks couldn’t be taken quickly. Barcelona’s main build-up came down the left, with Neymar the brightest. He, Samuel Umtiti and Andres Iniesta formed triangles to work the ball down the pitch, while Suarez looked to run diagonally off Marquinhos (or sometimes Iniesta would overlap), taking advantage of the space between him and Meunier due to the Belgian’s near man-marking of Neymar. While they would rarely get in behind PSG this way, it did shift the French side across, allowing them to switch play to Rafinha on the right, however his left-footedness meant he would simply come inside and the advantage was wasted.
The second goal to some extent came as the result of these combinations down the left, although really it was again the willingness of Barcelona players to chase after nothing balls that got them the goal, Iniesta putting enough pressure on Marquinhos to squeeze the ball in off Layvin Kurzawa. While PSG’s first half gameplan had been sort of successful, the momentum was clearly building in Barcelona’s favour.
With the game running away from him, Emery switched backed to the tactics that served him well in the first leg, getting his side to press from the front again and although they gave a penalty away soon after the break – Meunier looking unlucky to slip into Neymar’s path although arguably caused by poor body shape caused by his need to keep tight to the Brazilian – the game settled into a more even contest. Di Maria was introduced and him and Draxler were able to give some support to Cavani. Barcelona still controlled the ball but PSG were now able to launch counter-attacks and they got their away goal from a freekick given away by Ivan Rakitic. With Cavani blocking Busquets and ehe wingers pushed up, Gerard Pique carried the ball into the PSG half only to get pounced upon and lose it, forcing Rakitic to bring down Draxler before he could release Cavani or Di Maria against Umtiti and Mascherano. Stopping Barca’s centre-backs from having free rein to move forward and pick out passes had given them a footing in the match, especially now that losing the ball had the consequence of having to defend a counter-attack.
Now needing to double their goal tally due to the away goal, Barcelona’s momentum had come to an abrupt end. Nevertheless, PSG were looking sloppy. Their positioning had revolved around them getting tight or blocking passes into players deep in their own half, which worked fine when they had multiple players within a few metres as someone was on hand to cover the gaps, but now as they pressed it was easier for Barcelona to move them about. After the goal, perhaps thinking they had won the tie, they simply seemed less focussed – slow to organise the defence of set-pieces and haphazardly going to ground.
And so the comeback started again. PSG fail to defend the second phase of a set-piece properly, Di Maria gives away a free-kick and Neymar curves the resulting free-kick past Trapp’s near post. They then fail to put pressure on to Barca as Messi dinks a ball into the now large gap between their backline and goalkeeper, giving away a penalty as Suarez nearly goes one-on-one with Trapp. Sergi Roberto’s goal was the icing on the collapsing cake as PSG completely failed to keep a proper line. Few of Barcelona’s goals had much strategy in their success but they did demonstrate their strong mentality, whereas PSG showed their mental fragility to the world in conceding them.
Whether or not they can sustain this and win another European Cup is questionable, and they certainly still aren’t at the levels we saw a few years ago, but regardless Barcelona played their part in what must go down as one of the greatest nights in European football history to perfection.