In this tactical analysis we will be taking a look at the Champions League - Round of 16 match between Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain. What was an absolute masterclass from Kylian Mbappé, Mauricio Pochettino and the PSG team, was an absolute disaster from Barcelona who have once again shown us that life for the club when Lionel Messi leaves looks grim or perhaps a sign that he needs to leave for the club to enter a new cycle.
PSG come into this match as Champions League finalists, but never winners. The last time these two teams met was in 2017 when Barcelona overturned a 4-0 deficit by winning 6-1 in one of the most historic Champions League nights in history. To say that tensions were high going into this match would be an understatement. Mauricio Pochettino set-up PSG up in a way that almost guaranteed success before the game even began. Tottenham Hotspur fans can only look in awe at what their former manager is creating with another team, while they play turgid Europa League football under José Mourinho.
Barcelona came into this match as a club going through turmoil, made worse by such an embarrassing scoreline. Club captain and legend Lionel Messi wants to leave, the signings in recent years have been underwhelming, and the youngsters coming through are not good enough to win Barcelona another Champions League title yet. The tactics displayed by Ronald Koeman’s team were poorly executed. As we will discuss in our analysis, Barcelona are clearly a shadow of their former selves.
Barcelona lined-up in 4-3-3. Out of possession it took the shape of a 4-4-2, while in possession it remained a 4-3-3 shape with forwards Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé providing width as they were often seen close to the touchline, while Lionel Messi dropped deeper into midfield to help maintain possession. Notable absences were Sergi Roberto, Philippe Coutinho and Ansu Fati, all missing through injury.
PSG lined-up in a 4-3-3 however in possession it was very fluid, changing shape often. Forwards Kylian Mbappé, Mauro Icardi and Moise Kean switched between a few systems that we will be analyzing in-depth. Notable absences were Ángel Di María, Neymar and Bernat, all missing through injury. These three had featured in PSG’s Champions League Final match against eventual winners, Bayern Munich.
PSG looked to attack the wide areas. Full-backs Sergiño Dest and Jordi Alba were thoroughly exposed in this match, especially the former. In the example below, Leandro Paredes is on the ball. Kylian Mbappé, Marco Veratti and Layvin Kurzawa attack the left flank and create a three versus three scenario. Mbappé is the focus of this attack and targets Dest. Centrally, Mauro Icardi drops into space. On the right flank, Moise Kean and Alessando Florenzi can be seen in a two versus two scenario. By isolating these positions, they become similar to training ground exercises, all that is needed for Paredes to get the ball to either flank.
We will discuss the shortcomings of Barcelona's narrow mid-block later in the analysis, for now, we will continue to look at how PSG exposed the left flank in particular. On the ball is Presnel Kimpembe moving play to the left. Mbappé and Kurzawa stay wide because Barcelona defend narrowly. The Barcelona mid-block takes too long to shift pressure to the left, leaving two PSG players to attack two Barcelona players. Kimpembe sees that midfielder Frenkie de Jong and defender Gerard Piqué are too far away from their teammates on the flank. This is how PSG decided between which flank to attack, the left side just did this much more frequently.
When the second half began, winger Dembélé was tasked with man-marking Kurzawa to help with the overloads on the left flank. PSG Manager Mauricio Pochettino noticed this immediately, so he encouraged Veratti to attack the left flank from midfield. Dembélé was then left to choose between defending against Kurzawa or Veratti, often leaving him too late to react to the off the ball runs from the PSG players.
PSG often shifted between a 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 in defense. This was dependent on the positioning of the furthest forward Barcelona midfielder. If a Barca midfielder joined the attack, Paredes would man-mark them specifically. Otherwise, it was a 4-4-2. The difference between the two teams in defense is simply that PSG were organized and disciplined, while Barcelona didn’t know when to press or stay in their block. Below, we see an example of PSG only pressing Barcelona when play is moved to the wide areas. This is done because Barcelona play their best football when their players have spaces to play in centally, so, by forcing play to the wide areas, Barcelona have low-quality areas to play in and can be pressed with a higher chance of success.
Below is an example of Paredes man-marking Pedri, Barcelona’s furthest forward midfielder. On the ball is Clément Lenglet. He has no high-quality forward passing options. Antoine Griezmann can be seen dropping deeper, however, PSG overwhelm the center of the field easily. This forces Lenglet to pass to their left flank, initiating the PSG press.
Now we will pick apart Barcelona’s defense just like PSG. Barcelona rarely pressed as a team, choosing to instead commit two players at most to pressing the PSG player in possession. However, the press was often disorganized and created more problems than it solved. Below, we see Veratti receiving the ball, being actively pressed by de Jong. The problem here is that de Jong is leaving the midfield line to press when instead, the players in Barcelona’s forward line should be initiating the press. This is a problem because de Jong leaves space behind for PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye to move into, creating a high-quality forward passing option for Veratti to use.
When it was time to drop into a low-block or mid-block, Barcelona showed that they struggle to transition into a defensive shape. Below we see Paredes on the ball. In Front of him are Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Antoine Griezmann. The problem that kept showing up for Barcelona was that in these transition periods, PSG were already looking to overload the flanks. Before Barcelona could get into their defensive shape, their defense was already compromised. Kean and Florenzi can be seen below attacking the right flank, targeting Alba. Busquets’ defensive position is questionable, as he is almost always playing in a pure number six role.
PSG changed their attacking tactics often in order to keep Barcelona guessing what their next move might be. We discussed earlier how PSG easily exploited the Barcelona flanks. Now, we will analyze how PSG were able to create overloads against the Barcelona center-backs. Below we see full-backs Kurzawa and Florenzi positioned high up the pitch. Doing this draws the attention of Dest and Alba, stretching the Barcelona defense. This was how PSG created width. Centrally we see Kean, Mbappé and Icardi. The Barcelona full-backs are occupied, leaving Lenglet and Piqué to defend against three attackers in the middle of the pitch. Later in the match Dembélé was tasked with man-marking Kurzawa, but as we already discussed, Pochettino made his efforts null.
We discussed how PSG exploited both of Barcelona’s flanks and overloaded the central areas. Now, we can take a look at an example of both of these ideas being executed at the same time.. When Barca entered into their low-block, the PSG defenders were encouraged to push forward. On the ball below is Marquinhos with several high-quality forward passing options. To his right, Florenzi attacks Alba, a one versus once scenario. Centrally, three PSG players attack three Barcelona defenders. To his left, Kurzawa eyes the space left by Dest who had to tuck inside to defend against the central overload. PSG’s greatest strength in this match was their ability to use several different attacking tactics.
For most of this match, we saw Barcelona recycle the same ideas in possession over and over. Pass between the central defenders and Busquets and wait for one of the forward players to drop deep to create an overload in the middle third. The reason this failed is because Barcelona had no focal point to base their play around. On the ball below is Messi. He drops into midfield from his center-forward position to help build possession. Griezmann and Dembélé are out wide, however, there are no players between the PSG defensive and midfield lines. Barcelona cannot take advantage of Messi dropping deep. A solution to this would be to have de Jong or Pedri position themselves higher up the pitch, ideally in the red space below. Barcelona rarely showed any sort of creativity in possession. Strange, considering how they used to be known for having a team bursting with creativity in every position.
Barcelona were poor this game just as they have been for most of this season. Placed third in La Liga can be deceiving when you forget to consider that they’re eight points behind first place Atletico Madrid who still have a game in hand over Barcelona. The cracks in this Barcelona team have been exposed before, but not as easily as they were in this match. While youngsters Pedri, Sergiño Dest, Ansu Fati, and Ricard Puig seem promising, it’s becoming clear as day that Barcelona will have very little to rely on when Lionel Messi leaves.
PSG showed us why they were Champions League finalists last season. While under new management, this is still largely the same squad from last season. Considering PSG were also missing Ángel Di María and Neymar, the potential of this squad is still yet to be completely understood. With an eager, however still unproven, Mauricio Pochettino incharge, PSG should be considered one of the favorites to win the UEFA Champions League.
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I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___