In this series, we take a look at some of the most interesting matches in world football, providing you with in-depth tactical analysis powered by Wyscout tools and stats. This time, we analyze the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, played at Nou Camp between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.


Apart from an empty Camp Nou, the first European football night of 2021 was a perfect reminder of what it’s like to play – and for us to watch – a Champions League game. The most important European club competition has a unique ability to let some stars shine, some others to fall, and to put some teams’ ambitions back where they belong. Especially in those games with clubs that have faced each other so many times – and on such important occasions, to turn into proper rivals.

In that regard, PSG’s rise to the European élite – started in 2011 with the new Qatari ownership, was meant to collide with one of the biggest ‘old money’ teams, if you could say so. It happened with Barcelona, with many clashes that happened both on and off the pitch and that we all know: the unreal 6-1 remuntada in 2017 and Neymar’s signing for €222M are just the two most relevant examples.

But if until a few days ago this rivalry was somehow balanced, something may have changed after last Tuesday’s game at Camp Nou. Last year’s finalist PSG has become a regular contender to win the Champions League thanks to a team full of talent at the peak of their careers. Barcelona, on the other hand, seem a bit lost in that renewal process that seems anything but complete. The day before the game, El País’ reporter Santiago Segurola wrote about Barcelona’s moment: “Regardless of the immense challenge of managing a struggling Barça, Koeman left the Dutch national team and came back. The team has improved so far and his work brought unforeseen perspectives.” Even though his words were certainly true, it must be said that Barcelona proved to be competitive only in the first leg against Juventus in the group stage. In the other games, they performed well when they were able to dominate the game and struggled when they can’t, exactly as it happened Tuesday against Pochettino’s PSG.

On paper, PSG were favored in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16, even though they were without the absent Neymar and Di Maria’s. Trying to balance the technical plan of the game, Barcelona forced Piqué and Dest’s return into the starting XI, a decision that then twisted against the Blaugrana. Even if the post-game discussion was around the comparison between a declining Barcelona and a rising PSG – driven by their young start Mbappé, ready to conquer the world – but it must be said that, in the first 30 minutes, the game was balanced and led by two players who took the spotlights: Frenkie de Jong and Marco Verratti.

In fact, Koeman’s initial strategy to free de Jong vertically proved to be effective. Helped by Pedri’s ability to move behind the lines and carry the ball, de Jong was able to freely move forward and compensate Barcelona’s persistent lack of central depth, particularly in the games when they can’t control the ball and press the opponents in their own box all the time. With Messi and Griezmann alternately linking to help the build-up and Dembélé wide on the right to play 1v1s on the weak side, the Blaugrana front three struggle to push the defensive live back and make the play flat. By doing so, Barcelona struggle to attack the box and must rely on Messi’s ability to produce something, such as him switching play for Jordi Alba. In this context, the presence of a smart player such as de Jong helps the team in the last third but also prevents the Dutchman from doing what he does best, be involved in the build up.

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In the first image, an example of Frenkie de Jong noticing the space left free by Messi’s movement and attacking it, although Barcelona were not able to pass the ball to him. In the second image, the same kind of play leads to the penalty won because of Kurzawa’s foul on de Jong.

Barcelona’s lead arrives after 27 minutes, right on one of de Jong’s vertical movements, found by one of Messi’s long passes, something that is becoming a constant of this season. After Messi’s goal, though, Barça decided to slow down the tempo, trying to dominate the opponent with possession. A choice that will twist against them, though, because at a lower pace PSG were better at managing the ball, powering Verratti’s amazing performance.

 

Professor Verratti

Being at the club for just a couple of weeks, Pochettino wasn’t really able to influence PSG from a tactical standpoint, also because many of his playing philosophies match with Tuchel’s. That said, the Parisians are not exactly the same team as they were before the Argentinian’s arrival. His touch can be noticed from little details on single players. Two particularly obvious ones in Tuesday’s game were the attempt to activate Mbappé vertically in the left half-space and the decision to move Verratti forward on the pitch, involving him in the later stages of the play rather than in the build-up. The first choice was probably forced by Di maria and Neymar’s absences, which meant PSG had to focus their offensive game on Mbappé. The latter, on the other hand, comes from the opportunity to take advantage of Barcelona’s poor positional defense.

Last Tuesday, PSG played a 3-4-2-1 system that we already saw with Tottenham. It’s a system that originates from a 4-1-4-1 without the ball and changes by moving the fullbacks wide, the playmaker (on Tuesday it was Paredes) lying deep between the two center backs to outnumber the opponent when building up the play, and four players on two lines (Paredes and Gueye in the middle, Mbappé and Kean in a higher line) always moving. By doing so, the Parisian team was able to decide how much deep and wide play, threatening Barcelona with Mbappé deep movements on the left, Icardi in the center and Kean on the right, also allowing Kurzawa to be dangerous wide, as Dembélé struggled to cover him all night long. A wide and deep team frees spaces in the center, where Verratti’s ability to play the ball was glorified. But on Tuesday night, the Italian midfielder offered an all-around performance and was critical in pressing too, drawing a temporary 4-2-3-1 when lining with Mbappé and Kean to push Barcelona’s build-up back.

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Out of possession, Verratti pinned Busquets, while Paredes covered de Jong and Gueye was on Pedri.

Besides his movements, though, what really was critical in Verratti’s game was his technical dominance of the game. As we know, it’s almost impossible to take the ball off from Verratti: one could make his pass more difficult but now take possession from him. His barycenter is too low and his ability to use his body to turn and twist on himself is now so refined to make taking the ball from him an almost impossible task for everyone. On Tuesday, Verratti had great humility and intelligence in understanding what to do, leaving Paredes with the task of building up the play, focusing on finishing it. Pochettino freed Verratti’s flair, allowing him to play in a more advanced position, as a true trequartista. And he responded by giving Busquets a hard time – as the Spaniard was overwhelmed by Verratti’s omnipresence, and most of all by serving Mbappé the assist for the 1-1 goal. A first touch on a cross made by Kurzawa, that Verratti barely touched with the tip of his foot to send the ball exactly over Piqué’s head to land on Mbappé’s foot. At that point, the Frenchman only had to score (figure of speech), managing to score after a not-flawless first control.

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The very same play started from Verratti’s foot when he receives the ball in PSG’s own third, passing over Busquets with a swirl and opening the play wide to Kurzawa. The Italian midfielder then runs forward to help his teammate calmly move the ball and, after the pass, runs forward close to Icardi. Exactly where he will receive the French fullback’s cross.

 

Mbappé’s game

In the second half, with the result evened at 1-1 and with Barcelona less and less capable of taking advantage of de Jong’s movement in the fear of disorganizing and losing the ball, the game became Kylian Mbappé talent’s main stage. Koeman actually asked Dest to play a defensive game trying to avoid the French ace to receive the ball behind the lines anywhere near the box. It wasn’t really effective, though, as Barcelona weren’t able to understand where Mbappé was going to receive the ball, as he repeatedly laid deep, with the whole pitch to attack with his mercurial speed, mainly thanks to Verratti and Paredes’ vertical passes. Mbappé was a nightmare for Barcelona defense all night long, waiting for them to lose the ball, for their line to miss an offside, or directly attacking them with his runs, not only embarrassing Dest (who was very conservative in following the defensive line, giving PSG more space to switch play) but also Piqué.

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The possibility of Mbappé running behind the line scared the young American but to be fair, he would’ve scared anyone on Tuesday, also considering that Dest is all but a slow-paced player. With his unreal elasticity, Mbappé transformed even the most static plays into offensive tornados thanks to his unique ability to reach his maximum speed within moments, as soon as he spots an open space. Mbappé is a player with both great speed and first-class technique: he can link with short one-twos and then burn the grass with his speed a second later. A trait that for many recall Ronaldo “o Fenômeno” but that equally remembers Cristiano Ronaldo’s years at Manchester United – not casually imitated by Mbappé, that emulates his childhood hero with dazzling backheels to change direction and gain speed at the same time.

Even though he’s only 22, Tuesday night’s performance extends a long list of memorable nights that we’ll remember in the future when talking about Mbappé, who continues to break unthinkable records. Nobody before him ever scored that many goals in the Champions League at that age, and only Shevchenko was able to score a hattrick at Camp Nou in a European night (with Dynamo Kyiv in 1997). The terror that will haunt Barcelona supporters’ sleep for a long time is perfectly represented by the picture of Piqué grasping on Mbappé’s shirt in the useless attempt to stop him. Exactly what the defenders used to do to Ronaldo in the Nineties. This game clearly had massive symbolic importance for PSG and for Mbappé himself, as he let everyone forget about Neymar’s absence while also proving that an ambitious PSG can rely on his shoulders.

His hattrick, alongside Kean’s goal from a free kick situation, guaranteed PSG the win, even though recent history would suggest waiting to consider this qualification as decided. What’s certain is that this Barcelona team is very different from the one that managed to accomplish the impossible comeback, overcoming a four-goal deficit four years ago. The Blaugrana seem a tired and empty team – a group of players that has to live with unbearable baggage of failures.

 

Barcelona’s ghosts

Barcelona is a city that is used to living with the shadows of its past: one of the most central districts is called gothic, where the alleys are dark and narrow even in broad daylight. On the near hill, there’s still the prison where people were locked during Francoism, still remembering people about a dark and not so distant past. Every game, at the 17th minute, the supporters at the Camp Nou used to sing and clap to remember the day – September 11, 1714, when the city had to surrender to the Castilian army, losing its autonomy. The Catalan people, then, built their identity from their biggest defeat, remembering it at every match. Before Cruyff, Barcelona were a team of failures and inferiority complex. Today, after Rijkaard, Guardiola and Messi, the circle seems about to close, with new defeats and humiliations. Roma in 2018, Liverpool in 2019 and Bayern in 2020 are a treble of defeats that have common traits: the fear of losing or perhaps the impossibility to accept defeat. Today, the ghosts of the past seem to prevent Barcelona from reacting to adversities. A team that is historically built to control the match and that today can’t do that, and seems unable to change the dynamic of the games.

A clear example of how fear can lead to a goal is the 2-1 scored at the minute 65 when PSG positioning leads Dest and Alba on one side, and Dembélé and Griezmann on the other to flatten on the same line, worried by the space behind them. Barcelona so find themselves defending with a six-men line and regardless of that (or maybe for this very reason) it only takes Kean’s movement towards Paredes to generate a reaction that brings both Lenglet and Alba to follow him, allowing Florenzi to cut behind their backs, surprising Griezmann and finding himself free in the box. The Italian fullback crosses and from Piqué’s clearance, the ball gets to Mbappé. It’s a classic and easily readable pattern, that Barcelona’s confusion made possible.

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Without the ball, Barcelona was afraid the whole time and they never had clear ideas with the ball. Koeman’s team struggled to reach the opponent half and never attacked the box if not with through passes. PSG only had to finetune the marking on de Jong’s offensive movements, manage Dembélé’s 1v1s on Kurzawa on the weak side, always double-teaming with a midfielder, and anticipate Messi’s pass to Jordi Alba by asking Florenzi to man-mark him in the last third. By doing so, Pochettino’s team was able to deactivate Blaugrana’s offensive phase.

Barcelona’s struggles were also obvious during a heated confrontation between Piqué and Griezmann, after a play when at the last moment Dest was able to intercept a ball that Mbappé received in the midfield and carried upfront to the box. A collateral effect of empty stadiums is a clearer view of the physiological side of the game. In this case, a massive defeat. In fact, when PSG was able to crush Barcelona’s positional defense and Piqué – who’s used to mainly defending with the ball, shouted to Griezmann, asking him to “retain possession”. And the Frenchman followed suit. These are normal dynamics in the difficult moments during a game, but they can only highlight the moment Barcelona are living, perfectly represented by one of Piqué’s shouts: “We’re struggling.”

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So yes, it was Mbappé’s night but also the night when Barcelona’s fears became obvious. A scared and wounded team, which tries to overcome challenges in an individual way, contradicting its own history. Individually, Messi did try to get the ball and carry it to the box. Individually, Piqué did guide his teammates on where to position. Individually, Busquests did try to move closer to the ball to help the team. But Messi asking the ball makes his teammates give him the ball even if double-teamed, Piqué moving the line generates a situation that then the line itself can’t handle, and Busquets moving closer to the ball confuses the passing lines, not giving the play space to develop.

Paraphs only completing the generational renewal – as hard as it can be to bid farewell to such a glorious past, can allow Barcelona to get out of such a situation, now hurting the legends themselves on the pitch.


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