Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain will be remembered as the must-win game in which Luis Enrique selected an untried formation and system, a 3-3-1-3, and just about got away with it. It was far from plain sailing – PSG missed two glaring scoring chances in the first half and outshot the hosts 7-3 in the second – but Barça got the job done and advance to the last sixteen as group winners.
On paper, the selection of a 3-3-1-3 made sense. Laurent Blanc was obviously going to play a 4-4-2 and so Luis Enrique designed a scheme that would exploit that system’s weaknesses.
To save time, here’s a list of the 3-3-1-3’s key pros and cons from this game:
- It put Messi, Suárez and Neymar in something like their best positions – number ten, centre-forward and left wing-forward, respectively – while also building supply lines for all three, ensuring that they saw a lot of the ball in key areas.
- Having three centre-backs against PSG’s two strikers gave Barça a spare man at the back and, at least on paper, provided extra cover against opposition counter-attacks and height at set-pieces.
- Barça matched PSG’s four-man midfield, allowing them to commit to a pressing system and pin the visitors back in their own half.
- Mascherano and Messi both found space between the lines and therefore had time on the ball. Barça’s equalising goal was a direct result of their positioning: Mascherano played a long pass from a pocket of space in front of PSG’s midfield to Suárez, while Messi observed from a pocket of space in front of PSG’s defence and then darted in behind them to score.
- The system didn’t suit Busquets or Iniesta at all. Both struggled to impose themselves in possession and their lack of athleticism and power led to the back three being exposed by simple passes into runners on the flanks – particularly to Lucas Moura, who found space to receive passes seemingly at will.
- The lack of familiarity with the system led to several moments of confusion and consequently a general lack of cohesion and control. In possession, the ball spent too much time being passed around the back three as the players ahead of them worked out where they were supposed to be, and when PSG had the ball in Barça's half no-one seemed to know what their job was.
- Pedro and Neymar spent as much time defending as they did attacking. They’re both extremely diligent trackers and without their intelligence and work-rate the system wouldn’t have been possible, but there were a few occasions when they came back to the edge of Barça’s penalty area to form a back five, and that’s not where you want Pedro and Neymar to be playing.
The opening twenty minutes of the game went as one would expect: Barça played as the protagonist and advanced mostly down the flanks. PSG assembled in a deep 4-4-2, kept one eye on Messi and successfully focused on making Barça play harmless horizontal passes. Barça barely created a shooting opportunity but they were happy to maintain possession simply so they could get used to the new formation.
When Barça’s spells of possession ended, PSG attacked with the purpose and co-ordination that Barça seemed to lack, usually down Barça’s left flank. As soon as the 7th minute, PSG had threatened to break three-versus-two (see below) but Ibrahimović didn’t have the pace to carry the ball such a huge distance and Barça regrouped.
The opening goal, scored by Zlatan Ibrahimović after 15 minutes, was a just reward for the visitors given how well they’d shut out Barça. It was extremely well-worked from PSG’s perspective, but Barça were all over the place. Instead of providing extra cover in these situations, the three-man defence was stretched and outnumbered and the first midfield band failed to support adequately.
While Mathieu went out to Lucas on the wing, Piqué and Bartra marked Cavani and Matuidi in the middle. Mascherano and Suárez were both near to Mathieu but offered no real support, while Busquets and Iniesta stood on the edge of the area and silently watched as Zlatan strolled into space to convert Lucas’ cross. It was a horrible piece of team defending, rooted in non-existent communication.
To their credit, Barça hit back immediately. As previously stated, the equalising goal was almost entirely down to the 3-3-1-3: Mascherano and Messi had space to observe play around them and act decisively, while Suárez had the ambition and awareness to make a run in behind and play a controlled square pass to the back post.
After that it was back to square one for both sides. Barça took the ball and PSG retreated into their shell. Barça found it hard to find good positions with the ball: PSG expertly guided them away from dangerous central zones, directing passes wide or clearing the ball back to Barça’s defenders, who frequently came high up the pitch to create better angles for passes through the lines.
Again and again PSG countered down the flanks and exploited the narrowness of the back three, leading to the clear chances for Lucas and Cavani that could have changed everything. As ever, the key to these counter-attacks was their simplicity and Barça made life very simple for PSG indeed: the first pass was possible because the forwards weren’t putting pressure on the ball quick enough; quick exchanges high up the pitch were possible because Mascherano, Busquets and Iniesta weren’t getting near their direct opponents; it was easy to turn these openings into shots on goal because PSG’s forwards and runners outnumbered Barça’s defence.
A timely moment of solo magic bailed Barça out. Neymar’s goal took the breath away and showed exactly why PSG had put so much of their efforts into closing off the central space on the edge of their box. It was not the result of a moment of collective interplay, which PSG were expecting, but the result of a turnover in midfield that allowed Iniesta to give the ball to Neymar in space, forty yards from goal. For the first time in the match, a Barça attacker could drive at the heart of the PSG defence and it immediately buckled: Thiago Silva inexplicably stood off and showed Neymar a shooting angle, so Neymar bent a glorious curling shot into the far corner to give Barça a half-time lead.
The second half continued in much the same way as the first ended. Barça tightened the defence up by very occasionally moving into a back four - this closed off some of the space on the flanks that PSG were finding so useful - but PSG manager Blanc didn’t push for an equaliser as soon as we might have expected him to. When one considers that it would have been the difference between playing a side like Basel in the next round instead of one like Bayern, it’s surprising that he remained relatively cautious for so long.
Aside from an almighty scramble in the 53rd minute, in which Bartra made three heroic interventions in quick succession, PSG didn’t create a single scoring chance in the whole half. They had plenty of advances forward and a few pot-shots, but Bartra, Piqué and Mathieu dealt with everything admirably. There was noticeably more support for the defence from Mascherano, Busquets and Iniesta, too, which presumably shows that Luis Enrique recognised and addressed their lack of contribution at half-time.
Halfway through the second half, Ivan Rakitić replaced Pedro and Barça went back to a 4-3-3: Mascherano joined Piqué at centre-back, Bartra went out to the right, Busquets dropped into the pivote position, Rakitić and Iniesta played in midfield and Messi and Neymar were either side of Suárez. This change of formation was presumably to spread Barça’s defence wider and preventing PSG from getting any more joy down the flanks. Up to that point, the back three was still being pressurised and Mathieu in particular was suffering against Lucas.
The third and final goal, scored by Suárez, arrived with quarter of an hour to go. It was arguably a result of PSG simply being fatigued, both physically and mentally, and also of the confusing and destabilising substitutions made by Blanc (Verratti off, Pastore on; Matuidi off, Lavezzi on).
It started with two PSG midfielders pressuring Xavi while their defence backed off, creating lots of space between the lines. Busquets supplied Suárez in the middle of that space and the ball was worked towards the goal over the course of just a few seconds, before Neymar shot, Sirigu parried and Suárez pounced on the rebound. In contrast to their gargantuan efforts in the first half, the PSG midfield never got back to protect their area and if you give Messi, Neymar and Suárez that kind of room, they will probably score. Equally, if Javier Pastore is your deepest midfielder, you will probably concede.
The last minutes of the game were wide open but not much happened. Neither team was intent on keeping men in position and, the centre-backs aside, everyone more or less went where they pleased. It’s still strange to see a Barcelona side with such relatively low regard for positional play or work-rate, but they ran the clock down with the ball and kept play moving at a snail’s pace. They could probably have scored more – by now PSG were leaving a few forwards high up the pitch – but they let themselves down with poor decisions and the score stayed at 3-1.
Yet again, then, a win for Barça but one in which they rode their luck and relied on individual brilliance and clinical finishing to cover up the flaws of an up-and-down team performance. This is to be expected when a manager changes to a system as uncommon and unusual as the 3-3-1-3 that Luis Enrique selected here, but it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Lucas and Cavani had finished the huge chances that came their way towards the end of the first half.