The second leg of the 2017 Round of 16 tie between Barcelona and PSG will go down in Barcelona lore. The first leg went about as poorly as anyone could imagine, and saw the team return to Camp Nou trailing 4-0. Before the second tie, no one gave the team any chance of advancing. FiveThirtyEight gave Barcelona a 7% chance of advancing (since updated to account for the win, of course). Club Elo gave the team just a 3% chance of moving on. The fans, at most, were hoping for a redemptive performance - one that would see their pride restored but still see the team defeated on aggregate.
That didn’t happen, however. Luis Enrique added his own twist to a system previously created by Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff. As a base system, the team sat in an odd hybrid of Cruyff’s diamond and a 3-5-2. Messi sat further up the pitch than most attacking midfielders, and often Neymar and Rafinha would hold a base position deeper than that of a winger. The base positions ensured that the wide players found space to receive the ball from the center of the pitch while also ensuring that Messi would be closer to goal - and have a great chance of impacting the game in a way that only Messi can.
Some trouble arose throughout the match, however, as Rafinha’s tasks and strengths didn’t always line up. Throughout the match he was asked to hug the byline and stretch PSG’s defense - creating space to pass the ball into Messi and Suarez. Often times, this put him onto his weaker right foot - and limited the passes he was able to successfully complete. While he was able to benefit the teams in a lot of areas, stretching play on the right side was certainly not one of them.
To combat Barcelona, PSG came out in a very defensive 4-5-1. Their goal was to force as many bodies between the ball and the goal as they humanly could. They played a very tight formation - with the wingers often dropping back alongside the fullbacks, forcing Barcelona to send the ball back to the middle of the pitch - where more players were waiting.
Throughout the match, Messi was marked heavily - often due to his positioning but also due to PSG’s strategy. For the full 90, wherever Messi went so went Blaise Matuidi. He refused to allow Messi the slightest bit of space, and when paired alongside two other central midfielders and two central defenders, Messi’s space was limited - often restricting the number of touches he could make, as well as the effectiveness of those touches.
The key for Barcelona coming out of the gates was their combination of speed and aggression. Both in and out of possession, the team attacked the ball - forcing early turnovers and keeping the ball in and around PSG’s box. Each of the centerbacks pressed high up the pitch - with Pique (as the deepest lying centerback) in PSG’s half and Umtiti and Mascherano both pushing ahead. The team formed a 3-3-4, with Neymar and Rafinha both pressed high up the pitch, the midfielders forming a (mostly) flat line, and Messi drifting in the little space given as an auxiliary striker.
This initial onslaught pinned PSG back, and created chaos in and around the box. Even when PSG won the ball back, they were faced with a quick press - often from multiple players - and frequently turned the ball over before they could even get out of their defensive third. When they were able to get out of their defensive third, the pass was met by a central defender rushing in to make the interception. Rather than drop into any sort of defensive structure during this period, the defenders looked to make incredibly high risk plays that often yielded great results - as it allowed the attack to hold it’s pressure and save energy from dropping too far back.
The chaos and stress this created led to Barcelona’s first goal, as the ball bounced around inside the box several times before Luis Suarez was able to flick it on lightly for the first goal. The aggressive play from Barcelona continued for several more minutes, but after PSG were able to successfully counter a few times, the pressing eased.
Pragmatic but Not Passive
After PSG got their first corner kick, Barcelona eased up on their aggression - taking a more pragmatic approach to the game. A high press and all out blitz was effective, but it was always unrealistic that it would last for 90 minutes. The start did it’s job - it got an early goal and put PSG on its back foot - and the team quickly transitioned to a more pragmatic approach. Neymar, Rafinha, and Busquets all dropped back slightly, creating a 3-1-4-2, with Busquets acting as a regista in front of the backline. The centerbacks dipped back into the Barcelona half of the pitch, and the press eased up slightly. While the foot was never taken off the gas, the aggression and energy that started the match subsided quickly.
This period lasted for roughly 40 minutes, and saw Barcelona grab two more goals on their march to victory. While they still held a hefty majority of the possession during this period (over 70 percent), the attacks simply weren’t as urgent. The team took its time looking for spaces into which they could pass, and when they lost possession more players tracked back. It was during this period that Iniesta rushed into the box by himself (one of the few times there weren’t multiple blaugrana jerseys within the box), and force more chaos and confusion - this time leading to an own goal from PSG left fullback Layvin Kurzawa.
PSG got to the end of the first half with their aggregate lead still relatively safe, up 4-2. Coming out of the half, they were quite aggressive in the attack for the first time all match - and this put Barcelona on their back foot. Still aggressively pragmatic in their approach, the team dropped deep and defended in the same 3-1-4-2 in which they attacked - with Rafinha and Neymar both staying higher up the pitch.
This more thought out method produced the first penalty of the night, as Meunier tripped trying to defend a throughball into the box, and brought down Neymar in the process.
Parisians Attack Back
After Messi knocked the ensuing penalty kick beyond Trapp, PSG was fed up - only leading 4-3 on aggregate, at that point. Immediately, they began pushing further into the Barcelona’s half. As this happened, it became apparent that Barcelona had no real defensive structure in place. For most of the match, Umtiti had been asked to cover anything down the left side. When PSG started mounting serious attacks, though, it fell apart.
As the backline was attacked, it spread apart and PSG were easily able to pick it apart. Neymar was asked to cover bombing runs forward by the winger and left back - and that left Meunier with space deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Within two minutes of Messi’s goal, Cavani bounced a shot off the post - as PSG sliced through Barcelona’s defense with ease. A few minutes after that, and PSG had won a corner after mounting another dangerous attack. For what seemed like an eternity, PSG bombarded Barcelona with dangerous attacks while the home team were often unable to respond with any danger of their own. Their system simply wasn’t created to defend.
Within 10 minutes of Messi’s goal, PSG scored as Cavani was left unmarked during some chaos in Barcelona’s box. The barrage of attacks from PSG left Barcelona shapeless and unable to identify key threats - and PSG took advantage of their biggest opportunity.
Both Sides Are Done
The next 25, or so, minutes, looked quite unfamiliar, for the most part. Both teams maintained their formations, however, both teams’ speed and aggression was much lighter than at any other point. PSG’s press became almost non-existent while Barcelona’s attack looked feeble and out of creative ideas. The forwards resorted to diving at the slightest touch, and the midfield simply recycled possession out to the wings. This often resulted in Neymar running into two (or more) defenders and losing possession or Rafinha being forced to cross a ball with his right foot - often going to an area with no teammates.
It wasn’t until a foul on the edge of the box that things started to really get interesting. With the match seemingly dying, Neymar took a free kick out near the corner of the box on the lefthand side of the pitch. As Rio Ferdinand recapped, “From where [Neymar] is on the pitch, he’s got no right to even take that on.” The angle was tight, but Neymar snuck it into the top corner - and the game was back on.
Suddenly, the Barcelona that started the game reemerged with this glimmer of hope. The 3-1-4-2 turned back into a 3-3-4 - at times even a 2-3-5, with Pique joining the attack looking for a ball over the top or a cross from the wing. Often times, Neymar was free to roam as he pleased - a role typically reserved for Messi, but given to Neymar in this circumstance. This free role allowed Neymar to find both space and time to make decisions, and lead some desperate charges to get two more goals before the match ended.
Barcelona closed down their opponents with extreme pace and aggression, which led to PSG completing just four passes from the 85th minute to the finish - three of which came from a kick off after a goal had been scored. Through their aggressive play, and with Pique joining the attack, Barcelona stopped trying to feed the wings and instead resorted more to balls over the top to all three central “attackers.” It was during one of these balls over the top that a controversial penalty was given - as Marquinhos made contact with Luis Suarez inside the box. This time, Neymar stepped up to the spot, and he hit his second goal of the day - drawing things level on aggregate, but PSG still in front due to the away goal.
This only encouraged more aggressive attacking from Barcelona, and PSG were unable to get any semblance of control on the dying minutes of the match. The one glimmer of hope they had was after an Arda Turan mistake around the center circle that led to Marco Verratti looking to break alone on goal. Marc Andre ter Stegen had different plans, however, and tracked back quickly (having come forward for a free kick) to recover the ball and draw a foul that would ultimately lead to PSG’s demise.
Following the foul, Neymar tried a standard ball over the top - hoping against hope that someone in blue and red stripes would be on the end of it. This was not to be, however, and Adrien Rabiot easily cleared the ball right back to Neymar. Instead of attempting another cross immediately, however, Neymar opted to shift the ball onto his weaker foot - giving him more space and time to chip a ball in over the defense. This time it found a teammate - Sergi Roberto to be specific. Robeto gave a light flick, and the comeback was complete - Barcelona were up 6-1.
Luis Enrique’s 3-1-4-2 served it’s purpose for today. While it certainly wasn’t perfect, it took the necessary risks and precautions to give the team a chance to win. It wasn’t completely unexpected, as 3-man backline has been the go-to formation for the last several matches, but it was a deviation - even from the original derivative. The plan for the central defenders to press high, and go for every interception proved to be a masterfully well taken calculated risk. It required near perfection from its players, but it got exactly that. There were flaws within the formation - even for its purpose against PSG - but in a rare change of form, Lucho also got the subs correct. With Barcelona bringing on a right footed attacker on the right side, suddenly there was width as the game drew to a close, the attack was revitalized, and Barcelona were able to pull off a simply miraculous comeback.