In the opening fixture of the new Champions League campaign, Barcelona squared off with PSV Eindhoven at the Camp Nou.
Both teams came into the fixture with impressive starts to their league campaign. Barcelona have won their first four games of the season and are top of La Liga by two points over Real Madrid. PSV are off to an electric start in the Eredivisie with five wins and 21 goals scored.
Heading into the fixture, Barcelona were eager to begin the Champions League campaign after last year’s disappointing exit. More importantly, all eyes were on manager Ernesto Valverde on how he was going to structure the tactics and lineup to counter PSV’s high-octane attack.
Valverde still kept the same 4-3-3 formation and he did not rest any players. The one significant tactic that he emphasized more, especially as of late, is playing Dembele more inside to link up with Suarez and Messi more often. More importantly, the pace and tempo on the left side of the pitch would be free-flowing.
As seen here, playing Dembele more inside gives Coutinho and Alba more space on the left instead of having a conundrum of players out wide.
From PSV’s perspective, manager and former Barcelona player Mark van Bommel dealt with a dilemma that many opposing teams often face when matching up against Barcelona. Many teams often employ a defensive formation such as a 5-4-1 or a 4-5-1 in order to defend deep and prevent Barca from occupying multitudes of space in the box. While PSV currently have one of the highest scoring offenses in all of Europe, Van Bommel had a conflicting issue of whether to keep the same attack-first mentality or to sit back in an effort to defend against Barca’s attack.
Van Bommel ultimately decided to play with a hybrid 4-3-3 formation that often switched to a 4-2-3-1 This would occur when Gaston Pereiro moved up the pitch to play as an attacking midfielder to supply wingers Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn with outlet passes, which would subsequently force Luuk de Jong to move further up the pitch as the lone striker. Since PSV did not anticipate to maintain possession for as much as they typically do in an Eredivisie fixture, they relied on quick paced counter-attacks to generate goal-scoring chances.
Defensively, Van Bommel maintained the hybrid 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 shape but he was more aggressive than usual. His plan was to overload the ball carrier and press. Barca faced this type of game plan in the Valladolid fixture from earlier this season where they won but struggled to break through the defensive lines. What is different from Valladolid’s gameplan is that PSV would move much quicker across the pitch and they also have a couple of players that can finish a higher percentage of their goal-scoring chances.
PSV’s gameplan came down to three tactics that are evidently easier said than done against Barca: overload, press, and counter.
See here how PSV are able to overload on Barca’s left flank with five players and effectively execute a press that clears the ball out of their defensive third.
Van Bommel’s game plan was an aggressive tactic that could quickly be a regrettable one but considering that this is his first ever game as a manager in the Champions League group stage, he had nothing to lose.
In effect, Barca had to take control of the game and counter PSV’s defensive setup. The passes had to be quick and compact while off-ball movement would be the highest priority in order to exploit the space left open from PSV’s pressing. But early on, Barca were unable to capitalize and take advantage of PSV’s setup.
On this play, PSV press incredibly high up the pitch but this tactic leaves open space across the pitch. Barca recognize this and they play upfield quickly but the plan halts as PSV pressure Dembele, which results in a loss of possession.
Barca had to be careful throughout the game to not lose possession as PSV were waiting for any opportunity to win the ball back and quickly break on the counter. Any minimal mistake could give PSV a chance to win back possession and allow both Lozano and Bergwijn to pace upfield on the flanks.
Barca needed to respond to this tactic and early on, Coutinho was the most active player on the pitch that had tremendous success against PSV’s backline. His ability to weave in and challenge PSV gave them problems to the point where they responded with double-teams when he approached the box. At times, Coutinho created goal-scoring chances just off from his off-ball movement and short passes.
See here how Coutinho completed three passes in succession while pacing upfield into the box as he received an aerial ball from Suarez.
Many of the early attacks from Barca had some sort of involvement from Coutinho. Here again, Coutinho is able to create just enough space from his defender to deliver a pass into the box to where Messi, who called for the ball, was able to get a shot off.
Just like he did in the 2nd half against Real Sociedad, Coutinho’s impact was immense in the attack. Along with Messi, Coutinho stepped up by taking risks in the passage of play. His zig-zag movement neutralized PSV’s press. His ability to attempt through balls and aerial balls into the box opened up play by getting multiple players involved in the attack.
Aside from the impact of Coutinho and also of Messi, Barcelona were sluggish throughout the 1st half. PSV were not able to successfully contain Coutinho or Messi but the ineffectiveness of the rest of the Barca team allowed for PSV to stick with their gameplan. PSV stayed true to their defensive shape and tactic of an overload press as it worked to what Van Bommel had hoped for. Since Barca lacked efficient team off-ball movement or sufficient individual runs, PSV did not have to constantly move players across the pitch to trap and overload the ball carrier. When they needed to, PSV converged multiple players in order to keep Barca away from the box.
On this play, PSV did not panic as they cleared the ball away from the box twice and ultimately had Barca settle for a low percentage, outside the box.
Barca were finally able to break through with a Messi free kick goal but other than that, the team was lackluster in the 1st half. They were slow and passive when in possession. Aside from Coutinho and Messi, Barca lacked the sense of urgency to continually challenge PSV’s backline and force them to win duels. Barca finished with four shots on goal in the 1st half but PSV goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet was not challenged much in open play.
Heading into the 2nd half, Barca had to be more decisive in the attacking third. PSV’s pressing left too much open space for the taking. Barca had to be more advantageous and daring to facilitate an attack. Since both Messi and Coutinho had great success against PSV’s backline, the rest of the attacking unit had to find a way to put both players in positions to where they are able to exploit space or cut inside.
Early on in the 2nd half, it was more of the same as Barca dominated possession but did not orchestrate much in the attacking third. Coutinho and Messi were both left with the responsibilities of carrying the attack.
See here where Coutinho is positioned on the pitch as a midfielder with space available upfront. In this sequence, the conservative decision would be to pass it backwards to either Rakitic or Busquets but Coutinho had other plans in mind.
Now see how this entire sequence plays out as Coutinho elects to distribute a pass to Messi and immediately wins the ball back. Thus, Coutinho shifts his movement into the open space with ease after passing it out. The sequence is ultimately unsuccessful as Coutinho is unable to receive a pass back in the box as Suarez ends up taking a chip shot.
In the end, Barca were able to score three more goals with two coming from Messi and one from Dembele. Both of Messi’s goals saw brilliant display of team play in the attacking third as Suarez and Rakitic supplied passes to Messi that he scored without much of a problem. When Barca are quickly moving the ball in the attacking third, they are tough to contain.
On Messi’s 2nd goal, he is able to freely cut inside and receive a chip pass from Rakitic in the box.
Valverde finished out the contest by subbing in Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Clement Lenglet. The team once again switched to a conservative stance to conclude the game but unlike in previous fixtures this season, Barca were not forced to tightly defend a one goal lead.
As he did after the Sociedad fixture, Valverde might feel content with the win but knows that the team could have performed much better in the opening 75 minutes of the game. In the final 15 minutes of the game, Barca played with more precision in the attacking third like they did against Huesca earlier in the season. Overall, Barca have work to do in order to get the ball rolling faster and with purpose in the attacking third on a consistent game-by-game basis. Barca must play collectively as a unit and not rely on Messi and Coutinho to generate the majority of the attacking sequences.
But as the old saying goes, a win is a win and it means even more in a Champions League fixture.
Next up for Barcelona is a home La Liga game against Girona.