PSG 4- Barca 0 AKA By Failing to Prepare, You are Preparing to Fail
When PSG’s right back, Thomas Meunier went for a free stroll through Barca’s mess of midfield, threading a ball for the in form Cavani to score, one word came to mind: Inevitable. But before I delve into everything that went wrong, first what went right…not for Barca anyway.
A coach known for his tactical acumen, leading Sevilla to a hat-trick of Europa Leagues, Unai Emery is experienced in navigating cup ties. Before Tuesday’s massacre, Emery had faced FC Barcelona as the manager of 4 different football teams. In 23 meetings, he’d only won once, with his previous team Sevilla, a 2-1 win in 2015 that ironically kicked off a 39 unbeaten streak for his Catalan counterparts. It had never been for lack of trying, Emery almost always had his tactics down pat, losing most times to a vastly superior side in terms of quality than on the drawing board. On February 14th, 2017, the stars aligned. For the first time, Emery was on the touchline for a team who could match up fairly well against Barca in terms of quality while providing that team with the organization and tactics necessary to dismantle FC Barcelona. PSG resembled a fine tuned machine, transitioning easily between a staunch defence and a fluid attack. But not even Emery in his wildest dreams could imagine just how easy his opposite number made it for him.
Simply put, Luis Enrique got this one all kinds of wrong. Unai Emery was able to exploit the issues that many people have seen from this version of Barca in the past year and ruthlessly exposed Lucho’s tactical flaws. By seizing control of the poor midfield spacing that has been apparent throughout this season, and the imbalance of Barca’s right flank, PSG were able to dominate the game while remaining well organized in defence. However, all these issues were compounded through the selection from the onset.
Personally, on viewing the line-up, it made sense but hindsight is indeed 20/20. Andres Iniesta easily one of the greatest midfielders ever, should not have started this game. Since his return from injury 3 games ago, Iniesta has looked devoid of match fitness which is surprising considering his earlier injury this season where he slotted in perfectly against Real Madrid, providing the impetus in midfield the team needed. However, circumstances were different, Madrid themselves were not particularly impressive and had handed the initiative to Barcelona. Against a dynamic, incisive and physical midfield such as PSG’s a half fit Iniesta was frankly lost in the shuffle and as a manager with all kinds of data available to him, it was up to Luis Enrique to bite the bullet and keep his treasured midfielder on the bench.
Furthermore, as has been highlighted before, the transitions on the right side of midfield in attack and defence are key to this Barca side. It took Ivan Rakitic half a season before he was able to click into his role completely. In Lucho’s system, the right midfielder resembles a hybrid of a RCM and RW. When Messi drops deep, it is that player’s responsibility to keep the team’s width attack, as a winger. Therefore, playing Gomes, a new midfielder who had more experience at either defensive midfield or LCM, in an unnatural position with so much responsibility in a crucial away game was begging for trouble. Gomes was constantly caught between two roles, neither of which he was particularly used to. Inevitably, PSG focused their intent on that flank often double teaming a hapless Roberto. For this particular match, Lucho essentially fit square pegs into round hole and it showed. Our ‘midfield’- and I use that term loosely was spread thin with Busquets trying to put fires out all over the pitch. As a team, Barca was far too open with Verratti and Di Maria gleefully passing between the lines, allowing for constant danger.
The saddest part this season is that this was Déjà vu for Enrique and his team. Once again, as a manager he had failed to prepare for a pressing side with a quality midfield, once again his team was made to be all too vulnerable and once again, Barca paid the price for Luis Enrique’s inability to react.