From the opening minute of last night’s Champions League encounter against Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain made their intentions clear. Immediately both full-backs pressed high up the pitch, with Marco Verratti dropping back to avoid being outnumbered by Barcelona’s front three. Yet this soon looked unnecessary as the Catalan giants adopted a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 (With Lionel Messi behind Luis Suarez) when their opponents had the ball.
In only the second minute Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was under pressure in the away side’s goal. Chased down first by Edison Cavani and followed by Angel Di Maria, the keeper was forced into a rushed pass that soon led to conceding possession deep inside their own half.
This pattern repeated itself throughout the opening stages. The Parisians continuously chased down their opponents, denying them time and space to exercise any coherent passing. By advancing and retreating as a single unit the French side were able to control the opening stages; even with 10 men in their defensive third – and Cavani close by – they appeared most comfortable.
After 18 minutes the dominance paid off, Julian Draxler’s reactions too good for Samuel Umtiti who carelessly tripped him on the edge of the area. Step up Di Maria to dispatch the resulting free-kick. Suarez had ducked and broke from the wall which had made it all to easy; a lack of defensive commitment which strike partner Messi would later repeat.
Shortly after the goal a Barcelona corner found its way back to Ter Stegen as the Spanish side failed to cope with the game’s pace. PSG contrasted the approach of their counterparts by showing reluctance in sending the ball back to goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. Even when this was the simplest option they preferred to turn and distribute possession into less dangerous areas.
On the home team’s right flank Di Maria and Thomas Meunier combined excellently throughout, occasionally leaving space for Neymar – Barcelona’s most threatening player – to burst into. Following the opening stages PSG looked assured in covering this space; with Verratti, Adrien Rabiot and the centre backs all showing great positional awareness.
Around the half hour mark the Catalans finally grew into the game, keeping the ball higher up the pitch but producing little in terms of goal scoring opportunity. They would be soon made to pay.
In the brief build up to PSG’s second goal, the French champions had five players in the opposing half. When Messi then dwindled and lost possession after two challenges there was a 6v6 opportunity. Messi remained static after losing out and handed PSG the incentive by doing so. With Jordi Alba out of position, Draxler, who occasionally switched flanks with Di Maria, was able to expose space around Umtiti as the defender haplessly stepped inside. The German shooting expertly back across goal with his weaker right foot, 2-0.
Barcelona surprisingly returned for the second half unchanged, in both personnel and approach. With a comfortable two goal cushion, PSG tweaked their game plan to allow the opposition more time on the ball. However even this was carefully planned and superbly executed. Whenever Umtiti had the ball, the French side allowed him to stroll forward whilst they reorganised and prepared to pounce on who/where ever he passed to. In contrast, when Gerard Pique was in possession they took turns to press, restricting time on the more composed and accurate distributor. In addition to being extremely effective, this strategy reduced the risk of players tiring as the match progressed.
On PSG’s left flank Draxler continued a trend of beating Andre Gomes with ease and frequently troubled Sergi Roberto. The only surprise when Gomes was replaced being that it hadn’t happened sooner; dangerously losing possession to Rabiot after the third goal was breaking point.
Ten minutes into the second half it was 3-0. On this occasion Trapp starts with the ball and gives it to Rabiot who dropped back to receive. Despite being under pressure from Messi and Suarez the 21-year-old comes away with the ball. Three passes later it reaches Di Maria who is bizarrely left unchallenged and able to bend the ball beyond Ter Stegen’s reach.
Impressively, and credit to Unai Emery the PSG manager, his side continued to attack. On at least one occasion having eight players in the opposing half despite a three goal advantage. Di Maria and Verratti were both replaced, by Lucas Moura and Christopher Nkunku respectively, and they responded by scoring a fourth.
In similar fashion to the third goal, Trapp was involved again, as the Parisians needed just three passes to get from goalkeeper to Cavani, who finished well towards the near post on his 30th birthday. Most credit should got to Meunier for his work in-between, easily beating Neymar, before progressing unchallenged through midfield and setting up the Uruguayan.
Barcelona’s best move of the match came on 79 minutes from a Messi diagonal ball to Alba, who found Neymar only to slice wide. Five minutes later they came closest to scoring, with Umtiti involved more positively but only finding the post with his header from a corner.
PSG were aided by the substitutes, who all continued the impressive work of their teammates. Lucas was beating players with ease and charged forwards, just as Verratti had, and being able to call on Javier Pastore for the closing stages shows what great depth the squad has.
Barcelona were no doubt poor, succumbing to their joint worst European result and lucky to lose by only four. It was strange to see a top side play so abjectly in an important Champions League tie, with many of their star names appearing unwilling to defend and showing little desire. Possession counts for nothing when mustering only a single shot on goal.
PSG deserve the plaudits, especially Rabiot in midfield. His contributions will of course be overshadowed by Di Maria’s goal scoring but the Frenchman was at the heart of the game-plan.
It will be interesting to see which players line up for both sides in the second leg, and if PSG can cause further damage, but otherwise this tie is finished.