Much has already been made of the decimation of Barcelona by PSG in the Champions League, round of sixteen first leg.
Talk of shifting power balances, of Barcelona to PSG and Messi to Mbappé rage on weeks later. Not that they are unwarranted, given the level of display put on that night at the Camp Nou.
One must also remember that PSG re embarking on their own transition phase. Less than two months into the Mauricio Pochettino project, Paris Saint Germain are far from the finished project. The Argentine, and former player of the club, has not been brought in to put the finishing touches on a working-progress-masterpiece. Theirs is a top heavy, misshapen squad requiring elite coaching and man management to elevate them. Thomas Tuchel could not do it, so now the task is bestowed upon Pochettino.
What these opening eight to ten weeks have shown is a brilliant midfield arrangement. In Leandro Paredes and Marco Verratti, the basic ingredients were all there. Pochettino’s touch however has turned this twosome, plus one of Ander Herrera or Idrissa Gueye, into an elite unit.
If Mbappé wielded the axe above Barca’s neck that night, it was the midfield that cuffed them and slumped them over the chopping block.
The preferred PSG trio
The focus of this analysis will be the Champions League win over Barcelona. The quality and tactical nous of that performance points to a preferred Pochettino arrangement for European ties.
At Tottenham he rarely deviated from a 4-2-3-1 barring from the occasional 3-4-3. Two holding players would screen the defence and allow for a floatier, creative attacking midfielder to be player ahead. In Ligue 1 games this will likely be the case in Paris. Such is the dominance held over teams in the lower half of the table that it is unlikely Pochettino will set up his teams in any way but a 4-2-3-1. This will allow an attacking quartet featuring Mbappé, Neymar, Moise Kean and Angel Di Maria, enough to steamroller most opposition.
In Europe, PSG will more likely shift to a 4-3-3. Again, this may be the upward shift in opposition quality that prompts this, forcing Pochettino to sure up his central areas so not to be overrun. Equally, the desperation within the club itself to lay their hands on the trophy, might spark a similar reaction.
At the Camp Nou, this trio was Leandro Paredes, Idrissa Gueye and Marco Verratti. Any two are capable of playing in a double pivot should the need for surplus attack be required. Played in a three, and on paper it might do little to inspire ideals of attacking fluency. Gueye was substituted at half time after being booked early, and appeared on a set course for expulsion had he continued. Ander Herrera replaced him, and filled much the same role. Seizing on miscontrolled passes, and protecting the more progressive duo around him.
Paredes and Verratti have only started seven of a possible twelve competition starts between them this season. The load management of Verratti means he is often withheld if necessary to protect his body. Together, with one of Gueye or Herrera however, they make up PSG’s best midfield.
The respective roles
In the Barcelona fixture, Paredes and Gueye (latterly Herrera) formed the defensive screen ahead of the PSG centre backs. Yet rather than this be to allow Verratti creative license, it instead gave the Italian a more niche pressing role.
Michael Cox wrote a superb piece detailing this role. Effectively, Verratti’s freer position meant he could harry and chase the Barcelona midfield out of possession. Sergio Busquets especially was thrown off course by this constant, waspish pressure, causing him unbalance and unable to recycle play as he wished. Frenkie De Jong was better placed to deal with it, being a quicker mover and seemingly now quicker thinker than the senior Spaniard. Even still, Verratti’s buzzing presence discomforted the Barcelona centre, without which they could not establish a modicum of control.
This was not to say that Verratti was playing as a ’10’ however. He pressed and defended from the front as an aggressive ’10’ would, think early Pochettino years Dele Alli. The Italian still pulled alongside his fellow midfielders when conserving his press however, and also looked to move even deeper to move the ball himself.
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Paredes occupied a more familiar role. The Argentine is now into his second full season in Paris after his arrival in 2019. It perhaps has taken until the last six months for the wider opinion of him to change. His performances in the latter stages of the 2020 Champions League took the perception of Paredes being a peripheral squad player, to central metronome; enabler of the side’s superstars.
Not known for lung busting stamina, nor speed across the ground, Paredes is a conductive presence. Best when anchored at the foot of midfield, his ball progression is the side’s conduit from back to front. Both Verratti and Paredes feature within Ligue 1’s top 10 progressive passer. This is despite each playing only 16 out of 26 potential games, so their volume of progression per game is enormous.
That Barcelona tie
This current incarnation of Barcelona is far from its heyday of the late 2000s. Gone are the days of the dominant central midfield, shifting passing triangles across the pitch and controlling tempo. Sergio Busquets remains from that great iteration, and his personal decline with age symptomizes this long term change.
The seasoned Spaniard anchored the Barca midfield, behind Pedri and De Jong who acted as parallel attacking midfielders. This created a man for man midfield contest. The two advanced Barcelona midfielders head to head with the regressed, deeper PSG duo of Paredes and Gueye. This left the key battle of Verratti and Busquets.
PSG were happy to allow the home side to rotate the ball deep between their centre backs. The Barcelona central defenders played more passes than anyone on the pitch. Gerard Pique completed every one of his seventy passes, showing the disinterest shown by the away side in pressing this high. Yet their midfield was crowded out, with Verratti dynamic and unpredictable in his pressing. Busquets would be rushed, and De Jong chased down should he receive the ball higher.
Verratti and Paredes on the other hand dictated PSG’s possession. Both featured in the side’s top three passers for the match, with Paredes spreading play delightfully. The Argentine completed ten of his sixteen long passes, looking to isolate the home side’s wide defenders against their electric wingers. The pair’s ability to skip the limited Barca press was crucial. They completed seventeen pressured passes between them, compared to just five between the Barcelona midfield.
Rather than play Barcelona at their own passing game, PSG sought to win the central contest differently. Paredes would seldom look back in favour of a long, raking pass. Failing that, the shifting positions of Verratti were the next progressive channel to find. Verratti was quick in carrying and in shifting the ball, bypassing any closing down attempt. He completed all five of his dribbles, receiving the ball from those deeper and skipping away from challenges. Again, Pedri, De Jong and Busquets completed only one between them. The dynamism and agility of the PSG midfield, shown starkly by the sluggishness of Busquets, proved the difference.
PSG would romp to a 4-1 win. Mbappé’s hattrick buried a modern institution, wheeling away in front of Lionel Messi at the conclusion of the rout. Verratti and Paredes both assisted goals. Verratti flicked delightfully for Mbappé to hammer home the first. Paredes swung a sumptuous free kick for Moise Kean to head home. Yet it was the second assist for Mbappé’s second that proved Paredes’ brilliance in this tie.
Sitting deep, with Verratti to his left and Herrera ahead of him, he spots the right back Florenzi’s run. Barcelona are stretched thin, with the full backs unable to react to the sharp verticality of the right back. Pedri and De Jong close down Paredes fruitlessly. The Argentine cuts a pass at a 45 degree angle over to Florenzi, unperturbed by any pressure. The cut back by the right back finds Mbappé, but it was the vision and nonchalance of Paredes that executed the move.
Beating Barcelona is one thing, at home is another, and humiliating their coveted midfield is another thing altogether. Paredes and Verratti’s speed of thought, and receptiveness to foray into new areas, proved the difference. even with two young, vibrant midfield additions to Busquets, the Barcelona formula expected of a midfielder looked lost and outdated.
Bizarre as it sounds, PSG will face tougher tests than Barcelona if they are to win their first Champions League. The likes of Bayern Munich and Man City represent more cohesive challenges than a Barcelona side lacking confidence. Pochettino’s duo of Paredes and Verratti, coupled with Herrera or Gueye, at this stage seem equipped to tackle the needs of any European contest. Defensive intelligence without sacrificing aggressive pressing, pass creation nor ball progression, is a rare recipe.
Pochettino cultivated such a blend at Tottenham. Within a matter of months in the French capital, it appears he has mixed a similar cocktail. One capable of bringing home ‘Old Big Ears’ back to Paris for the first time.
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