Barcelona – Paris Saint-Germain: Majestic Mbappé Tears Apart Barcelona (1-4)

Barcelona took the lead through a Lionel Messi penalty, but were punished for an unstable man-oriented defensive scheme, with the first two goals conceded through wide spaces created by defensive weakness between fullback and winger. Mbappé menaced throughout and was able to complete his hattrick late in the game on the counterattack after Kean’s contribution had put the game away from Barcelona’s reach.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley

Barcelona finished second in Champions League Group G behind group winners Juventus, after a 3-0 defeat to the Italian side on the final matchday. On the domestic front, Barcelona find themselves third in LaLiga, owing largely to a poor start to the season under Ronald Koeman. Coming into this game however, they now find themselves on a better run of results, unbeaten in LaLiga since the start of November and with currently seven consecutive league wins.

Paris Saint-Germain lost twice in the opening round of Champions League Group H matches and looked as if they might be in danger of not qualifying from the group. However, key wins against group rivals RB Leipzig and Manchester United in the second round of fixtures secured their place in the knockout rounds. 

Since then, PSG have had a change of coach as manager Thomas Tuchel departed and Mauricio Pochettino arrived. For this match, Pochettino made two changes to the PSG lineup which beat Nice at the weekend. At right back, Alessandro Florenzi replaced Thilo Kehrer, and at the number ten slot in their 4-2-3-1 shape, Marco Verratti stepped in for Julian Draxler. 

For Barcelona, Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé made up the front three, while in central midfield in their 4-3-3 system was Sergio Busquets alongside Frenkie de Jong and Pedri. Sergiño Dest then completed the back four alongside regulars Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Jordi Alba. 

Variations in PSG midfield pressing

While PSG’s starting formation was nominally a 4-2-3-1 shape, there were also plenty of phases with and without the ball where their shape would adapt into more of a 4-3-3 setup. This was largely down to the movements of Verratti, who moved freely from his initial number ten position. 

Without the ball then, Verratti could initially be seen in a left central midfield position in what appeared as a 4-3-3 defensive scheme for PSG. In this case, Leandro Paredes was the central player in the midfield three and Idrissa Gueye was to his right. 

With the 4-3-3 shape, PSG’s wingers usually tried not to get pushed back too far,staying relatively advanced and tried to maintain horizontal compactness in the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. PSG did give up some space in the wide areas in this shape, and Barca were able to play in the zones beside the PSG central midfielders at times to get out of central pressure. 

Alternatively, especially in some higher pressing scenes, PSG played more clearly in a 4-2-3-1 arrangement, where Verratti remained in the number ten position and would mark Busquets, while Gueye and Paredes could also mark their respective opponents De Jong and Pedri. These were the scenes where PSG were able to impose themselves on Barcelona with a bit more aggression, and make it hard for Koeman’s side to play their own game. 

Messi’s role

The false nine role is something Messi is no stranger to for Barcelona, and this game once again saw him return to this role in the context of a 4-3-3 system. On the one hand, this took him further from goal, but on the other, he was key in starting Barcelona’s better attacking moves from deep, their attacking momentum. 

Usually, one might expect Messi to be more oriented towards the right halfspace, but this focus was not always that strong in this game, at least in key scenes. Early in the first half for example, he dropped deep in the left halfspace to play a line breaking pass for Pedri higher in the left halfspace, who then set up a good chance for Griezmann.

Barcelona in possession.

The left halfspace was generally a bit more active for Barcelona, as Griezmann could drop in here from the left side as well to combine with the likes of Messi and Pedri, while Alba as always offered a threat overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. from left back with well-timed runs. 

The role of the central midfielders for Barcelona was naturally key given Messi’s role. Pedri often picked up good positions advanced in the left halfspace as already alluded to. De Jong could also break forward into more advanced positions to ensure Barcelona had depth to threaten the PSG backline.

The key notable example of this was of course the penalty he won in the first half, where he ran into the box to try and reach Messi’s searching pass from deep. He was tripped by Kurzawa and Messi converted the resulting penalty to put Barcelona 1-0 up. 

Barcelona’s man-orientations unstable

Only five minutes after Messi’s opener, PSG equalized courtesy of Kylian Mbappé. The goal featured two prominent aspects of the PSG possession phases in the game, which were the individual prowess of Verratti and Mbappé, as well as the potential instability of Barcelona’s man-oriented defensive scheme. 

On the first of these points, Verratti played a quite a free role in PSG’s possession phase. He started mainly around the left halfspace, and popped up across midfield and looked secure in possession and knitted things together well.

PSG in possession.

As for Mbappé, he was an outlet for PSG at all times from the left wing position and constantly troubled Dest with his speed and dribbling. Even with longer passes hit towards him, he had the physical advantage over Dest to outplay him and force Barcelona onto the back foot. 

More generally on a collective level, there were also some issues for Barca. The central midfielders acted man-oriented towards their direct opponents, and PSG’s three central midfielders including Verratti could end up quite deep.

In these cases, Barcelona’s midfielders could end up leaving large spaces in their number six zone where the likes of Kean and Mbappé or the dropping Mauro Icardi could get pockets of space to exploit. 

The second issue, which would prove directly damaging for Barcelona’s scoreline was related to the roles of the wingers and fullbacks, who were man-marking against their direct opponents. For Dest and Alba, this meant getting dragged inside somewhat by Kean and Mbappé. 

It would then be down to Dembélé and Griezmann to track their respective PSG fullbacks as they provided width and depth to the away side. Not only did this reduce Barcelona’s presence in pressing the PSG backline and preventing them from controlling the game, it also meant that two forwards who are not necessarily suited to defensive roles had to track their opponents deep. This is what made Barcelona pay in the buildup to Mbappé’s equalizer with Dembélé not tracking Kurzawa’s run when Dest had been dragged inside.


PSG capitalize on Barcelona weakness

Half-time saw the first change of the match made by Pochettino as he removed Gueye, who was on a booking and at risk of being sent off, replacing him like-for-like with Ander Herrera. Barcelona continued to look unconvincing in their defensive scheme, especially when Mbappé got involved and started to disrupt the defense. 

After the hour mark, the defensive problem in wide areas mentioned previously surfaced again. This time it was Griezmann on the left who let Florenzi run in behind him in the space created by Alba being dragged inside by Kean. Florenzi’s ball across the box fell to Mbappé to make it 2-1 to PSG. 

Five minutes later it was 3-1, as Kean got free in the box from an indirect freekick and headed home to extend PSG’s lead. In the following ten minutes Koeman reacted quickly with four changes. Óscar Mingueza immediately replaced Dest at right back. Then, with ten minutes left, there was a triple change as Miralem Pjanić replaced Busquets, Francisco Trincão replaced Pedri, and Riqui Puig replaced Piqué. 

Barcelona now finished the game with a 4-2-3-1 shape with Messi as the number ten behind Griezmann, and Dembélé and Trincão on the wings. Pjanić partnered Puig in midfield, while De Jong moved back to center back. The fullbacks’ positioning was very attacking, and Puig was venturing forward a lot, making Barcelona’s shape look a lot like 2-3-5 at times.

Pochettino made further changes with Draxler providing fresh lets in place of Verratti, and later Danilo replacing Kean for extra presence in defensive midfield while Herrera moved out to the right. Koeman also made his last change, bringing on Martin Braithwaite for Griezmann. 

PSG were now defending a bit deeper against Barcelona who chased the game. Naturally, this left spaces in the Barcelona defensive transition, which is always a worry when facing Mbappé. The Frenchman capitalized with five minutes of regular time left, completing his hattrick with a spectacular counterattacking goal to end the game 4-1 to PSG. 


Barcelona were ultimately disappointing and were overrun by PSG’s attack led by Mbappé. The man-oriented scheme left gaps in the midfield and led to fatal spaces opening up on the wings which Dembélé and Griezmann were arguably not suitable to cover in these roles. 

For PSG it was an impressive performance, led by Verratti’s playmaking and Mbappé’s firepower. Defensively they were solid, and they were able to make the key incursions against Barcelona’s defensive scheme to get the opening two goals. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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