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Mbappe stars as Paris storm the impregnable fortress – How Pochettino did a number on Koeman’s Barca

The most attractive fixture on paper in this Round of 16 of the Champions League pitted 5 times winners Barcelona vs last years beaten finalists Paris Saint Germain. The hosts headed into this first leg tie on the back of a 5-1 demolition of relegation threatened Alaves, managing to get over their 2-0 loss at the hands of Sevilla in the Copa del Rey in the process. Whereas PSG came into this one with 4 wins in 4 in all competitions following victories over Nice and Caen in recent Ligue 1 matchweeks. The Parisian side were hoping to avoid a similar result to the last time they travelled to the Nou Camp where they were emphatically beaten 6-1 and failed to progress thanks to that late 95th minute goal courtesy of Sergio Roberto at this stage of the competition 4 years ago. The first meeting between the 2 sides in this competition came in the 1994/95 season in the quarter final stage, with PSG advancing 3-2 on aggregate with goals from Rai and Vincent Guerrin with Paris emerging victorious 2-1 following a 1-1 draw in Spain. Current Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman even assisted the Barcelona goal whose free kick was met by the head of Jose Mari Bakero. Here we look to break down the tactics and see where the game was won and lost. Firstly, let’s take a look at the starting line ups:

Full time score: Barcelona 1-4 Paris Saint Germain

After Lionel Messi’s penalty Mbappe equalized following some intricate play in the final third and firing into the top corner. He got his second after reacting to a loose ball after Ter Stegen parried Florenzi’s ball across the box and Moise Kean got the away sides third with a free header from an in-swinging free kick from Paredes. Mbappe completed his hat-trick with his pick of the bunch after curling one past the hapless Ter Stegen to finish off a lightning quick counter attack to give PSG a superior advantage heading into the second leg on 10th March. Although the score line suggests a one-sided affair, from a statistical perspective the game was relatively even. The Catalan side just about edged possession by a few percent and also had the higher pass completion rate which was perhaps to be expected. However, the Parisians had both more total attempts and more attempts on target. Furthermore, PSG not only had more chances but created better chances according to the xG score and timeline, with a score of 3.13 in comparison to Barcelona’s 1.67. This emphasizes that they managed to carve out better chances and proved to be a more consistent threat. The stats below show Barcelona’s possession-based mentality however highlight PSG’s clinical ability in the final third:

This result leaves Barcelona with an uphill task to qualify in the second leg, this loss being the first time in their history they have lost consecutive home matches in the Champions League after their 3-0 defeat to Juventus on Matchday 6. This result also means that PSG become the second French team to beat Barcelona in the Nou Camp after Metz beat them in the 1984/85 Cup Winners Cup, ironically by the same score line. With Mauricio Pochettino connections with Barcelona’s rivals Espanyol, this result has added some gloss to a perfect away display. With ruthless final third finishing, efficient use of exploiting the transition and ability to stay compact whilst defending PSG masterminded a perfect game plan. But how exactly did Pochettino and co do it?

Whilst Barcelona where in possession, PSG set up narrow and compact defending 3/5 pitch zones occupying the central zone and the two respective half spaces – leaving the wide areas vacant. This was an attempt for Barcelona to attempt to stretch the play in possession with forward minded players such as Griezmann, Dembele and Messi looking to pick up the ball and attack with pace. PSG set up narrow and compact centrally in a 4-3-3 shape to encourage Barca to switch play allowing themselves to shuffle across and prevent space centrally for Messi to receive between lines. With no space available centrally, this encouraged Messi to drop deeper to pick up the ball off defenders in an attempt to dictate play from there. With Messi dropping in, third man runners from midfield were encouraged from the likes of Pedri and Frankie De Jong. In this example, Messi is looking to find Pedri between the lines with Alba stretching play as a trap to lure out Alessandro Florenzi.

This out of possession shape was adapted from a 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1 to prevent any switches of play into the wide players. However, this shape can cause problems due to the lack of pressure on the player in possession. With the wide players tucked in protecting the full backs, this meant they weren’t further forward enough to apply pressure on the defence and Messi. As a result, this left Icardi isolated pressuring numerous players. As shown here, the 3rd man runner option of De Jong is exploited due to a lack of communication between Layvin Kurzawa and Presnel Kimpembe. Kimpembe is too attentive on the possibility of the switch to Dembele that there is a big space for De Jong to exploit in the half space. This is how the penalty is won as Messi lofts one behind the back 4 and finds De Jong who is then tripped. Furthermore, the role of Idrissa Gueye is to screen and prevent service to the front man, in this instance Griezmann. If that’s the case the gap between Kimpembe and Marquinhos doesn’t need to be so big as there is no Barca player in the central zone to be aware of. This means Kimpembe needs to be aware of players on his blindside by checking his shoulders to recognize the runs behind the back four such as this one from De Jong.

A large part of Pochettino’s style in possession is to encourage attacking fluidity in the final third, whilst recognizing spaces between the lines to exploit transitions. This was highly evident with his time at Tottenham Hotspur due to the creativity on the ball from Christian Eriksen and the explosiveness of Heung Min Son. This has been replicated at Paris with Mbappe adapting his game to not just look to go in behind, but to receive between lines and use his pace in front of defenders. This is a perfect example of PSG looking to exploit the half spaces in transition in an attempt to disrupt the Barcelona back 4. Icardi plays his part by running along the lines to then get a shot away. These actions result in a shot for Icardi which leaves the back line of Barcelona disjointed and unorganized. In this instance, Mbappe receives a pass between the lines from Leoandro Paredes and drives inside to encourage a press from Barcelona defenders. This leaves Icardi free to be slipped through for a shot on goal.

Another key philosophy of Pochettinho was the effectiveness and energy of advancing full backs. As a result of the forward minded players being allowed a license to express themselves in the final third, this leaves more avenues of attack available down the flanks mainly in the shape of full backs Florenzi and Kurzawa. They are likely to be found with a long switch of play from a central defender who prides themselves on a range of passing in order to unlock opposition defences and ignite the change of tempo and intensity for the attack to begin. Whilst in North London, Toby Alderweireld was mainly responsible for this role looking to find advancing full backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker on the left and right channels respectively. This would be encouraged with Eriksen tucking inside into half spaces to allow an overlapping full back to be free. A holding midfielder in the form of Eric Dier who drop in between centre backs to create a 3-man defence encouraging full backs to push on and create chances in the final third. In this instance space is left available for Kurzawa who is found with a cross-field pass by Marquinhos. This then allows Kurzawa to cross into the box with forwards and third man runners being available.

This continued in the second half with many avenues and opportunities still being created as a result of high full backs. This became even more effective as forward minded players would execute double movements to lure opposition defenders in an attempt to create space in behind. Barcelona were often settling for a back 6 at times with Griezmann and Dembele tasked with tracking the full backs and their forays forward. PSG looked to play direct and forward quickly and effectively looking to exploit spaces in behind with devastating effect. On this occasion, Florenzi runs off the back of Griezmann who doesn’t track his run. He is then found by Paredes who has time to pick the pass after insufficient pressure from Pedri. A decoy movement towards the ball by Kean attracts defenders to vacate even more space for Florenzi to exploit.

The night was rounded off by Mbappe completing his hat-trick after curling past Ter Stegen on the counter attack. Mbappe was by far the star of the rating achieving a variety of praise from press and media alike with French newspaper L’Equipe, known for their notoriously harsh ratings, scoring him a 9/10. Only 11 players in history has been given a perfect 10/10 score from the paper, with Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry being the latest recipient. Mbappe dazzled with everything you might expect from a leading man. Lethal finishing, explosive speed and nimble feet leaving Pique with only a shirt to pull to get close to the Frenchman. Mbappe had more shots, completed more take ons, created more chances and had more touches in the opposition box than any other player. His 3 goal display means he is only the 3rd player to score a champions league hat-trick vs Barcelona after Faustino Asprilla and Andriy Shevchenko both did in 1997 – with Mbappe not even being born at the time. These goals extended his tally for 20 for the season across all competitions, a feat which he has achieved each of his five full seasons at club level. With the 2nd leg taking place on March 10th, Barcelona face an uphill task to qualify for the last 8. To make matters worse they’ll have to play the 2nd leg against a buoyant PSG side with former talisman Neymar likely to be back fit enough to face his former side.

Pochettinho emerged victorious sticking to his key principles:

1. Attack minded and expansive full backs

2. Inverted forward players to utilize half spaces

3. Defensive compactness and solidarity to limit spaces for opposition forwards


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