Yes, Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain. It was unthinkable and amazing and required inhuman levels of self-confidence and Barça deserve lots of credit. But still. PSG. For the love of god, how do you lose that game?
PSG won the first leg 4-0. That score line was entirely deserved. The Parisians were faster, stronger, more tenacious, more motivated, just comprehensively better than their opponents for the entire match. The strategy of very high pressing to gum up Barça’s build-up play and create dangerous attacks from turnovers in Barça territory worked to perfection. For that, they came away with a gigantic, historic victory. Then they threw it all away.
Maybe the biggest cause of PSG’s shocking capitulation was their extremely defensive playing style. One of the main reasons PSG ran over Barcelona in the first leg came was their commitment to high and intense pressing, as Barça have continually demonstrated their susceptibility to this tactic this season. Rather than returning to what worked so well, PSG turtled into a shell, getting every single man behind the ball when Barcelona had possession, and for the most part refusing to come out much further than deep in their own territory out of fear of giving Barcelona too much space to work with.
This kind of defensive-mindedness wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. All PSG had to do was prevent Barça from scoring at least four times and they’d win, and if they could nab a goal of their own, they’d only need to keep Neymar and Co. from beating their keeper six times. Being ultra-safe defensively seems like the obvious strategy here.
Plus, it’s not like defensiveness itself doesn’t work. José Mourinho and Diego Simeone, to name just two managers, have realized all-time great careers by instructing their teams to sit deep and not allow the opponents good scoring opportunities before all else. And especially when only needing to keep Barcelona from either scoring four unanswered goals or six should PSG score once themselves, it makes sense that first-year PSG manager Unai Emery would make shoring up the defense his first and maybe only priority. It’s more how PSG implemented their defensive strategy than the mere fact that they played defensively that doomed them.
Mostly this is down to PSG’s lack of experience with the kind of deep-block defending they attempted yesterday. Emery is known as a defensively sound manager, one who wants his teams to play like a thick slab of granite, too dense and strong to be chiseled through easily, but he’s not a park-the-bus kind of coach. PSG’s players themselves have been drilled in the dominate-the-game-by-dominating-the-ball style preferred by Emery’s predecessor, Laurent Blanc. Thus neither the coach nor the players were particularly well-versed in how best to stand deep in their own half and parry away the impending onslaught of attacks, and it showed.
Along with PSG being ill-suited to play the deep-defending game correctly, their refusal to return to the aggressive pressing of the first leg in favor of the passive, reactive defending proved a bad omen for another reason: It evinced an unmistakable fear. The players looked more afraid of blowing their lead than determined to protect it. It’s why with each goal Barcelona scored PSG’s players appeared increasingly nervous and frantic, as if they’d found themselves characters in a script that they feared would culminate in tragedy and had no idea how to rewrite the ending.
And still, all PSG had to do was not let Barcelona score four times. Or, since they scored a goal of their own to make the game 3-1, to keep Barça from putting three more past them in the final 30 minutes. Finding a way to squander that massive advantage is dumbfounding.
Here’s a play that will almost certainly haunt Edinson Cavani for the rest of his days:
Soon after scoring a much more difficult volley that gave PSG a critical away goal and a desperately needed jolt of confidence, Cavani found himself one-on-one with keeper Marc-André ter Stegen and blew it. Cavani is a very good player and has had an outstanding season (38 goals in 37 matches), but this game is the exact reason why he remains a divisive figure and why PSG would probably like to find an upgrade sooner rather than later.
When giving the ball just a touch or two and then shooting, there are few better pure finishers in the world. But when chances aren’t set up for him on a plate and he has to do more with the ball than just square up to it and hit it, failure and comedy often ensue.
Ángel Di María, the man who caused the most havoc in the first match of the tie, too probably left yesterday’s match with a specific memory that will make him feel like shit for a long time whenever he’s reminded of it:
Sprinting behind two Barça players with only ter Stegen to beat and a wide-open teammate waiting across the box, Di María popped up a terrible shot that came nowhere near hitting the target.
As the slowed down replay shows ...
... and as Javier Mascherano even admitted after the match, Di María was fouled on the play. Still, Di María appears to have gotten off his shot before Mascherano touched him, so if he would’ve a) not hit such a garbage shot that was never going to beat ter Stegen, or b) would’ve slid the ball over to Cavani for him to tap the ball into the net, PSG could’ve easily made the score 3-2 regardless of the ref’s blown call. That second goal would’ve for all intents and purposes ended the tie.
But Cavani didn’t score his one-on-one with Marc-André ter Stegen, and neither did Di María, and PSG couldn’t keep Barcelona from scoring three times in the last ten minutes of the match, so Barcelona won. As monumental a comeback as it was for Barça, it’s just as colossal a choke job by PSG.
For comparison’s sake, take the big match from the day before: the Bayern-Arsenal one. Arsenal, entering the second leg of a tie that was already all but decided coming into the game, were smashed in humiliating fashion thanks primarily to a penalty and red card they got early in the second half. Yet even they only lost by a score of 5-1! A full-strength PSG team got beat worse than a 10-man Arsenal bunch, when all PSG had to do was score once and not let Barcelona score six goddamn times! It is still utterly mind-blowing that PSG let this happen!
Besides Germany’s 7-1 annihilation of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup, it’s difficult to recall any other comparably disastrous match in recent memory. PSG’s task was so simple: just don’t let Barça do something that had never happened before. Instead, scared and unprepared, they proceeded to empty their bowels right there on the pitch. The stench of this one is going to linger for a long time.