Generally speaking, there are two strategies to deal with the Barcelona possession game. The first, and most often used, is to sit back, hunker down, and hope to hit Barca on the break. The downside is that you must rely on your team to play cohesive defence that can stop a front three that are near impossible to stop individually. Most teams will play this way simply because they do not have the talent to play otherwise.
The second style is to match Barcelona’s play. You press when you don’t have the ball and when you do, you work on your short passing to try and retain possession, thus dictating some of the tempo. This is very hard to do, primarily because Barcelona are the best at this style and, again, it takes a lot of talent to match. Only a few teams can play their game and stand a chance at winning.
Paris Saint-Germain entered their round of 16 Champions League first leg with Barcelona at a disadvantage. In terms of form, they’d blown a chance to finish top their group. They were chasing Monaco in the league. And to make things worse they were missing a few key players. So how do you stop the most dominant club of the 21st century who had already knocked you from the Champions League twice this decade?
You play to the emotion. The Parc de Princes was electric with fans who were loud from the start. The team undoubtedly fed off of that to implement an aggressive plan. PSG came out in a fluid, pressing 4-2-3-1 that from the whistle pressed Barcelona up the entire field. They flooded the midfield and Unai Emery had his men interchanging all over the pitch. In the first ten minutes, every time a Barcelona player had the ball, a blue shirt was closing him down or harassing him from behind. Every ball was treated like a loose ball and Barcelona simply came out flat. The energetic style of play caught them flatfooted and unable to adjust.
Emery’s line-up was a bit of a gamble in a few senses. Marco Verratti was just coming back from a calf injury, but he held up long enough to be a vital distributor for the goal scorers. His tandem partner Adrien Rabiot was the man-of-the-match, playing a stifling defense to protect a good but shuffled backline while allowing the midfielders to roam and attack. While Cavani, who is expected to score, got his later in the match, it was the mercurial Angel Di Maria who played his best match in a long while. Di Maria is a notorious hot and cold player, but it was he world class Argentine who showed up in this match.
Despite the flurry of attacking play and domination from the beginning, PSG’s pressing style could have backfired. Teams who play this way lose energy quickly especially when the results are not positive. Prior to the first goal, Barcelona was beginning to dominate possession, as they usually do. The Di Maria free kick goal, however, allowed PSG the necessary tactical breathing room. With the metaphorical win at their backs, Emery at times called off the press in the Barcelona half and had his men begin pressing once Barcelona began build-up play. Other times, especially on a turnover, the press was back on, not allowing Barcelona to get into a rhythm but permitting PSG to play aggressively in different ways.
The 4-0 score line was flattering to the La Liga side – they were outclassed and outplayed so badly that they could have lost by more. PSG and Unai Emery correctly chose to feed off the emotion of the match and play a frenetic press, confident that it would unsettle Barcelona enough to grab an early lead they could hold. That they certainly did.