Another guest appearance from Peter, with this preview of today’s match.
Here’s one important thing to know about PSG. The Proud Sons of Gaul are unbeaten so far both domestically and in the Champions League. After 16 rounds in Ligue 1 and five matches in the Champions League, Paris-Saint-Germain is the only top team in Europe not to know defeat in all competitions. Let that one sink in. Seventeen matches in Ligue 1, five in the Champions League, PSG have never walked off the pitch without points. Also, they are second in Ligue 1.
No, it’s not wrong math. Apart from being unbeaten, PSG are also the top team in Europe with most draws, eight to be precise. Missing Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic often can lead to this – T.Silva did not play in six of the eight draws, whereas Ibra missed four of the eight. Here is something even more interesting: PSG drew only once when both Ibra and Silva played – on opening day, against Reims. Ibra scored two goals, in the 7th and the 63rd minute, but it wasn’t enough to overwhelm a stubborn Reims, which managed to withstand the ceaseless tidal wave of Parisian Blue desperately trying to get away with the three points.
As you well remember, neither Ibra nor Silva were in the team which defeated Barcelona at Parc des Princes. I am opening that wound so that you get a real picture of what is really in for Barcelona tomorrow. Thiago Silva is recovered. Ibrahimovic has recovered. The cold truth is this: If Barcelona wants the top spot, it needs to win, against the undefeated Gauls’ finest, come hell or high water.
As mentioned, right now PSG are in second place, one point off table leaders Olympique de Marseille, who are coached by none other than Pep and Tata’s Obi-Wan, His Loconess Marcelo Bielsa. PSG won that match, at home, with a goal in each half, but could’ve gone at least two-nil down in the opening ten minutes. Still, it’s the end result that matters, and PSG took the three points, which maintains them in the struggle for the title.
Laurent Blanc has brought every available player for the match, underlying its importance for the whole team, not just the lucky 18 who will get to suit up for the match.
So how do PSG score their goals?
Like previous opponent Valencia, PSG use their flanks A LOT, even more than Barcelona. This tactic is combined with long balls, both to the sides and to the center. The reasoning is simple – PSG’s attackers have lots of pace (Lucas Moura, Lavezzi, Cavani, Ibrahimovic) and height (Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Pastore) which gives them a distinct advantage in claiming the first ball. From there the ball can be passed wide to stretch the defense and give time to the strikers to get in central positions for the resulting crosses in order to take advantage of Cavani and Ibra´s height; another often used method is nodding down the ball to on-rushing players from the second line, or, if the ball is delivered close to the box, directly attempting to score. Such long balls are often launched either by the defense or by the wide midfielders (Veratti and Pastore) when they are in deep positions, usually when the team is sitting deep and tries to take advantage of the high defensive line of the opponent.
It works very well because Cavani and Ibrahimovic are both very tall and very good at holding their markers at arm´s length. There is lots of space behind the defense, and while one striker(Ibra or Cavani for example) is in a forward position and drawing the CBs, the other is trailing that trio, maintaining a position between the lines and looking for an opening. On occasion Ibra has done a reverse of that – he tracks back and draws forward the CB, who don’t mark him closely due to both his physical superiority, but also because they realize they are leaving the whole central avenue (better said boulevard) wide open. Ibra receives the ball between the lines, controls it and then sends it over the CBs’s heads for the darting Lavezzi and Cavani.
Crosses in the area: A favourite target is the back post, with a steep cross that curves away from the keeper. This fulfills two purposes: the trajectory practically bypasses the opposing CBs, the curvature does not permit the keeper to step forward and claim it, and the steeply arriving ball can be used either for a header or a kick – and it doesn’t require a tall player. Veratti is 1.65.
Crosses to the zone of the near post are usually low, with the intention that Ibra for example will be able to control the ball and shield it, and then conjure up a goal. It has worked.
Another tactic, which relies a lot on the dribbling and pace of Lucas Moura is to send him the ball, have him overcome the fullback and sprint to the side of the box hopefully drawing the left CB out of position and cutting to the unmarked striker in central positions. That’s the basic modus operandi, and in general it works, despite Ibra’s numerous injuries this season.
PSG has a very strong starting eleven in midfield and in attack, and its central defender duo are starting Brazil CBs Thiago Silva and David Luiz, backed by the veteran(35 years old) Camara and Marquinhos.
In attack it boasts The Zlatan, Cavani and perhaps not so talented, but very willing and hardworking player in Lavezzi. In midfield, Thiago Motta is starting anchor, often accompanied by Veratti, considered by many the answer to Squadra Azurri’s problem when at some point Andrea Pirlo decides that he has to retire. Lucas Moura has dribbling, speed and physicality in buckets, which makes him so dangerous out wide. When he plays behind the three strikers, he creates a lot of danger by sliding in the open space behind the backs of the defense, which for its part is focused on the strikers. This allows Moura to receive a cut back pass or a high cross in the area at the far post in direct proximity of goal, with potentially fatal consequences. Pastore and enforcer Matiudi complete the roster.
The main goalscoring threats so far have been Cavani with 12 in all competitions, Ibra with 9 and Lucas Moura with 6, but a total of thirteen players have scored this season, and against Barcelona last time the goals were scored by David Luiz, Veratti and Matiudi. Lucas Moura in particular is enjoying a sensational season. As of today, with less than half the season gone, he has scored more goals this season than in the whole of last. His assists have suffered a bit and his chance creating as well, but that is to be expected when he’s much more the recipient than the creator. Still, Lucas has given more key passes than any other PSG player.
The main assisters, and this stat will illustrate much better the way PSG plays, are wide mids Pastore and Veratti, and fullbacks Maxwell and Van der Wiel.
But on the bright side…
Enough scares? Okay, let’s turn to defensive issues. Yes, they exist. PSG has kept a total of seven clean sheets domestically, conceding 12 goals in the process, and another four in the Champions League. It has conceded in a total of 13 of the 22 matches played.
The Parisians often mark quite loosely, something which will probably change tonight, but a lot of the goals they concede are from leaving too much space for the opposition strikers. The defense suffers when it has to track back under pressure and fast combinations on the move make them very nervous. However, the greatest issue is ball tunnel vision. More than once PSG has been found lacking due to the fact that up to four defenders concentrate their movement and attention on the player with the ball. The problem with that is that they lose sight of the attackers they are supposed to mark, often at the far post. Another problem has been opposition strikers fading away. When a cross is played from wide after a fast counter or a fast attack, the attackers terminate their dash a fraction earlier. Since the PSG defense has its eyes on the ball, the defenders continue their defensive runs until the last moment, assuming that the strikers are still off their shoulder. The result is that opposing strikers have the time and space to concentrate on the incoming ball, which in many cases overflies the PSG defense.
PSG’s defenders are, I believe, susceptible to errors from pressing. Lack of pressing from the opposition strikers allows the fullbacks to run forward and create threats and opportunities, allows defenders to send accurate long balls to the tall strikers up front, with all unpleasant consequences.
A draw is as good as a win
PSG does not need to win. It needs to stop Barcelona from winning. Still, I believe we will see a similar game to the previous one, with a lot of flank attacks, and there will be targeting of the Barcelona pivot. I expect a solid defense under the guidance of Thiago Silva, with the rest of the team dropping back to press and harass.
I cannot really point out a key element in tonight’s clash. They are all vital. Midfield control is important, very much so, but I believe even more important will be the flank battles, especially on the Barcelona left, and increased aerial duels efficiency. If the striker team presses the defense successfully, then Pique and Mathieu, and Alba will have an easier time dealing with Lucas, Cavani and Ibra, but even more importantly, it could mean ball recovery in the defensive third of PSG, which would lead to instability and turnovers due to wayward passing under pressure. Chances are created by that.
Blanc is coming with everyone and everything he has. He has not responded on whether Ibrahimovic will start. Last week PSG’s medics announced that Ibra’s ongoing heel problems will prevent him from playing every game this season and the prevailing wisdom was that he will be reserved for Camp Nou, but then Zlatan started against Nantes and scored two goals after Nantes had gone forward. What Blanc has stated, is that this game will be played with a total of fourteen players. There will be no backing down, from either side.
For the Barcelona players this is an opportunity to show themselves, Luis Enrique, the culers and the entorno that this team is coming together. It’s an opportunity to vindicate themselves from the jeers and the ire of the critics. It’s a chance to show the mettle of Mathieu, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Suarez and Luis Enrique. To lay a claim and do what no other team has managed so far this season.
This one is for all the marbles. Gut check.