This article originally featured on totalfootballanalysis.com, our flagship analysis site covering managers, players and matches from across the globe.
Barcelona travelled to Eindhoven and got the job done. This, for most of the other teams and their fans, would usually be enough. But not for the Blaugrana supporters who demand both the result and the performance. The latter was missing for the most parts of the game against PSV and it did not go unnoticed.
Credit has to be given to the hosts who played an excellent game of football for almost 90 minutes nonstop but were lacking the deadliness and calmness in front of goal. Another factor was, again, Lionel Messi, who, again, defied all the laws known to man only to propel his team to victory with a goal and an assist.
This tactical analysis will use statistics in order to explain how Barcelona secured the vital points on their way to the round of 16 of the Champions League as group winners.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Vidal; Messi, Dembele, Coutinho
Subs: Iñaki Peña, Denis Suárez, Malcom, Munir, Aleñá, Miranda, Chumi.
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Starting XI: Zoet; Dumfries, Schwaab, Viergever, Angelino; Hendrix, Pereiro, Rosario; de Jong; Bergwijn, Lozano
Subs: Behich, Romero, Room, Malen, Sainsbury, Gutierrez, Mauro Junior
Coach: Mark van Bommel
Although Barcelona already booked their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League with their draw at San Siro, Ernesto Valverde refused to risk topping the group by experimenting away from home.
Eindhoven is a tough place to visit so we saw what was the strongest 11 the Ant could have mustered, taking into consideration the staff that was available to him. His decision to force Samuel Umtiti to play the whole game in the clash against Atletico Madrid meant that the Frenchman is back on the injury list, and so was the Uruguayan, Luis Suarez.
In their places came Lenglet and Dembele respectively, while Lionel Messi took up the role of a “false nine” like in the “olden days”. Ivan Rakitić and Philippe Coutinho also returned to the squad while Arturo Vidal replaced the injured Arthur, and the same was true for Semedo who replaced Roberto.
The team lined up in a 4-3-3 formation.
The ex-Blaugrana man, Mark van Bommel had a relatively easy job choosing his starters, or at least, he was not limited by any serious injury problems. His only concern was the exclusion of Ryan Thomas but other than that, no shocks were expected and none were experienced in the line up of the hosts.
Van Bommel once again opted for a 4-3-1-2 system against the Catalan giant, similar to the one he deployed at the Camp Nou when his team got stomped 4-0. Only this time, he changed it just a tad to accommodate his style of play and the personnel a bit better.
The same 11 from the last league game entered the pitch in Eindhoven on Wednesday and the only change to the squad that faced Barcelona in Catalunya was Angelino for Esmoris Tasende on the left-back position.
The Dutch team’s system fluctuated a bit throughout the game but mostly remained faithful to the initial setup.
Fortune favours the bold… or does it?
By now we are mostly used to seeing this kind of football by Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde: Conservative, safe, and sometimes even predictable. Sometimes it feels like the only moments where we can see something new and possibly exciting is when injuries hit the squad.
This was surely one of those instances but alas Valverde worked hard to replicate his usual tactics even though some big names were missing from that final squad list. The result was a rather strange 4-3-3 system without a proper striker but with a certain Argentine who can fill almost any role in the final third and, nowadays, and in the midfield.
It was Messi who made the difference in the end. Unsurprisingly so, you might say, and you would be right, but this was Barcelona mostly riding on individual proves as opposed to tactically beating their opponent.
PSV were the brave ones. In fact, the Dutch team has managed a total of 23 shots against the Catalans, most the visitors have faced this season in all competitions. There are always two ways of looking at stats like those. Either the defending team is poor at defending or the attackers were simply that good.
Even though we could say that both were the case on Wednesday, when you shoot 23 times, nine of which were on target, and three hit the frame, there is also the question of simply not being proficient and lethal enough in front of goal.
Either that or fortune really did not favour the bold.
The missing link(s)
We all know how Barcelona operate with Messi in the squad. The Argentine will start on that right wing on paper but in reality, that will be the least visited place by the sensational attacker. This time, however, the Catalans finally played with “proper wingers” and without the false right-wing. Instead, they deployed Leo in the false nine role.
It was also interesting to see Arturo Vidal regularly swap positions with Messi in order to leave the orchestrating to Leo, and the Chilean would, in turn, try his best to replicate the role of a striker of sorts. Vidal proved to be an excellent addition to the team, both in offence and defence, but the lack of a traditional striker was more than visible.
Luis Suarez was often criticized for being out of form or even “washed-up” but without anyone to constantly occupy the centre-backs and make runs in behind the defence, even if they were only dummy runs, there was little to no movement in the final third of the pitch.
As a result, ball circulation was pretty slow-paced for Barcelona. That was not really evident in the total number of passes but the deadliness and directness of them.
With Arthur Melo also out of the picture, the 4-3-3 did not seem as dominant as usual. Yes, Messi was heavily involved in the build-up as an extra midfielder but without him, creativity was severely lacking with the combination of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić, who both looked shaky, to say the least.
Vidal was the positive link in the midfield trident as he provided a lot going forward and backwards but the aforementioned duo made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes. As a result, no one could actually send a ball between the lines so it went from one side to the other in a more or less static and narrow tactic.
Although Barcelona did enjoy a lot of possession as usual (65%-35%), it was not stable at all with PSV managing a total of 61 interceptions and the Catalans having a bit lower average pass number per possession at 8.03.
Same old, same old
Ever since Neymar Junior left the team, Barcelona has found a new outlet moving forward in Jordi Alba. A lot has already been said about the Spaniard’s rejuvenation and newly found freedom on the left side of the pitch, which is now, more or less, his own to command.
This became Barca’s biggest strength but also, in certain cases, their weakness. It’s funny how one thing can be both at the same time but games like the one on Wednesday are proof.
Alba is a great attacking outlet. With his speed, the darting runs he makes, and the steady improvement in his end product, he has truly become the crucial part of Blaugrana’s system. Still, if he is stopped, the whole attack becomes all that much blunter.
The Spaniard was once again the only one trying to stretch the opposition which was, again, the direct result of a missing striker.
Similarly to the times when Neymar was in the team, Alba felt a bit constrained with a dominant player occupying his side of the pitch in Coutinho. Still, this Brazilian more often than not opted to drop deeper in midfield or cut to the right, which did leave some space for Alba to exploit.
However, the missing cohesion or compatibility was visible but could also be attributed to the heavy legs of Philippe who came straight back from injury to a tough game away from home.
Funnily enough, the other side where Ousmane Dembele and Nelson Semedo operated look more lively. The Portuguese constantly overlapped and combined with the Frenchman which resulted in some nice moves from both.
The plan here was to use Coutinho and Dembele to attack the half-spaces while Semedo and Alba stretch the defensive line and provide width. Messi and Vidal would make runs in behind the centre-backs instead of Suarez who would usually be tasked with that.
PSV and van Bommel knew that Alba was often the key man in attack so they focused him with tight man-marking from Dumfries and Rosario but that removed two key components from their defensive line, which was exploited by Barca.
Know your enemy
The Dutch team had a very distinct game plan which proved to be really effective bar their inefficiency in finishing their attacks. The name of the game was high-tempo and aggressiveness.
PSV were extremely direct in their approach, often disregarding the wings for a quicker, down-the-line approach to the match. Van Bommel was well prepared so he opted for a total of three different systems depending on the situation the team was in.
4-3-1-2 was predominantly used when pressing, a 4-4-2 system when defending in a deep mid-block and a fluid 4-2-2-2 in possession. All three were based on overcrowding the midfield with de Jong dropping a bit deeper to provide support.
A very curious 3-4-3 was also seen when defending higher up the pitch.
Notice how PSV are not turtled up but they contest possession and deploy an extremely high defensive line to get right into the face of the visitors. Also, three defenders that remain further back cut off Dembele, while four men in midfield assert dominance. The remaining three press the back line and midfield of Barcelona.
Knowing that Barca will often send the ball all the way to Marc-Andre ter Stegen and try to build from the back, PSV decided to press the goalie in order to prevent this from happening.
As a result, the German was often forced into a mistake, as can be seen in the image below, or he opted for a long ball that was mostly won in aerial duels by the Dutch team.
Ter Stegen had 68% passing accuracy, which is rather low for his average 89.9% that he has enjoyed so far in all competitions this season.
De Jong factor
Despite actually being at the end of multiple missed chances, Luuk de Jong was the crucial part of PSV’s system. He was deployed as the link between attack and midfield, similarly to the role Vidal was given and the role Messi finds himself in often.
Away from his natural position, de Jong was deeper on the field than usual, often dropping back to create numerical superiority in the middle of the park. Barca’s three around the centre was not enough to properly dominate that aspect of the game, which is why they looked shaky and misplaced more passes than usual.
Notice how de Jong is in a much deeper position than what he usually would be, overcrowding the midfield and outnumbering the opposition 4 to 3. In addition to that, he won 12/19 aerial duels (63%) and 48% of all duels he took part in.
When considering that Barcelona often times had to kick the ball long from the goalkeeper, de Jong’s aerial proves was more than useful.
In the end, he did score the goal to get one back for PSV but it was not enough. Of his four shots, two ended up on target, and one rattled the bar.
De Jong had a couple of more tasks throughout the game. If Barcelona were progressing down the line and breaking PSV’s aggressive press, Luuk would drop to form a double pivot with Hendrix in a 4-4-2 system. He was also the one often back-tracking to cover for the overlaps and wide wings.
Messi is an unfair advantage
Barcelona were more or less sleepy in the first half, not creating clear-cut chances while PSV were missing theirs. This resulted in a deadlock that had no place being there.
Still, the hosts were far more dangerous even though they did not see much of the ball, to begin with. A rough xG difference (3.1 vs. 2.1) would be a one whole goal difference in favour of the Dutch squad but yet, the Catalans took all three points.
The biggest difference between those two teams was, once again, Lionel Messi.
One fabulous goal and one assist to his name with five key passes and 100% dribble completion and duels won is just incredible. His link-up play with Dembele and Vidal was vital as well.
The Frenchman combined with the Argentine beautifully to create the opening goal but it was the latter that did the impossible.
His manoeuvres in tight spaces and finding the freedom to place such a clean shot and make the goalkeeper unable to react is something only he can do with perfection.
PSV might have been the better team when everything was said and done but they lacked something – They did not have Messi on their team and Barcelona do, and that was like an unfair advantage from the very start.
Barcelona finished top of the group in the Champions League for the 12th season in a row, which is a new record in this famed competition.
Most of the hard work has been done by Messi, as we already stated, with the Argentine now becoming the top goalscorer for a single club in the history of this most elite club tournament with 106 to his name, edging out his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo by one goal.
106 goals in 128 games, along with 27 assists is simply incredible, to say the least.
The Catalans can now enjoy the last game of the group stage without worrying about any point loss since they secured the top spot. Valverde will finally have a chance to rotate without risk.
This time, there should be no excuses.
But for how long can Barcelona solely rely on Messi to fix things? This Champions League draught has been going on for far too long but the team is going to need Valverde to step in and do his part if they want to go all the way.
Either that or another incredible effort from Leo. Which is more likely?
We’ll leave that for you to decide.
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