It’s finally that time of the season: the Champions League knockout stages. After placing second in their group, Barcelona will face Paris Saint-Germain in what is one of the round’s most highly anticipated matchups. It will be the teams’ first meeting since March 2017, the famous “Remontada” that saw Barcelona overcome a 4-0 first-leg deficit by winning 6-1 in the Camp Nou. It was also meant to be Neymar Jr.’s first match against his old club, but he was recently injured and ruled out for the next month.
There is plenty to unpack before this tie and lots of questions to answer as well.
New Look PSG
PSG reached new heights last season after reaching their first-ever Champions League final, only to lose 1-0 to Bayern Münich. They came into the 2020-21 season with high expectations but suffice to say their season has been anything but that.
After a run of three wins in seven games, manager Thomas Tuchel was fired and replaced with ex-PSG player Mauricio Pochettino. The French-club won the Trophée des Champions on his third match in charge and are currently tied for first in the Ligue One table. Nevertheless, joint-leader Lille have a game in-hand and third-place Lyon are only two points behind them, making this one of the closest league races in years.
The Parisians have won four of their last five matches but results do not represent everything with this team. The reigning French league champions have been inconsistent thus far this season and Pochettino has not yet fully instilled his managerial ideas into his squad.
Pochettino has only been in charge for only a little over a month but the foundations of his tactics are clear and we can infer his plans for the team based on what he’s shown throughout his career.
Pochettino opts for a high-pressing, expansive, attacking style of football. He likes to play on the front foot, something that fits well with the talent of PSG. He favors a 4-2-3-1 formation but that can easily shift into a 4-4-2. In his first ten games in charge, PSG have lined up with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 six times. Given the breadth of his attacking options, using a formation with only two central midfielders makes plenty of sense.
PSG like to build-up from the back, allowing them to take full advantage of ball-playing centre backs Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe. The center backs attract and absorb pressure with ease, and often look for a central midfielder to drop deep and pick up the ball, most often Argentina’s Leandro Paredes. The image below and the rest to follow are all from PSG’s 2-1 Sunday defeat of OGC Nice.
Paredes is the third-most pass-targeted player (played at least 10 matches) on the team (83.8 per 90 minutes), and the two above him are midfield counterparts Marco Verratti and Idrissa Gueye. He either drops in between the two center backs or receives the ball in front of them. When between the center backs, the two full backs hug the touchline, the two wingers/wide forwards push inside, and the number ten drops alongside the other center midfielder, creating a 3-4-3 formation. This creates plenty of open space out wide, and the movement drags opposing players out of position.
With the ball at their feet, the central midfielders or center backs look for line-breaking passes to an attacking player. They can also spray the ball out wide to marauding full backs, but most often pass to dropping forwards like Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, or Angel Di Maria.
These line-breaking passes are direct and split the opposition’s press or midfield lines.
They’re also not afraid to send long balls forward to pacy players like Mbappe, or in this case Julian Draxler, either behind the last line of the defense or when they are in open and isolated spaces.
As seen in the photos above, PSG’s backline pushes up near the halfway line, suffocating their opponents into their own half.
In front of goal, they are mixed with their approach, playing patiently at times but quite direct too. They can work the ball into the box with short passes, crosses from wide players or full backs, shooting from distance, or giving creative players like Neymar or Mbappe the license to create something out of nothing. There is plenty of off-ball movement and interchangeable positioning that drags opposing defender’s out of position.
As showcased below, when given the ball in wide positions, Mbappe can easily dribble past multiple defenders and either cross or set up a shot for himself.
PSG dominate possession, averaging 63% over their last ten games. According to whoscored.com, their attacking outlets are split fairly evenly, 30% through the middle, 30% through the right, and 40% through the left. The slight preference towards the left makes sense given Neymar and Mbappe positioning there.
Out of possession, PSG press with high-intensity and determination–like all of Pochettino’s teams– typically in a 4-4-2 shape, with the number ten sliding up alongside the center forward.
Their central midfielders, whether Veratti, Gueye, or Paredes, have immense work rates and are strong tacklers and trackers of the ball (averaging 3.71, 4.71, and 3.54 tackles plus interceptions per game, respectively). Their central defenders, Marquinhos and Kimpembe are also world-beaters, particularly in one-on-one situations.
On the other hand, the full backs, particularly left back Kurzawa who’s had lots of playing time due to injury, is fairly weak defensively. The midfield shape can also allow for spaces between the center defense and midfielders, somewhere that can be exploited by free roaming and well-positioned forwards.
Strengths & Weaknesses
In defense, PSG’s strengths are in the abilities of their central defenders and also the elite shot-stopping abilities of Keylor Navas, who Cúles know well from his time with Real Madrid. Their midfield is packed with players who have the right mix of creativity and defensive work rate. In attack, they have a myriad of talented players. Given their injuries, however, Di Maria and Neymar will be missing so they will lack some firepower, but between Mbappe’s pace and skill, Icardi’s predatory instincts, and Moise Kean’s improvement, they are always a handful for any opposition defense.
Nevertheless, PSG have still been inconsistent this season, particularly on the defensive end. They have given up goals due to being exploited with their high line, not effectively stopping counter attacks, and on Sunday against Nice they conceded an easy goal due to failure to effectively play out of the back. Also, Nice had 13 shots on goal and five on target, and they could have easily scored more than once. Furthermore, individual defensive errors are costly for them (not unlike Barcelona).
How Can Barça beat them?
While Barça face a tough match on Tuesday, PSG are by no means invincible. The fact that they will be missing two of their most creative players, Neymar and Di Maria, can only bode well for the Catalans. However, Mbappe can easily cause nightmares for the Blaugrana’s fragile back line, particularly if injury-doubt Ronald Araújo misses the match. They must be cautious with their pressing and high line, remembering to press as a unit and stay in shape, because PSG will assuredly capitalize on any open spaces.
The Catalan giants must also be cautious discipline-wise, making sure not to give away any cheap yellow cards when trying to stop Paris’ quick breaks. The central midfielders, in particular, will be up for the challenge and will be physical and rough, so Barça must stay level headed and composed. Sergio Busquets’ positioning will be key throughout the match as he will monitor PSG’s forwards who will drop deep to collect the ball.
As aforementioned, Barça should look to exploit the spaces between PSG’s backline and midfield. Messi, in particular, will assuredly drop deep to pick up the ball and take advantage of any of the center mids being out of position. There will also be plenty of space to exploit if Barcelona quickly win the ball back, and Ousmane Dembele and Jordi Alba will be key to generating opportunities on the counter-attack. Although, Barça have been fairly lethargic on the counter this season.
Whether its Alba, Oscar Mingueza, or Sergiño Dest filling the full-back positions, they should look to consistently cross the ball into the box to create commotion and havoc for the opposing defense. De Jong’s third man runs and movement into threatening positions will also be crucial. Pedri, Lionel Messi, and Antoine Griezmann’s creativity in tight spaces should put PSG’s players on edge, but they should be prepared for a long night of breaking down the opposing defense, and getting shots past Keylor Navas.
Sunday night’s 5-1 thrashing of Alaves was the second time in four games that Barça put five goals past an opponent, so hopefully, the goalscoring floodgates have opened for them. Also, Messi and Griezmann are in red-hot form at just the right time.
The last time Barça played an attacking and expansive opponent in the Champions League was Juventus and they lost 3-0, so there are lessons they should learn from that game as well. One repeating theme from the match was the Italian-side’s relentless and smart pressing that prevented Barça from successfully playing out from the back. They will have to be precise and smart with their passes and look for balls that split PSG’s press as showcased down below.
Fortunately, the inclusion of Dembele and Alba should give them an outlet for long balls that exploit Paris’ backline.
It’s hard to say what Barça’s ideal lineup should be given the injuries to their backline in particular, but Messi, Griezmann and Dembele should assuredly start up top with Pedri, Frenkie De Jong and Busquets behind them. If Araújo is healthy, Koeman will surely pick him to start alongside Lenglet most likely. But if the Uruguayan misses the match, Mingueza could play right-centre back instead with Dest returning to right back. The manager could throw a curveball and start De Jong at center back, but Barça would lose a lot going forward and in the midfield.
In all, the match will be close but a positive result isn’t out of the question for the Catalans.
Both sides will be missing key players, but the match will still surely live up to expectations with some of the biggest names in world football sharing the same stage. Barça are missing key defenders like Gerard Piqué and potentially Ronald Araújo, while PSG are missing key attackers like Neymar and Di Maria.
They are both in desperate need of a deep Champions League run, one that can be a saving-grace for their relatively underwhelming campaigns. While PSG are still finding their footing under Pochettino, Barça are playing their best football of the season and will be hoping to redeem themselves after the last time they played in the Champions League with the 3-0 loss to Juventus in the group stage.
Above all else, Culés will want to see the fighting spirit their team has displayed over the last month. PSG are a worthy opponent with more than enough areas to exploit, but the Blaugrana must be on their A-game to get a positive result.
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?