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Scouting report: How Barcelona can exploit PSG’s weaknesses

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After dominating the Italian champions Napoli at the Montjuic last month, Barcelona now find themselves faced with an even bigger test.

Awaiting the Catalans are the champions of France, Paris Saint-Germain, led by arguably the best player in the world, Kylain Mbappé.

Barcelona versus PSG has turned into something of a Champions League staple over the last decade.

This is a tie that has given football fans so much to relish, whether the iconic Remontada, Mbappé’s hattrick at Camp Nou, or the 5-1 aggregate win during the Catalans’ last Champions League triumph.

Come April 10, we should expect another thrilling encounter. 

In this piece, we’ll take a closer look at the Parisiens, including how they operate under ex-Barça manager Luis Enrique, and how Barcelona should look to exploit their weaknesses. 

PSG’s 23/24 campaign

A quick rundown of the Parisiens’ season thus far gives us the following: they lead Ligue One by eleven points, undefeated since mid-September, they won the Trophée des Champions in January, and they are in the Coupe de France semi-finals.

Recently, they saw off Real Sociedad 4-1 across two legs in the UCL Round of 16. 

While PSG are far from the most dominant team remaining in Europe’s most prestigious competition, they boast a world-class manager in Enrique, who will look to outfox Xavi and world-class players all over the pitch.

(Photo by ANDER GILLENEA/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, something differentiates this PSG squad from those of the past: the abundance of promising youngsters.

The 23-and-under Warren Zaïre-Emery, Manuel Ugarte, Bradley Barcola, Lee Kang-in, Gonçalo Ramos, Nuno Mendes, and Lucas Beraldo are forming a healthy majority of the squad.

As such, Luis Enrique finds himself in the fortuitous position of having plenty of young talent to shape.

Nevertheless, this is a squad ultimately defined by Kylian Mbappé. This PSG squad is prone to spells of disorganization and chaotic play, resulting in many matches decided by moments of individual brilliance.

Tactical rundown – Struggles in buildup

PSG plays as you’d expect from a Luis Enrique squad in many ways. They’re extremely high-pressing out of possession, uptempo, and absolutely lethal on the break.

Can you imagine Hakimi, Dembelé, and Mbappé running at your backline? Deadly.

In ideal situations, PSG builds out from the back, relying on intelligent ball-playing centre-backs in the form of Marquinhos and Milan Skriniar, as well as the defensive-minded left-back Lucas Hernandez.

Midfielders will rotate to find open spaces, whether Vitinha, Fabian, Ugarte, or Zaïre-Emery. Hakimi has also transformed into a more versatile full-back this season, capable of inverting into the midfield to provide numerical superiority and perform his typical overlapping duties. 

Against high-pressing opposition, however, PSG can struggle to remain composed and exert control. Fortunately, this is where their verticality – and Enrique’s ingenuity – come into play.

Take the recent game against Real Sociedad for example, where PSG often looked to send through balls directly to Mbappé when their midfielders were tightly marked.

Other outlets include Hakimi and even Zaïre-Emery, both players capable of progressing the ball past defensive lines. 

(Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Further, Enrique deployed Dembelé in a tactically fluid position, not far off from Jude Bellingham’s role at Madrid.

The Frenchman dropped into deep positions to help build up from the back, but would of course still find himself in the opposition third, making incisive passes and gliding past defenders with his pace. 

Hence, with reliable midfielders like Vitinha and Zaïre-Emery, lethal runners like Hakimi, and game-breakers like Dembelé and Mbappe, a lack of total control isn’t an issue. For Enrique’s side, the ends justify the means. 

A fluid front-line 

When looking to attack, PSG are defined by fluid rotations, quick switches of play, and isolating wingers to get one-on-ones.

Moreover, this squad can easily move from box to box thanks to high-tempo midfielders and Enrique’s insistency on verticality.

Positionally, all the attackers, including the midfield trio and full-backs, are instilled with discipline. When Dembelé sticks to the touchline, Hakimi inverts; when Mbappé cuts in centrally from the left wing, Vitinha or Lucas Hernandez fill in.

(Photo by SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP via Getty Images)

To get wide-men such as Mbappé, Dembelé, or Barcola, isolated on full-backs, PSG will either overload one side of the pitch and quickly switch play, or compact the opposition through a box-midfield (thanks to an inverted Hakimi), hence leaving the flanks open.

Speaking of Mbappé, the French international is leading the club’s goalscoring charts with a staggering 35 in 36 matches played.

Elsewhere, forwards Randal Kolo Muani and Gonçalo Ramos have nine a piece, and Dembele is the creative hub with 11 assists.

A high and constant press

Out of possession, PSG are fairly straightforward in that they look to win the ball back high up the pitch and are constantly closing down their opponents.

This is significantly helped by midfield engines like Zaïre-Emery, who often looks to press opposing defensive midfielders, and Hakimi, who is keyed in on opposing full-backs.

If PSG wins the ball back and catches their opponents out of focus, it often ends in a goal.

How can Barcelona exploit the Parisiens?

With the keys to PSG’s football understood, how can Xavi maximize his team and exploit his opponent’s weaknesses?

On this front, the Barça keys to success lie in containing Mbappé and the French side’s wide threats (easier said than done), winning the midfield battle, and maintaining defensive stability.

On the first and arguably most important point, Mbappé will likely play on the left flank and be allowed to roam centrally.

The Frenchman thrives receiving the ball out wide and dribbling past multiple defenders, but he’s more than a mere pace machine. He excels at receiving the ball between the lines with his back to goal, laying off to runners or turning and getting past his markers.

Mbappé will operate all over the final-third, looking to disrupt Christensen in the number 6 position and also drag the centre-backs forward, allowing Dembelé, Barcola, or Muani space to run into.

If Jules Koundé can’t keep up with his pace, Araujo must be there to help contain him. Further, the other centre-back, likely Pau Cubarsi has to be attuned to any rotations.

It goes without saying that Mbappé will have his fair share of chances, and he can make the most out of nothing.

For a Barça squad that can lose concentration at times, that could be punished. Fortunately, the Catalan backline has been formidable as of late; Ter Stegen will also need to be wary of Mbappé’s signature shot into the near-post.

Elsewhere, Cancelo will likely be matched up against Dembélé and Hakimi. The Portuguese international can carry his own in regards to evading the Parisien press, but Xavi might opt to start Raphinha on the left to help with defensive matters. 

PSG’s midfield, while admittedly underrated, are still the weakest point in the squad. Barcelona must look to own that part of the pitch and gain control over the match.

Barcelona hope to see De Jong back on the pitches before the UCL clash. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

When building up, that means reliable outlets like Ilkay Gundogan and Frenkie de Jong (if he returns from injury) will be key. The Catalan midfield must also work hard defensively, not allowing individuals like Zaïre-Emery to bypass them.

Barcelona must keep their pressure constant to elaborate on the defensive side of things. The team is vulnerable to losing focus and not exerting full effort after losing possession; against a deadly counter-attacking team like PSG, that will lead to chances.

Barcelona’s worst nightmare would be a repeat of the 4-1 loss to Real Madrid in January, where the team failed to press yet played an extremely high-line.

Further, this is a PSG side that can be nullified if such a high-press is executed correctly. There are ways to slow this team down, Barcelona have to remain focused for the entire proceedings across two legs.

Conclusion 

To conclude, PSG are a highly threatening side that boast some of football’s most exciting players.

With pace and a high-tempo game plan, they can absolutely dominate the Blaugrana.

Nonetheless, Barcelona have rounded into form as of late – in fact, ever since Xavi announced his forthcoming departure in June, the team is transformed and performed admirably against Napoli and Atlético Madrid at the weekend.

The question is whether the team can continue riding this high after the international break. If they hit the ground running, a semi-final berth awaits.

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