PSG 2-2 Barcelona: Ancelotti justified in using a brave starting line-up

April 3, 2013

The starting line-ups

Barcelona twice took the lead, PSG twice equalised.

Carlo Ancelotti surprisingly named David Beckham as part of a midfield two, with four outright attacking players used in a 4-4-1-1 system.

Tito Vilanova played Alexis Sanchez, rather than Cristian Tello, as part of his front three.

Barcelona dominated in terms of possession and territory, and there was an element of fortune for both PSG’s goals – but overall Ancelotti’s side defended solidly and counter-attacked effectively.

PSG shape

Ancelotti’s tactics worked well here – he used attack-minded players but ordered them to play in a solid, disciplined shape. It was essentially two banks of four, with Beckham and Blaise Matuidi positioning themselves intelligently – not pressing high up, but not retreating too deep.

They moved towards Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta when they received the ball, but minimised the gap between the lines, denying Lionel Messi space.

Particularly crucial to PSG’s shape was the work of Ezequiel Lavezzi, who alternated between being a second striker and an additional midfielder, dropping onto Sergio Busquets to ensure PSG weren’t overrun in the centre of the pitch.

Busquets’ influence on the game was minmal – he attempted only half as many passes as Xavi:

Barcelona keep the ball in wide positions

With Lucas Moura and (in particular) Javier Pastore playing very narrow roles, Barcelona tended to hold onto the ball in wide areas. On the right, Daniel Alves took advantage of Pastore’s positioning to play particularly high up the pitch, from where he was arguably the game’s dominant player.

On the left, Lucas was more of a concern for Jordi Alba, so Andres Iniesta spent a decent amount of time close to the touchline, combining with Alba and trying to overload Christophe Jallet, probably PSG’s weakest player.

However, Barcelona found it difficult to work the ball past the PSG midfield, and into the front three. David Villa was very quiet, Alexis Sanchez made some good runs but rarely received the right service, while Lionel Messi started to drift increasingly deep, and often to the right, where there was space to be exploited – Villa moved into the centre in turn.

PSG counter-attacks

PSG’s starting XI was perfect for counter-attacks. Beckham provided some good diagonal passes to the flanks, Matuidi increasingly ventured forward to support the attacks, while the two South American playmakers ran with the ball at speed into central zones on the break, combining with the PSG front two.

Ibrahimovic and Lavezzi were also very useful in this situation. Ibrahimovic, despite his goal, didn’t have the best night in the penalty box – but he was extremely clever at drifting right to drag defenders out of position, and also adept at controlling long passes from defence, or from Beckham.

Alongside him, Lavezzi played his role beautifully – the Argentine is at his best when given specific tactical instructions, because he has the energy and discipline to work two opponents at once. Here, he occupied Busquets when Barcelona had the ball, but then as Busquets became concerned by the runs of Lucas and Pastore into central positions, Lavezzi became a second striker. He hit the post early on, when making a run into a centre-forward position as Ibrahimovic went right.

Ibrahimovic received passes most frequently from PSG’s two full-backs:

Barcelona lack penetration

Despite retaining the ball for long periods and restricting PSG to sporadic attacks, Barcelona struggled to create clear-cut chances. This was actually quite a cautious approach from the away side – there was little midfield rotation, which may have allowed Busquets to get away from Lavezzi’s pressure, while Messi’s tendency to move deep into midfield suggested Barca were looking to slow the tempo of the game, rather than looking for constant goalscoring opportunities.

When Messi dropped deep there simply wasn’t enough goalscoring threat, with Villa and Sanchez picked up easily by the centre-back duo of Alex and Thiago Silva – the latter, in particular, had an excellent game.

Second half

With Messi forced to depart through injury, Cesc Fabregas replaced him in roughly the same role. This could have helped Barcelona’s ball retention had he played significantly deeper than Messi, but the match continued in pretty much the same pattern. Alves was still free on the right, Barcelona were still dominating with PSG playing on the break.

A key feature of the second period was Matuidi’s increased attacking role. With Beckham staying deep, Matuidi burst forward more consistently to provide another midfield runner in support of Ibrahimovic – there was one moment where Ibrahimovic produced a marvellous flick to nearly play in Matuidi for a golden chance, which would have summed up the roles of both players.

PSG subs

Ancelotti used his bench intelligently. His first change saw Jeremy Menez on in place of Lavezzi – who had naturally tired in that dual role. Menez offered little from the attacking midfield position, but he made sure Busquets was always occupied.

His second change saw Beckham departing, and Verratti taking his place. Crucially, Ancelotti replaced the two players most in danger of tiring (Lavezzi because of his role, Beckham because of his age) and ensured PSG remained fresh in the final 20 minutes. However, Verratti was more than just a willing runner – he played the Beckham role very nicely, darting away from challenges and playing positive forward passes into the final third. For the first time, PSG had spells of genuine pressure, rather than simply playing on the counter.

Then came the third change – all three were used within a ten minute spell – Kevin Gameiro replaced Pastore, with Menez going left, where he was more involved. Gameiro offered another option upfront, and replicated Lavezzi’s role of trying to get on the end of Ibrahimovic’s knock-downs and flick-ons.

Barcelona lacked PSG’s ability to influence the game from the bench. Marc Bartra on for Mascherano meant two of Barca’s three changes were because of injury. The other – Tello on for Villa – changed the game little.

In the end, the game could have gone either way – three goals in the last eleven minutes was a decent reflection of a frantic, high-tempo end to the game. That, in itself, proved PSG had done something right – usually when 1-0 up away from home, Barcelona are excellent at killing the game through ball retention.


This match was more exciting than tactically fascinating, but Ancelotti deserves credit. The major interest came from his starting selection, which worked very nicely – he used talented, counter-attacking players in a relatively deep, disciplined system. Barcelona created relatively few opportunities despite dominating possession.

Ancelotti also used his bench effectively – replacing tired players to keep the energy high, enabling PSG to enjoy spells of pressure in the final moments. In all, this is probably Ancelotti’s most impressive match as PSG coach.

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