Luis Enrique has a team full of dribblers, but PSG beat Barca with wingers as playmakers

EditorLast Update :
Luis Enrique has a team full of dribblers, but PSG beat Barca with wingers as playmakers

There is a cliched narrative in sport that peak performance is achieved with players “in the zone”. It is a state of tranquillity; playing on instinct where action after action goes perfectly.

Paris Saint-Germain’s elimination of Barcelona to reach the Champions League semi-finals for only the third time since the Qatari takeover in 2011 — and the first time since 2020-21 — did not look like that.

It was never going to be tranquil, not with the demons of 2017 (La Remontada) to exorcise. PSG made it a comeback of their own — the first time, at the sixth attempt, they have turned around a Champions League knockout tie after losing the first leg. Luis Enrique became the first former Barcelona head coach to eliminate the Catalans from a Champions League knockout round.

He used the same trio — Kylian Mbappe, Bradley Barcola and Ousmane Dembele — that finished the first leg and won the second leg of their round-of-16 tie away to Real Sociedad, but in a different set-up. Rather than Mbappe and Barcola as split strikers and Dembele as No 10, he put Mbappe as the No 9, Barcola off the left and Dembele at right wing. Three dribblers. A brave concession of control from Luis Enrique; a high-risk, high-reward strategy.

The risk was that allowing Mbappe to go where he wants means PSG often lack a box presence. The upside is that when his combinations with team-mates click out wide, and he picks the right moment to dribble against a full-back, PSG open defences up.

At their worst, PSG look like a group of individuals more than a team, forever reliant on dribbles. They and Barca came into the game as the most dribble-heavy teams in this season’s Champions League (regardless of looking at totals or per 90 minutes).

In the first leg, which Barcelona won 3-2, PSG only completed 39 per cent (11 out of 28) of their dribbles — their lowest completion in a Champions League knockout tie since their 33 per cent against Barcelona in 2017. Combined, Mbappe and Dembele completed two from 14 attempts. PSG’s goals were about runners beyond the ball, not dribbles.

In that context, doubling down on dribbling looked risky. Barcelona had a lead to defend so could sit off. Their 4-4-2 mid-block was stubborn for PSG in the first leg (even if they scored twice) and PSG’s dribble-heavy front three risked turnovers that Barca could turn into counter-attacks.

PSG had 22 first-half dribbles (12 successful), their most in a Champions League game since the start of 2018-19 — more impressive when you consider that time frame includes seasons with Neymar and Lionel Messi at the club.

Here is an example of Mbappe as a No 9 being defendable because he still likes to drift out to the left. It forces Barcola inside, where Barca have bodies and are compact. Mbappe has to dribble on the outside. Lamine Yamal tracks him well and Jules Kounde gets out, blocking the cross.

PSG have four bodies in the box, but no penetrative runs across the four Barca defenders. Fabian Ruiz is making a crashing run, but Barcola and Dembele need to do more to attack the front and back posts.

The two moments that turned the game on Tuesday night were borne of PSG’s wingers using their bodies smartly to draw fouls: Barcola from Ronald Araujo, as PSG quickly turned a loose ball into a counter-attack in-behind the aggressively positioned (right-back) Kounde. Barcola took Araujo’s line as he raced through, drawing a last-man foul. Barca were down to 10.

Then, on the hour, just six minutes after PSG went 2-1 up on the night to level the tie (4-4), Dembele won a penalty in the most Dembele way possible. His heavy touch under no pressure from Warren Zaire-Emery’s square pass, against a deep Barca defence, was enough for Joao Cancelo to try and pounce. Dembele responded faster, got his body between defender and the ball, and drew the foul just inside the box.

Mbappe put the penalty away and PSG did not look back.

PSG’s biggest strength in the second half, though, was their forwards not acting on instinct and dribbling, but picking their moments and knowing when to pass. “We tried to attack in every possible and imaginable way,” said Luis Enrique. “Playing with a numerical advantage is often difficult because you tend to accumulate players in front of the ball, and you lose your structure and positioning, which makes it complicated. But I think the team played at a very high level.”

PSG continued with their 3-3-4 build-up structure, where right-back Achraf Hakimi played high in support of Dembele. On the left, full-back Nuno Mendes pulled round to provide cover, so No 8 Ruiz was the off-ball runner to disrupt Barca’s back line and give Barcola options to combine.

Here is how that looked 20 minutes into the second half as PSG scored twice in quick succession. Notably, they only attempted five dribbles between the 46th and 69th minute, circulating the ball superbly to drag and drain Barca’s defensive block. PSG had 12 dribbles after the 70th minute, when Barca started to pile forward and leave space to break.

Only one quarter of PSG’s touches in the attacking half came in the central vertical third. Barca were blocking up this area, as can be expected with a player disadvantage, but PSG being combinative out wide allowed them to use bait-and-switch attacks.

It also reduced turnovers compared to repeatedly trying to dribble.

Pre-game, when Achraf Hakimi was asked about Luis Enrique’s style, he answered with the usual response about control, possession and domination, but added that he wanted PSG to “not rush our attacks, to make sure we make space and have triangles all over the pitch”.

Not rushing was essential. There was a moment in the first half, shortly after the red card, where Dembele dropped to the halfway line, received from Marquinhos and turned to run at the defence. He ignored Hakimi outside him and tried to go straight past Cancelo, who tackled him. He was attacking the defender on the outside, Cancelo’s weak side, but it smacked of desperation and PSG of years past in Champions League knockouts.

Between PSG’s first and second goals, they broke from their own box after Robert Lewandowski headed straight at Gianluigi Donnarumma. He rolled it to Dembele, who dribbled forwards and tried to play a through ball to Mbappe. Barca recovered it, and Luis Enrique furiously gesticulated for his players to calm down.

Ligue 1 provides a lot of low-block tests for PSG but, for all their dominance, they have only played once against 10 men this season (away to Lens; they won 2-0 but were already 1-0 up when the red card was shown). It took them time to adjust.

Really, PSG won the game through their wingers being playmakers and box threats, not dribblers. Barcola’s cutbacks, his trademark, were their main route to goal in the first half. Here is one example.

Dembele drops off Cancelo to receive from Hakimi, who is positioned ahead of Raphina. Barca were more aggressive with their wingers defensively than in the first leg, often setting them to press PSG’s centre-backs, which the French side could circumnavigate if they moved the ball quickly enough.

Dembele turns and hits a switch to Barcola, who has extra space because Ruiz has taken Kounde away with a run inside the right-back. Note Mbappe’s positioning (yellow dot), typically to feet, leaving Barcelona’s centre-backs unchallenged.

Ruiz makes a penetrative run this time, pulling the centre-backs deeper, which opens space for Mbappe to arrive late. Barcola is one-v-one against Kounde, who is mindful of not giving him too much space to dribble either way. But the PSG forward is quick to play the cutback from which Mbappe forces a good low save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

It was this kind of move that hauled PSG back into the tie.

This time, Marquinhos went direct to Barcola, with Barca down to 10.

Once more, Barcola is quick to cross, opening out on to his left foot. It clips Kounde as it goes through, partly because he crosses so fast that the defender does not have time to react. Dembele is alive and crashes the back post for a winger-to-winger goal.

The two legs of this tie were PSG’s top two games for one-v-ones in the opposition box since the start of 2018-19. As successful as this season is becoming under Luis Enrique, it is a reminder that this team’s biggest wins have been when they are not playing the passing style of Luis Enrique’s Barcelona.

His strongest starting XI is a team of dribblers. His 2014-15 Champions League winning Barcelona boasted Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar — one of the most dribble-heavy trios ever. They won the tournament that year with over 400 attempted dribbles, with Liverpool in 2021-22 (304) the only team to have over 300 since.

Only Borussia Dortmund stand between PSG and the Champions League final, a team that PSG beat at home and drew against away in the group stages, even if they finished runners-up in the section. Luis Enrique, for all his love of passing, is three wins from coaching another team of dribbling forwards to a Champions League trophy.

(Top photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)