February 15th is a day where many will be nursing hangovers, regrets and fond memories of the night before. For FC Barcelona, however, their capitulation in the City of Love is a moment that they want to forget.
There is no doubt in many football fan’s minds that the team of the last 10 years has been Barcelona. They have dominated European and Spanish football with their unique playing style, an era forged by the appointment of Pep Guardiola in 2008. Under his tenure, they won 14 trophies in four years including a quintuple of trophies in 2011 and a sextuple in 2009. Even after Guardiola departed the Camp Nou, they have still completed feats with another quintuple in 2015 and a quadruple in the 2015/16 season. However, this year looks a stark contrast to previous years, they may be sat 2nd in the table (as of 15th Feb 2017) but have a two-game handicap to leaders Real Madrid, who if they win those, will be 7 points clear, a large difference when you consider they will likely have no games in hand to help close the deficit. A Copa del Rey final, against Alaves, could be their only realistic chance at a trophy this season, after the events in Paris on the 14th February 2017.
Barca arrived in the French capital as favourites for the tie, despite PSG boasting a strong record at home in the Champions League. Both teams had star-studded line-ups, however, a dilemma for PSG was the absence of Thiago Silva through injury, he was replaced by 21-year-old Presnel Kimpembe, who had never started a match in Europe’s premier club competition.
Pundits predicted a whitewash against Barcelona’s MSN, three of the most threatening attacking players in footballing history. By 10pm GMT, the footballing world stood shocked, PSG had romped home to a 4-0 victory over La Blauranga, Messi looked non-existent throughout the match, their midfield was invisible and their defence was as open as Leeds United’s managerial position before this season.
PSG’s front three of Draxler, Di Maria and Cavani all scored for PSG in the rout, with everyone on the pitch putting in a top class performance to dispatch the Spanish champions and set up a second leg where Barcelona will have to become only the 4th team in European Cup history to recover from a four-goal deficit to win the tie.
The reliance on the front three showed, whenever Messi, Suarez or Neymar had the ball, PSG got at them and countered. Kimpembe and Marquinhos looked as good as Pique and Puyol on their best days with the performance they put in, completely negating the MSN partnership.
As dawn broke and the papers published their views on the match, it was clear that the inquest into this defeat by the Barcelona hierarchy would be swift. Spanish outlet Marca called it ‘The night a Barcelona dynasty died’ and the French paper L’Equipe published harrowing player ratings for the Barcelona team. (see below)
Barcelona need a change drastically if they want to continue their dominance. Their main problem has been the replacement of players. Xavi, Abidal, Puyol and Alves, four key players to have left in the last five to six years through retirement and transfers elsewhere, haven’t been effectively replaced by Barca. This showed last night with Sergi Roberto, a natural central midfielder, converted to right back this season, being made to look no better than League Two standard against Julian Draxler.
A team like Barcelona should automatically have a world class right back or at least a natural right back capable of playing at the highest level of competition over a converted central midfielder still of a young age. Albeit, this could be down to Aleix Vidal’s injury but even having a natural right back as a backup should be a major consideration, definitely an area that needs looking at in the summer transfer window.
Once Iniesta retires, Barca also need to think smartly about central midfield. The midfield three of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets under Guardiola was relatively unstoppable and helped not only Barcelona dominate football, but the Spanish national team too. With Xavi having moved on and Iniesta edging closer to retirement, there needs to be a serious think as to whether the current crop is the right group of midfielders for the future. Historically, Barcelona have had a leader in midfield as well as defence. When Iniesta leaves, there will be a lack of leadership in the midfield with the current players available to them.
A big change that could possibly help Barca would be the adoption of a 3-4-3, similar to what Antonio Conte is currently using to dominate in England with Chelsea. A back three of Umtiti, Pique and Mascherano or possibly a new centre-back would provide a very solid base for the formation. Using Aleix Vidal and Jordi Alba as wing backs would also work, as both have a mixed mindset and will track back to defend as well as supporting attack. A solid midfield pairing of Busquets and either Iniesta or Rakitic who are ready to win the ball and release the front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar would be key in this tactic, as shown by in my opinion, the best midfield player currently in the world, N’Golo Kante. The tactic would still epitomise the ‘Barcelona way’ of playing out from the back but bring in a modern, proven tactic that would give them a solid way of playing and also as a tactic proven to work in two of Europe’s major leagues.
All in all, Barcelona have a lot of work to do to recover from this humbling defeat and although ideally, they would want to do it at the Nou Camp, if that’s not possible, some serious inquests and upheavals are needed.
Feature Image Credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ