PSG and Juve went for high-tempo pressing and initially the tactic worked, but Bayern especially were able to slow the game
This was a Champions League week full of glorious failures. On Tuesday evening, Manuel Pellegrini's Málaga defended excellently for the vast majority of their tricky away leg in Dortmund, crumbling only when Jürgen Klopp's side resorted to long balls in stoppage time.
Over in Istanbul, Cristiano Ronaldo's early goal left Galatasaray needing to score five – the Turkish champions attacked consistently down the right flank and created enough chances to give José Mourinho a genuine scare. On both occasions, the eliminated side performed significantly above expectations.
On Wednesday night, PSG did not even lose, of course – they were defeated on away goals – but it was a familiar theme. Some had questioned the validity of PSG's first-leg draw in Paris, with the goals coming from an offside Zlatan Ibrahimovic strike, then a deflected Blaise Matuidi effort. However, Carlo Ancelotti's first-leg tactics had stifled Barcelona and created genuine chances on the break – with two attack-minded dribblers on the flanks and Ezequiel Lavezzi energetically supporting Ibrahimovic, PSG had the perfect counterattacking side.
Unsurprisingly, Ancelotti stuck to a similar system, despite a change in his central midfield partnership, and for the majority of the game, PSG caused significant problems. It is not a wholly unusual sight to see Barcelona desperately searching for a goal during a Champions League second leg at Camp Nou, but while Inter and Chelsea – the two sides who have eliminated Barça during the Pep Guardiola/Tito Vilanova era – travelled to Camp Nou with a first-leg lead, PSG needed to score.
And they did – with Barcelona handicapped by Lionel Messi's first-half absence and PSG able to pass forward without significant pressure from the home side's attackers, Ancelotti's forwards all had promising moments. Lucas Moura excelled on the right flank with his sheer speed on the ball, while Javier Pastore played more cautiously on the other side, but did something similar. Ibrahimovic plays as a poacher in Ligue 1, but more of a creator in the Champions League – he set up five chances here – while Lavezzi gave a perfect demonstration of his talents: plenty of energy, some intelligent runs, but an awful end product.
PSG's goal was a great example of their approach – a quick move that attacked the Barcelona back four immediately, with Ibrahimovic dropping deep to provide the pass and Pastore racing forward from the flank to finish. "We were good in possession and played quickly up the field," said Ancelotti. "We didn't just defend like a lot of teams who come here – we caused them problems."
Defensively, things were significantly easier without Barcelona's star man, but PSG's midfield pressure remained impressive. From the opening moments they won the ball in advanced positions, with Lavezzi dropping on to Sergio Busquets to disrupt Barcelona's build-up play. This was not a frantic all-court press, but nor were PSG sitting back and inviting Barcelona into their own third.
Xavi enjoyed more space – he completed 100% of his passes – but this was partly because he took the safe option, unable to penetrate PSG's midfield duo of Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta – one moved up to press, the other remained in a covering position. Andrés Iniesta's surges from midfield are not as effective without multiple defenders being attracted to Messi – in the Argentinian's absence, Iniesta did not take enough creative responsibility and saved his best moment of the night for a wonderful but ultimately fruitless piece of skill in the final moments.
With such an expensively-assembled side, PSG should be causing Europe's best clubs problems, and without Messi for much of the game, Ancelotti's task was made simpler. Nevertheless, this tie was the first time that the Italian's strategy has maximised the ability of PSG's players, whereas previously they had appeared less than the sum of their parts. With little significant challenge in Ligue 1, it has often been difficult to assess PSG's true level of ability this season, but the performances against Barcelona indicate Ancelotti is building something promising and deserves to keep his job this summer.
Last week, Juventus were outplayed in Munich because they were unaccustomed to playing against such a high-tempo side, determined to disturb Juve's passing game with heavy pressing. In Serie A, Juve regularly encounter sides that either drop back submissively into their own half, or close down with only their forwards. With Bayern pressing as a unit, Juventus were woeful from goalkeeper to attack.
In the return leg, Antonio Conte's side improved significantly. Sometimes, even top-level teams need to have a taste of intense pressing to completely understand how to play around it – Barcelona's display against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 was the most forceful closing down you will ever witness, practically pinning Arsenal into their own third. Arsène Wenger's side looked genuinely startled, but by the next season they had learned, adapted and took on Barcelona at their own game.
Within the first minute, it was clear Juventus' defensive players had understood the objective, with the ball zipping across the pitch quickly. Just as Andrea Pirlo had been frightened into the worst pass completion rate of his Juventus career in Munich, Bayern's Bastian Schweinsteiger endured a terrible opening half hour in Turin, constantly caught in possession, frequently misplacing passes. This was a complete role reversal – Juve had upped the tempo, Bayern were struggling.
However, Bayern are a more advanced, more tactically intelligent side at this stage. They weathered the initial storm and then did something Juve appeared incapable of during the first leg – slowing the match. Knowing a goalless draw was enough, for long periods Bayern simply retained the ball in non-threatening midfield positions, ending the match with 59% of possession. A large part of the game was simply boring – which reflects well on Bayern's ability to kill a match when needed.
At a more leisurely pace, Schweinsteiger became the key player in the second half, jogging from flank to flank to receive short passes, then distributing the ball to the opposite side of the pitch. The right-back Philipp Lahm was the most frequent target of his passes – and without any proper wingers, Juve were unable to close down and force Bayern into mistakes. With the tie already won, Schweinsteiger teed up Claudio Pizarro for the final goal of an enthralling Champions League quarter-final stage.
Juventus' players and coaching staff were highly complimentary towards Bayern – Gianluigi Buffon admits he did not expect Jupp Heynckes's side to be so formidable, while Conte marvelled at how Bayern "don't feel panicked under pressing and don't give the ball away." But that was only half-true – in the opening stages the German champions had struggled.
This has been a learning experience for Conte, in his first Champions League campaign as coach – this tie will encourage him to evolve Juventus into a more proactive side without the ball, for a genuine European Cup charge next season.