Barcelona’s new-look setup has teething issues against PSV

EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Mark van Bommel of PSV Eindhoven and Head coach Ernesto Valverde of Barcelona gestures during the Group B match of the UEFA Champions League between PSV and FC Barcelona at Philips Stadion on November 28, 2018 in Eindhoven, Netherlands. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images)
EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Mark van Bommel of PSV Eindhoven and Head coach Ernesto Valverde of Barcelona gestures during the Group B match of the UEFA Champions League between PSV and FC Barcelona at Philips Stadion on November 28, 2018 in Eindhoven, Netherlands. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images) /
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The Catalans made tough work of their trip to Eindhoven but ultimately came away with three points as Ernesto Valverde tested a new system due to a number of enforced changes.

Barcelona came into this match with a three-point gap on Internazionale in second place and the knowledge that a win against PSV would secure first place, however, it ultimately didn’t matter as Tottenham managed to beat Inter. The match was an intense affair even though PSV only had a Europa League place to play for with the Dutch side having the better of the chances, although Barca managed to come away with a 2-1 win.

First team players Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti, Arthur Melo and Luis Suarez were all unavailable for this match, while periphery players Rafinha, Thomas Vermaelen, Sergi Samper and Jasper Cillessen were also out. This provided Ernesto Valverde with the chance to do a bit of experimenting, but he made it clear pre-match that he was going to play a strong side.

Lionel Messi started centrally flanked by Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho on either side as a new-look forward trio. Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets made up a three-man midfield that lacked creativity and struggled with ball retention. Nelson Semedo and Clement Lenglet came in for Roberto and Umtiti respectively.

The issue with the front three was where they prefer to receive the ball because they all like to occupy space between the lines and rarely make runs in behind the defence as well as preferring to roam into central areas. Therefore, PSV could easily predict what they were going to do, although that didn’t necessarily mean they could always stop them. Messi was receiving the ball in more dangerous areas than usual, though, due to his central position with that coming at the expense of his usual heavy involvement until he started to drop deep.

Vidal’s forward runs helped occupy the defence, but the team were too reliant on Jordi Alba’s runs to break in behind in the first half. The Chilean’s attempts to support the attack as well as Rakitic’s poor performance left Busquets isolated so PSV were able to play through them and create high-quality chances. They hit the woodwork three times and Barcelona gifted them multiple chances through sloppy passes as PSV pressed high up the pitch. Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to make a number of top-class saves to deny them.

The Catalans created plenty of chances of their own including two shots cleared off the line, both from Vidal, but conceding so many chances to the weakest side in the group is worrying. It appears that Barcelona’s problems away from home in Europe still haven’t gone away and that they still have structural issues.

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They were still reliant on Messi for moments of brilliance due to the first goal coming from him dropping deep to start play and combining well with Dembele before taking on a number of defenders and somehow beating the goalkeeper from a tight angle with a shot that had no backlift. The second goal was created by him as Gerard Pique scored from a set piece, but he admitted afterwards that it was fortunate rather than a designed routine.

Barcelona did inevitably concede due to Luuk de Jong ghosting inbetween the two centre-backs to head home past ter Stegen. However, Barcelona were able to hold on, although they had scares along the way. Malcom had a golden opportunity to put the game out of sight near the end after Messi played him in, but he blazed over.

Malcom coming on for Coutinho changed Barcelona’s approach due to his runs in behind which stretched the opposition vertically while they also had Dembele roaming and Messi playing centrally to contend with. The three of them only played together for 10 minutes due to Denis Suarez coming on for the French winger. However, they showed a glimpse of their threat in the 73rd minute when they quickly broke on a disorganised PSV defence, which ended with Malcom sliding a shot wide after a low Dembele cross.

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This front three would be ideal for a counter-attacking setup, but it would see Coutinho miss out unless Valverde came up with a solution which saw the Brazilian play in central midfield without unbalancing the team, which is highly unlikely.

Suarez has shown his quality on a number of occasions this season, but his struggles in Europe suggest that one of the front three trios used in this match may be the answer for the Champions League knockout rounds. Although the setup they used at the start of the game would need a change in midfield or Semedo pushing higher up to provide width on the right-wing.