Barcelona got crushed because PSG completely eviscerated their midfield

Barcelona walked into the Parc des Princes as heavy favorites to topple Paris Saint-Germain and put one foot into the Champions League quarterfinals. Instead, they left in shambles, having been completely torn apart by PSG, 4-0, and left to wonder what happened to their midfield.

For all the talk about Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, Barcelona’s feared trio didn’t matter so much. They were on an island up top, left to just was as PSG rolled through the Barcelona midfield in ways that no one has seen in years. It was downright unbelievable.

Simply, PSG have the most mobile midfield in the world and Barcelona’s trio of Sergio Busquets, Andre Iniesta and Andre Gomes is short on pace. PSG stretched the midfield, turned it into a track contest and then feasted. But this is hardly a new phenomenon for Barcelona. With Busquets and Iniesta, who start nearly every match, the Catalans concede pace through the middle with regularity. That PSG was able to exploit it so hellaciously is what made this unusual.

Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot can run for days, and they did. They pressed high up the pitch, starting with the forwards. Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler in particular forced Barcelona’s defenders to give the ball away repeatedly. It was so bad that Barcelona defenders ended up passing the ball back to goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, who had to kick the ball out of bounds because the PSG press made it all the way to him.

PSG’s Adrien Rabiot, centre, battles for the ball with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi during the Champion’s League round of 16, first leg soccer match between Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
AP/Invision

When the Catalans were able to connect a pass to their midfield, Matuidi, Verratti and Rabiot were there immediately. No one on Barcelona had a moment to look at the field and make a pass. Often, they didn’t even get the chance to pass, with PSG midfielders taking the ball off them like they were playing against children. Once they did, not only were they high up the pitch and able to attack, but the pure speed of their midfielders made it so Barcelona’s couldn’t chase them down. It was one dangerous break after another.

The concept of making it so Barcelona can’t pass is nice and one that opposing teams have considered before, but no one pulls that off. They’re freaking Barcelona. Passing and dictating space is what they do. Except on this day.

Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti will be faulted for how they defended, but that’s to skip over the real problem. Maybe Pique should have tracked Edinson Cavani better, or Umtiti shouldn’t have fouled, but how many times can you let a fast midfield run at a back line and expect them to make every right read, decision and tackle? The failings were in front of them, and they were hung out to dry for it. It would be like blaming the Barcelona forwards.

Messi, Suarez and Neymar were spectators. Eventually, Messi starting coming deep just to see the ball, but he had to go all the way into his own half just to get involved. Not only does that limit his danger, but with him there, PSG were able to close him down like the rest of the Barcelona midfielders. If seeing Messi completely uninvolved wasn’t disheartening enough for Barcelona, watching as PSG swiped the ball off his foot was a killer.

Was it simple? Sure. The easiest way to stop Messi, Suarez and Neymar is to not let them get the ball. And having the most mobile midfield in the world, well, it inherently belongs to just one team. Still, we have never seen Barcelona’s midfield torn apart and out-run like this before. Luis Enrique brought Ivan Rakitic and Rafinha off the bench to try to fix things, but that didn’t help much either. People will point fingers at Enrique, but what was he to do?

Barcelona didn’t have the legs to run with PSG in the midfield and barring a switch to a three-man back line, which they don’t have the personnel for, all Enrique could have done is add a midfielder. But doing so would mean taking one of Messi, Suarez or Neymar off the pitch. Would you do that?

Sometimes, soccer doesn’t require a ton of nuance. This was one of those times. One midfield out-ran the other. But that doesn’t make it any less unreal.

Now, Barcelona head home from the second leg not done — after all, if anyone is going to score four goals, it’s Barcelona — but very nearly done for. Not only do they need to batter the PSG goal, but they need to keep the Parisians out. All of that requires gaining a stranglehold of the midfield, this against a midfield that just eviscerated them.