David Luiz has once again been cast as the villain as Paris Saint-Germain all but crashed out of the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday night with a 3-1 loss in the first leg of its quarterfinal series at home to Barcelona.
After Neymar put the visitor up 1-0, a pair of embarrassing nutmegs from Barca striker Luis Suarez on the Brazilian centerback resulted in two more goals, which proved to be too much for PSG. Jeremy Mathieu’s late own goal will have given the French giant the faintest glimmer of a hope of somehow overcoming a three-away goal deficit heading into next Tuesday’s return leg at the Camp Nou.
Don’t bet on it, folks. Even so, we’re not here today to assess PSG’s (very slim) chances of progressing to the UCL semifinals.
Luiz was certainly at fault for both of Suarez’s goals, but the loss was still a collective failure by the French team. Luiz’s two poor pieces of play notwithstanding, he was not PSG’s worst player at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday, nor does he deserve to shoulder most of the blame. In fact, judging by the post-game comments of PSG players and staff, the only one to get the analysis of this poor team performance right is Nasser Al-Khelaifi the ultra-rich club’s president.
"We weren't aggressive enough," Al-Khelaifi told French radio station RMC. "With their great players, if you're not aggressive enough, it's impossible to beat Barca. I'm certain the coach will speak about that with the players and analyze the mistakes we made this evening.”
Don’t be so sure.
In his post-game comments, coach Laurent Blanc admitted that Barcelona was above his team in “all areas of the game,” while adding: “Despite this, the players gave their all tonight but it was not enough to make a good result.”
So, is Blanc saying that Barca is simply a better team than PSG?
He might be, but Off The Post would argue that "giving your all" and "not being aggressive enough" are not mutually exclusive, especially at this level. In other words, it’s impossible for professional soccer players at the highest level to give everything they have while at the same time failing to show enough determination and aggression to perform well. By that logic, one of either Blanc or Al-Khelaifi is wrong in his assessment.
OTP sides with the Qatari. Here’s why: while PSG’s poor defending -- which is usually a lack of concentration -- was plain enough for everyone to see, it was ultimately a lack of aggression from the Ligue 1 team that cost it the game, and likely the series.
According to stats compiled by ESPN, you must out-tackle, or at the very least match, Luis Enrique’s Barca in terms of tackles in order to take points from the Catalan club. In seven of the games this season where Barca has dropped points, it has been out-tackled by the opposition; the only outlier is a 3-1 loss at Real Madrid, where the teams had an equal number of tackles.
On Wednesday, Barca easily out-tackled PSG by a margin of 26-15. In September, when the teams met during a UCL group stage game in Paris, the French outfit out-tackled Barca 29 to 18. PSG won that match 3-2.
There is a definite pattern here: while it’s possible to out-tackle Barca and still lose, it is impossible (at least this season) to be out-tackled by Barca and win (or even draw). And tackling, as any defender will tell you, is about timing, concentration, and of course, aggression.
With that in mind, as Blanc bemoaned the twin absences due to suspension of star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and central midfielder Marco Verratti, the bigger loss might have been tough-tackling midfielder Thiago Motta, who missed the game due to a thigh injury.
And yet, despite these absences, Blanc got his tactics wrong against Barca. Playing against a team that deploys the exact same formation can be tricky, and Blanc, instead of playing Blaise Matuidi, his best central midfielder, in a Sergi Busquets-like deep role, had the Frenchman push forward, leaving the defensively weaker Yohan Cabaye and Adrien Rabiot to try and control the middle. Needless to say, the pair had a poor night. In retrospect, it would have been better to put Matuidi in the holding role, leaving either Cabaye or Rabiot free to try and unlock Barca’s defense -- which can look desperate on quick counter-attacks -- with their passing.
Had Thiago Silva not gone off injured, an even better option would be to play Luiz, who is often suspect as a central defender, in that holding midfielder role he used to play for Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. This way, the Brazilian could (try and) break up play to spring quick counter-attacks through the speed and power of Matuidi or the guile of Rabiot or Cabaye.
Of course, Silva did go off injured, and that changed the game, because on came Luiz -- himself semi-injured -- and well, the rest is history.
The only question now is: will Blanc lose his job for this?