Football Features

A No. 10 resurgence and diagonal dominance: Why Pochettino’s PSG pose a greater risk to Barca than Tuchel’s

By Ben Green

Published: 16:28, 16 February 2021

PSG meet an old adversary in the Champions League round-of-16 when they collide with Barcelona, a fixture where world-class talent is abundant and the subplots plentiful.

To think of PSG vs Barca is to conjure up memories of that famous (or infamous, depending on your predilections) remontada at Camp Nou in 2017, in which the Blaugrana overturned a 4-0 first-leg deficit to win 6-5 on aggregate.

Adding to the intrigue and spice of this blockbuster bout, Ronald Koeman recently accused the Parisians of lacking ‘respect’ after Angel Di Maria talked up a move for Lionel Messi, while Mauricio Pochettino, a former player and coach of Barca’s fierce local rivals Espanyol, is now in the hotseat.

Neymar has been denied a reunion with his former teammates after sustaining a groin injury, but the Parisians are much more than a one-man band, and tactical changes under Pochettino have already been evident in the embryonic stages of his tenure. This sees PSG fourth-favourites to win the Champions League this season (11/1 with SkyBet), going one further than their runners-up finish last summer. (18+ only. Odds correct at time of publication. T&Cs apply. BeGambleAware.)

A ‘Spursy’ blueprint

Despite overseeing just 10 matches in the Parc des Princes dugout, we are already witnessing parallels with this current incarnation of PSG and Pochettino’s Tottenham, chiefly the use of a No. 10, a role predecessor Thomas Tuchel seldom utilised.

During the early stages of his tenure in north London, Dele Alli was tasked with playing in the hole, but his role transcended that of traditional ‘enganche’, his main focus being to arrive late in the box and score goals, rather than creating in the case of an established playmaker.

For PSG, Neymar has been the main threat through the middle (that, of course, will have to change for this fixture).

Compare that to Spurs’ 2018/19 side, in which Pochettino masterminded a Champions League final appearance, and the systems bare a close resemblance, with Christian Eriksen later supplanting Alli in the hole, while the double-midfield pivot remains a prominent facet in both 4-2-3-1 set-ups.

It’s worth noting here that Pochettino has not come in and made radical changes to Tuchel’s Parisian blueprint — his side did reach the final last season after all — just a few tactical adjustments.

Tuchel was, of course, a huge advocate of the double pivot himself, a creator-destroyer partnership that took the defensive burden off the frontline and screened the defence, with Idrissa Gueye and Marco Verratti his most-frequented combination last season.

The major difference between the two set-ups so far has been the introduction off a No. 10, a hallmark of Pochettino’s intricate philosophy. There was no room for an advanced playmaker in Tuchel’s 4-2-2-2.

A stylistic nod to Bielsa-ball

Formation-wise the changes between Pochettino and Tuchel have been subtle, but stylistically we may start to see a huge shift.

Pochettino, a disciple of Bielsa-ball having worked under Marcelo briefly at Newell’s Old Boys and later Espanyol, may look to change tact for this contest in an effort to counter Barca’s expected hogging of possession and dominance on the ball.

A key aspect of Pochettino’s high-pressing system is the use of diagonal balls towards the flanks; during that aforementioned 2018/19 campaign at Spurs, the Londoners attempted more long passes (776) than any other club in the Champions League, including Liverpool (761).

This season, by contrast, the Parisians rank seventh-last out of the 32 clubs in the competition for that particular metric (285). The stylistic differences between Spurs 2018/19 and PSG 2020/21, therefore, are night and day. Barcelona, meanwhile, rank dead last for most attempted long passes this term (186). 

So, to stifle the possession-heavy tendencies of Ronald Koeman’s side, Pochettino is unlikely to fight fire with fire and try to dominate possession; instead, he may go back to his Tottenham days and try to utilise the diagonal ball, catching Barca’s buccaneering full-backs unawares and high up the turf.

Take a gander at the visual below and look how high Barca’s full-backs really push up. The diagonal ball could work wonders here for Pochettino, as it did on his last visit to Catalonia.

When the Argentine last visited Camp Nou, his Tottenham side were good value for a 1-1 draw; they completed more long passes on the day and completed more final third passes by over double (133 to Barca’s 66).

PSG are, therefore, unlikely to dawdle in possession, but will instead look to get the ball forward with pace and speed.

A midfield nuisance

Ander Herrera recently returned from a knock which bodes well for Pochettino and the system he is trying to implement in the French capital. When we think of the main fulcrums in the Argentine’s Spurs team, we think predominantly of Mousa Dembele, and Herrera is arguably the most similar player to the Belgian in that regard.

He orbits the midfield area, plays with a certain swagger in possession, keeps the ball ticking over, and perhaps most importantly, is not afraid to get his shorts muddy. In the Champions League this season, only seven players have registered more tackles than Herrera (16), and not one of those players represents a traditional heavyweight.

So, Herrera could be the key to subduing the possession-heavy threat of Barca without jeopardising PSG’s own passing fluidity. Herrera offers the tackling intensity of Gueye, but is far tidier and rhythmic in possession. The Spaniard could be Pochettino’s new Dembele: graceful on the ball, and a nuisance off it.