UEFA Champions League 2016/17: Unai Emery must take blame for PSG collapse
Why Unai Emery must accept responsibility for PSG's shock exit at the hands of Barcelona.
"This is a historic achievement that will be remembered forever.” Those were the words of Barcelona club president Josep Maria Bartomeu after his club’s extraordinary comeback to knock PSG out of the Champions League at the round of 16 stage.
The Catalan giants achieved what seemed the impossible, coming back from a 4-0 first leg defeat to knock out the French side with an incredible 6-1 victory at the Nou Camp.
With just three minutes of normal time left, the Spanish giants were trailing 5-3 on aggregate, and an early exit from the Champions League seemed inevitable. What happened next was nothing short of unbelievable.
Neymar’s superb free kick gave them hope before Luis Suarez was bundled down in the area by Marquinhos, allowing the Brazilian to add his second from the spot. Neymar was the dominant figure in the final stages, and he was involved again in the decisive incident, turning provider with a dink into the box to set up Sergi Roberto for a famous winner.
The game will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest in Champions League history, and rightly so. Neymar described it as “the best match I have ever played in my life”, and he was the pivotal figure. His impact was crucial as Barcelona became the first team to come back from a four-goal deficit from the first leg of a European Cup tie.
Their endeavour and quality was clear throughout the night, and they deservedly pulled off one of the greatest shocks in sporting history.
But there were two sides to this story. While Bartomeu described it as a “historic achievement”, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi called it a “nightmare”. While the first leg was seen as a huge step forward for the French giants, this was certainly two steps backwards.
While they were fantastic in the first leg, they were just as bad in the second. There was always going to be some sort of comeback from Barcelona, yet for a team of PSG’s quality and experience, a 4-0 advantage should have been more than enough to see them through.
One man who will rightly take some blame will be manager Unai Emery. People will question his decision to change his side’s tactics after their dominant display in the first leg. Three weeks ago, PSG wiped the floor with Barcelona with a masterclass in counter-attacking football and high pressing. The likes of Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot made things uncomfortable for the Catalans in midfield, constantly winning the ball back and setting the team away on the break.
There was none of this on Wednesday night. The midfield trio of Verratti, Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi sat back throughout the 90 minutes, inviting Barcelona forward and building pressure.
There was almost no supply to Edinson Cavani, whilst wingers Julian Draxler and Lucas Moura were almost redundant. Barcelona were given time and space to build attacks and create chances, and they certainly made the most of it.
Emery must take some of the responsibility for this. PSG were so good in the first leg at the Parc des Princes, and it was a bizarre decision to have such a huge change in tactics. Their failure to press the ball high up the pitch meant that Andres Iniesta had a much greater influence at the Nou Camp than three weeks ago, and his intelligence and range of passing hurt PSG on the night.
The fact that the former Sevilla manager decided to make such a major change to his side’s tactics was baffling. The sort of performance that PSG pulled off in the first leg was exactly the way that challenges Barcelona the most.
The way that they set up in the second leg played perfectly into the Catalans’ hands. Emery should have known this from his three and a half years in Spain, and he let his players down with his leadership.
He seemed lost in the final minutes of the match as Barcelona lay siege on the PSG goal. Emery stood speechless on the touchline, as his team capitulated. They completed only four passes after the 85th minute, three of which came from the kickoff. In that same period, Barcelona had six shots on the PSG goal.
Obviously the players can’t be free from blame. Both Cavani and Di Maria spurned good chances with the game at 3-1, and had they found the net, the tie would surely have been over. Regardless of tactics, PSG were poor. On the ball, they were short of quality, whilst defensively they were suspect all night. Given that the combined cost of the entire back four was upwards of £70 million, Emery would have been right to expect more than such an abject performance.
But the buck will stop with Emery, whose bizarre decision to switch tactics ultimately cost PSG, because it seems unlikely that they would have collapsed had they approached the second leg in the way that they approached the first.