In the words of the great french author Emile Zola, J’accuse! (I accuse) But who do I accuse? and of what?
While Zola was accusing French President Felix Faure of anti-semitism for jailing Albert Dreyfus, my accusation is not towards a single entity. Just as in 1898, when the French people were shocked by Dreyfus’ unlawful arrest, men, women and children the world over watched in either delight, despair or fascination as FC Barcelona came back against Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou to knock out Unai Emery’s men in what can be regarded as one of the best Champions League games ever.
Since then, many questions have been about the future and present of both clubs involved. Will PSG have to shift the power in the locker room? Will Enrique stay in Catalonia? Is this the end of the Qataris’ “PSG project”? Are Barça still on for the treble? Is Thiago Silva’s time up? While most of those questions are yet to be answered (PSG’s president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi did break the silence in an interview for Le Parisien after the game to answer some of those questions), many people have avoided the obvious: How did this happen? Who should be accused of what?
Let’s start with a far too obvious choice. As the two teams walked onto the hallowed turf of the Camp Nou, the Canal+ commentator Stephane Guy covering the game for France’s domestic audience introduced the night’s referee, Deniz Aytekin, by saying he’d have a “big role to play” in the night’s game, and he was far from being wrong. In the least biased way possible: it was an exceptionally badly officiated match, not only for the Parisian visitors but for both teams.
“They (referees) have to be in the right position, they have to take the abuse, they have to make the right decision and they are under constant pressure. […] If I can make mistakes, why shouldn’t the ref be able to too? […] A lot of referees make different decisions based on the situation they’re in. They take on board all sorts of factors even if only subconsciously.”
Luis Suarez (Crossing the line, 2014)
While I won’t go out of my way to list all the errors the referee made (as the list would be heavily disputable and such a list has probably already been made), the whole performance should be discussed. The quote above is from Luis Suarez’ 2014 autobiography entitled Crossing the line (Ironic, because the ball did the opposite at the World Cup in 2010, but I digress) where he takes a moment to talk about referees and his way of seeing them. His statement about referees making different decisions based on the context is very true, and one of the most important things to remember when talking about the quality of refereeing in a match.
The problem is that most of Aytekin’s key decisions were against the run of play, resulting in the game being tipped in favour of one team or another, even if they didn’t deserve it (as was the case with Barcelona most of the time).
I thus could accuse Deniz Aytekin of making decisions against the run of play that aided in tipping the game in Barcelona’s favour, but ultimately, even if he had made all his decisions correctly, there are others at fault.
While I won’t include the press in this long accusation, they were the first to bring up “la remontada“. Remontada this, remontada that, it had quickly become the most common term in the city of counts. In the days leading up to the game, it was not only Cules who were believing in this mythical comeback, the Blaugrana began to believe too. There was no hesitation when it came to what Barcelona’s mentality was leading up to the game, they were out for blood.
Their tactics from the start reflected their hunt for revenge, playing a 3-4-3 formation that allowed the defence and wingers to herd Unai Emery’s men like sheep. The players in white were often grouped into a small rectangle, compacting the midfield and defence. Barcelona were able to take advantage of PSG’s fearful midfield of Marco Verratti, Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi, who were too scared to stray away from a compact midfield lineup.
Barcelona also took advantage of PSG’s differing work-rates, with Lucas Moura and Julian Draxler unwilling to press the Blaugrana players whereas Blaise Matuidi and Edison Cavani often morphed the Parisians’ shape from the original 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2, with Rabiot dropping between the centre-backs and Cavani playing among the midfielders.
The main question is: was this retro Barça? Was it a technical and tactical masterclass from Lucho’s men? No. As ESPN FC journalist Julien Laurens stated in his post-match review, Barcelona were not exceptionally outstanding. I don’t want to take a lot away from Barcelona’s stellar performance, but their shape, the decisions certain players made and their decision making left much to be desired, especially compared with their world-beating 2014/15 team.
Humiliating, disgraceful, degrading, disrespectful. Those were the words I used for my post-match review in the immediate aftermath of the game, and these words are still relevant. After what was arguably the best result in PSG history, the Parisians threw it all away under the spotlights. Everything went up in flames for the Parisians on nearly every level. The tactics were badly engineered, the defence was lost, the midfield was clueless, the attack was inconsistent, the substitutions were badly-picked and so on and so forth. So much went wrong when so little went right for Unai Emery’s outfit, who, most importantly, fell apart mentally.
From the sidelines, not much can be done. The manager’s powers are limited to tactics, substitutions, team selection and morale, yet Unai Emery managed not to tick any of those boxes against Barcelona, fielding a questionable starting eleven, making debatable substitutions, opting for intimidated tactics and, above all, barely addressing the team’s morale. The selection of Lucas, Thiago Silva and Blaise Matuidi are still highly controversial for their inability to add anything to the game, the substitution on of a player having one of the worst seasons of his career (Krychowiak) and a player who takes as long to tie his laces as it takes Barcelona to score 3 goals were at the very least dubious, the compact and defensive tactics made the team vulnerable to every attack despite Barcelona’s lack of wow-factor and the team’s morale is something in itself.
The morale of the players was truly something to be ashamed of. They (with a few exceptions) seemed to believe in the remontada more than Barcelona themselves, and they definitely looked the part in that case. Players constantly running in circles after the ball, defenders not communicating with each other, players remaining static on set pieces and worst of all, a general air of acceptance following every Barcelona goal. Apart from Kevin Trapp and Edinson Cavani, most players walked around with their heads down when the going got tough, something they should be ashamed of.
The players themselves though were perhaps at fault for that morale. After an expectation-shattering first leg, the fact that they went into the game looking like boys playing against men was unacceptable. There was no fight, no communication, no effort, no togetherness and no leadership. The capitulation as a whole was a reminder of PSG’s inability to find a leader within the team. Players were tactically numb and offered few solutions apart from trying to triple-mark midfielders in the hope the Blaugrana would forget they had wingers (one of whom had an exceptional performance that night).
In conclusion, J’accuse les joueurs du Paris Saint-Germain! (I accuse the PSG players!) for their lack of endeavour, their lack of will to find any sort of solution and their lack of leadership. When the lights were brightest, the Parisians crumbled and they should be ashamed. They have the rest of the season to deal with (including a rather interesting title race) but when summer comes, big questions will have to be asked of this team and of the PSG project as a whole.