PSG 2-2 Napoli: Neymar shines but Napoli worth their point in Paris

In a pivotal Group C encounter, Napoli came within minutes of getting a huge win at the Parc des Princes, which could’ve left Paris Saint-Germain facing the prospect of a humiliating group stage exit. Angel Di Maria’s stunning late strike went someway to salvaging the situation for PSG, but did nothing to hide the shortcomings Napoli exposed, who were well worth their point.

Napoli take control

Despite a flurry of early PSG shots, it was the Italian side who had the best of the first half. The visitors made their dominance felt more the longer the first half went on. From the 20th minute until halftime, Napoli had almost 65% of the ball and outshot the star studded home side by 6-2. Much of Napoli’s joy came up the left hand side, with the duo of Marek Hamšík and Fabián Ruiz helping to outnumber Marco Verratti and exploit the space Kylian Mbappé leaves behind. 

PSG were surprisingly passive out of possession for a game of such magnitude. This was either a deliberate strategy on their part, to contain Napoli out of possession and hit them on the break, or simply down to complacency and a poor off ball work-rate by many of their players. A remarkable feature of the first half was the number of dribbles each side attempted. While the home side tried to beat a man 21 times, Napoli didn’t attempt any. This speaks to both the nature of Napoli’s approach – pass and move rather than progressing the ball through individual skill – but also the passivity of PSG, who rarely engaged the Napoli players on the ball in duels, and allowed them to move the ball relatively free of pressure.

Regardless of whether PSG’s approach was deliberate, it didn’t work, as Napoli began making openings from their possession, and exposed potential weak points for the Parisians, at least when they’re without Thiago Silva. Napoli twice caught PSG’s centre backs napping with whipped balls in behind. First Mario Rui sent a cross behind Marquinhos that Dries Mertens directed onto the crossbar. Then José Callejón curled a through ball behind Presnel Kimpembe which Lorenzo Insigne calmly chipped over the keeper to break the deadlock.

Neymar lifts PSG

On the player front, the standout feature of the match was the performance of Neymar. Even in a match with so many high calibre players, the Brazilian’s quality stood out and he was key to almost all the good things PSG did. One of the most distinguishing features of Thomas Tuchel’s tenure in Paris so far has been his use of Neymar in the number 10 role. A freer central role means he can use his brilliant dribbling and passing in a wider variety of ways.

Against Napoli he was key in progressing the ball forward for PSG. Unlike the visitors, the Parisians struggled to progress the ball up field with their midfield passing, and thus the dribbling of Neymar was key in them being able to bring the ball into the final third. He completed a ridiculous 12 take-ons, with many central and near the halfway line, beating the Napoli midfielders and carrying the ball forward.

Neymar dribbles and through balls

Neymar’s presence as the 10 also went someway to justifying PSG’s counter attacking approach, as a central role for the Brazilian significantly increases their threat in transition. Once in between the lines of Napoli’s midfield and attack, the Brazilian’s killer through balls, and in particular his link with Mbappé, were the major danger to Napoli’s first half superiority. PSG’s two biggest chances both came from Neymar through balls to Mbappé. The first saw a heavy touch by the Frenchman, resulting in a tame Cavani shot, while the second, following a trademark dribble to get between the lines, resulted in a more clear cut chance that David Ospina did well to deny.

PSG shift to a back three

PSG responded to their deficit at half time by switching to a back three. Tuchel’s Dortmund sides tended to build up and circulate the ball better with their defenders and midfielders in a 3-2 shape during build up, and the German has occasionally tried the same in his brief spell in Paris so far. The French champions certainly did a better job of keeping the ball and progressing deep into opposition territory early in the second half. But their change in shape was also matched by a crucial change in intensity. While their passive approach in the first half helped allow Napoli to dominate, having 15 minutes to contemplate a potentially disastrous second defeat in three games in the group unsurprisingly meant the home side came out with much greater urgency in the second half.

With this change in structure and approach, PSG were able to pin Napoli back and exert more constant pressure on the visitors. It is possible Napoli also began to fatigue, or simply retreated in their approach with the knowledge they now had something to lose. Insinge’s withdrawal through injury didn’t help either, though the flow of the match had seemingly shifted already by then. PSG’s increasing pressure paid off with a fortuitous own goal, but it was fair reward for their early dominance in the second half.

The other thing the shift to a 3-4-1-2/3-4-3 did was allow Mbappé to come inside even more. This helped him to combine with Neymar in deeper, more central zones, and gave Paris another way of utilising he and Neymar’s skills to advance the ball through the middle. Neymar managed to get a strong shot off after using Mbappé as a wall pass, and a few minutes later he returned the favour to Mbappé in the build up to the own goal.

After the equaliser, however, PSG lost a lot of the intensity that had helped them early in the second half, and Napoli managed to get another foothold into the game. Like the own goal, Mertens’ goal had a large element of fortune, but Napoli had done well to ride the PSG tide without having to face many clear cut chances by that point.

PSG responded by throwing more men forward, and the final 15 minutes became very chaotic. In truth the much daunted PSG attack didn’t look like they had an equaliser in them until Di Maria’s curler in the third minute of stoppage time.

Moving forward

In the classic match day three and four double header the Champions League group stage is known for, Napoli will have been very satisfied to have taken a point from their away leg in Paris. If they can avoid defeat in their home tie they will arguably enter the final two match days as favourites to progress ahead of PSG.

While PSG’s situation was somewhat salvaged by Di Maria’s late strike, they will have to improve their level if they are to achieve the results that will be needed in Naples and at home to Liverpool. What could be a benefit for Paris is that before their trip to Italy, they head to Marseille and host Lille, the sides fourth and second in Ligue 1 respectively. Their lack of weekly tests in Ligue 1 has been a well documented hypothesis for their European struggles, so facing two strong sides should help their focus and intensity for the next few weeks. It will also provide them with more opportunities to find their ideal structure and strategy, something they’re clearly still looking for.

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FM 18: The Arsenal Rebuild – Episode 2, Transfer Targets and Pre-Season

Episode One

Firstly, apologies for the long gap between episodes one and two. They should be arriving much more frequently after this.

Squad evaluating

Before dealing with transfer incomings, I had to assess what I already had to work with. What are the areas of the squad that need work, and who are players who might be disposable? While I have my own ideas about what Arsenal need to be doing in real life, the football manager database  can mean the need the different solutions. For example, while Petr Cech has just come off a poor season in the real world, in my squad he remains a more than competent enough goalkeeper. Similarly, in the save Laurent Koscielny’s achilles is still in one working piece, and he is a standout centre back in the Premier League. Both these make my job considerably easier. Acquiring a new goalkeeper can be put off for a year, and I have a senior CB I can rely on for the next 12 months. It feels somewhat like cheating when such a scenario seems so far from reality right now, but I don’t exactly feel like hamstringing myself from this position either.

In another case of something feeling much easier than it should’ve been, I managed to extend Wilshere and Ramsey at little financial cost and with minimal hassle. Wilshere’s renewal was at his current weekly wage of £90k, and Ramsey’s was at a small rise to £135k. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to use both of them, but figured it was the sensible move to tie them down and decide their futures later.

Ramsey new contract
Aaron Ramsey: Four more years

With even Mustafi looking serviceable, I opted to sell Chambers for £17m to West Ham. It was a straight shootout between he, Mustafi and Holding, and the other two looked better. This would create enough space for at least one CB.

Given I’m planning on using a two striker system, one person I thought could have use would be Lucas Perez. His stats suggest he could be a better option than Welbeck if one of the two main strikers are out. Another interesting one is Santi Cazorla. On this save his contract runs till 2019 for some reason – I think it’s probably because of my start date being so late, but it didn’t do the same thing for Wilshere – and if he can be useful in any way that would be a bonus.

Transfers

When it comes to transfers in, I wanted to primarily target players under 26. With the likes of Özill, Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan, Koscielny, Ramsey and Monreal, there are plenty of players in the squad who are 27 are older. As alluded to in the previous episode, I wanted to use the transfer window to help reduce the average age of the squad.

I managed to make a couple of early teenage signings. Lyon’s Houssem Aouar, a versatile and technical central midfielder, and Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt, a ball playing centre back. While de Ligt would slot straight into the startling XI, Aouar would more likely be a rotation option at first. Both have the potential to be quality starting XI players in the future, however.

de Ligt signing
Matthijs de Ligt: Long term CB?

As I mentioned last time, on the attacking front I wanted to focus on wide players. While Mkhitaryan and Iwobi could play in wide roles, both are more playmakers than direct, fast wingers, so I wanted to focus on players who were quick, could dribble and had good off ball movement. My preferences were Watford’s Richarlison or Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey, but both proved to be too expensive. I had a budget, pre-sales, of around £75m and I was unable to negotiate either player to under £60m. Instead I went back to Lyon and went for one of my personal favourites, Memphis Depay, for a reasonably modest fee of £20m.

I wanted to try and make a star central midfield signing, but like with the wide forwards, attaining my top targets proved difficult given our budget and and the club’s current position. I had a bid for Matteo Kovacic accepted, but he refused to even enter contract negotiations because we weren’t in the Champions League. Others such as Piotr Zielinski and Marcelo Brozovic simply proved too expensive. Instead of making a big signing in the position, I instead opted to compliment the earlier signing of Aouar with Leander Dendoncker, a powerful destroyer who offers something completely different to the rest of my squad. He can also fill in at CB which is useful.

Instead my next big signing turned out to be another wide forward, with the Mexican Hirving Lozano coming in from PSV, ironically Memphis’ old stomping ground. He looks to already be starting quality, with plenty of time to grow into a superstar.

Lozano
Hirving Lozano: The next Alexis Sanchez?

While I’m reasonably happy with my business, the squad has become quite bloated. Not unusually for me, I struggled to offload players. I looked to see if there was interest for Elneny, Wilshere, Ramsey and Welbeck, but found worthwhile bids hard to come by. In the end I bottled selling Elneny for £14m to a Chinese Super League club. While he could be useful the reality is there’s at least one midfielder too many at the moment.

Transfers
Transfers: The ins and outs

Pre-season

I’ll be honest, I tend to find pre-seasons quite tedious. They can be quite appealing in theory. The idea of testing tactics and giving new and younger players opportunities is exciting on the face of it. But in reality, it’s hard to draw many meaningful conclusions from friendly games. The stakes aren’t there, the opposition is often lower standard, the player’s fitness is usually poor and the lineups picked are often scrambled together depending on who needs to gain match fitness.

Nonetheless, in the first season of a save, playing pre-season matches is extra important in order to build familiarity with your tactics of choice for the new season. I’m always taken aback by how unfamiliar teams often are initially with a lot of the instructions I give, especially given I usually try to maintain the philosophies and tactics of the clubs I’m managing to some extent. In this case Arsenal are apparently uncomfortable with a shorter passing style and find concepts such as retaining possession somewhat alien to them at this stage of the season. It’s odd to me, but there you go.

I played eight pre-season games in total. I don’t think giving summaries of them is that useful or interesting, but you can see the results and player stats for the games, sorted by minutes played, below.

Pre season fixtures
Pre-season: The results
Pre Season stats
Pre-season: The player stats

The start of the Premier League season is just around the corner. Like in 17/18, the season begins at the Emirates on a Friday night, with West Ham coming to visit. After that Arsenal have a tough trip to Stamford Bridge, followed by a home match against Everton before the international break. We’ll see how we get on in episode three.

@Reunewal

Episode One

 

FM 18: The Arsenal Rebuild – Episode 1, Introduction and Squad Overview

 

Introduction

I’ve never blogged about a Football Manager series before. In truth I’m not even a massively experienced FM player. But never has a Football Manager campaign for Arsenal been so appealing. Arsène Wenger is leaving, Arsenal have just finished in their lowest league position for 23 years, and are left with a squad that is, while not completely devoid of talented players, badly unbalanced, lacking in key areas, and ageing. Arsenal are about to embark on a new era with me at the helm. 

I didn’t want to start at the beginning of the 17/18 season. While you can argue that would’ve been the ideal time for Arsenal to get a new manager and begin to rebuild the squad, one can not change the past, and it’s more fun to go from this point onwards than it is to rectify the mistakes of the last 12 months with hindsight vision.

I found a downloadable custom start date, which allowed me to start my reign in May 2018 with the league season accurately simulated. What I didn’t anticipate was that the results of the cup competitions wouldn’t be accurate and when I loaded my first save, I had the Europa League final to contend with in two days (the 14th of May was the latest I could drop in). It took me until my sixth created save for Arsenal to finally lose in the Europa League semi finals, to Lyon, which was both inconvenient and a sobering reminder of what could’ve been this season.

I contemplated quite literally designing my manager as Mikel Arteta, but given there’s actually a Mikel Arteta in the Manchester City coaching staff in the database, I thought it might create a weird duplication that could become strange further down the line. Instead I created myself as a 36 year old former international footballer with a Continental A Licence, who is a great attacking coach, good at working with youngsters, a strong tactician and a good man manager. In other words, the calibre, experience levels and qualities that Arsenal are seemingly going for in real life.

Welcome to Arsenal
The Ivan Gazidis Arsenal welcome

Project goals

I think the first goal for a new Arsenal manager has to be to re-establish the club in the top four, with a view to challenging for titles further down the line. Expecting anything more of a side that finished 37 points behind a dominant Manchester City side this season is simply unrealistic, especially given Arsenal don’t exactly have big financial advantages on their rivals.

My goal will be to do that while rebuilding the squad and reducing it’s average age. Younger players will be targeted and I’ll look to give opportunities to the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson where possible. The other aim is, of course, to try and play football The Arsenal Way with attacking game plans, dominance of the ball and a lot of attacking firepower. Both things are of course, mentioned by Ivan Gazidis as part of the club’s philosophies.

Squad overview and early formation ideas

The first job for any football manager is to assess the squad they’ve got. To identify who the key players are, who you will look to sell, which are the combinations you’ll look to build around, and so on. The undoubted strength of the current Arsenal squad lies in the attack. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette Arsenal have two high quality strikers with fairly different skill sets. It makes a lot of sense to try and incorporate both of them into the starting lineup, and I’m curious to see if they can build a quality strike partnership. Just behind them is Mesut Özil, one of the best playmakers in the world. After his new contract in February, he will be one of the key players in the project going forward. His touch, passing, technique, vision and decision making are elite and he’s the perfect creative playmaker in both the real world and in the game.

Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang
Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang: one of the world’s best poachers.
Mesut Özil
Mesut Özil: playmaker extraordinaire

Elsewhere there aren’t many other massive strengths in the squad. Hector Bellerin is a quality right back, who, at 23 years old, is one of the few first team positions that will be settled for years to come. The rest of the backline are either the wrong side of 30 or are players I have doubts about the quality of. Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny have long contracts and both have the potential to be useful players. On the other hand Aaron Ramsey’s contract is running out in one year and his stats in the database aren’t anything special and seem to do him a bit of a disservice (a stamina of 15, the same as Özil and only one more than Lacazette and Wilshere!). If his wage demands are high then he could be a player who needs to be sold in order to create funds. The same goes for Jack Wilshere.

To say Arsenal are somewhat lacking in genuine wide options would be a gross understatement, which is obviously something to note going into the transfer window, but is also making me lean towards a three or five at the back formation for the next season. A three centre back formation, where the wingbacks are the primary source of width, also helps to fit two strikers in without leaving the rest of the team unbalanced, so it’s a natural fit.

In the end I opted for a 5-2-1-2, with Özil in the hole behind the two strikers. The formation is obviously not set in stone and could be adapted in the future. In the next episode of the series, when we look at transfers, I’ll discuss the ways I think the rest of the team can be improved, and with certain signings the ideal formation could change. At the moment, this is what I think is best suited to the Arsenal squad.

Formation
The lineup, in its preliminary stages

In terms of instructions I’ve opted to play a slightly higher line, and to close down more. If I was feeling particularly ambitious I could try a much higher line with much more closing down, but given it’s still early days and the Arsenal defence has been less than stellar, to put it lightly, over the last two seasons, I think that might be unwise. I’ll see how the first couple of months go, observe how the fitness of the squad holds up and assess from there.

After getting the ball I want the team to keep it and for prolonged periods so have opted for shorter passing and a lower tempo in possession, while still allowing for creativity and for the players to express themselves on the ball.

Instructions
What I’m trying to get the team to do

In the next episode I’ll start looking into potential transfer targets, focusing on potential CBs, CMs and wingers. If you have any standout suggestions, let me know on twitter. That’s all for episode one.

@Reunewal

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