Paris Saint-Germain took a significant step towards qualifying for the quarter finals after claiming a two-nil victory in a slow burning contest at Old Trafford.
Manchester United opted for a 4-3-3 with Jessie Lingard on the right hand side, rather than using him at the tip of a diamond like they did in their away wins against Tottenham and Arsenal. Marcus Rashford came back into the side to lead the line after being rested against Fulham on the weekend.
Paris Saint-Germain were forced to alter alter their plans in the days leading up to the match, after Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meuiner joined Neymar on the sidelines after picking up injuries on the weekend. Thomas Tuchel was left with the choice of using Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting or going for a change of approach, and he opted for the latter, naming an XI which was arguably their most conservative of the season.
The Parisians played in a 4-5-1 without the ball, with Dani Alves on the right wing, and Angel Di Maria on the left. With the ball, however, the shape became more of a 3-4-2-1, with Juan Bernat moving up to play left wing-back and Di Maria tucking inside to play behind Kylian Mbappé alongside Julian Draxler. The rest of the back four formed a back three.
Slow first half
The first half was an extremely cagey affair. Not uncommonly for the first leg of Champions League knockout ties, both sides seemed happy to sit off and let the opposition make the first move. Neither side pressed in midfield and there was little risk taking in possession. The five bookings and three injury stoppages in the half exasperated the dull tempo of the game and prevented any one side from building up a head of steam.
PSG’s possession structure gave them a good base for solid possession. Their midfield quartet was able to outnumber the United midfield three and the wingbacks provided consistent out balls. While their possession play wasn’t particularly ambitious, it did do a good job of keeping United’s recent attacking firepower at bay.
Marquinhos’ performances in midfield have been perhaps the revelation of PSG’s season and he was again excellent tonight. His athletic prowess and defensive capabilities are no surprise, and he was crucial in keeping Pogba quiet, but it’s to his credit that he has rarely looked a weakness in possession. Of course, playing alongside someone as gifted with the ball at their feet as Marco Verratti also means he isn’t forced to take significant risks. The two virtually never gave the ball away in the middle of the park, meaning United were unable to launch any transition attacks after regaining possession in the middle third, which was a key reason their attack was stifled.
In the first half they were let down by a lack of quality in the passing of Draxler and Di Maria, and understandably looked a little more blunt without two of their star forwards. While it’s fair to point out that PSG may not have been able to put in such a disciplined performance without Neymar and Cavani, it would be amiss to argue they were not missed. With the way PSG were able to feed players in between the lines regularly, Neymar in particular could’ve caused far more damage than either of the two PSG attacking midfielders did. The best chance of the half came when one of them did get the final pass right, as Draxler ran off the back of Pogba and played a first time pass through to Mbappé, who shot wide.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær much of United’s attacking threat has been through counter attacks, and with the trio of Lingard, Rashford and Anthony Martial that was likely to be the case again. PSG had a risky strategy to try and deal with the attacking threat. The centre backs would lunge out in an attempt to win the ball quickly and it didn’t work all too well. Presnel Kimpembe got an early booking and was arguably fortunate to not receive a second one throughout the match. United’s best chance in the match did not result in a shot, but came about when Lingard and Rashford played a 1-2 to get past Kimpembe and Thiago Silva at the halfway line, but Lingard’s final pass and Martial’s touch on the far side ruined the chance.
Injuries hurt United threat after game opens up
Towards the end of the half both Lingard and Martial picked up injuries, meaning United went into the second half with Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez on the flanks. While both players have their own qualities, neither are as fast or direct as the younger starters were, meaning United lost some of their counter attacking menace.
This likely emboldened PSG, who were able to begin converting their possession control into chances. In the first half the visitors mustered just three shots on goal. In the first 20 minutes of the second half, they had eight. After conceding from a corner, the home side felt the need to force the issue, and began pressing in the midfield. The visitors, however, were able to deal with this comfortably, playing around the press, and they profited from the space created by the United player’s forward pressures. This was evident in the chances for Di Maria and Bernat, as well as the second goal.
The problem with United’s pressing attempts was that, as mentioned earlier, PSG outnumbered them 4v3 in midfield. In order to mark one of the inside forwards a fullback would usually have to come inside to mark them, leaving the wingback alone. United’s wide forwards were more occupied with pressing the CBs than tracking the wingbacks.
With Neymar and Cavani out there was an even greater than usual expectation on Kylian Mbappé to be the difference maker for PSG and he didn’t disappoint. In his young career so far, Mbappé has rarely actually played as a lone front man, having usually played wide or alongside an established and experienced number nine in Falcao or Cavani. For much of the match this showed as Mbappé cut a slightly isolated figure, unable to use his trademark dribbling, and struggling to make movements to hurt the home side. He managed to find himself on the end of three big chances, however, the only three created from open play in the entire match. They all utilised his speed and they were all of a different variety. Draxler played him in from the edge of the box, Di Maria crossed behind the backline and Di Maria again played him in with a long pass on a direct counter attack.
That the 20-year-old didn’t have his usual two amigos or his best game overall, and yet was still able to cause so much danger in such different ways in a European away game speaks volumes of his staggering ability and decisiveness.
Across the 90 minutes there is no doubt PSG were the superior side. With time their possession superiority told, and it was exasperated when they took the lead and United were made to fore the issue. While the home side were outplayed they will still rue some decisive moments that, had they gone differently, could’ve caused a different outcome in the match.
Kimpembe was walking a tight rope after his early yellow, and the referee waved away a couple of possible fouls, likely to avoid having to make a decision on whether they warranted a second yellow card. The injuries to Martial and particularly Lingard killed United’s attacking game plan and emboldened PSG. And the game ultimately required a set piece goal to open up and decisively go PSG’s way.
In the end though, the Manchester club were unable to muster even half a chance, mostly resorting to pot shots and crosses into the box to try and get back into the tie. Having put in such a toothless attacking display at home, it’s hard for them to feel particularly hard done by. With no Pogba for the second leg, they have a mountain to climb.
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