Manchester United 0-2 Paris Saint Germain: Conservative setup pays off for PSG

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.

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The two teams’ basic setups.

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.

Midfield 4v3
PSG’s 4v3 in midfield. The United fullbacks have to decide between dealing with the wingbacks or inside forwards.

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.

Maquinhos-Verratti
Marquinhos and Verratti virtually never gave possession away.

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.

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The PSG CBs engage with Lingard and Rashford to try and cut out the counter at source.
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A 1-2 allows Lingard to get in behind, but his pass is poor.

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.

2nd goal build up United-PSG
PSG play around the United midfield before launching a quick attack.

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.

Matic 2v1
Matic has two inside forwards/number 10s to deal with.
Bernat free
With his attention on Draxler Young decides to mark Mbappé (who’s swapped with Di Maria) leaving Bernat in open space.

Mbappé decisive

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.

Conclusion

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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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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