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’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.
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.