The two sides of PSG: Compact attacking trio causing havoc, defensively too far apart

Paris Saint-Germain have had 10 attempts at winning the Champions League under their Qatari ownership, and they are yet to succeed.

In itself, that’s not disgraceful. Winning the European Cup is very difficult, especially for a club from outside one of Europe’s true elite leagues. It’s worth remembering that Pep Guardiola, the most revered coach of his generation, hasn’t won it in his past 10 attempts either.

It’s probably more notable that PSG haven’t even come close to lifting the trophy very often.

Granted, they lost the 2019-20 final, slightly unfortunately, to Bayern Munich, and they reached the semis the following year, when they were soundly beaten 4-1 on aggregate by Manchester City. Otherwise, they’ve been eliminated four times in the quarter-finals, and four more in the round of 16 — including last season.

In other words, only twice in the last 10 attempts have they got to the last four.

Considering their financial outlay over the past decade, and the fact they have regularly been able to field the best attacking trio in the competition, that should be considered an underachievement.

The latest manager attempting to succeed where Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino have failed is Christophe Galtier, a Ligue 1 winner with Lille in 2020-21. Galtier is a good coach and a canny tactician, but impressing in charge of the likes of Bastia, Saint-Etienne, Lille and Nice is no guarantee for succeeding at a club of superstars such as PSG.

On the evidence of last night’s 2022-23 group opener, familiar problems remain.

There has been a major change in terms of structure, however.

Whereas PSG have largely played a 4-3-3 in recent seasons, with sporadic shifts to 3-4-3 under Pochettino, Galtier has installed a three-man defence as his default approach. This falls back into more of a 5-2-3 without possession — the forwards contribute relatively little when PSG don’t have the ball, remaining narrow, which asks midfielders Marco Verratti and Vitinha to cover lots of ground.

The major benefit of this new system comes in attack.

With Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes providing all the width, the front three of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi have more license to stay together in central positions and build passing combinations.

Thus far, they look far more cohesive than last season.

Mbappe’s early opener against Juventus last night, courtesy of a one-two with Neymar, felt almost unstoppable.

Look how deep Mbappe is when he starts his run…

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…and by the time Neymar scoops the ball over the defence, he’s moving at top speed…

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…and nobody has a chance of stopping him before he smashes a volley home.

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This was an exaggeration of PSG’s combination play, rather than an anomaly — Messi tried a similar pass to Mbappe 10 minutes later, having been fed by Neymar. This time, though, the ball didn’t quite fall right for the France striker to volley it.

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But Mbappe did score a second volley, again following a one-two, midway through the first half — this time combining with Hakimi.

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By this point, it felt like PSG were rampant, just intent on scoring goals that wouldn’t look out of place in a game of headers and volleys…

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…but then, familiar failings became apparent.

PSG’s attackers tend to start matches with the intention to press, and then switch off around 20 minutes in.

That’s exactly what happened here, and it led to Juventus causing problems down the flanks. Juan Cuadrado was particularly free down the visitors’ right.

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This move demonstrated PSG’s problem in this system. Mendes is the left wing-back and should move out quickly to close down Cuadrado, but the run of Adrien Rabiot traps him in between opponents. Instead he stands off, half-tracking Rabiot’s move towards the penalty area…

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…which allows Cuadrado to curl a cross in to two Juventus attackers. Arkadiusz Milik gets on the end of it, and forces a fine save from Gianluigi Donnarumma.

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And this became a pattern of the game — Cuadrado all alone on Juventus’ right flank, begging for switches of play so he could whip balls into the box.

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It was also notable that PSG’s central midfield duo, forced to cover a huge amount of ground in midfield, were often bisected easily.

Here’s a ball from Leonardo Bonucci right between them…

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…to the feet of Milik, who is free between the lines.

His touch here was poor, but PSG struggled with one of the Juventus strikers dropping deep, as if accustomed to playing with a holding midfielder who would occupy that area of the pitch.

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And here’s the problem Galtier surely won’t solve — the occasional selfishness and petulance of their front three.

Three minutes into the second half, Neymar receives the ball on the edge of the Juventus box. Mbappe is making a run into a goalscoring position, wanting his hat-trick, but the Brazilian opts to shoot, not pass.

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It isn’t a particularly inexplicable choice, but Mbappe glares at him.

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And so, three minutes later, when Mbappe races down the right and into the area, it looks like he doesn’t even think about squaring the ball for a Neymar tap-in…

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…which results in an even more overt show of dissent from one PSG attacker to another.

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And after these incidents, PSG’s forwards lose faith in the team overall and partly abandon their defensive responsibilities.

From Juventus’ subsequent attack, the home side are defending in a 5-2 formation — the attackers so far back upfield they are completely out of frame. Again, look at this pass straight between PSG’s two midfielders.

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When Neymar and Messi eventually did retreat, into narrow positions, the space down the flanks for Juventus is again quite remarkable.

A minute after this screenshot, Juventus switch play out to Filip Kostic down the left, he wins a corner, and Weston McKennie pulls a goal back from that set piece.

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Now Juventus had the momentum, and it really felt like they would find an equaliser.

The closest they came to scoring again combined PSG’s two major problems — first, their central midfielders are bisected easily…

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…second, Cuadrado is relatively free to deliver a cross towards two centre-forwards. This time it is Dusan Vlahovic with the header, and Donnarumma is forced to make another fine save.

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PSG, of course, always offer a threat going forward — and this move is particularly typical of their play this season.

It features a Verratti forward pass, a Neymar flick, a Messi through ball…

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…and Mbappe running onto the pass before blasting wide of the far post.

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PSG will score some outstanding goals this season, not merely because of the quality of the individuals in their front three, but because those players are closer together on the pitch this season and — at times — on the same wavelength too.

go-deeper

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But, come the Champions League knockout rounds, it’s difficult to see how their structural problems without the ball will be resolved.

This is a huge footballing season for Qatar — but probably not because PSG will finally win the European Cup at the end of it.

(Photo: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)



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The two sides of PSG: Compact attacking trio causing havoc, defensively too far apart

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