AS Saint-Étienne – Paris Saint-Germain: Tinkering Tuchel Ultimately Finds The Right Balance (0-1)
This past week has been one of confidence building, for both AS Saint-Étienne and Paris Saint-Germain. For the home side, a welcome victory over Strasbourg saw them end a run of four matches without a win, thereby solidifying their hopes of a Europa League campaign next season. PSG had left Old Trafford with a comfortable two goal advantage into the second leg of their Champions League tie with Manchester United. The capital club’s position atop the Ligue 1 table is never in doubt either. That being said, this match would prove to be a stern test for PSG.
Tactical analysis and match report by Carl Carpenter.
PSG were still without their South-American superstars, Edinson Cavani and Neymar. Thomas Meunier and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting also missed out due to injury. Apart from these absentees, PSG started the match with a relatively full-strength side, even though they understandably also had one eye on the second-leg with Manchester United the upcoming week.
The only changes from last week’s victory in Manchester came in the form of goalkeeper Alphonse Areola deputizing for Gianluigi Buffon, and Leandro Paredes’ inclusion in the side over Marco Verratti. Marquinhos dropped into his more familiar center-back role alongside Thilo Kehrer and captain Thiago Silva in the center of defense. Manager Thomas Tuchel, in order to further wrap his playing staff in cotton wool, only chose to select six options on the bench rather than the usual seven. Interestingly, Juan Bernat played in a much more central position than he is typically deployed in, with Moussa Diaby playing as the left wingback.
PSG’s 3-1-4-2 formation against Saint-Étienne’s 5-2-1-2 shape in defense.
Saint-Étienne were without one of their key players in the shape of former Dortmund center-back Neven Subotić. In his place, Jean-Louis Gasset opted to select Mathieu Debuchy – nominally a fullback – alongside Timothée Kolodziejczak and Loïc Perrin in a back three. This formation, a 3-4-1-2, has been heavily utilized by Les Verts in matches against other Ligue 1 giants this year, giving the home side the ability to defend with five at the back when necessary while also providing width in attack.
A first half of competitiveness
If the soon-to-be-champions had any doubts of what sort of battle they would face in the match, they were dashed in a matter of moments. Living up the pre-match pomp from the supporters in the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Étienne provided stiff competition for PSG in the first stanza. Without the ball, the home team operated in a medium block: A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. beginning to pressurize when Les Parisiens entered their own half.
In possession, Saint-Étienne attacked with width, wingbacks Gabriel Silva and Kévin Monnet-Paquet bombing forward quickly whenever possession was regained. Remy Cabella in the number ten role was typically direct and caused the PSG rearguard a number of issues, earning his team threatening freekicks in the PSG half.
As to be expected, despite this strong showing from Saint-Étienne, it was PSG who were the prime protagonists in terms of taking the game to the opposition. Both possession numbers and shots counts were heavily in favor of the away team. Kylian Mbappé, given the opportunity to lead the line on thanks to Cavani and Neymar’s injuries, forayed across the pitch wherever he felt, mostly popping up on the left.
While this meant PSG often times had no true focal player, and left players such as Julian Draxler and Angel Di María to fill in his spot, it meant that Saint-Étienne’s defenders had a tough decision on their hands: vacate their position and follow Mbappé or sit off him and allow him space. It was through these types of actions that PSG created most of their danger, as midfielders made late runs to support attacks and roam across the final third, or even Dani Alves and Diaby from their wing-back positions
PSG patiently circulated among the back three, before feeding Draxler or playing it long to Mbappé.
PSG secure the win through individual quality
The second half of the match was a mirror image of the first: PSG exhibiting domination territorially but Saint-Étienne pulsating every few minutes with a dangerous opportunity of their own. Ultimately, however, it was a piece of world-class ability from Mbappé which gave the away team the win.
After a half-time break with no changes, Thomas Tuchel waited until the sixtieth minute to make a substitution and shuffle the formation in a bid to find the breakthrough. He brought on Colin Dagba to avoid the risk of a cautioned Juan Bernat getting sent off, and removed Draxler for Layvin Kurzawa. On the surface, bringing on two fullbacks would often be regarded as a defensive decision, but Tuchel clearly noticed an opportunity.
With a number of key players missing, Tuchel opted to test players in positions they were not nominally comfortable in. Bernat, Angel Di María, Kurzawa all forayed in atypical regions and positions the pitch, but they were largely unbothered. Bernat and Alves made tough work of the left-hand side at times – credit most go to Monnet-Paquet for this – but the key word for their performance was simple: stability.
PSG kept up similar performance levels throughout, and maintained the hallmarks of a Tuchel team: fluidity in attacking positions. This created tons of overloads for the Saint-Étienne defense to deal with, and meant that they were unable to hold any sort of true sustained threat in terms of goal-scoring chances.
PSG eventually made the breakthrough in spectacular fashion thanks to Mbappé and Alves. The Brazilian, roaming inside, played a delightful flighted ball over the top to his teammate who, falling down, caught it sweetly on the volley to put it past Stéphane Ruffier.
For perhaps the first time this season, in response to going a goal up, Tuchel made defensive substitutions to keep the balance of his team correct, and help keep Saint-Étienne at arm’s length. With the goal coming so late in the match – fifteen minutes from time – the home team were unable to generate enough offense to equalize. All of this despite the introduction of forwards Robert Beric and Lois Diony to try and force the issue.
Moral victories mean little for teams as well supported as Saint-Étienne, but the way they gave pause to a team which will undoubtedly go on to secure another league title will certainly serve as one. Wahbi Khazri and particularly Monnet-Paquet provided good outlets for the home side whenever they were able to counterattack, and it was only thanks to the superb Thiago Silva and Marquinhos in defense that PSG were able to maintain a clean sheet. If one was to be hyper critical, it must be said that in creativity and direct chances on goal, Saint-Étienne could and perhaps should have done more.
For Paris Saint-Germain, a victory in such a tough scenario will only serve to boost the considerable confidence of the club. With key players missing and facing a tough opponent, Tuchel was able to tinker mid-match and still come up trumps. Having such a deep squad obviously aids in such scenarios, but this versatility will no doubt help them at the latter stages of the season.
There is little to no chance that the title will not be theirs again this season. However, one of the major complaints for the PSG faithful this season – including Tuchel himself – has been the lack of midfield options for the Parisiens. With injuries to Marco Verratti, Adrien Rabiot being frozen out, and more, the fact that players such as Bernat were able to do a job in the middle of the park will make them more comfortable as they reach the business end of the season.
As previously, mentioned, the league title is already wrapped up, so being able to rest and rotate for the remainder of the season will be important. With a coach as good as Tuchel, Sunday’s win illustrates that PSG can make these changes in personnel and still avoid a drop of points.
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