Manchester United – Paris Saint-Germain: PSG exploit holes in United’s defense (0-2)
In the highly anticipated return of Champions League football, both teams initially struggled to establish a rhythm. Paris Saint-Germain had some problems playing from the back, and United showed potential defensive issues. In the second half, PSG came out as the dominant team, helped by United’s injuries forcing them to make two half-time changes. Thomas Tuchel’s side ran out clear winners at Old Trafford.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
Much of the talk building up to this game revolved around the star names absent for PSG. They already knew they would be without Neymar, when Edinson Cavani was substituted this weekend with an injury that would lead him to miss this game.
Without two of his star men, Thomas Tuchel lined his team up in an adaptable formation, which shaped up as a 3-4-3 when his side had the ball, moving into a 4-4-2 when they lost possession. The nominal back three included Thiago Silva flanked by Thilo Kehrer and Presnel Kimpembe.
Dani Alves was the right wing-back, becoming a right midfielder without the ball as Kehrer behind him slid across to right back when they lost the ball. Marco Verratti was partnered by Marquinhos in midfield, with Julian Draxler, Angel Di María and Kylian Mbappé ahead of them.
For United, this seemed like as good a time as any to face PSG with two of the Parisian key men absent, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side in a positive mood after their recent results. Ashley Young, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf all came back into the defense for this game after being rested against Fulham on Saturday. Likewise, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, two key players under Solskjær so far, also returned to United’s 4-3-3 formation after being rested at the weekend.
PSG’s 3-4-2-1 formation in possession against Manchester United’s 4-3-3 in defense.
PSG struggle in deep buildup, but show signs of danger higher up
As was seen in the opening moments of the game, PSG looked vulnerable when trying to play out from the back against United’s high-pressing. In these high-pressing phases, United could match up PSG’s formation, with United’s front three of Lingard, Rashford and Martial pressuring PSG’s back three, Herrera and Pogba marshalling Marquinhos and Verratti, and the fullbacks engaging high up the pitch.
This looked to be a promising approach for United as PSG struggled to find ways to play out cleanly. Verratti could be seen dropping into the backline at times to attempt to get free and face forward with the ball. It was in United’s deeper defending with less pressure on the ball where PSG began to show signs of how they might breach United’s defense.
Under Mourinho, United wingers, especially in big games such as this, were usually instructed to stay goal-side of their direct opponent, leading to the well-known scenarios where United would be pinned into a back six when opponents were in possession.
Under Solskjær, the wingers are more likely to stay slightly further up to gamble on counterattacks, and less likely to track the opposing winger all the way back, level with their own box. At the same time, in this game at least, they arguably did not do enough to tighten the space between them and their nearest central midfielder to prevent passes between lines.
This meant that United’s fullbacks had to spread their defensive responsibilities towards two players: the inside forwards of PSG’s 3-4-3, plus the wing-backs. The fact that United’s central midfielders were pushing out to try and pressure Marquinhos and Verratti on the ball further increased the space between lines for Draxler and Di María to operate in.
United’s fullbacks, then, had an issue. If they chose to step out and get tight to the inside forward to make it harder to receive and turn, that would leave large spaces behind them for the wing-backs to run into. If they chose to stay in their position to cover the wing-backs’ runs into depth, the inside forwards were left free between the lines.
PSG’s best chance of the first half showed the threat of their inside forwards arriving into space between the lines, as Draxler’s one-touch through ball to a possibly offside Mbappé caused United a scare, even if Mbappé could not hit the target.
United struggle to create threat
Out of possession, PSG would switch to a compact 4-4-2 formation, with Kehrer sliding across to the right back position and Alves ahead of him. Di María would then slot in at left midfield, and Draxler stayed up high alongside Mbappé.
United again had their staggered midfield in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation. Matic started as the deepest midfielder playing in front of the defense or dropping to the left of the center-backs. Herrera was then slightly higher, assisting Matic in bringing the ball from the back, as well as roaming ahead of the ball at to provide presence within PSG’s formation.
Pogba had plenty of freedom as the highest midfielder but was closely marshalled by Marquinhos when United had the ball, and struggled to get on the ball with good space and time conditions as a result.
With United’s main creative outlet struggling to get in the game, some of their most promising moments in possession came through the right side. Aside from threatening with runs in behind PSG’s defense when Young had the ball, Lingard and Rashford also had some nice interchanges on the right side.
Despite sometimes being wasteful on the ball, Lingard impressed as usual with his movement and ability to find space within the opponent’s shape. His movements drifting towards the center were complimented by Rashford occasionally moving out to the right side.
Still though, apart from a couple of dangerous looking crosses, United were unable to consistently reach zones in the final third to create danger on PSG’s goa, as evidenced by their poor shot locations. PSG’s defending was compact, and with United’s best creative talent neutralized, PSG looked relatively comfortable without the ball.
PSG dominate second half
Due to injuries sustained shortly before half-time, United went into the second half without Lingard and Martial. Instead, Juan Mata was now on the right side of attack, with Alexis Sanchez on the left. Immediately PSG seemed to be the team with the higher intensity, and were more controlled when in possession of the ball.
Solskjær admitted after the game that United lost much of their counterattacking threat without Lingard and Martial on the pitch. This was noticeable as PSG had United pinned in their own half for much of the opening stages of the second half.
The problems with the spaces afforded to PSG’s inside forwards continued to manifest itself, only now begin exploited with more tempo by PSG. In the 53rd minute, United found themselves behind from a corner which partly came from Draxler finding space, leading to Mbappé’s header forcing De Gea into a save. For the resulting corner, the ball was delivered from the right by Di María, and Kimpembe was able to evade Matic in the box to arrive at the back post for an easy finish, making it 1-0 to PSG.
PSG’s second goal did not take long. Mbappé’s incredible turn of speed allowed him to beat both United center-backs to Di María’s low cross. United then faced an uphill battle chasing a lead with the threat of PSG counterattacking with the likes of Mbappé on the pitch.
United were unable to get a shot on goal in the second half, and PSG mostly limited them to shots from outside the box. Pogba drifted wide on occasion to try and escape the grasp of Marquinhos, but was not able to find the magic United needed to get a goal back against a solid PSG unit. Substitutes Mata and Sanchez also offered limited quality.
As if the 2-0 deficit going into the away leg was not enough, United’s chances of getting back into this tie were further damaged by Pogba’s sending off in the final minutes of the game. Although Solskjær insists it is a mountain that can be climbed, it is difficult to see United getting back into this tie in Paris based on today’s result and performance.
For PSG, Tuchel has to take plenty of praise for setting up a well organised side which was compact and intense without the ball. Despite some of their early shakiness against United’s pressing, PSG ultimately came out of the game looking the more refined side with the ball as they picked at the holes in United’s defensive formation.
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