Olympique Marseille – Paris Saint-Germain: Contrasting Collectives Play Out Stalemate (0-0)

A chaotic crowd produced a raucous atmosphere befitting the tradition of Le Classique, but the action was much milder. Marseille may have had a cuter approach to their play on the ball, but neither side could deliver a decisive punch, giving the Parisians further leeway at the summit.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

The latest serving of Le Classique infused a fanatical French derby with Latin American leadership, as two of Marcelo Bielsa’s foremost disciples duked it out with each other from the bench. But though their intellectual grounding in the game is similar, the identities of their outfits paint a distinct picture.

On paper, PSG seem to have risen seamlessly to the challenge of becoming an all conquering outfit. Wins over Manchester City and RB Leipzig have put the team top of their Champions League group while a nine point buffer in Ligue 1 has tightened their grip on affairs at home. But all is not well in the French capital. The quality of their stars has often bailed out the Parisians, who lack cohesion on and off the ball. So would the master plan of an enigmatic manager prove to be their undoing?

In stark contrast, Sampaoli has stuck to his roots. A transformative summer window has set the tone for the team, whose new outlook points to uniform backing behind the manager. Sitting two points adrift of second place with a game in hand, mere months at the helm have seen this tact bear fruit. Bag three points here, and Marseille would confirm their credentials in the race to be the best of the rest.

Mauricio Pochettino lined up his men in a 4-2-3-1 formation, moving away from the 4-3-3 shape he used against RB Leipzig. The manager then made three changes to the team he fielded in midweek. Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera dropped to the bench from the midfield, making way for Danilo Pereira to partner Marco Verratti at the base of midfield. Upfront, the quartet of stars reunited, as Ángel di Maria and Neymar earned starting spots along with Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi.

From the opposite dugout, Marseille manager Jorge Sampaoli mirrored his compatriot, using a 4-2-3-1 system in place of a back three setup. Though his men played out a 0-0 stalemate with Lazio in the Europa League, he selected an unchanged side. Hence, Cengiz Ünder held onto his place on the left wing, featuring behind Arkadiusz Milik, who has slowly gained the trust of Sampaoli to start upfront.

A little less Bielsa, a little more Guardiola

Sampaoli embarked on the new campaign with a 3-3-1-3 system but has recently chosen to switch to a 4-2-3-1 setup. The conventionality of this formation allows the players to feel more at home off the ball, yet it still carried hallmarks of the manager’s evolving approach that we have seen in the past.

At the start of the game, Milik and Dimitri Payet pressed hard from the front. They looked for chances to pin down PSG at the flanks while their teammates tightly locked on to nearby supporting options, and the rest of the midfield shifted back compactly. Over time, they sat off in a 4-4-2 medium block. Here, Sampaoli did not use the crazy man marking of El Loco, relying on two more standard chains of four. But such a defensive strategy seems to be more than enough to make life hard for the Parisians.

Perennial Parisian problems in possession

Talent does not lead to a fluid brand of play by default, and Pochettino is still searching for solutions to make his team click into gear. In this contest, the visitors organized themselves in a 4-2-3-1 shape.

Early on, Verratti grounded his presence in the left halfspace, dropping behind Nuno Mendes to help his team beat the high press. Gradually, he moved over to the right or the middle of the pitch if Pereira tipped back to the left of Presnel Kimpembe. Meanwhile, Neymar often dropped back in front of the defensive block from the left halfspace to demand the ball. Mbappé threatened in behind with his explosive runs while the two Argentines were initially wide, offering double width with the fullbacks.

9th minute: Double width on both flanks leaves Neymar as only option between the lines. Marquinhos comes under pressure from Payet and forces a long ball into Mbappé that Saliba intercepts aerially.

Now and again, parking four men on the flanks drew enough focus to the wings to clear channels for sharp, vertical progressions. But even as Messi roamed back, the lack of interlinear interactions from the Parisians led to a stodgy showing, in which their first shot did not arrive for almost half an hour.

More intricate ideas produce similar outcome

Sampaoli’s men had an array of structures and movement patterns on the ball. Once the guests reached the middle third, they often formed a tight back three. Here, Luan Peres stayed deep, tucking inward from the left flank to create the base for Marseille’s attacks with the two central defenders. Boubacar Kamara was a fixed point in the middle of the park, forming a buildup diamond with the back three.

The cues for the flexibility in their attack emerged on the right side of their offensive shape. Valentin Rongier, a central midfielder by trade, featured on the right of the back four in his side’s 4-4-2 block. But if Marseille were in control of the ball, he often operated as an inverted fullback, shifting into the right halfspace. This lateral movement could produce a diamond structure, where Payet was at its tip.

Marseille’s offensive structure with Rongier’s inverting movements and Guendouzi dropping wide

If Rongier acted as an auxiliary central midfielder, Mattéo Guendouzi often looked to balance the width in the structure. He made very outward movements on both sides of the field to the flanks. Positioning in such zones of the pitch would let the central midfielder progress the ball from deep. However, being very far from his teammates, Guendouzi could not always connect the play forward.

An alternative 1-4-2-3 structure arose for Marseille on the ball. If Rongier stayed wide on the right and the base of three formed to his inside, William Saliba could stride forward into midfield while Kamara moved over to the left halfspace. Guendouzi and Payet would then occupy the space between the lines while the front three fanned across the width of the pitch to pin PSG’s back four.

But in either configuration, the same flaw hindered their offensive threat. Many of Marseille’s entries into the final third were switches to the high wingers on the flanks. But from here, the hosts hardly offered any depth around the penalty area. Milik lurked over to the right of the back four but faced too many defenders to pose a threat to PSG’s goal, lacking consistent support from his teammates.

Hackraf sees red but Marseille fail to capitalize

The visitors disappointed in the first half, but an offensive corner dented their prospects of a win even more in the 54th minute. Rongier’s alert defense teed up Payet to set off a counterattack, spraying the ball into Ünder. The winger broke free, but Hakimi fouled him on the edge of the box. Deliberation with VAR saw the referee award the right back a red card, putting the Parisians on the back foot.

Di María soon became the sacrificial lamb, coming off for Thilo Kehrer. The Parisians now lined up in a loose 4-4-1 block, where Neymar moved to the left of the midfield. However, Messi shied away from working back much further than the halfway line, forcing the double pivot to cover wide.

Sampaoli pushed in the last third of the match for all three points. Bamba Dieng and Konrad de la Fuente entered the fray to breathe new life into the attack, while Marseille’s positional interchanges now placed Payet as a fixed creative point on the left flank. But their most productive phase could not break the deadlock, leaving the game at a stalemate by the final whistle.


Marseille will rue this outcome as a missed chance to beat their bitter rivals, but the broader development of this outfit is apparent. Though not as radical as other Sampaoli teams, this side has principles of play that mark out an identity. We shall see where this journey under a manager brimming with ideas will take them.

A red card skews the outlook of this draw, but PSG offered more of the same. Results may save face for Pochettino for now, but improvement, or a lack thereof, will be telling at the back end of the season. Similar conundrums have taken elite managers months to solve, but he will hope to make progress sooner rather than later.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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