Paris Saint-Germain – Bayern Munich: Déjà Vu (0-1)

Elimination from the Round of 16 in the Champions League would represent a black mark on both clubs’ campaigns. But only one outfit flew out of the traps with the aggression to control their destiny. The passivity of the Parisians was decisive, and a figure who could have solved this problem caused his former employers to regret his departure from the club once more.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

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These European giants trade blows again in the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, strong starts to their seasons have given way to pestilent drama that is never far away from either club.

Christophe Galtier is the newest man to try to lead PSG to Champions League glory. His switch to a 3-4-1-2 system produced explosive output from his three elite forwards, but the fireworks have not lasted. The Parisians still sit at the top of Ligue 1 but have suffered three losses in the new year. The latest setback, a 3-1 defeat to Monaco, followed their exit from the Coupe de France at the hands of their nearest challengers Marseille. A familiar sinking feeling is surfacing around the French capital.

Bayern Munich can no longer call on the strength of Robert Lewandowski, and their 4-2-2-2 structure could not mask his absence forever. Concerns have kept on growing in 2023. Three draws in a row from the restart of domestic action allowed the chasing pack to get near the summit, and a return to winning ways at Wolfsburg did little to allay fears of frailties. High standards demand that this outfit goes beyond the quarter-final, where they fell to Villarreal last year, but the Bavarians remain rusty.

Julian Nagelsmann can hold onto one bright spot. The form of João Cancelo is that of a man with a point to prove. Kingsley Coman has also impressed in the new year, replacing Serge Gnabry in the offense. Suspension does not apply in Europe to Joshua Kimmich, but another leader in their camp, Thomas Müller, picked up a niggle in his calf on the weekend. Jamal Musiala stepped in for him.

Galtier gained a boost in personnel. Marco Verratti had been missing with a thigh injury, and Lionel Messi missed the match on the weekend with a hamstring problem. Both men were fit to feature along with Neymar in the spine of the starting eleven. Sergio Ramos joined Marquinhos in the center of the defense while Nuno Mendes and Achraf Hakimi operated on their outside. However, Kylian Mbappé watched from the bench, unable to fully recover from his thigh injury at the start of this month.

Bayern take control

PSG dominated proceedings in the first leg of their Round of 16 clash with Real Madrid last year, but roles reversed in Paris on this occasion. Galtier moved away from the 5-3-2 block he used on the weekend to a back four. It was not the diamond structure in the middle of the park that has been the team’s secondary choice of system this season, but rather a flat 4-4-2 formation. Messi and Neymar, who wandered nearer to Kimmich, defended from the front ahead of two banks of four blue shirts.

The guests took to the field on the ball in a typical setup for Nagelsmann: a 3-1-5-1 structure. The interaction between the two sides handed them a numerical advantage in multiple areas of the pitch. The diamond at the base— of the back three and Kimmich— could circulate the ball around the pair of forwards. Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sané, and Musiala filled the pockets inside the midfield row of four, and their positions let the wing-backs function as outlets on the flanks. The shape tilted to push Coman higher up the field than Cancelo, so he broke through into the final third more prominently.

Coman carries the charge

The pathway to Coman tended to come through two different routes. The central presence inside the block and between the double pivot forced PSG’s midfielders to be cautious if they wanted to close down an advancing defender. On several occasions, Bayern pulled the hosts to their left, switched the ball back into the center, and hit line breaking passes once Verratti stepped out to engage. This way, they could try and release Musiala as a third man with layoff passes off the front from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Or the left wing-back received from more direct switches around the narrow block.

10th minute: classic Nagelsmann combination from Bayern. Sané’s halfspace positioning behind Danilo Pereira and Kimmich’s role at the tip of the buildup rhombus pulled Neymar over to the left. Bayern recirculated the ball and since Messi loiters on the right, Pavard can drive inward diagonally. Neymar finally breaks off to close him down, but the defender’s dribble and pass breaks the lines to find Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting. His layoff pass finds Musiala and Goretzka’s run frees up Coman.

So, Coman and Cancelo often arrived free to breach the defense. The options ahead of Kimmich gave the pair support on the underlap, while the central figure out of the three offensive midfielders offered a connection inside the halfspace. However, Bayern refrained from taking risks. Only the directness of Coman seemed to have the incision to crack a compact shape in the first half. Nonetheless, PSG could not find a way out. The smaller distances between red shirts in the central lanes of the pitch, as well as the advances of the wider central defenders, tightened the middle of the field in the transition phase.

A drastic difference in depth

The other main factor behind the dynamic of this contest was how easily the home team gave up the ball. In defense, Nagelsmann’s men stuck to a chain of three at the back where Upamecano marshaled Neymar. Cancelo and Coman stayed forward to attack the two fullbacks. Musiala picked up Verratti; de Ligt and Goretzka exchanged their coverage of Messi. The absence of depth allowed the visitors to push the offside line high and press aggressively, giving up only one shot on the stroke of half time.

22nd minute: pressing sequence from Bayern. Pereira pulled out wide to get free from the pressing structure, dribbling with Sané in pursuit. Cancelo and the right sided forward hem in Mendes while Choupo-Moting begins to shut down the backward passing lane to Ramos. Notice how high the offside line is as both Pavard and Upamecano are willing to follow their opposite men into their own half.

On the other hand, Nagelsmann wanted more depth in the offense. So, Alphonso Davies came on for Cancelo, and Coman switched sides. The ploy paid off in the 53rd minute. Choupo-Moting drifted out to the left inside channel, pulling Ramos out of the penalty area. Meanwhile, Sané and Musiala took the attention of Presnel Kimpembe and Mendes. Davies then received the ball, found Coman at the far post, and the Parisian-born wide man dealt another dagger to his childhood club on the grand stage.

Galtier calls for the cavalry

Galtier responded to the goal with a double substitution in the 57th minute. Zaïre-Emery made way for Fabián Ruiz, and Mbappé replaced Soler. Even though he was not at full fitness, the forward’s dynamism forced Nagelsmann to modify the arrangement of his defense. Pavard, whom the referee had already booked in the first half, moved to the left of the back three. Upamecano, as the best athletic competitor of the trident, swapped out to the right to try and keep his compatriot at bay.

Galtier also switched to a 4-4-2 diamond system. The depth of Mendes and Mbappé on the left gave Neymar and Messi more room to maneuver. Indeed, in the 82nd minute, the pair set away the left back in behind the defense to assist Mbappé, but Mendes was offside. A dismissal for Pavard amid more sustained pressure spoke positively of the final half hour, but the lead remained with Bayern.


Bayern will back themselves to move on into the quarter-finals with the return leg on home soil. Nagelsmann expressed surprise at how passively PSG approached the game, and perhaps he might have turned the screw more if he felt the opponents would use this strategy. Either way, his alterations before and during the second half created and managed a single goal lead that his men deserved.

PSG are up against a demanding task in Munich. The entry of Mbappé in the final half hour offers hope of a more even contest in three weeks, but the star names in the offense— should they all bring their top form— cannot mask all of this outfit’s flaws at the highest level. Even in the first few months of the season, higher pressure and phases of lower possession shares revealed chinks in their armor. The tie is alive, but the correct antidote from Nagelsmann could quickly douse any hopes of success.

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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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