Paris Saint-Germain – Lille: Mauricio’s Musing Makes A Breakthrough? (2-1)
PSG are making a habit of faltering over the line, but here it came with an added twist. Lille’s 4-4-2 setup set the tone for the first half, only for Mauricio Pochettino to make several adaptations that handed the Parisians a victory and a new system signaling how things could fall into place.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
In the French capital, a familiar problem has reared its ugly head. While PSG lead their rivals both at home and in Europe, all is not as it seems on the surface. A squad full of talent from back to front has afforded Mauricio Pochettino license to experiment, yet his tinkering has not remedied this outfit’s mediocrity. But where the Parisians have flattered to deceive, their competitors have failed to strike.
Indeed, Lille’s fairytale appears to have run its course. A 1-0 victory over the hosts in the Trophée des Champions final seemed to show that they could still compete at the summit, only for an erratic run of form to leave the Ligue 1 champions languishing in tenth place. So, Christophe Galtier’s Midas touch, now dwelling at Nice, may have departed this outfit, but could they shock the league favorites again?
Off the back of a stalemate with Marseille, would Pochettino choose to stick or twist? In the end, an ear infection kept out Kylian Mbappé from this contest, prompting him to use a 4-3-3 shape. Hence, Gini Wijnaldum and Idrissa Gueye stepped up to join Danilo Pereira in the middle of the park since Marco Verratti could not recover from his premature exit last time out. Elsewhere, alterations in the defensive line saw Thilo Kehrer and Juan Bernat come back into the fold in the two fullback spots.
New Lille manager Jocelyn Gourvennec went for his usual choice of a 4-4-2 system that was the basis of the team’s league title charge. He then made three changes, all of which were in the midfield quartet, to the starting eleven that drew 1-1 with Brest last weekend. Benjamin André made way for Renato Sanches in the double pivot while Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikone featured on the flanks.
New role, same outcome
Of all their offensive stars, the newcomer to Paris has endured one of the most troublesome openings to the new season. Often playing on the right wing, Lionel Messi was yet to score in Ligue 1 ahead of this contest. So, in the absence of Mbappé, Pochettino placed his compatriot in the middle of the front three, Neymar began the game on the left wing, and Ángel di María had moved over to the right flank.
Thierry Henry feels Lionel Messi is isolated on the right at PSG.— TEAMtalk (@TEAMtalk) October 25, 2021
How does Pochettino get the best out of him, Neymar and Mbappé? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/ESuKX1Ft4b
But PSG are not Messi’s team. His usual patterns of play on the ball rarely came to the fore while his broader integration into the attack remains up in the air. Indeed, the entire offense struggled to come to life once again, mirroring the display at the back.
Lille torment on the transition
PSG’s faults extended to a highly shaky rearguard. The drawbacks of their frontline in the context of an organized block have drawn much attention, but a prominent issue here was the side’s openness on the break. Equally, credit must go to Lille. Flexible movement from their front two and dribbling from the wide men offered an incisive threat. Indeed, these factors came together in the making of Lille’s goal.
13th minute: Gueye pushes forward to close down Ikone after a ball loss and Pereira covers behind him. Lille’s front two pivot, while a lack of central coverage or pressure lets Xeka break the lines.
Ikone drifted into the right halfspace, bouncing the ball off of his counterpart Bamba before sending a pass into the path of Burak Yılmaz on the left flank. The striker teased at Kehrer and slipped away from the fullback to the byline, where he drilled a cutback to Jonathan David. Lille’s main marksman obliged, hammering an effort above the outstretched arm of Gianluigi Donnarumma into the net.
A torrid evening for the home team went from bad to worse at half time. A muscular injury forced off Messi, letting. Mauro Icardi enter the fray in his place. Would he turn out to be PSG’s savior again?
Pochettino unveils the back three
Pochettino’s tweaks did not end with the introduction of Icardi. The manager took the chance to try a three at the back setup, moving from the 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-1-2 shape. The back four from the first half had shifted to the left, placing Kehrer and Presnel Kimpembe on either side of Marquinhos at the base of the attack. Wijnaldum then moved ahead of the two other midfielders behind Neymar and Icardi in the frontline. The last main positional change saw di María now operate as a right wing-back.
Neymar and Icardi would initially stand in the channel between the fullback and the central defender, but the former did not play with no license to progress the play. While the Brazilian stayed in the left halfspace, the Brazilian’s ability to come deeper between the lines in suitable moments was a source of menace, helping his side break into the final third. From the other side, di María often dribbled inward off the flank, ending up on the left wing over the course of several offensive sequences.
However, the pair’s forays made limited headway on Lille’s goal, while the new setup presented a different set of issues off the ball. While the front three still showed flaws in their defensive work, the team needed to get used to moving from a back three to a back four off the ball. Chaotic transitions gifted David openings to double his tally on the night, but Pochettino would soon try out another ploy.
Secondary adjustments do the job
So in the 65th minute, Pochettino made two further substitutions. Colin Dagba replaced Kehrer and Bernat came off in place of Nuno Mendes. But most importantly, the Parisians no longer switched between a back four and five in a hybrid system, choosing to stick to a setup with an extra man at the back. To this end, Pereira dropped off into the center of the backline, pushing Marquinhos to the right. Wijnaldum filled the gap in the double pivot, and di María gained a fixed central role in the attack.
71st minute: Front three link up in Zone 14 to tee up a di María effort
Pochettino may have had to make modifications on multiple occasions as the contest went on, but at last, he found a more fitting solution. Lille’s threat cooled off, but the hosts began to rack up the shots in the final third. More central interplay took place between the trident of Neymar, di María and Icardi at the head of the attack, offering more variety to their playbook. And soon enough, the pressure told.
Neymar bundled Zeki Çelik off the ball, earning a throw in for PSG deep in Lille’s territory. He then threaded the ball down the line into di María, who clipped a delivery over to the far post. There stood Marquinhos, roaming off the back of Icardi, to volley a strike into the roof of the net, restoring parity.
Gourvennec reacted to the equalizer with his first substitution of the match. Yılmaz made way for Amadou Onana, leaving David alone upfront in a 4-5-1 shape. They were odds on to escape with a point, but their hosts have a habit of breaking hearts late on.
In the 88th minute, di María found himself in acres of room, pivoting onto his left foot before firing a firm pass into Neymar. True to form, his teammate drew multiple markers towards him on the edge of the box before teeing up a shot with a neat layoff. The Argentine turned from provider to goal scorer, guiding a shot home beyond the reach of Ivo Grbić. In the space of fewer than fifteen minutes, the Parisians had been able to turn around yet another goal deficit at the death. Relief for Pochettino.
PSG’s surge to domestic glory continues, as does their search for a fitting tactical construct. The back three may be the answer that Pochettino desires, but above all, the manager faces a tightrope act that tested the resolve of his predecessors. Can he afford his men the right level of freedom while holding onto a sense of stability? A trip to RB Leipzig in midweek should shine more light on the answer.
Lille are another outfit in a growing list at the outset of this season to probe the Parisians to the final whistle. Yet, that state of affairs should not take away from the evident potency this side possesses despite their current standing in the table. Gourvennec may be under fire, but he will hope the first half gives his squad the impetus they need to find a result away to Sevilla in the Champions League.
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