Paris Saint-Germain – Liverpool: With kind regards from a little Italian (2-1)
You expect the game changer of PSG – Liverpool to have a Brazilian nationality (Neymar or Roberto Firmino), to be the best teenager in the world (Kylian Mbappé) or even to act as a living pharaoh (Mohamed Salah). Well, in the end, the hero of the day appeared to be an Italian: Marco Verratti. PSG says grazie.
Tactical analysis and match report by Guillaume Maebe.
Probably the best fifteen minutes of football the Parc des Princes has seen this season was played yesterday evening. Quite dazzling it was, the way Paris Saint-Germain opened their must-win game against Liverpool. Not only tactically, also the passion on display and the ‘over my dead body-mentality’ the players showed going into every duel was something the city of light had not seen of their football club for a long, long time.
The stars were already looking bright long before the game. Although PSG missed Thomas Meunier – his grandfather died yesterday – and Adrien Rabiot, who reportedly clashed with manager Thomas Tuchel and thus started on the bench – Neymar and Mbappé recovered from injuries on time. Together with Edinson Cavani and Ángel Di María, the golden square, they were the biggest assets to break down a Liverpool side that featured almost the same eleven players compared to their 3-2-victory at home. Two differences, though: Firmino replaced Daniel Sturridge and Dejan Lovren came in for Trent Alexander-Arnold, moving Joe Gomez towards the right back. The midfield was formed by Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Neither team wanted to lose, knowing a defeat would heavily decrease the chances on going through to the knockout stages. As said, it seemed that only PSG understood that lesson…
After experimenting with a dozen formations, Tuchel once again came up with something new against Liverpool. When the home team had the ball, PSG’s 4-4-2-formation transformed into an entirely different shape. Marquinhos dropped in deep to become a third central defender, helping out with the build-up, while the fullbacks Juan Bernat and Thilo Kehrer went up high along the touchline.
PSG’s formation in possession and how they took over the crowded center through Neymar and Di María.
That gave Neymar, on the left, and Di María, on the right, the possibility to move towards the center, causing mayhem behind enemy lines. A rather strange effect, as Liverpool formed a steady and compact 4-3-3 when out of possession, forcing PSG to play the ball to the sides. There should not have been a lot of space between the defensive line and the midfield. So what was the reason there was?
Three words: a little Italian. When the eyes of the world were looking at the four strikers up front, Verratti took over control. On his own, against a three man midfield. Not only did Verratti prove to be a solid pawn where the defense could pass a ball too, he also successfully wriggled out the pressing Henderson or Wijnaldum forced upon him.
It is no coincidence that the first goal started from his feet. Verratti got the ball, ran forward towards the three red midfielders, found Neymar who came inside, set up another combination with Di María – who at that point had become a central midfielder too – and launched the ball to Mbappé who dived into space. Eventually, the ball ended up with Bernat who could quite easily put his team up front. When you succeed in bringing your best players close to each other, football becomes a lot easier. Especially when the maestro of this all is Verratti.
Brave PSG, but only for fifteen minutes
But, this only lasted for as little as fifteen minutes. After that, PSG backed down. Their high pressing disappeared, the fluidity of the passes vanished as well and their defensive structure to cope with Liverpool did not work that well anymore. Liverpool loves to play with high fullbacks when in possession. When they move up, one of the central midfielders becomes a central defender who takes care of the build-up. Firmino makes himself available while Salah and Sané are looking for space. A second central midfielder stays at the center, the third and last one – against PSG mostly Milner – has some freedom: he has the choice to stay in the center or to move to one of the wings where he has to try to create an overload.
PSG hoped that Di María and Neymar were disciplined enough to neutralize this build-up play from Liverpool, but that did not work out for longer than fifteen minutes. It was brave, though: keeping four players up front, asking Verratti to shadow the second central midfielder too.
Whether you prefer Neymar – Cavani – Mbappé or Salah – Firmino – Mané, fact of the matter is that both attacking trio’s are a nightmare to play against as a defense, especially when you are defending on the halfway line. The fact PSG scored the first goal of the night meant they had the advantage in this regard, dropping back to create space behind Liverpool’s defense to exploit. It worked like a charm, as the second goal – scored by Neymar – consisted of a wonderful set of dribbles, flick-ons, passes and finishes. The move started on Liverpool’s half and ended in the back of the net behind Alisson. PSG were now leading by two, with ten minutes left to play in the first half.
Immediately after the second goal had gone in, PSG dropped in deep and gave Liverpool too much time to start the build-up. Lucky for them, the triangle Mané – Firmino – Salah did not play their best game under manager Jürgen Klopp. Keeping possession seemed too difficult against the defensive organization put up by the French champions.
Without the ball, PSG maintained a zonal 4-4-2 organization.
The only time Liverpool became slightly dangerous was when showed off how good they are in pressing, which happened incidentally, which is part of a wider trend. So far this season, Klopp’s team does not take as many risks as they used to do.
Liverpool does concede more shots, but the quality of those shots is significantly lower than during other years of his managerial stint at Anfield. From a record-high 0.132 Expected Goals per shot against last season to a record low 0.100 Expected Goals/shot against this season. The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. Taking less risks, however, also has a negative effect on the attack. Liverpool does not create that many chances anymore either.
Still enough to win most of their games, but not enough to dominate against PSG. Yesterday, they only managed to create some danger when they went full force into the pressing, during PSG’s build-up. Especially Presnel Kimpembe seemed to be a pressing trigger for the Reds.
A penalty gave Liverpool hope – scored by James Milner, shortly before half-time, but the break seemed to paralyze both squads. PSG focused on defending and keeping their lower block, while Liverpool was not able to create anything, despite bringing in Sturridge, Naby Keïta and Xherdan Shaqiri. It was PSG who, well deserved, grabbed the three points, and Verratti smiled.
This group remains by far the most interesting Champions League group of this season’s edition of Europe’s elite club competition. Liverpool has lost all of their three away games in the Champions League, scoring only one time in those fixtures: the penalty goal of Milner yesterday evening. They need a victory against Napoli to prevent an early exit (must-watch fixture!).
PSG however showed that you do not always have to look at your best players to bring the victory home. A talented, little Italian works just as fine, combined with Tuchel’s risky approach in possession, fielding four pure-bred attackers in front of him.
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