Paris Saint-Germain – Manchester City: Mahrez Strikes Oil In Stinging Comeback (1-2)

Manchester City’s tie with Paris Saint-Germain renewed a duel between two of the game’s great minds, offering an absorbing spectacle. The Parisians stifled City’s 4-2-2-2 offensive shape while posing threats from all sides, but a familiar narrative reared its head to turn the contest around.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Falling short at the final hurdle last year, Paris Saint-Germain came into the Champions League yearning to right the wrongs of 2020. So it proved in the quarter-finals. Facing off against their conquerors Bayern Munich, a thrilling two-legged duel saw the Parisians edge their way into the last four based on away goals. Now coming into this tie with a manager who had his own final heartache to overcome, the home team were desperate to take a step toward making the big stage once more. 

Manchester City’s juggernaut has cooled off in the last few weeks, but the side still has plenty left on the line. Though the defeat to Chelsea saw lofty ambitions of a fabled quadruple come to an end, a dominant display on the weekend saw Pep Guardiola’s men claim their first piece of silverware this season in the final of the Carabao Cup. But whereas that sealed a fourth final win on the spin in the tournament, a win here would mark a seminal step towards heights the club has not yet reached.

Mauricio Pochettino set up PSG in an asymmetric 4-4-1-1 shape. He made four changes to the team that faced Metz on the weekend. Among these, Marquinhos came back to the defense while Ángel di María played as a right winger. However, the manager could call on the services of Kylian Mbappé from the off after an injury scare with a tweak to his thigh last time out did not rule him unfit.

Guardiola went for a 4-3-3 system. He made four changes to the side from the final, bringing trusted names into the lineup. Ederson played between the posts, while John Stones partnered Rúben Dias at the back. Further afield, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling made way for Rodri and Bernardo Silva.

Pochettino presents puzzling Parisian block

Pochettino’s duels with Pep have never lacked tactical intrigue, and so it proved here. His side’s setup off the ball shifted between several variants, but a recurring shape emerged around the halfway line. If City moved into midfield, the Parisians set up in an asymmetric 4-4-1-1 shape. 

A notable tweak in this phase was in the covering roles of the two wingers. Whereas di María would drop back onto the right of the four in midfield, Neymar would lurk higher, standing in the space directly to the right of Rodri. In turn, Verratti would slide back onto the left side of the midfield. 

If the ball went wide, he would shift out wide to cover with the support of Mitchell Bakker, leaving Neymar to drop into the gap between him and Gueye. If the Parisians engaged in pressing from their medium block, Neymar could sprint from his higher position to close down a central defender, turning the block into more of a 4-4-2 formation. City had a complex puzzle on their hands to solve.

Midfield box impotent

City rotated into a 4-2-2-2 shape on the ball. As has often been the case in recent weeks, the second member of the double pivot was Ilkay Gündogan, who stayed deep in the left halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. In turn, João Cancelo mirrored Kyle Walker’s role on the other flank, playing as a deep fullback. Both wingers stayed high and wide while Kevin de Bruyne and Silva roamed the halfspaces.

PSG’s asymmetric medium block against City’s 4-2-2-2 offensive structure.

In light of PSG’s threat on the break, it was no surprise to see City pursue a stable approach on the ball. From this initial shape, the fullbacks tended to stay quite deep, while the pairs in the attacking zones on each side often pulled wide to ensure ball-retention. Little offensive presence inside the box emerged, but neither did suffocating levels of ball control.

PSG’s enterprising offense

PSG did not camp in their half and only offer a threat on the break. On the ball, they set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. The fullbacks pushed higher up the flanks on both sides, inviting the wingers to pinch inside. Leandro Paredes helped dictate from deep, while Neymar drifted into the center of the field. Line-breaking passes to and from the talisman were frequent, and City’s 4-3-3 shape struggled.

PSG’s 4-2-3-1 offensive structure.

After a quarter of an hour, PSG drew first blood. Winning a corner, di María then took the set-piece from the right, finding Marquinhos free in the box. The captain placed a firm header into the net, handing his side the lead. 

City eventually switched to a 4-4-2 formation. Silva and de Bruyne formed the first line of the press, while Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez stayed wide. But PSG continued to probe with the ball, ending the half with a roughly equal possession split. The onus was on Pep to turn the tide of the contest.

Guardiola forces the issue

After half-time, City continued to defend in a 4-4-2 shape, but they pressed even higher up the field. In this way, City aimed to stop the home team from finding their rhythm. Limiting PSG’s spells on the ball, the guests became more dominant as the half went on.

On the ball, Cancelo pushed up higher from the left, involving himself more in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. thanks to his creative dribbling. Foden, in turn, played between the lines with Silva and de Bruyne. While PSG did not muster the same danger they showed off in the first half, City’s control of the ball grew.

Double blow

But yet to see his side make a breakthrough, Guardiola made his first substitution, taking Cancelo for Oleksandr Zinchenko. However it would be Walker from the other side that would make a mark on the game. Bombing through the right halfspace on the break, he tore in behind PSG’s backline and drilled a cross along the face of the six yard box, drawing a clearance from Marquinhos.

Silva played a short corner out to Foden on the edge of the box. He passed the ball to Zinchenko, who then worked it out to de Bruyne on his left. The captain whipped a cross into the box with his right boot, but the ball evaded all his teammates. However, the lack of contact seemed to freeze Keylor Navas, leading the ball to drift into the back of the net. 

City’s sustained attacks kept on probing PSG’s block, but their resolve was wearing thin. Moments after the goal, Gündogan, Mahrez, and Foden teased an opening between the lines, drawing a foul from Gueye. De Bruyne seemed to be eyeing up the set-piece, but he left the ball for Mahrez to whip the free kick at goal with his left boot. His shot broke through a splintering wall, beating Navas in goal. Within the space of seven minutes, the complexion of the tie had turned on its head.

Ill discipline kills the game

Five minutes later, things would soon go from bad to worse for the Parisians. Gündogan sat at the base of the midfield, rotating the ball along the back, only for Gueye to scythe down his ankle. The referee then handed the midfielder a red card, leaving the home team both a man and a goal down.

Looking to batten down the hatches and keep a hold on a stake in the tie, Pochettino made changes from the sideline. Neymar and Mbappé stayed on, so he opted for more midfield stability. As such, di María and Paredes made way for Danilo Pereira and Ander Herrera, who worked along with Verratti to help the back four. The Parisians struggled to offer a continual threat, while City could not find a third goal, leading to a narrow win for the visitors by the final whistle.


In a cruel twist of fate, PSG are now in a similar position to where they put Bayern in the last round. The outlook of the tie with a second away goal from Mahrez makes the task of reaching the final for the second year in a row much more tricky. That said, the first half was an indication of how much the side has kicked on under Pochettino. A comeback is by no means out of the question.

City’s display delivered more of the same. Against a dual threat from one of the most explosive outfits on the planet, they slowly worked their way into the tie. The press played a pivotal role in turning the tide of the match, but with the onus on PSG to score, the strategic outlook of the contest hangs in the balance. A tantalizing second leg awaits.

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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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