Paris Saint-Germain – Manchester United: Dramatic United Win In Game Of Individual Errors (1-3)

Both teams played to a decent tactical level, albeit with a large gap in player quality. Before Marcus Rashford’s penalty, the key moments in the game came in the form of individual errors which went on to decide the tie in the favor of a resolute United side.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.


United went into this game facing a seemingly impossible task, not only being 2-0 down on aggregate, but also due to their lengthy absentee list, including their entire starting midfield line of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and the suspended Paul Pogba.

Maybe the strangest decision made by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with his starting lineup was the inclusion of Eric Bailly at right-back, moving Ashley Young a right-midfield position in a 4-4-2 formation  to start the game. Alongside Young, Solskjaer opted for a central pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred, with Andreas Pereira on the left side. Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford led the line up front.

Thomas Tuchel elected to start with the same lineup and system as the first leg at Old Trafford, with the team playing in a 3-4-3 in possession, and moving to a 4-4-2 without the ball as Thilo Kehrer shifted across to right-back. It also means Ángel Di María becomes a left midfielder without the ball, and Julian Draxler is used as a striker that also tracks the opponents’ most defensive midfielder. As it would turn out, however, PSG’s defensive formation would not see a lot of use, as they had over seventy percent possession throughout the match.


All twenty-two outfield players, depicted in possession of PSG.


PSG dominate after United score early

The game had barely started when Lukaku put United 1-0 up after an error from PSG’s young defender Kehrer. United used a backwards pass from Alves to Kehrer on the right side as a trigger to step up the pitch and apply pressure to PSG’s back three, which was rarely seen in general. As Rashford closed him down, Kehrer played a clumsy pass across the defense intended for Thiago Silva, but it was heavily misplaced, meaning Lukaku could run onto it instead. The Belgian rounded Buffon expertly one-on-one, putting United ahead.

After this though, PSG proceeded to dominate the game for a spell, including an equalizing goal from Juan Bernat. United defended in a 4-4-2-0 shape, with the nominal strikers Lukaku and Rashford dropping deeper, preventing Marquinhos and Marco Verratti from receiving in PSG’s ‘number six space’. This left PSG’s back-three usually with very little pressure on them, but they were also circulating in a ‘U-shape’ When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . quite a lot with the first pass in buildup almost exclusively going wide.


The U-shape of PSG’s passing around United’s defensive block.


United’s defense was also slightly asymmetric when it came to the defensive assignments of the wide midfielders and fullbacks, as one might expect given the characteristics and preferred positions of the players involved.

Ashley Young would often drop slightly deeper and wider when the ball was on his side of the pitch, to try and pick up Bernat. This meant Bailly would keep tabs on Di María, sometimes following Di María’s dropping movements all the way into midfield area, while Young became a temporary right-back.

In general though, both players, especially Bailly, looked uncomfortable in these roles. PSG were able to find breakthroughs including their goal on this side, when Bailly played Mbappé onside to receive a through-ball, then let Bernat run past him for free at the back post for PSG’s equalizer.

On the other side of the field, Pereira was more likely to tuck in and almost act as a third central midfielder, keeping a closer distance to his central midfielder Fred to prevent line-breaking passes between them. That also meant Luke Shaw would be responsible for closing down PSG’s wing-back on that side, Dani Alves, rather than having United’s wide midfielder track him.

As a result, on this side United’s defense looked slightly more solid. The biggest worry being passes from the right-wing for Mbappé making diagonal runs in behind the defense, especially with Shaw being drawn out and potentially leaving gaps behind.

Despite seeing very little of the ball, United would go in at half-time 2-1 up thanks to another PSG individual error, as Gianluigi Buffon spilt Rashford’s powerful shot into the path of Lukaku, allowing a simple tap-in from the Belgian. Overall in the first half, United took three shots, of which two ended up in the back of the net, both goals being the result of unforced errors on PSG’s part.



Tactical adjustments by both managers

United were looking more defensively secure coming into the second half with the substitution of Diogo Dalot in place of Bailly ten minutes before half-time. The fact Solskjaer was willing to gamble with Bailly in a new position is not to be condemned, as all good managers take risks sometimes and United’s injury list simply means some awkward choices had to be made. The introduction of Dalot meant Young moved to right-back, and defensively, United were able to find a better balance.

PSG came out in the second half with no change in personnel, but with a different shape, as they switched from their hybrid 3-4-3 / 4-4-2 formation to a more orthodox 3-5-2 shape. This meant that in possession, Verratti was making many more forward runs and getting between United’s defense and midfield more often, leaving Marquinhos as the lone holding midfielder. Di María was now started from a more central position alongside Mbappé.

This gave PSG a large presence up against the defensive line of Manchester United, with the wing-backs providing the width, Draxler making runs into the channels, Verratti getting between lines and Di María and Mbappé up front, there was strain on United’s defense to deal with the numbers PSG were throwing at them.

This may have been partly what made Solskjaer’s switch his formation into a 5-4-1, moving Rashford to the left, Young as a makeshift third center-back, and Dalot slotting in as right wing-back. The thinking behind this may have been to give United more numbers on the last line of defense to deal with the numbers PSG were throwing forward.



Late drama sees United progress

Solskjaer knew his team could not play on the back foot forever though, as United still needed a goal. With ten minutes to go and United’s share of possession growing, he brought on young Dutch attacker Tahith Chong in place of Pereira. This meant that United were now back to a 4-4-2 formation, with Chong on the left and Dalot on the right of midfield.

At this point, PSG were defending in a 5-2-1-2 organization, with Alves as the number ten, after Draxler’s earlier departure due to injury. United, understandably, played quite direct anyway as they chased the game, playing for second balls in PSG’s final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. and looking to get crosses into the box.

With a minute of normal time remaining the match saw its defining moment, as Dalot’s shot from outside the box was judged by VAR to have been handballed inside the box by Presnel Kimpembe. After a lengthy wait, the penalty was given, and Rashford converted it with the composure of a veteran. United parked the bus in the final minutes against the onslaught of long balls into the box from PSG to hold on for a memorable win.



The circumstances of United’s win were undeniably fortunate in some ways, with the individual mistakes from PSG and a controversial penalty call. But ultimately they showed great resolve to keep the tie competitive in the first place with such a depleted side. Solskjaer’s in-game adjustments were once again sensible, and he was largely able to plug the gaps in midfield which PSG’s inside forwards exploited in the first leg.

Crashing out at the Round of 16 in Europe clearly is not the vision PSG have as a club, and inevitably brings questions about whether a coach can keep his job in those circumstances. Looking past the result into the process though, and Tuchel’s PSG are a tactically strong team who faced a resolute opponent and happened to lose out with individual errors in key moments. Can you sack a manager after going out of Europe like that?



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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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