Paris Saint-Germain – RasenBallsport Leipzig: Messi And Mbappé Keep Leipzig At Bay (3-2)

Jesse Marsch’s RB Leipzig represented a banana skin fixture for Mauricio Pochettino’s high powered Paris Saint-Germain, but it turns out that very few games are unwinnable when you count Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi as starters. Leipzig did well enough in spots to merit their lead, but they are yet to display the kind of defensive effort that is required to lock down an offense as potent as that of Les Parisiens.

Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.

Nine wins out of ten in the league, a victory over Manchester City in the Champions League group stages, Lionel Messi now a teammate to be supported rather than an opponent to be feared. On the surface, things are going swimmingly for Paris Saint-Germain. However, dig a little deeper and the cracks begin to appear: this is a team that has not yet figured itself out, that prefers to sit back, absorb pressure and strike on the counter. As a result, teams have understood that pressing from the start is the best way of attacking the Parisians, and Rennes’ commitment to this plan gave them a deserved 2-0 win.

While their season hasn’t gone well, Jesse Marsch’s RB Leipzig are built to apply exactly this type of pressure. Against a wobbly PSG side, Leipzig thus faced a coinflip of a game – the chance for a famous victory, with equal possibility of a lopsided defeat.

With Neymar absent, PSG fielded a 4-3-3 shape that was slightly less imbalanced than usual. Keylor Navas was protected by a defense of Nuno Mendes, Presnel Kimpembe, Marquinhos and Achraf Hakimi, with the midfield comprising of Marco Verratti at the base and Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye on either side. Kylian Mbappé led the line, flanked by the duo of Julian Draxler and Lionel Messi.

On the other hand, Marsch went with a back three, with Mohamed Simakan, Willi Orban and Lukas Klostermann making up the defense. The midfield comprised of Tyler Adams, Konrad Laimer and Amadou Haidara, who were flanked by wingbacks Angeliño and Nordi Mukiele. Andre Silva and Christopher Nkunku made up the front two in a 3-5-2 set-up.

Leipzig pressure stifles PSG

Given Marsch’s preference for pressing, the Leipzig lineup provided a good idea of how the game would play out. In their 3-5-2 shape, Leipzig would look to press the PSG center-backs and cover the passing lanes into Verratti. The forwards would move the play to one side, after which it would be easy to close down the available options and win the second ball.

This was precisely what happened, as PSG’s 4-3-3 shape worked as predicted. Verratti often moved to sit at the base of midfield, and was covered by Haidara and Silva. Usually, it was the midfielder who pushed up to man mark the Italian, but if Haidara stepped up to press a fullback, Silva took on the task of covering the lane into him.

Leipzig pressure on PSG when the pass was made to Hakimi.

As a result, Verratti either had to move into the defensive line or count on receiving the ball through third man actions. Both movements were frequent, though it was the latter that was more dangerous. However, given the eyeballs he was attracting, Verratti was smart enough to draf his marker with him to open a lane into the dropping Messi. The move happened early in the first half, resulting in the Argentine almost singlehandedly breaking the Leipzig press.

To counteract Leipzig’s pressure, PSG realized that space was available between the Leipzig midfield and defense when Marsch’s side pushed up. This allowed Messi and Draxler to drop into midfield and play a pass into Verratti’s feet, before then moving up to pin the Leipzig line with their runs. This allowed PSG to control the tempo given Verratti’s quality, and they could decide whether to construct possession or draw Leipzig higher up before switching or playing over the top to Mbappé. Given the approach, it was unsurprisingly the hosts who ended the first half with a greater amount of possession.

On defense, Leipzig often settled into a 5-3-2 block when PSG had the ball in advanced areas.

Leipzig’s defensive shape. Messi often moved over to the left in order to  influence possession. While Hakimi is an advanced position here, he was rarely able to overlap with his trademark vigor.

There was a slight asymmetry to the attack, as Herrera either moved wide or took up an inside position to cover for Messi depending on the latter’s position. Draxler could be counted to put in effort on the left, which allowed left back Mendes to be slightly more attack-minded. On the opposite side, it was clear that Herrera would be tasked to cover the spaces in midfield, which meant Hakimi could not leverage his explosiveness in the offensive phase. Accordingly, it was Herrera who seemed least involved on the offensive side in the first half, with Messi moving centrally and trying to link up with Mbappé. Still, the first goal was the result of a Leipzig error, which allowed the Frenchman to strike with only Orban to beat.

Leipzig’s stilted offense

Marsch’s lineup in this game was eerily similar to the way Nagelsmann used to set the team up, but Leipzig did not look anything like the side they were under the German coach. This was because the formation was effective in the defensive phase, but Leipzig continued to play the ball long when they were the ones in possession. Nagelsmann used to emphasize short distances between players to constrict possession patiently, and Leipzig were at their best in this game when they could utilize quickfire short passing to advance on goal.

This came to the fore prominently during their transitions, where both goals saw Leipzig find Angeliño on the far side after successfully pressing PSG. The two strikes – by Silva and Mukiele – were nearly identical, as both involved a cross to the far post with the PSG defense losing track of the player arriving at the end of the cross.

PSG turn it around in second half comeback

The second half saw Leipzig take the lead through a Mukiele strike, after which Leipzig utilized more of a 5-4-1 shape with Haidara and Nkunku dropping alongside the Adams-Laimer double pivot. However, the impact of the shape was negated by the uptick in PSG’s intensity, as Verratti started getting on the ball more and PSG as a whole started pressing from the front. The introductions of Danilo Pereira for Gueye and Georginio Wijnaldum for Ander Herrera saw PSG change their shape, as Danilo moved between Marquinhos and Kimpembe with Verratti in front. This pushed Hakimi and Mendes to the wingback spots, and PSG now had Draxler, Wijnaldum and Messi behind the Leipzig midfield.

Pressure from this shape allowed Mbappé to latch on to an errant back pass, and he squared the ball for Messi whose shot hit the post and crawled along the line. The Argentine was there to smash home the rebound, evening up the score and pulling the Parisians back into the game. Another transition saw Mbappé take on Simakan and get fouled in the box, with Messi converting a Panenka penalty to secure the win for the home side.


This was a game that Leipzig could have won, but it would have needed a tremendous defensive display that is perhaps beyond them this season. There is only so long a team can hold Messi and Mbappé down, and the growing chemistry between the two should worry defenses across the continent. While this was a good win for PSG, questions remain over how balanced they can be with their front three all involved, and Pochettino still has a task on his hands to sort out his defense.

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Manasvin covers the Bundesliga and Champions League for Between The Posts. He can be found on Twitter @RPftbl. [ View all posts ]


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