Paris Saint-Germain – Real Madrid: A Plot From The Past, A Star For The Future (1-0)
Few tread the fine line between spectacular names and gaudy collectives more than PSG and Real Madrid. Indeed, a tense affair illustrated how stellar individuals only work so well in units that have multiple flaws. But on a night made for magic moments, it was fitting that the man central to a narrative tying the future of these two clubs affirmed his loyalties in the present.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
The glitz and glamor of midweek Champions League evenings affords an arena for superstars to enshrine their legacy. On that account, this pair of outfits suit the stage better than most others.
The arrival of Lionel Messi, Achraf Hakimi, and Gianluigi Donnarumma in the summer to the French capital ought to have signaled the final step in PSG’s pursuit of the ultimate glory. Set to assume their rightful spot at the summit of Ligue 1, the Parisians can only fight for that elusive Champions League trophy. But new stars have not ushered in the dominance on the field to mirror results. Still yearning for tactical balance, reality has not met ambitions. A lesson their guests once learned the hard way.
The fallow Galactico era is now a distant memory for Real Madrid, whose threepeat underscored their status on the European stage. The club is yet to win a Champions League trophy since 2018, but matters on the home front have spoken positively of the team. Under the leadership of a wily Carlo Ancelotti, a gradual changing of the guard has not scuppered an assault on LaLiga’s summit. Keen to assert their regality, a performance on the road could indicate another run deep in the knockout stages.
PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino brought back several names into the fold. Keylor Navas did not face off with his old club, making way for Gianluigi Donnarumma. Nor did Sergio Ramos feature, but Achraf Hakimi held down his spot at right back. Danilo Pereira came in for Julian Draxler, restoring a familiar configuration with Leandro Paredes and Marco Verratti in the middle of the park. Ángel di María then replaced Xavi Simons as the right winger in the frontline with Kylian Mbappé and Messi.
Ancelotti, too, rotated his lineup off the back of a goalless stalemate against Villarreal. David Alaba featured as the left center-back, receiving support from Ferland Mendy to his outside. Marco Asensio began the match as the right winger, while Federico Valverde stepped aside for Luka Modrić in the midfield. But the crux of their team news centered on the availability of Karim Benzema. A hamstring injury had ruled out the talismanic striker for three weeks, but he had soldiered back to lead the line.
Real concede the throne
Those that do not watch Real Madrid often might not have foreseen their approach. Ancelotti’s men gave up control of the play to the Parisians, choosing to sit off behind the halfway line. Moreover, they defended in a 4-5-1 block, where Benzema was alone upfront as the sole source of resistance to the passing networks at the base of the hosts’ attack. One may ask: why adopt such a passive strategy?
I understand people want to dunk on UEFA for the away goals thing, but RMA would set up like this regardless of the away goals. Ancelotti has gone deep block for most big games this season. https://t.co/INsSS8OEyP— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) February 15, 2022
The abandonment of the away goals might have been a factor. No reward for striking out on the road does nominally disincentivize a more daring approach. Yet, that conclusion would be a disservice to many of Madrid’s best displays this season. Finding a high press hard to employ, Ancelotti has relied on a lower block, not least in bigger games, affording Vinícius Juníor the room to strike on the break.
Pochettino prompts the press
On the other hand, Pochettino’s men warmed to the idea of a high press. A new structural variant emerged in this contest, resembling a 3-4-1-2 shape. Mbappé and di María stayed ahead of Messi, who dropped off to cover Casemiro. The front two pressed inward to force Thibaut Courtois into punting the ball downfield into the path of Benzema. Marquinhos often followed him deeper if he sought to hold up the play, gaining cover to his right from Pereira, who dropped into the backline.
21st minute: pressing sequence from PSG. Di María makes an arcuate run at Courtois, forcing the goalkeeper to pivot onto his right foot. His long ball aims to find Benzema, whose header simply runs back to Pereira as the third member of the backline. Note the exchange between Messi and Paredes. Once Casemiro advances to the edge of the center circle, the forward stays near the dropping Kroos, urging his compatriot to abandon his marking duty and pick up the free man in the offensive scheme.
PSG’s man orientations varied not only due to their system but also the state of Madrid’s buildup. Complex offensive mechanisms have not arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu along with the return of Ancelotti. He has entrusted faith in the instincts of his troops— even more so than Zinedine Zidane.
Positional exchanges in their work on the ball were frequent. Though not as schematically as in the past, Casemiro moved higher to vacate the base of the midfield. Toni Kroos usually filled the void, while Luka Modrić oscillated in the middle of the park. Inversion from the fullbacks also manifested, notably from Mendy on the left to give Vinícius the license to operate as an explosive depth threat.
However, sparse patterns of play did not bear fruit. Benzema struggled to get into the game, while the visitors had only kept 38% of the possession by the half hour mark. They had no answer for a strong press by the standards of an outfit that have seldom been at the intensity synonymous with Pochettino.
Lock down the right, self-express on the left
So, the home team controlled the lion’s share of the play, retaining many facets of their pressing formation when they were on the ball. Both fullbacks moved high up the flanks to offer the width while the central midfielders were deeper. A more permanent asymmetry between the two eights appeared in this outing. Pereira stayed on the right of the central defenders, often forming a back three, to act as a protective measure against the danger of Vinícius during defensive transitions.
🗣️ Neymar: "I knew Verratti was an excellent player, but I didn't realise he was so spectacular. A genius. He's one of the best midfielders I've played with, along with Xavi Hernández and Iniesta."#UCL pic.twitter.com/6M8Zcrd4n5— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 15, 2022
On the other hand, Marco Verratti ensured PSG stamped their authority on the match. From the left of the midfield, he put on a stellar display in line with his form of recent weeks. Indeed, the entire left edge of the attack highlighted the quality on show. From the creative passing of Nuno Mendes to the dynamism of Mbappé, the Parisians sprinkled moments of individual class throughout the night.
Mbappé validates Pochettino’s trust
The configuration of the front three was familiar. Messi roamed deeper towards the center and right halfspace. Mbappé then had the freedom to stretch Real’s back four laterally and vertically, whereas di María stayed to the right. Yet, the array of stars could not breach the backline, thanks in no small part to the work of Eder Militão: 0-0 at half time. Whose stars would make the telling difference?
It seemed as if PSG’s danger man had struck gold on the hour mark. Mbappé, set away on the left after another aborted counterattack from the guests, caught Carvajal out of step with his searing pace inside the box. Earning a blatant penalty, he handed over duties to his teammate Messi. But Courtois was the victor in this duel, parrying the Argentine’s low drive to keep the contest all square.
King Kylian carves the breakthrough
Wary of the poised game state at 70 minutes, both managers made changes indicative of their intent. On the one hand, Pochettino introduced Neymar in place of di María. On the other hand, Ancelotti doubled down on refreshing his team’s right edge, bringing on Rodrygo and Lucas Vázquez. Real were on the verge of a clean sheet for all their faults. Alas, one twist in the tale was still to come.
Neymar teed up Mbappé in injury time to make one final foray. Neither Vázquez nor Militão checked his stride, inviting the forward to slot home under the sprawling Courtois. He might be a Galactico next season, but, Parisian born and bred, Mbappé settled his loyalties in the most dramatic manner.
PSG might have lacked the cutting edge to put away the visitors, but their superiority earned the last minute winner. The tightrope of stability and stardom will be all the more apparent in the knockout stages. If Pochettino errs on the side of caution, Mbappé showed again he can step up to the plate.
Real Madrid might have nearly departed the Parc des Princes without a scratch, but their conservatism was costly. Neither able to break out of their half in transition or possession, a limited display does not bode ideally for the second leg. Benzema and Vinícius might have to best their performances this campaign to drag this outfit into the quarter-finals.
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