Paris Saint-Germain – Stade Rennais: Routine-Looking Ligue 1 Scoreline Camouflages PSG’s initial issues against a compact opponent (4-1)
Rennes showed some promising signs in their possession play and pressing as they imposed themselves on Paris Saint-Germain. However, Rennes failed to take advantage of their impressive start and could not capitalise on a few promising opportunities. Tuchel’s half-time tweaks and PSG’s brilliant attacking players ensured they overcame their slow start to extend their unbeaten run in Ligue 1.
Tactical analysis and match report by Chris Baker.
PSG set out to extend their lead at the top of the table to thirteen points after Lille’s earlier victory over Marseille had closed the gap to ten points. Tactically, PSG’s shapes alternated between a 4-4-2 base off the ball, moving into a 3-4-3/3-3-1-3 in possession. With both Neymar and Marco Verratti missing through injuries, Thomas Tuchel still had a plethora of talent at his disposal to field a very strong lineup. Kylian Mbappé was back in the starting eleven in place of Eric Choupo-Moting, while Presnel Kimpembe partnered Thiago Silva in defense with Marquinhos moving into midfield.
Julien Stéphan’s Rennes find themselves in the middle of the pack after a fairly standard season thus far. He made two changes to his side following their 0-0 draw with Montpellier in Ligue 1. Reverting back to a 4-4-2 formation, Jérémy Gélin and Mehdi Zeffane both returned in defense while Mexer and James Lea Siliki dropped out.
Both sides mirror each other’s 4-4-2 formation.
Rennes impress with compactness
Right from the start, Rennes impressed with their excellent pressing. Their aim was simple to define: central control. Their 4-4-2 shape against the ball ensured that – at all times – they stayed compact in the central areas. The midfield four formed a tightly-knit bunch behind strikers Hatem Ben Arfa and M’Baye Niang who were leading the first line of pressing. This 4-4-2 shape often shifted to a 4-3-1-2 during PSG’s goal-kicks with the ball-sided winger taking up more central positions.
Rennes’ front line rarely pressured PSG’s deep ball carriers. Instead, they took hold in slightly deeper positions and looked to reduce the space for vertical passes into midfield. Consequently, PSG’s center-backs hardly tried these passes as Rennes’ forwards were constantly lurking to make an interception or a block. The nature of Rennes’ narrow midfield, with the wingers moving inside allowed them to cover the central zone immediately in case the first line of pressure was broken.
When PSG did progress the ball through the center, their deepest midfielder often had his back towards goal and found himself subject to a lot of pressure. This meant that the recipient would have little time to control the ball or execute his next action. Furthermore, Rennes’ central midfielders stuck close to PSG’s holding midfielders Marquinhos or Alves to be in strong positions to press them. The timing of these pressing movements was excellent.
Lots of touches by Rennes’ central midfielders serve as an illustration of their preferred buildup style.
It was no surprise to see PSG struggle in their buildup without Verratti. The Italian’s ability to form connections between teammates is crucial to PSG’s midfield circulation. Attempting to fill in this role, Alves often maintained a position just behind Niang and Ben Arfa. From this area, the Brazilian was trying to find gaps within Rennes’ structure to help break through the center. The opposing midfielders’ narrowness made it was difficult to really enter this area and Alves’ position was often used as a decoy. Even though Alves did not influence play directly through receiving a lot of passes off the center-backs, his presence gave his teammates a greater chance of finding uncovered spaces to exploit elsewhere.
For all their central compactness, Rennes’ 4-4-2 pressing scheme had its weak spots too. Instead of forcing PSG into playing long balls from a deeper area, their forwards’ narrow positioning left ample space in the wide spaces for Silva or Kimpembe to dribble into.
PSG’s defenders showed their composure on the ball by aggressively dribbling out of the defensive line and into midfield, which forced Rennes’ midfielders into a choice. Either they left their zone to close the player on the ball down and leave gaps for a diagonal pass into one of the attackers, or if they chose to remain – which they often did – the center-back could continue to dribble into more attacking phases. PSG’s incisive dribbling out of the defensive line was frequently complemented by a darting run from their forwards to receive long diagonal passes in behind.
Very little involvement of the front three, as PSG had issues progression the ball up the pitch against Rennes’ aggressive pressing.
Rennes’ positive approach in possession
The key principles to Rennes’ attacks in the first half were their use of switches of play A pass from one side to the other. and wing combinations. During the initial stages of their buildup, Rennes adopted a possession-based approach as they sought to progress the ball through their midfield. This was often successful due to the dropping midfielders creating separation from their opposing counterparts to receive and turn with the ball. This separation was partly down to the fact that PSG’s midfield and attacking lines were not in total sync in their pressing. Therefore, Rennes was able to move up the pitch with good passing combinations, aided by supporting movements of ball-near players to open up passing lines.
When Rennes were in possession on one of the flanks, PSG would understandably shift their block across. However Rennes’ strong connections around the ball allowed them to switch possession quickly to the other flank. This negated the home side’s pressing and created threatening situations on the far-side.
From here, Rennes would then look to exploit PSG’s shifting defense with a diagonal pass between the center-back and full-back for runners in behind. Apart from Niang’s goal, their second biggest chance of the first half, where former PSG player Ben Arfa dragged his shot wide, came from such a situation.
How a side plays in possession is directly linked to how they play out of possession. Rennes’ compact structure in possession supported their effectiveness off the ball. PSG are elite in attacking transitions with the likes of Di María and Mbappé, so Rennes had to ensure they were defensively stable upon losing possession. They achieved this through their counterpressing, starting from already being compact in possession.
The close distances between teammates meant that there was strong defensive support upon a ball loss to maximise their pressure. By closing the ball down immediately after a turnover, Rennes were able to at least delay the transition process or, even better, force a pass into a trapped area or an individual mistake.
Tuchel’s tweaks pay off
Tuchel would not be Tuchel if he would not come up with some tweak after a very flat first half. He moved Alves into the right-wing position, while Draxler and Marquinhos formed a double pivot. 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. This allowed Draxler to move in between the lines in the buildup to create overloads, while still offering strong support to either receive behind the opposing midfield or drop to get on the ball and carry forwards. Mbappé also started to drop a lot more into 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 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. This was mostly on the blindside of his markers and thus he could receive unmarked in pockets of space and dribble forward using his speed advantage.
After taking the lead through Di María, the balance of the game became more one-sided, after PSG had wrestled for control up till then. They began to sustain longer periods of possession and spent more time in the buildup phase. This was partly down to Rennes struggling to maintain their pressing intensity and increasing distances between their forward and midfield lines allowed PSG to play through the middle of the pitch more frequently.
The most interesting aspect of the second half was not PSG seeing more of the ball – anyone could fill in that development. No, the second half was about PSG’s impressive pressing. More coordinated pressing movements allowed them to impose themselves much earlier on Rennes ball-carriers with sufficient levels of compactness. PSG’s reactions were also a lot quicker and they forced a lot more turnovers as Rennes continued to try and build up in a possession-base style.
Due to subpar decision making on Rennes’ behalf, this new-found intense pressing came to fruition for Mbappé’s goal. The home side matched the away side man-for-man before forcing the ball-carrier into a costly mistake. All of PSG’s increased pressing intensity proved highly beneficial as they triumphed in the second half.
Rennes’ desperation to score a goal created a different dynamic for the last thirty minutes. Despite barely generating any attacks, they frequently pushed their midfielders up to support their attackers to try and create a breakthrough. However, this meant they were often unable to control defensive spaces, which PSG exploited on a few occasions. As a result, the game became very open, and by the 71st minute PSG found themselves 4-1 up which was enough to seal all three points.
A 4-1 win over Rennes at home sounds a lot like a routine victory, but PSG struggled for large periods of the game. They were able to overcome their visitors in the second half, through an uptick in pressing intensity, and of course their individual superiority, with Draxler especially excelling. There were some issues in midfield which were to be expected without Verratti. The arrival of Leandro Paredes will certainly be a welcome one for Tuchel as they look to retain the title and push on in the Champions League.
As for Rennes, a loss at PSG is little to be ashamed of, and they should do good to focus on the positives they can definitely take from this match. Their game plan was executed very well and nullified PSG for most parts. However, they did not test PSG’s defense enough during their purple patches which is something they need to improve on to win matches against superior opposition.
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