Paris Saint-Germain – SSC Napoli: Tuchel’s testing almost costs PSG dearly against Napoli (2-2)

PSG manager Thomas Tuchel takes a fascinating path in his aim to win the club’s first Champions League title. For the third time this season, PSG deliberately gave up possession to test themselves in a defensive setting. Napoli largely dominated the first half as a result and took the lead. The game tilted PSG’s way in the second half, but not enough for a win.

This was a crucial game for both sides, as Napoli and PSG both took a misstep in their first two games. PSG lost away from home to Liverpool, while Napoli undeservedly dropped points against Crvena Zvezda. Whoever won this game would take a good step towards the knockout stages.

Under manager Carlo Ancelotti, Napoli has switched from Sarri’s possession-heavy 4-3-3 formation to a highly pragmatic and flexible 4-4-2. Somewhat comparable to Atlético Madrid, the wingers mostly decide how the formation actually plays out on the field.

For this game, Fabián Ruiz was picked as the left midfielder, while José Callejón played his nominal position on the right. Allan and Marek Hamšík are in the engine room in central midfield, while Dries Mertens en Lorenzo Insigne form a small and mobile striking duo.

So far this season, in big games, it all has been about finding the right balance for PSG. Utilizing Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kyllian Mbappé to their full potential, while also maintaining a good defensive presence and be resistant to counterattacks.

For this game, Tuchel seemingly opted for a 4-2-3-1 shape in possession, with the passing duo Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot as the double pivot. A few minutes into the game, however, Tuchel’s true colours would be revealed.

PSG has a run of six consecutive knockouts in either the first round or the quarter finals – last season even after winning all six group matches in impressive fashion, scoring 27 goals. The club has one aim this season: to win the most prestigious club competition in the world. PSG has seemingly discovered that winning the Champions League is not about impressing in the group stages, but about being optimally prepared for the final stages.

Napoli have more of the ball as PSG is not pressing

In the match against Napoli, just like they did against Lyon and Liverpool, PSG set out to prepare themselves for the final stages, rather than to maximize their chances of winning on the night.

Napoli's formation in possession against PSGPSG’s 4-3-1-2 shape that was used to press in the opening phase, and to sit back in the latter parts of the first half.

Before last night, Tuchel had been experimenting with a medium block A mid block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. defense of seven outfield players, leaving the deadly trio up front as quick outlet for counterattacks. This time around, a 4-3-1-2 formation was chosen for the same purpose, with Neymar dropping shortly behind Cavani and Mbappé.

The Brazilian – usually reluctant to do any defensive work – showed some serious effort in blocking passing lanes towards Allan and Hamšík. When Napoli managed to get on PSG’s half, Neymar would track back and position himself centrally in front of the three other midfielders.

Another effect of the 4-3-1-2 shape was that it gave PSG a lot of flexibility to press if they wanted to, which they especially did in first twenty minutes. Since Napoli builds up with two central defenders and two central midfielders, Mbappé and Cavani would position themselves neatly in between to block most passes.

Whenever central midfielders Hamšík and Allan did get on the ball, one of PSG’s three most defensive midfielders would put pressure on them to prevent a pass or dribble forward. If Napoli’s fullbacks were played in, the outer midfielders Ángel Di María and Verrati would step out.

It made sense that PSG’s biggest opportunities in the match came after counterattacks. Both – naturally – came after some slick interplay on the break from either Neymar, Cavani, or Mbappé. The latter two were both presented with huge opportunities in the first twenty minutes, which they did not take.

Napoli don’t beat the press often, but when they do…

Even though Napoli’s buildup generally is not as fluid as it used to be, we still got a glimpse of their quality, as they incidentally managed to play through PSG’s press with a good third man combination. Rui was found on the left side of the field and his low cross found Insigne, who struck the bar. This should have served as a warning sign for PSG, as Napoli managed to strike shortly afterwards.

With José Callejon on the right and Ruiz on the left, Napoli’s attacking setup morphed from a 4-4-2 shape into a 4-3-3. Callejón collected the ball very deep along the touchline. Because PSG’s left back Juan Bernat decided to follow him all the way down, Lorenzo Insigne found himself in a one-versus-one with central defender Presnel Kimpembe. A beautiful through pass by Callejón set Insigne up in front of PSG’s goalkeeper Alphonse Aréola. Comfortably, he put Napoli up 0-1.

xGplot of PSG - Napoli 2-2

Tuchel switches formation and strategy

Barring PSG’s two very good counterattacking opportunities, Napoli had the better chances, more ball possession and also more coherent attacking play in the first half. As a response, Tuchel decided to sub in defender Thilo Kehrer for Bernat to switch to a 3-2-4-1 formation. When attacking, Meunier and Di María provided width, while Neymar and Mbappé played just behind Cavani.

Tuchel not only switched his team’s formation, but also their strategy. After the break, PSG were pressing high up the field, trying to regain the ball quickly after it was lost.

Napoli was pinned back more and more and were dealt a serious blow when their best player, Lorenzo Insigne, had to be substituted early in the second half. In came attacking midfielder Piotr Zieliński, who was fielded at the left of midfield. Ruiz became the player next to or closely behind Dries Mertens.

PSG's formation in possession against NapoliPSG’s 3-2-4-1 formation in attack versus Napoli’s sturdy 4-4-2.

Kimpembe, Marquinhos and Thilo Kehrer is a not too shabby back three when it comes to playing out from the back, mind you. And because PSG was now building up three-against-two, one center-back would usually be free to provide a vertical pass into either Verratti, Rabiot, or the attacking quartet.

Napoli’s first half success was partly based on strict pressure on Rabiot and Verratti whenever they dropped deep. Because PSG was now building up with one spare man at the sides, Napoli’s pressing midfielders were outnumbered and PSG could easily find the wing-backs as an outlet from under Napoli’s pressing.

Chaotic end sees match end in draw

Even though PSG had more possession and came onto Napoli’s half a lot easier than in the first half, chances were still scarce. The fact that PSG’s equalizer came from an own goal speaks volumes. Rui worked the ball into his own net after a rare fluid attack ended with a low cross by Meunier.

With the score level, a sort of stalemate ensued. PSG had sixty-two percent ball possession in the second half, but only managed seven rather poor shots. On the other hand, Napoli sat very deep and only incidentally managed to counterattack.

In the 77th minute, after one of the few times Napoli managed to play out from PSG’s pressure and establish themselves on PSG’s half, Fabian Ruiz attempted a long shot, which happened to fall for Mertens. He did not hesitate to put the ball in an half-empty net and Napoli were leading once again.

Now in total desperation, PSG threw more men forward than before, ending the match in a sort of 3-1-5-1 formation. If it would not have been for one of their unsung heroes, the match would have ended in a draw. It was Ángel Di María who in the third minute of stoppage time showed that he still has one of the best left feet in European football, and put the ball in the top corner from eighteen yards out.

Pitch plot showing expected goals of PSG - Napoli 2-2


This is shaping up to be one of the more entertaining Champions League groups, when it comes to tension at least. Assuming Liverpool wins away at Crvena Zvezda, Napoli (five points) versus PSG (four points) at the Sao Paolo stadium is a must-watch fixture.

Since Carlo Ancelotti decided against signing star player Roberto Baggio at Parma for not fitting the tactical set-up he had in mind, the decorated manager has made the decision to always put the players before the system. This Napoli team is a testament to that pragmatism. The 4-4-2 formation is not the perfect solution, but it suits everybody a bit and some players are currently flourishing in it. 

Only one thing counts in Paris this season: winning the Champions League. Tuchel was reportedly hand-picked by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Amir of Qatar and major shareholder of PSG. If he overcomplicates things by testing out setups during the group stages, there is a serious chance his team could fail to even reach the knockout stages of the only competition that is taken seriously in PSG’s hierarchy.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.

Erik Elias (27) is co-founder and chief editor of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles as well. Former youth coach. Videoscout at digital scouting consultancy 11tegen11. 'Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.' [ View all posts ]


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