Paris Saint-Germain – AS Saint-Étienne: Even Without Neymar, PSG Are Too Much For Solid Saint-Étienne (4-0)

One can enjoy football in two different ways. You can enjoy the excitement of the game, the tension that’s slumbering during a battle between two balanced teams. Or you can live in France where the law is dictated by Paris Saint-Germain and you may enjoy their highly skilled players while they win another national championship. PSG – AS Saint-Étienne: 4-0. Nothing you can do about it.

He was sitting high and dry in the stands: Neymar. Just came back from an international break where he played almost two full games, the Brazilian superstar got himself some rest. “He had a bad night in which he suffered a lot of pain. That’s why he’s not in the squad”, PSG-coach Thomas Tuchel tried to spread some confusion in the run-up to the more important Champions League-game against Liverpool next Tuesday.

Don’t kid yourself: Neymar was fit for this game. And will be fit for the one against Liverpool too. He just wasn’t necessary – can you say that without being disrespectful? – for the game against Saint-Étienne this Friday evening.

Also not necessary, or unavailable in their case: Kylian Mbappé (suspended) and the injured Layvin Kurzawa and Dani Alves. Juan Bernat made his debut for PSG at left back, while Lassana Diarra came back in the squad in midfield and Julian Draxler got his first start of the season on the left wing. For Marco Verratti things got quite emotional when he entered the pitch of the Parc des Princes for his first Ligue 1-game since March.

Jean-Louis Gasset, head coach of Saint-Étienne, had his own problems. He had to find a way to replace injured right back Mathieu Debuchy and playmaker Rémy Cabella. Next to that, his players had a mental struggle to cope with. Last weekend, former player William Gomis was murdered in the suburbs of French city Toulon after getting hit by a hail of Kalashnikov fire. In honor of their deceased former teammate, the players of Saint-Étienne all played with the name ‘W. Gomis’ on their back.

Tuchel keeps it simple, this time
It did inspire Saint-Étienne to play an excellent first twenty minutes. Tuchel experimented this season with a 3-4-1-2, a 4-3-1-2 and a classic 4-2-3-1, but for this game the German choose a rather boring starting line-up. A 4-3-3 with Diarra as a deep-lying midfielder, with Verratti and Adrien Rabiot in front of him.

Ángel Dí Maria and Draxler played as wingers. Or better: as false wingers. Both players tried to look for space between the defensive line and the midfield of the opponent and wandered over the pitch. Draxler and Di Maria often ended up at the same side or could have touched hands in the middle of the field. This rather simple approach had to be enough for the team with the highest number of expected goals created of the league (7.4) to defeat the team with the lowest (2.4) shared with Montpellier – score, surely?

No, it didn’t appear so. Gasset tried something that no other team tried against PSG this season so far: Saint-Étienne played, when out of possession, with five at the back. A formation he already used against Guingamp, when his team was able to keep a clean sheet. Saint-Étienne formed a 5-3-2 with Wahbi Khazri supporting midfielders Ole Selnaes and Yann M’Vila, while winger Yannis Salibur stayed up front with striker Loïs Diony.

By keeping the space between the defensive line and the midfield very small, Khazri and Selnaes were able to neutralize the progressive runs from Rabiot and Verratti, while M’Vila used smart positioning to block all passing lines between the Paris’s midfield and their attack. Draxler and Di Maria often strolled around looking for space or the ball, but were shadowed by central defenders Loïc Perrin and Timothée Kolodziejczak, who would probably have followed them to the moon and back again. This combination of smart positioning, not giving away spaces between defense and midfield and furious pressing at the back made it very difficult for the home team to dominate this game.

Illustration of how the 5-3-2 of Saint-Étienne neutralized the attack of Paris Saint-Germain.

Khazri, the man who does it all
Especially because Saint-Étienne also had a plan in attack. When they recovered the ball, the back switched from a five into a four man defense. Khazri became a left winger, trying to benefit from the space behind Thomas Meunier, while right back Kévin Monnet-Paquet – who’s natural position is winger – became an additional attacking force on that right wing. In their defensive 4-4-2 diamond formation, PSG did not manage to keep the opponent away from their goal. The away team created two great opportunities that started with an overload situation on the right, but Diony and M’Vila were not able to finish.

Saint-Étienne – fun fact: with ten national titles (the last one in 1981), ASSE is still record holder in France – grew into the game, got themselves some confidence and started to attack some more. And some more. And some more, again. Until the point they stretched too far. After the first half of the first period Rabiot seemed to lose the ball in midfield, M’Vila tried to gain the ball but made himself and his team vulnerable by leaving his position. Rabiot came out the duel as the winner, found Verratti who was completely free in the space behind M’Vila who could give the perfect assist out of the central zone to Draxler, who needed two tries with his head to finish it. One mistake, one opportunity, one goal. Masterclass of a world class team.

No experiment with three at the back
Tuchel changed his formation into a 4-2-3-1 during half time and left the disappointing Diarra in the dressing room. In came the exciting 19 year old winger Moussa Diaby, Draxler moved to the number 10 position.

With only one attacking midfielder against him, Gasset replied by changing formation as well. Saint-Étienne did not longer play with five at the back, they now defended in a regular 4-4-2. A nice idea, but before Gasset could install it, PSG was awarded a fast penalty. One that striker Edinson Cavani converted. And that was that: the end of the game, the end of the dream of Saint-Étienne – symbol of the old glory – of beating the new elite in their own home.

Up 2-0, with the game already won, Tuchel went all out attack. He put Christopher Nkunku on the pitch and ended the game with deep-lying midfielder Rabiot who supported the attacking midfielders Di Maria and Draxler. Wingers Diaby and Nkuku got assisted by very, very offensive wing backs on the left in Bernat and Meunier.

PSG managed to score two more goals. 4-0. A pity that Tuchel did not experiment with his 3-4-2-1-system when the game was already won, but you can still watch an analysis of that formation and what went wrong with it while using it in the first half against Angers three weeks ago right here.

This tactical website has promised itself to stay far, far away from bold predictions, but it is pretty safe to say that after five wins in five games and some failure of their closest rivals, PSG will become champion of France once more.

That is, however, not the main goal this year. Winning the Champions League is what matters to PSG. And winning the Champions League is not what PSG will get if they perform like last Friday evening against Saint-Étienne. Who needs Neymar? Paris does.

What you should take home:
Paris Saint-Germain does not have to be exciting to play well. A regular 4-3-3 can do the trick in the Ligue 1. Saint-Étienne managed to make it PSG difficult by using a 5-3-2-formation. This could be used as an example for other teams with less talent than their Parisian opponents. PSG will become champions of France once more, but they need the individual brilliance of Neymar and Mbappé to compete for the Champions League title.


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