For the first time ever, Paris-Saint-Germain have reached the final of the UEFA Champions League. Beating out Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16 paved the way for PSG to play Atalanta and surprise semi-finalists RB Leipzig upon a return to the competition in August, where they now await German giants Bayern Munich in the final on Sunday. Under the fantastic management of Thomas Tuchel, PSG have been extraordinarily good. Some might argue that their path to the final was a tad easier than previous finalists of the competition, but it would be hard to argue PSG to be undeserving of their place in the final with such a star-studded lineup. The Ligue 1 champions have scored 25 goals in Champions League play thus far, conceding just 5 in the process. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Thomas Tuchel’s PSG as we head toward the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League Final.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3
Although Thomas Tuchel has often opted for the formation with the most 2’s to ever exist – 4-2-2-2 – the German manager has favoured a more traditional 4-3-3 in their Champions League run-in. In fact, out of their ten matches in the competition, PSG have utilized the 4-3-3 system a total of seven times – making it Tuchel’s undoubtable favourite. Their only loss in the competition came at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in February, when they abandoned their traditional values to match Dortmund’s 3-4-2-1 formation. After losing that game, Tuchel changed back to a 4-2-2-2 and turned the tie around. From then on they’ve stuck true to their principles, regardless of formation and regardless of personnel. A surprising yet positive feature of their historic run in this season’s Champions League has been Tuchel’s willingness to give every player a chance. Over 24 players have appeared in the competition in 2019-20, and they’ve never fielded identical lineups in successive matches.
At the base of the 4-3-3 has been three-time Champions League winner – Keylor Navas. The Costa Rican was immaculate for Real Madrid in their trio of successive wins, but will unfortunately be out of the final with a torn hamstring. Sergio Rico looks likely to play instead, having performed decently well against RasenballSport Leipzig in the 3-0 semi-final win. At right-back, PSG have two impressive options. Thomas Meunier is on his way to Tuchel’s former side – Borussia Dortmund – and may fail to feature in the final as a result, with the young Thilo Kehrer being the one with the greater future at the club. Right-back is however the only position in the back-four that appears up for debate as we head into the final, as centre-backs Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe have been mainstays at the back, alongside Spanish left-back Juan Bernat.
In midfield, Tuchel will have a selection headache on his hands. Marquinhos appears to be the only nailed on starter in his position in front of the back four as the ‘number 6’. Ander Herrera, Idrissa Gueye, Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes have all performed well when given the chance and will fight for the remaining two spots in the midfield three. Tuchel likes Herrera/Gueye and Verratti/Paredes to operate in the same manner when deployed, but all four players truly offer something different from the other three. As a result, Tuchel will be scrutinizing his options to decide the best course of action to tear apart Bayern’s defense and match them for steel in midfield areas. Up top, things look a bit more clear-cut as Neymar’s return from injury has provided more consistency to Tuchel’s front-three. Assist-master Angel di Maria and World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe will certainly start alongside the Brazilian as part of an illustrious front-three. The trio together have scored 11 goals and their assist totals add up to a staggering 15 in Champions League play this season.
Other than the front three and a few players like Thiago Silva and Keylor Navas, this isn’t your typical Champions League final side. Although PSG have loads of quality, many of their players are far from the best in the world in their respective positions. That said, players like Marquinhos and Juan Bernat have proven to be phenomenal options this season and with a player like Mauro Icardi on the bench who can bang in the goals (5 goals in 7 matches), Tuchel’s side undoubtedly have a lot to offer as they head into the final. Although this analysis will consider the tactics Tuchel might use to beat Bayern Munich, it will also cover much of their play this season and how they got to this point in their impressive 2019-20 campaign.
It would feel almost wrong to start a PSG Tactical Analysis without discussing their attacking flair and talent. Quite simply, without players like Kylian Mbappe, Angel di Maria and Neymar, the Parisians would not have made it to the final. Yes, the squad around these players have stepped up to a new level this season and each player has played their part in their run to the final. But the most important of all of their play has to be their reliance on attacking flair. Before Ligue 1 was shutdown with still eleven matches to go for the Red and Blues, they had scored a whopping total of 75 goals. 50 of those goals were classified as being strictly from open play, but they also netted 5 goals from “counter attacking” situations (the most), 10 from set-pieces (2nd most), 6 penalties (the most) and forced their opposition into 4 own goals (the most). This illuminates the fantastic threat that PSG pose in attacking situations. Quite simply, they can score all kinds of goals and hurt their opposition from any angle. The front three are fine linking up with intricate combinations, triangular passing and give-and-go’s, but with a player like Mbappe, can also be explosive and deadly on the break.
In attack, PSG favour the left-side (41%), compared to the middle (29%) and the right (30%). They do however attack down the middle more than any other team in Ligue 1, and unsurprisingly find themselves in their opposition’s eighteen yard box far more than any other team in the league. In Champions League play, the only major difference is their relative struggle (or rather patience) to get into the opposition’s third. They’ve spent only 24% of their time on the ball in the opposition’s third, the joint ninth-lowest out of the thirty-two teams in the competition. This is despite boasting the eighth highest possession statistics and ninth highest number of passes per game. This simply means that PSG have been patient in their build-up and confident in their ability to work the ball from left to right, waiting for the right moment to go forward. It has also meant that Neymar will often come very deep to get on the ball, even when fulfilling the role of the number 9. This is in stark contrast to Mauro Icardi and Edinson Cavani, who hardly ever abandon their position at the top of PSG’s front-line. By dropping deep, Neymar creates an extra headache for the opposition that the other two forwards simply don’t. In order to dismantle Bayern’s impressive midfield and slightly shaky defense, this is something the Brazilian forward and German manager will undoubtedly be in cahoots about in preparation for Sunday’s final.
NEYMAR DROPPING DEEP & BALLS OVER THE TOP
Neymar’s eagerness to drop into the midfield creates a diamond shape for PSG to use in possession. With the centre-back’s already frequently engaged around the half-way line and the smart movement of players like Verratti, Paredes and Herrera to drop in deep at the right moment and pick up the ball, PSG are well positioned to play both forwards, horizontal and diagonal passes. Paredes and Verratti are particularly adept at playing balls over the top. Since both operate on the left for PSG, it’s obvious not only why Tuchel’s side favour attacks down the left, but why Neymar also frequently drops deep more toward that side. By Neymar dropping deep in this regard, the opposition defense may also be tempted to play a higher line. But with the speed and attacking threat that Kylian Mbappe poses further forward (also on the left), PSG can play dangerous balls over the top from midfield and find Mbappe into space beyond those high opposition lines. With Bayern Munich operating in a higher line than almost any team in the world, this could be an easy mechanism for PSG to create attacks in the final.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONT
PSG implement a high-pressing system, forcing their opposition to one side of the field and not letting them escape. At times in the press, the front three can be found all on the same side, condensing the pitch in a near impossible way for the opposition to play out. Edinson Cavani is a hard-working forward, but the speed and mobility of the current front three offer the Parisians something slightly more fervid in winning the ball back. In fact the aggressiveness of their press forced Leipzig into giving up a goal in their 3-0 semi-final win. However, with a team as talented as Bayern Munich at playing out from the back, this could be a risky approach. With all three forwards coming over onto the same side, Bayern could easily utilize their goalkeeper as a constant backwards option and mechanism for switching play. PSG could then be caught outnumbered in wide areas, where a player like Alphonso Davies has proven to be almost unmanageable at times this season. This high-press approach has also been taken when Tuchel implements a 4-2-2-2, as all of the front four come toward one side of the field in somewhat of a hybrid diamond-rhombus mixed shape. Regardless of the system they deploy on Sunday, Tuchel needs to be careful that their aggressive, high press approach does not become over-ambitious.
SWITCHING PLAY & PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACK
Although typically favouring the left, the Parisians are adept at switching play from side to side. In the build-up, Marquinhos will often drop in between the centre-backs, with the left-sided central midfielder usually joining him. The addition of one central midfielder dropping in alongside Marquinhos makes PSG a unique outfit in regards to building out from the back. But it’s actually something that Thomas Tuchel has been doing for years, most notably at Borussia Dortmund. With the Black & Yellows, Tuchel used Gonzalo Castro (an excellent ball player), to drop in on the right and create a triangular shape to play out with the two centre-backs. Defensive midfielder Julian Weigl would then create an option at the top of the diamond structure, with the goalkeeper as another backwards option if needed. It’s not quite positional rotation, but it’s a method of quickly gaining an overload in possession of the ball, disrupting the opposition’s press and ensuring the opposition’s ‘number 10’ can’t have much success if they stick strictly to covering Marquinhos. This four-man unit also allows the fullbacks to gallop forward and stretch the opposition higher up the pitch. With this simple addition to their build-up, PSG are often afforded more time and space to be patient with their build-up should they choose.
The constant movement inside of the wingers can also provide PSG with a mechanism to disrupt Bayern’s defense. With these inside runs and the occasional movement in deep to pick up passes, the opposition’s defense often has to change shape. This allows the centre forward and the opposite wide forward to find space in between the gaps of the defense. If for example di Maria comes in deep and Alaba follows him, a player like Paredes can get on the ball and find Mbappe in the space left vacated by the Austrian. Further, with the intelligent runs forward of a player like Ander Herrera or the fullbacks, the constant inside runs will certainly aid in PSG’s ability to break Bayern Munich down, open up new avenues and exploit those wide areas.
However, their desire to push their fullbacks forward could also create an issue for the Parisians, as it did in their 2-1 defeat in Dortmund. Bayern also implement a high press and if the fullbacks are caught too high up the pitch, Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe may find themselves in danger, dealing with players like Gnabry, Muller and Coman. As a result, their patient build-up and desire to work the right angle to go forward may suffer in the final. If they remain too patient in possession, particularly around the centre-back’s, Bayern have all the tools in their bag of tricks to punish them.
So there it is! A brief Tactical Analysis of Thomas Tuchel’s Paris Saint-Germain ahead of Sunday’s Champions League Final. Be sure to check back soon for a tactical analysis all about Hansi-Flick’s Bayern Munich and see more of our Tactical Analyses. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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