Manchester United beware: Tuchel’s Paris Saint-Germain are more than just glitter

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 11, 2019
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Thomas Tuchel has done brilliantly at the beginning of his tenure at Paris Saint-Germain. PSG had made an unbeaten start to the league, which only ended as they finally lost, 2-1 away at Lyon. Tuchel set a consecutive wins record in Ligue 1 and qualified top from PSG’s Champions League group, ahead of last season’s finalists Liverpool, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade. Next up are a resurgent Manchester United under interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, himself unbeaten in his new job.

PSG’s huge wealth and stellar attacking line-up see them painted as a team of big names, in which individual talent renders tactical nous unnecessary, especially in their domestic league. Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have been imperious this season, so far notching up 31 league goals and 12 assists between them – PSG can make a strong case for saying they have the two best footballers in the world who aren’t Messi and Ronaldo.

Tuchel’s favoured formation with PSG is the 4-3-3, Neymar permitting. There are a few interesting features in this that translate into other set-ups used by the coach. Firstly, PSG’s forward line drop off regularly, especially out wide or in the half space, while the full backs push up. This is both to create overloads with the midfield, but also to disrupt attempts to mark the forwards and create space to turn and run in to, especially for Neymar and Mbappe.

In midfield, the three tend to stagger, as well. The central, most defensive midfielder sticks close to the centre backs, but is often joined by another central midfielder who can act as a second deep distributor of the ball. The third midfielder pushes up higher to provide an attacking option or to outnumber the opposition on one side of the pitch.

Additionally, this overloading of one side is exploited by quick switches to the other. The press is also part of this – PSG will look to coral the opposition on one side, win back the ball, and then hit the opposite side quickly.

These features are often present in Tuchel’s PSG teams, but he is also notoriously flexible and adaptive with set-ups. While the aim is always to maximise the extraordinary attacking potential of the front three, Tuchel is not afraid to mix up formations and line-ups to counter or exploit specific opposition. Indeed it’s something he is having to do, with Neymar, Rabiot, and Verrati all currently out.

Against Rennes, for example, in the recent 4-1 win, PSG ostensibly lined up in a 4-4-2 but with both midfielders sat deeper and the wide midfielders tucking inside at times – think of it as a sort of RB Leipzig-style 4-2-2-2. However, in possession, one of the two defensive midfielders, Marquinhos, who’s normally a defender, often tucked in to make a back three. This allowed Juan Bernat and Thilo Kehrer to push very high from full back, while the other defensive midfielder, Dani Alves, usually the right back, was the lone genuine midfield presence, creating a kind of donut shape in possession.

Ahead of this, the wide midfielders and the two forwards stayed very high and spread out across the pitch, dropping in sporadically to create an option. This wide spacing, with constant movement, confused the Rennes markers who did not know whether to hold their shape or try to adapt to mark the opposition more tightly. PSG looked to switch play quickly when the wide players found space, or to play vertical passes quickly to break the Rennes’ defensive lines.

Defensively, PSG would fall immediately back into a sort of 5-3-2 if being counter-attacked, but then, as they adjusted positionally, would transform into a pressing 4-4-2. PSG pressed intelligently, looking to create counter-press situations in the opposition half, but also content to fall back into a defensive pose on the occasions that Rennes were able to build pressure.

Against Lyon, though, Tuchel fielded a 3-5-2, with Alves and Bernat as wing backs, Marquinhos again the deepest midfielder, and Kehrer dropping back into the defensive line. This meant that PSG looked very similar defensively as they did against Rennes [as PICs 11 and 12], but it also meant that in transition, PSG were less effective getting attacking players forwards – there were only two strikers, and effectively four centre backs on the pitch – so the onus on Julian Draxler and Angel di Maria was considerably greater to get forwards, and the wing backs could be caught out by Lyon’s quick wide attackers.

While PSG’s goal – their 1000th in all competitions since the Qatar Sports Investment takeover – came from excellent pressing and quick off-the-ball movement, Lyon were able to press just as well, disrupting PSG’s attempts to play out from the back. Crucially, too, Lyon’s quick attackers stayed wide and attacked the channels outside the wide centre backs, or cut inside and looked for overlapping runs from the full backs or one of Lyon’s midfield. This pulled the PSG centre backs out of position as their wing backs were often caught out upfield by the pace of Lyon’s counters; this was also a function of PSG’s need to provide the width from wing back that would usually come from having a wide front three.

For all Tuchel’s undoubted tactical ability, and for all that PSG are not simply a two-man-band who will struggle with Neymar and injured, there was much in the Lyon game that will have intrigued Manchester United manager Solskjaer. Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 has also been the United boss’s favoured formation and Solskjaer has favoured wide attackers who stay high – it’s exactly the sort of ploy that could catch out PSG. But Tuchel is too smart a coach not to be aware of this and he’ll be eager to show that even without their star man, PSG are a force to be reckoned with in Europe as much as they are in Ligue 1.

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