When the Champions League draw was made in Nyon last December, Paris St. Germain were the definite favourites. Everyone thought Jose Mourinho’s struggling Manchester United side were no match for the current Ligue 1 leaders, especially after a humiliating defeat against Liverpool. To everyone’s surprise, United sacked Mourinho shortly after that defeat and replaced him with a club legend, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Solskjaer started his Old Trafford tenure with an 11-game undefeated streak, better than anyone ever expected. The attacking football philosophy he injected to the team perfectly suits Paul Pogba and co.; thus making him as an Old Trafford darling at the moment. In the process, the Norwegian manager led his team beating top-six sides, Arsenal and Tottenham, away from home. A feat that is considered very special for a caretaker manager.
PSG were not in their best shape prior to this match. The club’s main star, Neymar, is sidelined due to a metatarsal injury. Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier are also in the list of absentees due to injuries they picked up recently. Furthermore, Marco Verratti was in doubt after a three-week absence. The tables had turned; PSG were no longer a clear favourite.
Truth be told, Solskjaer is not as smart as Thomas Tuchel. The former Dortmund manager proved that injuries are not a problem whatsoever for his team. Tuchel’s tactical brilliance simply outclassed Solskjaer’s United through the whole 90 minutes. This tactical analysis will inform you how Tuchel’s PSG came out victorious in that match using statistics.
Solskjaer opted to use 4–3–3 in this game. Former Benfica player Victor Lindelof started alongside Eric Bailly in the heart of the defence. Main star Pogba was supported by Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera in the middle of the park. Up front, on-form Marcus Rashford was flanked by Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. United had a strong bench that consisted of names like Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, and Diogo Dalot.
Meanwhile, Tuchel opted for a 4–2–3–1. Gianluigi Buffon started between the sticks ahead of Alphonse Areola. Thilo Kehrer was selected to replace Meunier at right back while former Barcelona man, Dani Alves, pushed forward as a right-winger. World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe started as Les Parisiens’ main striker, supported by Julian Draxler and Angel di Maria. PSG’s bench was filled by some promising young talents like Christopher Nkunku and Colin Dagba.
In the first 15 minutes of the game, United’s high-pressing gave the visitors problems. Due to the high intensity of the pressing, sometimes the men in white were forced to make mistakes. In that high-pressing game, Solskjaer tasked his forwards to do man-to-man markings on PSG’ defenders and dropping midfielders in order to prevent them swiftly building attacks from the back.
PSG responded by playing more direct passes that were directed for Mbappe, Di Maria, or Draxler. When one of them received the ball in one flank, the player with the ball then would try to cross the ball into the box as quickly as possible. Unluckily, PSG didn’t have physical players like Cavani or Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting that can win aerial duels inside the box.
Sit down, be humble
PSG also spent the first quarter hour in the defensive mode. Tuchel instructed his squad to shift into a mid-block 4–4–2 when they didn’t have the ball. PSG were focusing to close central passing lanes and allowed United to build from the flanks. By doing that, they restricted Pogba and Rashford’s influence in between the lines; thus forcing them to drift wide at times. With Pogba and/or Rashford in the flank, that means United had one less aerial threats in the box; therefore easing Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe’s defensive duties.
Tuchel asked some of his men to man-mark United’ players. Marquinhos locked Pogba down, Veratti marked Herrera, and most notably, Kimpembe guarded Rashford. By doing that, they successfully limited the creativity of those players.
The man-marking also has a negative side, especially when the marker was a little late to close his man down. For example, Kimpembe sometimes was late to track Rashford. This allowed Rashford to turn with the ball or lay it off to Lingard; who has a clear space to run into after the area was vacated by the centre back.
As United’s early high-pressing game didn’t bear any fruit, they decreased the intensity and opted to sit back at times. This is when PSG started to take control of the game. Tuchel creatively shifted his team from the initial 4–2–3–1 and 4–4–2 into a more aggressive 3–2–4–1 whenever they enjoyed the ball. The 3–2–4–1 effectively put PSG on the front foot for the remaining 60 minutes of the game.
In the 3–2–4–1 Kehrer moved inside from his initial right back position and formed a back three with Thiago Silva and Kimpembe. Verratti and Marquinhos stood alongside each other and positioned themselves in between Rashford and United’s midfielders. Tuchel then tasked his wingers to tuck in and play in the half-spaces, while Juan Bernat and Dani Alves providing width as wing-backs. On top, Mbappe positioned himself between Bailly and Lindelof in order to pin the pairing back.
Tuchel preferred to overload the central part of the pitch by putting four midfielders in that area; plus a striker and three centre-backs supporting them. One interesting aspect of this approach was Tuchel’s choice to put his midfielders between United’s lines. By doing that, he created a 4v3 situation in the middle of the park.
The home side’s midfielders were bamboozled with the situation they faced. If Pogba and/or Herrera tried to close down Verratti or Marquinhos, they would leave a huge space for Matic to cover just behind them. It was very problematic for United because Verratti and Marquinhos were very good on the ball; casually inviting pressure and able to bypass United’ midfield line by a sharp pass. Lindelof and Bailly were not available to help Matic; credit to Mbappe’s smart positioning between them.
If Lingard and Martial decided to come inside to help the midfielders, one of PSG’s centre back, usually Thiago Silva, would be happy to send the ball wide to Bernat or Dani Alves. In the flank, the receiving wing-back then was gifted with 1v1 situation against Ashley Young or Luke Shaw. Di Maria and Draxler, who positioned themselves in the half-spaces, then would happily help the wing-back to create a 2v1 situation when needed.
Di Maria and Draxler: a dynamic duo
As mentioned before, Draxler and Di Maria were instructed to play in between United’s lines. Their creative brains combined with their quick feet allowed them to dominate in the dangerous area. Either by standing or arriving in the area between the lines, they possessed a great threat for United’s defensive department.
In between the lines, they would combine with each other or Mbappe; using only a few touches in the process. The main goal they were looking was to disrupt the United’s defence and releasing Mbappe in behind the centre-backs with a sharp pass. In one sequence the move succeeded and Mbappe was left in a 1v1 situation against De Gea. To everyone surprise, the 20-year-old missed from a close range.
PSG were gifted with players that possess the quality to work in tight spaces; even the defenders. This trait allowed them to easily escape from United’s pressures, especially in the latter part of the first half. To PSG’s gain, United’s pressures were also sometimes miscalculated. The Red Devils’ midfielders would happily commit themselves to press PSG high but the defenders didn’t join the press; thus leaving a huge gap to exploit between them.
Second half adjustments
Coming into the second half, Tuchel made some slight adjustments to his team. Solskjaer was forced to make two substitutions due to injuries picked by Lingard and Martial late in the first half. Alexis Sanchez and Mata were the replacements. Poorly, both Alexis and Mata failed to blend into the game.
Alexis and Mata couldn’t provide the same level of offensive threats Lingard and Martial offered. Instead, they were positioned more defensively in United’s 4–5–1 off the ball; sometimes even looked like a 6–3–1. Tuchel then instructed Kimpembe to roam forward and joining the midfield in the left half-space; next to Verratti.
Tuchel opted that because Kimpembe had lesser threats to face in transitions in the left-hand side, with only Mata and Herrera. To put it into context, he would be very stupid to allow Kehrer to do the same because the young defender had Pogba and Alexis in his side, who possessed better pace and dribbling skill than their Spanish teammates. Furthermore, Tuchel didn’t want to put three men against Rashford in the first phase of build-ups because it was counterproductive.
The next adjustment Tuchel made was for his attackers. Mbappe, who was instructed to stay between Bailly and Lindelof when PSG got the ball in the first half, now had the license to drop into the left half-space. Tuchel rotated him with Di Maria at times in order to confuse United’ defenders. Both Mbappe and Di Maria possess good ability in tight spaces so the adjustments made by Tuchel bear no negative impacts for his side.
Again, United’s poor spacing and miscalculated pressures were the reason why PSG gained so much control in the second half. Di Maria/Mbappe and Draxler were very often can be found free in between the lines after United’s unsuccessful attempts to steal the ball from Verratti and Marquinhos. In that area, PSG’s attackers could continue using their creativity to unlock United’s defence.
Tuchel also varied his offensive approach in the second half. His attackers were no longer tasked to play one-touch passes between them then trying to find Mbappe in behind. Instead, they would try to demolish United’s defence from the left wing, using Bernat and Di Maria as their main outlets.
PSG’s trigger in this approach was Young. Due to gaps opened between the lines by United’s uncoordinated pressure, Young sometimes had to move forward and jump on the man in the left half-space. By doing that, he left a gigantic space behind him. Unlucky for the 33-year-old veteran, Bernat would be found free in the left flank with all the time in the world to create a chance for himself or for the incoming forwards.
When United were behind after Kimpembe’s goal, Young was assigned with more offensive duties in the right-hand side. Sometimes, the English full-back was late to track back thus allowing Di Maria a big space to exploit in transitions. Young’s aggression was not supported by good defensive awareness, making him an easy target for Tuchel’s team. Mbappe’s goal resulted from his late tracking of Di Maria.
No Neymar, no Cavani, no Meunier, no problem. Despite coming to Old Trafford without his main stars, Tuchel successfully brought the best from his team to win the first leg; credit to his brilliant football IQ. The German manager definitely outclassed his Norwegian counterpart in this match. Tuchel successfully nullified Solskjaer’s fast-paced attacking football with his unique defensive set-up. The former Dortmund manager also succeeded in breaking down United’s high-pressing game; credit to his own variation of positional play.
The former Mainz manager showed his high-level of creativity and ability to adapt to ever-changing situations on the pitch. Instead of staying with one favoured approach, Tuchel was not afraid to make changes and be bold with his team throughout the match. With two away goals in the bag, Tuchel’s PSG head back to Paris with high confidence. PSG are surely the clear favourite to advance into the Champions League quarter-finals.