PSG won their 20th league game of the season on Sunday as a superb Kylian Mbappe volley was all that separated them from fifth place, Saint Etienne. The away victory extended PSG’s lead atop Ligue 1 to 12 points with two games in hand and showed they were capable against one of the divisions better sides without key personnel such as Neymar, Cavani and Meunier.
The following article will analyse how Thomas Tuchel’s side overcame opponents who have proved hard to beat for other French sides in 2018/19.
Home side St Etienne lined up in a 3-4-1-2 formation with former Newcastle midfielder Remy Cabella in the No.10 role behind strikers Wahbi Khazri and Romain Hamouma. Manager Jean-Louis Gasset made two changes from their last outing (a 2-1 win over Strasbourg), the most notable of which being Mathieu Debuchy slotting into a centre-back position at the expense of Neven Subotic.
The visitors played in a 3-5-2 system with veteran Dani Alves and youngster Moussa Diaby supplying the width as wing-backs. Left-back Juan Bernat sat into a midfield role alongside new signing Leandro Paredes and Julian Draxler. Thomas Tuchel made three changes from the side that beat Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford last Tuesday.
The use of wing-backs
As opposed to his predecessors Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc in Paris, Thomas Tuchel has been extremely open to tactical versatility in his first season in charge. The use of wing-backs in either a back three of back five, in particular, has been common practice in Ligue 1. Angel Di Maria, Juan Bernat, Lurwin Kurzawa, Thomas Meunier and Christopher Nkunku have all been used as wing-backs at different times and against St Etienne Dani Alves and Moussa Diaby took up the role. Both proved useful attacking outlets on their respected wings but both at times were exposed in defensive areas.
19-year-old Diaby shined brightest out of the two. His movement down the left-hand side proved too quick and lively for St Etienne centre-back Debuchy and he found much more joy than Alves did in the penalty area.
The system was just as dependant on the back three as the wing-backs. In the first half, centre-backs Silva, Marquinhos and Kehrer completed more passes than anyone, with a combined total of 179. For times in the match, the visitors got caught in a rut of passing it around the back with no intent or pace with Paredes the only realistic passing option. The wing-backs started too high when PSG were trying to progress play from deep and this is an aspect of their game Tuchel should try to improve.
In possession, the wing-backs typically played very high up the field as shown by the image below in which the team shape is a 3-3-4.
That’s not to say Diaby and Alves weren’t completely averse to defensive duties. Tuchel deployed several of the traditional hallmarks of a three at the back system. These included the right and left hand-sided centre-backs splitting wide to receive the ball from the goalkeeper and the wing-backs joining the back three to form a defensive bank of five when under pressure. That being said, Alves is not as defensively savvy as he once was and made a couple of silly fouls on the night whilst Diaby’s positional awareness wasn’t as strong in defence as it was going forward.
Though Thomas Tuchel is obviously a talented manager and has changed the tactical adaptability of this PSG side for the better, the use of wing-backs was largely ineffective. Diaby and Alves were anonymous for large spells which put more burden on a midfield severely lacking in creativity. When Alves was pushed into a central midfield role later on in the game he provided the assist for Mbappe’s goal which perhaps demonstrates to the manager that, at this stage of his career, the Brazilian should play more as either a No.10 or right winger.
The movement of Mbappe
As mentioned before, PSG lacked creativity from the midfield on the night with Julian Draxler, in particular, having an appalling game. One of the bright spots from an attacking point of view was, as always, Kylian Mbappe who scored the decisive goal as well as completing three dribbles and taking three shots.
Playing in a front two alongside Angel Di Maria, Mbappe drifted onto his natural right-hand side when trying to create play around the penalty area. This freed up space for Di Maria and Draxler (who should have scored just before the hour mark) in the 18 yard box.
As usual, the Frenchman drifted in the space between the central defender and the left-sided defender to good effect. His pace, trickery and movement off the ball are unparalleled by anyone in French football at the moment and he shone once again in Saint Etienne. The service that was supplied to him in the first half was pretty inadequate, however, as Alves and Diaby struggled to make an impact and Draxler was lacklustre.
Mbappe once again proved himself as one of Europe’s elite forward players and perhaps the most important cog in Tuchel’s machine at PSG. His movement and speed was arguably the only attacking positive to take from the game for the visitors.
Another aspect of PSG’s game Thomas Tuchel has improved since his arrival is the press. The side no longer simply enjoy meaningless possession and use the pace and aggressiveness of players such as Mbappe and Draxler to cut down passing lanes. The away team played with constant energy and bite even if the quality in attack was subpar in the first period.
When pressing St Etienne’s defensive three, PSG would go forward in groups of four resembling a rectangle or rhombus. Due to the deep positioning of debutant Leandro Paredes throughout the game, that pressing four typically consisted of Bernat, Draxler, Di Maria and Mbappe. In the image below, PSG have just cleared their lines from a set piece and the backline (including wing-backs) is pressing high whilst the front four all get close to the St Etienne defensive three. Overall, this nullified any threat of the ball being delivered back into the penalty area or even a sustained spell of possession starting again for the home side.
PSG also pressed high with their back three/five. When St Etienne tried to deploy their full-backs or wide midfielders for width in their 3-4-1-2 system PSG would create defensive overloads in tight spaces with even Mbappe dropping back in some cases. St Etienne struggled to find their feet on home soil and crumbled when attacked with more purpose and momentum in the second half. It was a disappointing outing from a side who have managed to cause French football’s big teams some problems this season.
PSG were far from their best in St Etienne but via their forward press and obvious star quality up front, they managed to scrape to an admittedly deserved victory. They asserted their dominance early on and if Draxler had buried the two chances he had either side of half time the night could have been a lot less nervy for the visitors.
St Etienne will look to rebound from this disappointment with a trip to Dijon next weekend before travelling to Marseille in two weeks time.
PSG, meanwhile, will look to continue their dominant form in Ligue 1 with a midweek game against Montpellier and then a home game against Nimes on Saturday.
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