On Thursday night, French giant Paris Saint-Germain met FC Nantes in the second French Cup semi-final. Two days earlier, Rennes had come out on top in their thrilling clash with Bruno Génésio’s Lyon. And the match that took place at Parc des Princes will decide Julian Stéphan’s opponent at the final.
For Paris Saint-Germain, they came into this match being rated much higher than their opponent. Currently comfortable on top of Ligue 1’s table, it seems that they have secured their first trophy of the season. On the opposite side, Nantes is going through some tough times. But they can still be positive as the distance between them and the relegation zone is nine points. Both teams heading for the match with different expectations, but the ultimate mission is getting the win.
In the first stage of the game, Nantes has shown that they are a stubborn opponent by creating a tight defensive structure. It prevented Paris Saint-Germain’s attackers in finding a way to Tătăruşanu’s goal. It was not until the second half that the home side started to dominate the game. Nantes started to push forward in hope of finding an equaliser, and they left spaces in the own half. Paris Saint-Germain exploited it and sealed the game with two crucial goals. Using tactical analysis and statistics, we’ll have a closer look at how Thomas Tuchel’s side broke down Nantes’ defensive structure.
Tuchel changed his formation from a 3-5-2 to a 4-1-3-2 with Marquinhos playing as a single pivot. Moussa Diaby, Marco Verratti and Juan Bernat formed the midfield that played behind Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting and Kylian Mbappé.
There are similarities between Tuchel’s 3-5-2 and the 4-1-3-2 that he deployed in this match. When Thilo Kehrer was located too high up the pitch, Marquinhos would drop in between Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe. Due to injury, the ex-Roma men was subbed off for new-signing Leandro Paredes at the end of the first half. That was when Kehrer was allowed to stuck in and create a three-man defence in place of Marquinhos. On the other hand, Bernat acted as a mezzala while Layvin Kurzawa joined the attack using overlaps.
Nantes lined up in a narrow 5-3-2 with Edgar Ié, Diego Carlos and Nicolas Pallois formed the back line. Abdoulaye Touré and Valentin Rongier played as dynamic midfielders in front of Andrei Girotto. Lucas Evangelista acted as an attacking midfielder and his responsibility was to connect the midfield and the strikers.
Nantes’ defensive structure
As mentioned earlier, Nantes created a stubborn defensive structure when playing against a high-profile side like PSG. Vahid Halilhodžić was already aware of PSG players’ ability and he chose this style of play to counter.
When not in possession, the away side would play in their natural position. Lucas Lima and Fábio would move back and joined the centre-backs. The midfielders acted as the first line of this structure. Their responsibility was to close down PSG’s midfielders and cut down any passes that headed towards the strikers. If that got bypassed, then they would fill the gap and formed a shield in front of the defensive line. This system caused frustrations for PSG players whenever they tried to launch an attack.
They also adopted a conservative pressing game. Whenever PSG tried to build from the back, there will be at least two players approach the ball-carrier. Their aim was to suffocate passing options and force him to play a long ball. Combining with their man-oriented marking system, this made Nantes’ defensive system harder to deal with.
Evangelista and Kalifa Coulibaly were responsible for following PSG centre-backs, while his teammates marked the surrounding players, as demonstrated below. Sometimes, a Nantes’ players would follow two PSG players, like Abdoulaye Touré in this situation. This accidentally created an overload for that player, and he would be bypassed quite easily.
Their system worked and was efficient throughout the first half, although they let Verratti opened the score. They managed to limit the great chances that PSG could create in the process. During the latter stage of their game, Nantes started to exploit spaces behind PSG’s defensive line. One of those situations turned into chances for the away side.
Moutoussamy noticed Waris’ run into that space and he made a through ball into his run. Unfortunately, they squandered the chance due to the lack of sharpness, which was their problem throughout the game.
Paris Saint-Germain’s style of play
Tuchel’s side approached the game with a lot of confidence, as demonstrated through their style of play. They held 73% of possession compared to Nantes’ 27%. One of the main factors that contributed to that was because they tended to build from the back. Having two ball-playing defenders playing out of position helped PSG a lot in building attacks. Marquinhos usually acted as an intermediate between Thiago Silva and Verratti. The Brazilian defender would pick up the ball from the captain, then dribbled up and laid it for Verratti.
Kehrer would also become another option for Silva, as he was willing to drop deep to receive the ball. The former Schalke man has pace and the dribbling ability to cause impacts from his side, allowing Diaby to cut inside. But PSG usually built their attacks through the left-hand side. Kurzawa and Bernat’s appearance caused a lot of troubles as they all have the pace to bypass the pressure. They were good crossers to, but they usually made low crosses and passes because Mbappé and Choupo-Moting aren’t good headers.
Another thing that contributed to PSG’s dominance in possession is that they always provide supports for the ball-carrier. Because they favored short passes rather than making long balls, it would take more time to move the ball forward. That was why they usually created passing triangles in the game, as it would help them in building attacks.
In the situation above, we can still see a triangle being made by the centre-backs. They created a 3v1 situation because Coulibaly was standing in the middle of that triangle. If they need to shift their focus onto the opposite side, either Kehrer or Kimpembe could play a long ball towards each other. They could also pass backward to Silva and ask him to transfer it to the other side. A simple tactic, but it was occasionally seen in many top teams’ style of play.
When in the final third, they faced a stubborn Nantes’ defensive structure. They were forced to circulate the ball around and patiently wait for spaces to open up, and they were happy to do that. Reaching the latter stage of the game, Nantes started to reveal spaces between the defensive players. PSG capitalized this weakness and scored two goals. Mbappé converted his second penalty attempt after missing one earlier in the game, but Dani Alves’s goal attracted my attention.
Once again, they built their attack from the left-hand side. Verratti was holding the ball and Nantes’ players were attracted to him and Draxler and Diaby’s movement. This left Dani Alves with a ton of spaces that he could easily convert a chance. The Italian midfielder made a cross towards Alves and he made an exquisite lob over Tătăruşanu, sealing the game for PSG.
When not in possession, PSG also adopted a pressing game, but they pressed more aggressively. Their aim is to win the ball in the opposite half and start a counter-attack immediately. They also played with a high defensive line, as this would contribute to both attack and defence. In defence, they were the last line to clear the ball using Thiago Silva and Kimpembe’s aerial superiority. In attack, they minimized the transitioning time and helped to build attacks faster.
Paris Saint-Germain once again showed their class upon other opponents in France. Their attractive style of play helped them secure a spot in the French Cup final against Rennes. A treble hope is now gone after they were eliminated from the Coupe de la Ligue, but a double is still in their hand. Dominating in the domestic competitions but they still haven’t enjoyed much success in the continental competitions. Thomas Tuchel’s mission is to improve an energetic Paris Saint-Germain side and help them get further in the Champions League. But for now, he can enjoy the success that is waiting for him in Ligue 1 and maybe the French Cup.
For Nantes, they don’t have to be so disheartened after this loss. It’s important now that they stand up and continue to fight for a Ligue 1 spot next season. Vahid Halilhodžić could make some major changes in the summer, especially filling the striker spot that Emiliano Sala left behind. Next season, Nantes’ fans could expect changes to their team, and hopefully, they could aim for a Europa League spot with this young squad.