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PSG will be Ligue 1 champions this year – their lead at the top is 17 points with six games remaining. Nonetheless, their humiliating 5-1 defeat to second-placed Lille on Sunday was backed up by another 3-2 loss to Nantes on Wednesday. Add in the shock Champions League exit to Manchester United last month as well as Kylian Mbappe’s public comments that the team “lacked character”, and all is not well with Les Parisiens.
Reports claiming Mbappe wasn’t included in the squad as punishment for his aforesaid comments meant his name was added to a list of other PSG stars absent because of injury or suspension. Regardless, PSG fielded a team well capable of beating Nantes, themselves struggling in lower mid-table with three defeats in their last four.
Nantes outshot PSG 14-9, dominating the quality of chances created with 2.0-0.6 xG in their favour. Whilst PSG dominated possession with 70%, they failed to complete more than five passes within 20 yards of Nantes’ goal. It’s easy to force a narrative of PSG missing some key players in forward positions to provide the clinical edge to create goalscoring opportunities. However, doing so neglects the nuances of Nantes’ tactical approach and PSG’s inability to overcome them.
1st Half Lineups
PSG are one of the most tactically versatile teams in Europe. They have several players able to function in many roles and often oscillate between roles in and out of possession. Thomas Tuchel has tinkered a lot this season but has set his PSG team up to defend in a 4-5-1 and attack in a 2-3-2-3 shape with the full-backs Dani Alves and Stanley N’soki moving inside, allowing Julian Draxler and Christopher N’kunku to occupy more advanced attacking midfield positions. Not too dissimilar to how Manchester City regularly operate. Nantes setup to defend in a mid-block in a 5-3-2 shape.
Significantly, the three PSG forward players were unable to pin back all five Nantes’ defenders. This allowed Nantes’ defenders to regularly vacate their zone to press in midfield without fear of being exposed. At times Nantes were very creative in how they chose to aggressively man-mark PSG’s players. Often, the left wing-back Charles Traoré would push up onto Alves, leaving the left-centre back Nicolas Pallois to mark Moussa Diaby and the left-central-midfielder Samuel Moutoussamy to mark N’kunku. Sometimes Pallois would be the one to jump out of the backline to press N’kunku and Nantes would rearrange from there.
Alves gave PSG the lead in the 19th minute with an outrageous curling effort that lobbed goalkeeper Maxime Dupé from outside the box. Although that did nothing but hide PSG’s issues with getting to the ball to the final third. In the 19th minute, Nantes equalized through Diego Carlos from a corner.
It wasn’t just that Nantes were able to defend PSG better by stepping out aggressively from their back five. The extra body to defend in midfield led to more turnovers and opportunities to counter-attack through strikers Abdul Waris and Kalifa Coulibaly who always stayed high and ran into the channels vacated by PSG’s full-backs in transition. This very scenario led to the greatest chance of the game and Nantes’ second. Coulibaly ran into the channel and isolated Thilo Kehrer, beat him and squared the ball into the middle of the box, creating the subsequent finish from Waris in the 44th minute.
Tuchel adjusted his setup at half-time, moving his team into a 3-4-2-1 shape with Alves tucking in alongside Leandro Paredes both with and without the ball. This allowed PSG to have the extra player at the back to cover the two strikers when they lost the ball. This setup reduced Nantes to just one shot, a third goal for Nantes and second from a corner, in the opening 25 minutes of the second half. The issue was that the make-up of the front five hadn’t changed. The two wingers, Layvin Kurzawa and Diaby, along with the striker Eric Choupo-Moting still weren’t capable of pinning the back five of Nantes. Hence the theme for Nantes’ defenders of being aggressive out of the backline was still present, preventing PSG from building into the final third to sustain attacks.
In fact, it wasn’t until the inclusion of Metehan Guclu, to partner Choupo-Moting, in the 73rd minute that the Nantes’ backline were pinned all game. With the extra striker now on the pitch, all five of Nantes’ defenders had to remain in place to avoid PSG being able to release one of the forward players into the vacated space. The result was a build up of PSG pressure with three out of six of their shots on target in the game coming in this time, including Guclu’s consolation from a low driven right-footed shot in the 89th minute.
PSG had a number of high-quality players not playing against Nantes. Many would call the team that started as much nearer to the second team than the first. Having said that, attaching the blame for PSG’s defeat solely to the absent players would be a discredit to Nantes’ aggressive pressing and tactical nous.