Paris Saint-Germain – Chelsea 1:1
“A game which wasn’t easy on the eye.”
This is how most people would describe the first leg between PSG and Chelsea. This is due to the tactical approach of both teams and how they interacted with each other. Chelsea go back to Stamford Bridge with a favorable result and PSG won’t be too disappointed either. Overall, the game had some small tactical tweaks that made it interesting.
PSG’s Pressing and Man-Marking
On defense, PSG played in a narrow and passive 4-1-4-1. Their strategy was to control the center and force Chelsea into wide areas. From there they can counter-attack down the wings with Lavezzi and Cavani once they win possession. Though their attitude in regards to pressuring Chelsea was not very aggressive so they did not win the ball on the flanks as much as they could’ve once they isolated Chelsea within the narrow areas.
In the center of the field PSG man-marked Chelsea’s 3 central midfielders with their own. Verratti was especially adventurous and would join Ibrahimovic in the front line of pressing quite often – especially when pressing a Chelsea central midfielder who dropped deeper. Matuidi in the opposite #8 position was not as adventurous.
There were many scenes where Fabregas or Willian would drop towards the left side of Ibrahimovic and infront of Matuidi, and from that area was where Chelsea had most of their stability in higher areas of the field. This is because Matuidi would not pressure as high as Verratti did on the opposite flank. Nevertheless, Cesc and Willian mostly played long diagonals towards the wings which were mostly ineffective due to Chelsea’s cautious positional structure and being outnumbered in the center against PSG’s narrow 4-1-4-1.
On Verratti’s side Mourinho’s central midfielders were forced to pass short and towards the sides. This is because Verratti would pressure quite aggressively and wouldn’t allow players to turn and face the play within his pressing area. Though even within this area PSG were somewhat instable. Lavezzi would frequently drop very deep and wide – almost next to the right fullback. This lack of presence up the field and lack of congestion in the immediate area of where Verratti was pressing allowed Chelsea to find their players in the left half space quite often.
Chelsea’s Lack of Penetration
Overall, Chelsea were forced wide and towards the flanks more often than normal because of their own positioning. On top of PSG focusing on controlling the center and forcing play wide, Cesc, Matic, and Ramires would all drop deeper than PSG’s first line of pressure. This meant that there weren’t any real vertical passing options in midfield. The only option was to skip the midfield line and to play directly to the forwards or wide fullbacks. If Mourinho trusted his central defenders to create against the passive PSG pressure while the central midfielders took up positions within the PSG midfield, Chelsea could’ve been much more successful in manipulating and penetrating the PSG defense. Of course, this was an away leg in the Champions League and his central defenders are Cahill and Terry – so we can all understand.
Defensively Mourinho’s men played in a narrow but passive 4-4-1-1 shape. Sound quite similar to the attitude PSG defended with, right? Both teams were quite passive in defense and unadventurous in offense (except in a few scenes within the game). At times Cesc would move from his #10 position and join Costa in the front pressing line, forming a 4-4-2. In other scenes Ramires would follow his man (Matuidi) if he dropped deep while Matic covered – and sometimes Matic would press and Ramires would cover. This turned into what looked like a 4-1-4-1/4-1-2(wide)-3 without any real aggressive pressure on the ball. These movements would leave either Matic or Ramires (whoever was covering) quite isolated in the center of the field. This is yet another problem with man-marking – the fact that it makes defenses move in an un-coordinated fashion where they lack good chain movements which makes the defense instable.
Chelsea’s wingers were mostly man-oriented on the opposing fullbacks. This would force the Chelsea wingers quite deep and next to their own FBs quite frequently – forming a 6-3-1/6-2-2 shape. The halfspaces and deeper wing areas are open when these graduations happen within Mourinho’s defense, so this somewhat helped PSG as their strategy in offense was to attack the wings with combinations and then cross towards the far post towards Ibrahimovic.
The PSG Offense
In offense PSG’s fullbacks pushed up very high while Luiz and Verratti controlled the build-up play for the most part. PSG very rarely used their central defenders to create during the game. Which is a HUGE SHAME because they have arguably the best central defender in history on the team in Thiago Silva. This is another aspect that highlights the fact that Blanc doesn’t use his players in the most efficient manner.
PSG had freedom within the defensive halfspaces next to Costa and Cesc, as well as having freedom higher up the field once Chelsea’s wingers dropped incredibly deep. Some of PSG’s most dangerous moments came when they exposed Chelsea’s un-coordinated man marking and were able to play a vertical ball into their forwards (who were closer towards the flanks) to combine through the Chelsea defense. In one particular scene, Cavani received the ball and was able to turn and create an attack with his teammates that ended in an over-hit through ball to what could’ve been a very dangerous situation for Chelsea. Cavani, Ibrahimovic, and Pastore were very very good in combinational play when they were involved – unfortunately for PSG it was Lavezzi who was involved in most of the combinations.
Especially after the Chelsea goal, PSG focused on combinational play down the left flank and then crossing towards the far post which was occupied by both Cavani and Ibrahimovic. Obviously, Lavezzi wouldn’t be a threat against long diagonals towards the far post so he was involved with the combinations down the left flank – where he lost the ball quite frequently. Though the team improved a lot once Pastore took over his role later in the game.
David Luiz was quite crazy in this match. His decision making wasn’t the best and his control of the ball wasn’t the best either. Despite these qualities – he dominated the ball when his team were in possession. He would ask for the ball extremely close to other teammates (like Thiago Silva) instead of spacing correctly so the possession could be utilized more effectively. So he had very adverse effects on his team’s rhythm – similar to the criticisms of Xabi Alonso with Bayern Munich. Though he had some good passes and moments of good positioning like his diagonal pass out to the left flank before the goal to tie the match. Thiago Silva was allowed to join the combinational play down the left side and create play only a few times, but when he did it was excellent from him.
Lucky for PSG, Verratti was quite dominant while in they were in possession as well. He is excellent under pressure and in combination play and he even drifted to the left flank to help the combinations a few times. There were a couple of nice scenes where Maxwell would be wide and high, Lavezzi would be high and more towards the inside, and Matuidi was high and in a central area while Verratti initiated the combination play.
After Chelsea’s (amazing) goal Cavani looked like a second striker more than a right winger. PSG had a change in defensive shape because of this. Now Matuidi (who played more towards the right later in the game) would move out wide to press the ball while Cavani dropped only slightly behind Ibrahimovic. This created a more 4-4-1-1 type shape – allowing Chelsea to have a bit more freedom in the central areas when building play. Though Chelsea still had similar structural problems as they had earlier in the game.
Chelsea’s more 6-3-1 type shape paradoxically gave them a more isolated defense on the flank in some situations. Because there were so little midfielders in the center of the field for them, PSG could switch the ball and have ‘steeper’ angles for their diagonal passes out wide. Meaning they cover more ground vertically and create dangerous situations quicker and with less pressure due to the horizontal aspect of a diagonal pass. So for Cavani’s goal the ball came from the right side into David Luiz who played a hard diagonal ball directly into the wing in a very high area. From here Matuidi overlapped Maxwell against the Chelsea winger (isolated because a lack of staggering vertically from the Chlesea shape meant the only support for the winger was horizontally – coming from the center of the field) and was able to receive the ball and cross to Cavani before the support from the center of the field came to press him. If Chelsea were more of a 4-5-1 then the steep diagonal pass wouldn’t have been allowed – and if it did then the winger can simply press the opposing fullback while his own fullback is directly behind him not allowing vertical penetration.
Overall is seems as if Chelsea will win this tie over the two legs. They are better tactically and Mourinho uses his players better than Blanc does. Though it is possible that Blanc has seen the value of using certain players in different ways than he had for most of the first leg. When Ibrahimovic joined the combination play he nearly scored immediately. Pastore had caused many more dangerous situations through combinations than Lavezzi had. Thiago Silva played very well when he was involved in the game. Verratti in possession was much more valuable than David Luiz was. If Blanc could see these things and change the strategy and tactics in a way to get the best out of these players while still playing well defensively then it would really be an interesting game!