Every edition of the Champions League throws up a couple of high profile encounters in the group stage. This year saw the continent’s most decorated club take on the might of the nouveau riche PSG. After the draw in Paris, the sides locked horns once again, this time in the Bernabeu.
Europe’s only two undefeated sides took to the pitch on Tuesday evening at the Bernabeu with more than just first place in Group A on the line. For the hosts, it was a chance to prove their continued superiority, even in the face of a hefty injury list, when faced with Europe’s newest upstarts. After a more than creditable draw at the Parc des Princes a fortnight ago, Real would have to show more industry going forward, as a feisty home crowd would hardly be happy with a scoreless draw.
For Paris Saint-Germain, this was yet another chance to show the giants of European football that they deserve to be included; a gaudy record in Ligue 1 only commands a certain level of respect. A result with the eyes of the continent upon them would lay down a serious marker and perhaps even go a long way towards securing top spot in the group. While of course the knockout stage is a grab bag in terms of potential matchups, the confidence the team could potentially gain from a victory or merely an impressive performance in a score draw could be a real catalyst towards breaking down the mental barriers that have prevented the French champions from pushing past the quarterfinals to date.
Real Madrid 1-0 PSG
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Keylor Navas; Danilo, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo (Nacho 32′); Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Isco (Mateo Kovacic 81′), Cristiano Ronaldo, Jese (Lucas Vazquez 62′)
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): Kevin Trapp; Serge Aurier, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Maxwell; Marco Verratti (Adrien Rabiot 16′), Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi (Lucas Moura 74′); Angel Di Maria, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani
With a potentially huge psychological prize on the line, both managers put their best foot forward. PSG continued to play their habitual 4-3-3, with David Luiz passing a late fitness test to partner Thiago Silva in central defense after having missed the two teams’ previous encounter. After having gone with a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 in the reverse fixture, Real countered with their own 4-3-3 on Tuesday, albeit not with the personnel that one has come to expect over the past two seasons. Luka Modric, now fully fit, replaced Lucas Vazquez in the starting eleven, leaving Casemiro to anchor the midfield while he and Toni Kroos pushed ahead from the flanks. The front three still had Cristiano Ronaldo, but Jese and Isco took up the wide roles, leaving the Portuguese International to act as a de facto striker.
Despite little in the way of surprises personnel-wise, the match was filled with many small moments of intrigue deserving of closer analysis. While the result, a 1-0 win for Real Madrid, will have certainly bruised the sizable egos of the Paris Saint-Germain players, there is much that both they as individuals and Laurent Blanc as a tactician did right on the night, and they can return to France with their heads held high. For as well-organized and compact as Real Madrid were in the first match, PSG were every bit as inventive and cunningly anticipant in this encounter, delivering a performance that can be a source of inspiration come the knockout stages.
The most immediately noticeable difference from the previous match was the aggressiveness of Paris Saint-Germain’s back four. With Marquinhos out and David Luiz only just passing fit to partner the 31 year-old Silva, this was a bit of a surprise, as one would ordinarily expect a team to sit back just a bit more against one of the world’s finest counter-attacking sides. However, with Angel Di Maria at his leather-lunged best down the right flank, covering the pitch front to back as he had during his best days for Real Madrid and Edinson Cavani gamely doing his best across the way, the hosts had little in the way of opportunities.
This image, from early in the match, (note Marco Verratti is still on the pitch) serves as a wonderful example. Real are doing their best to get forward in attack, their full-backs joining the front three. Danilo (white arrow) is never as inclined to get forward as his compatriot, Marcelo, but he is here in an advanced enough position to keep Cavani back as cover. On the other flank, the fluidity of Real’s front three is on full display, as Ronaldo has dropped a bit deeper to play a one-two with Marcelo, attempting to put the left-back in on goal with a ball along the ground, catching out Serge Aurier in the process. Given the Ivorian’s proclivity for getting forward, this approach is a more than logical one, for as much of a threat as Aurier is getting forward, Real are simply too dangerous a side against which to be defensively derelict.
Aurier is aware of Ronaldo’s thought process and is here anticipating the pass, running to the spot where he thinks the pass will be delivered. Thiago Silva (#2) has drifted towards the ball to act as cover, and Marco Verratti (#6) has dropped back to cut off a potential pass to Isco (#22). Maxwell, meanwhile, has moved inside as well, tracking the potential run of Isco should Ronaldo be able to reach him, leaving David Luiz to move outside to track Jese.
This all seems relatively straight-forward in terms of defending, but the real key to this is Angel Di Maria. While he is giving up something by dropping so deep, his pace, should PSG recover the ball here, will be matched against that of Toni Kroos, a battle the Argentine is always likely to win. But more than giving PSG the chance to break via an interception, his athleticism and guile are forcing Real to move very quickly, playing the ball inside towards a packed midfield, rather than spreading play through the wings.
Even in this instance, we can see from the position of the ball and the players that Ronaldo’s pass, delivered under pressure, looks very unlikely to put Marcelo in any sort of advantageous position, should it even reach him. By funneling Real’s attack towards the central areas of the park, the defensive work of Di Maria, and Cavani to a lesser extent, allows the midfield, particularly Thiago Motta (to Ronaldo’s left) to do less work in terms of running, allowing their legs to remain fresh throughout.
It was not only the offensive players that were putting in the extra effort for Paris on the night, though. The back four played a marvelously aggressive match, consistently pressing high up into the hosts’ half. In the above image, Thiago Silva beats Ronaldo to the ball, creating the opportunity for PSG to counter. Due to the lack of pace of the players ahead of him, Real were able to foil the attack, but this nevertheless shows the danger posed by a surprisingly aggressive defense on the part of the French champions.
However, all of this good work looked as if it were about to come unstuck when Marco Verratti was forced off due to injury after just 16 minutes. The diminutive Italian plays the game with a fiery style that gives him a penchant for landing in the referee’s notebook, but he is also incredibly adept at linking up with Thiago Motta when necessary, the chemistry between the two when playing short passes a thing of beauty. Further forward, Verratti can often be found playing the ball over the top, allowing the likes of Di Maria or the similarly pacy Lucas Moura to run onto it, adding and additional dimension to PSG’s attack. An integral part of PSG’s strategy both offensively and defensively, Verratti’s departure was a real source of worry.
It was a cause for alarm not only for what the team would lose with the Italian sidelined, but for what sort of options Laurent Blanc had at his disposal in terms of replacements. While Javier Pastore showed last season that he had finally gained the maturity to play as part of the midfield three, a bad case of conjunctivitis meant that the Argentine wasn’t an option. Benjamin Stambouli has done fairly well during his short time at the club, but is simply too limited going forward.
With little other choice, Blanc turned to Adrien Rabiot. Still just 20 despite playing in his fourth season with the first team, the French youth international has sometimes gained more notoriety for his tantrums regarding his playing time than he has for his assuredness on the pitch. Still, with the team desperately in need of a win, Blanc called upon the youngster, and the results were pleasantly surprising.
A much more direct player than Verratti, Rabiot’s style of play is similar to his fellow midfielder, Blaise Matuidi. Fond of having a shot and running at opponents, Rabiot brings a certain joie de vivre to his play that Verratti sometimes lacks. That said, Rabiot can also be a somewhat impetuous tackler and abandon his defensive duties, but he showed no signs of doing so on the night. Getting forward when necessary, but also allowing Serge Aurier to do the same, Rabiot turned in what was unquestionably his most mature performance in a PSG shirt, even striking the post just after Real’s goal, his enthusiasm undimmed by going behind. While Verratti is in no danger of losing his place in the eleven, Rabiot showed that his maturity is reaching new levels, as turning in a performance of this quality is no small feat, to say nothing of doing as much at one of football’s most intimidating grounds.
Verratti was soon joined on the sidelines by Marcelo, robbing Real of one of their most potent attackers with the ball at his feet. Fleet of foot and a tricky dribbler, Marcelo’s talent had been largely responsible for subduing Aurier in the previous match, keeping the young Ivorian pinned back. With the Brazilian going off on 32 minutes, Nacho was brought on in his stead.
26 in January but still yet to feature regularly for the first team, Nacho is a Real academy product and has operated at both left back and central defense in the past. Despite having been capped for the senior team for Spain, he has been kept out by the likes of Marcelo, Ramos, Pepe and Raphael Varane. Not exactly the pace merchant of the style of the man he replaced, Nacho is, much like Danilo on the opposite flank, a defender first and an attacker second. His goal, then, came at a moment when he was probably the most unlikely scorer on the pitch, latching onto a deflected shot from Toni Kroos and steering it into the goal across Kevin Trapp. While the hosts were certainly glad of the goal, Nacho’s contributions after scoring were much more important.
What his introduction gave Real, now gifted with an unexpected lead after PSG had had the better of the chances through the match’s first half-hour, the chance to be more obdurate defensively. With neither Nacho nor Danilo a threat to get forward, the back four operated as a more united group. This, in turn, allowed Real as a whole to better shackle Di Maria, who in addition to his defensive contributions, had generally been PSG’s main attacking outlet. With Nacho much less likely to spring forward in attack, as the above heat maps show, Di Maria was thus forced to seek space in other positions on the pitch.
Ibrahimovic, Matuidi and Cavani: Three’s a Crowd
As impressive as Di Maria had been in attack, the space afforded him in the early going was down not only to Marcelo’s attacking philosophy, but also to the way that PSG operated in attack. The three heat maps of Cavani, Ibrahimovic and Matuidi show a disturbing overlap. Despite all being effective on their day, none of the three was able to make a significant impact on the match. Ibrahimovic did come close with a few shots, while Cavani fluffed his lines when presented with chances, but what really stands out is how similar of a position three took.
When Nacho entered the match, effectively shackling the Argentine, he attempted to cope by taking increasingly central positions, even popping up on the left at times. While this tactic can be remarkably effective among the front three in a 4-3-3, as Real themselves have repeatedly demonstrated, if two-thirds of your attack trident is Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, there is simply no dynamism to be had. As willing a worker as Cavani can be in tracking back, he lacks the pace and versatility to readily switch flanks; when Di Maria attempted to confuse Real Madrid’s defense by executing his own switches, he was merely exacerbating an already crowded left side of the pitch.
To wit, while an error from Kevin Trapp may have decided the match in some ways, PSG’s tactical incoherence was really the culprit. By failing to effectively create space for Di Maria, their most dangerous player, after the introduction of Nacho, their momentum was largely lost, despite squandering several fine chances. For all of the good work that the back four had done in aiding the attack and pressing Real’s midfield high up the pitch, the lack of understanding in terms of space by PSG’s forward players was their undoing. While progression to the group stage is all but assured at this point for the French champions, this match could be a hammer blow to their confidence; for the third successive season, PSG looked to have finally turned a corner against marquee opposition, only to have the subsequent match end in disappointment. If the club can’t right the ship tactically, history looks likely to repeat itself.
Written by Eric Devin