Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League round of 16 first leg match that ended PSG 2-1 Chelsea.
After witnessing the drama which unfolded from the last two ties that occurred between these two sides in the knockout rounds, this fixture was highly anticipated by many neutrals as well as both sets of fans. And it did not disappoint. Laurent Blanc’s men came into the game as slight favourites, on the back of their frankly ridiculous form in their domestic league (24 points ahead of second placed Monaco) and the firepower of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edinson Cavani. Judging also by Chelsea’s dire form in the league, PSG looked the most likely victors at the Parc des Princes. However, Chelsea had been experiencing a mini-revival following the re-introduction of Guus Hiddink in the hot seat.
In the end, the favourites came out on top after goals from Ibrahimovic and Cavani gave PSG the initative before the return leg in Stamford Bridge. Key to their victory today was the movement of the midfielders and in particular widemen, Lucas Moura and Di Maria, both of whom wreaked havoc for the Chelsea back 4 with their movement into the centre and half-spaces throughout the game. These caused serious issues for Chelsea’s defensive organisation, which they struggled to adjust to for a large part of the game. Despite their failure to effectively handle Laurent Blanc’s attacking ploy, Hiddink’s men remained competitive for most of the game, denying PSG the opportunity to create any clear cut chances. Chelsea’s reluctance to apply pressure to the PSG back 4 and to halt PSG’s progression through the half-spaces was in my opinion one of the keys to PSG’s victory.
PSG 2-1 CHELSEA
PSG (4-3-3): 16. Trapp // 5. Marquinhos, 2. Thiago Silva, 4. David Luiz, 17. Maxwell // 8. Thiago Motta, 14. Matuidi, 6. Verratti // 11. Di Maria, 10. Ibrahimovic, 7. Lucas
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): 13. Courtois // 28. Azpilicueta, 24. Cahill, 2. Ivanovic, 6. Baba Rahman // 12. Mikel, 4. Fabregas // 17. Pedro, 22. Willian, 10.Hazard // 19. Diego Costa
Substitutions: 74’ Cavani (Lucas), 81’ Rabiot (Verratti), 81’ Pastore (Matuidi) // 71’ Hazard (Oscar)
Goals: 39’ Ibrahimovic, 78’ Cavani // 45+1’ Mikel
PSG midfield three pivotal in build-up phase and ball circulation
Despite Chelsea not exerting a substantial amount of pressure during PSG’s build up phase, Laurent Blanc appeared very intent on ensuring a stable phase of possession possibly to ensure his side’s positional structure in attack was ideal for causing Chelsea problems and secondly, to avoid the threat Chelsea posed on the counter attack.
The Parisians could often be seen during the build-up with all three midfielders deep to allow for a cleaner passage of play in the 1st phase of possession. They were keen on creating overloads during this phase, which gave Chelsea very little chance of regaining the ball high up the pitch as a result of PSG’s numerical superiority.
Thiago Silva is in possession with a multitude of short passing options as Verratti and Thiago Motta have dropped deeper in order to increase his level of support on the ball. Matuidi also drops off, ensuring all 3 PSG midfielders are on the same horizontal line of play during this phase. Chelsea only appear to be pressing with Costa and Willian, however PSG’s structure in this image creates a 4v2 overload which makes them much more resistant to Chelsea’s pressure should they decide to increase their intensity.
The movement of the three midfielders also proved beneficial in creating space between the lines of Chelsea’s midfield and attack. Willian and Costa were likely instructed to maintain fairly close to the Chelsea midfield 4 so as to maintain vertical compactness. However, the deeper movement of Verratti, Matuidi and Motta caused them to push forward and apply pressure to disrupt PSG’s progression. In turn, their vertical compactness was reduced to an extent, creating space between the lines which PSG would very quickly exploit when possession was in midfield.
Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta would often alternate their positions when dropping between the centre backs to accentuate PSG’s overload. Motta would drop between Silva and David Luiz, which in turn would result in Verratti filling his 6 space to maintain the structure and balance in the side.
There was a concern with the tendency of PSG’s midfielders to drop deep that there would be a lack of connectivity in their positional structure as the space between their midfielders would be too great leading to a disjointed structure. This did not prove problematic as first predicted though, as the PSG central midfielders were quick to adjust their positions in the 2nd and 3rd phases of possession to create the ideal structure for PSG.
An example of this is in the image above, when Verratti is in possession for PSG after dropping between the centre-backs to receive possession. Judging by the previous position of the midfield three when they were all deep and occupying the same horizontal line of play, it seemed as though it would be difficult for play to progress effectively. However, Matuidi and Motta adjusted their positions urgently with Motta rotating with Di Maria to disrupt Chelsea’s situational man-marking and Matuidi quickly moving into the left half-space along with Lucas to give Verratti two diagonal passing options which penetrate Chelsea’s defensive block and cause the Chelsea players to adjust their positions horizontally and vertically.
The new positions of Matuidi and Motta also made for greater connections within the shape. It allowed them to form triangles within Chelsea’s block, which increased the ease with which they could play through them and create short passing combinations.
Lucas and Di Maria instrumental in disrupting Chelsea defensive structure
Prior to this clash, many believed the difference in this game would be made by one of the front men, Ibrahimovic, Cavani or Costa. Despite a goal from Ibra and Cavani which proved decisive, much of the credit should go to Lucas Moura and Angel Di Maria who were in my opinion, the two best players on the pitch. They both played their tactical roles to perfection, deviating from their wide positions into the centre and half-spaces to create overloads and short passing combinations.
On paper, seeing that neither winger was playing on their ‘natural’ wing raised a few eyebrows as they had played there for much of the season. It soon became apparent what Laurent Blanc was trying to implement and Chelsea struggled to contain the two for much of the night. In the end, both Moura and Di Maria were instrumental in both goals with Lucas winning the free kick that Ibrahimovic dispatched and Di Maria laying on a wonderful pass to Cavani who sealed the victory.
Lucas and Di Maria moving into the centre caused problems for Chelsea throughout this encounter, particularly for full-backs Baba Rahman and Cezar Azpilicueta. Lucas drops into the left-half-space to receive the ball from midfield, which is made possible by Fabregas’ positioning which creates a gap in Chelsea’s block.
Azpilicueta is now faced with an issue as if he chooses to let Lucas receive the ball free of pressure, he can turn and possibly drive at the defence which may lead to the creation of a goal-scoring opportunity or a free-kick, as seen with Ibrahimovic’s goal in the first half. Instead he chooses to follow him which creates another problem as there is now a huge gap in the channel between Cahill and the space the right-back should be in, space which can now be exploited by Ibrahimovic and Maxwell who both drive into the space.
More confusion was caused between the Chelsea defence as a result of Ibrahimovic’s movements, reminiscent of that of a False 9. It was rare to see him on the shoulder of the last defender, only during periods of the game when PSG were intent on playing more direct.
Aside from this, the 9 position was left vacant and Ibrahimovic was allowed to create overloads in midfield as the Chelsea centre backs, Cahill and Ivanovic were reluctant to track his movements as gaps would appear, which could be exploited by diagonal runs made by Di Maria; who would often balance Ibrahimovic’s deep movements by occupying a relatively high position to ensure that PSG maintained depth in their attack.
Meanwhile, Lucas in this phase, drops into the half-space once again, however in this instance Azpilicueta decides against tracking his movement, instead electing to remain in the back 4. This allows PSG to overload the half-space with Matuidi and Lucas and create space centrally for the roaming Ibrahimovic, this is caused by Fabregas who has been dragged into the half-space by Lucas’ movement which in turn allows Ibrahimovic to be relieved of pressure should he receive the ball centrally.
Lucas’ half-space movement also pulls Pedro toward him, who is determined to ensure that he does not have an excess amount of space when receiving possession. This proves advantageous for Maxwell, who is now in acres of space out wide and can run at the Chelsea full-back and/or play a ball into the final third.
Chelsea defence compact and resolute, passive in attack
It was clear to see from the beginning of this game that Hiddink’s main aim was avoid defeat as opposed to coming away with the victory, which may be seen by some as understandable considering PSG’s phenomenal attacking firepower.
However, for a club of Chelsea’s stature, one would expect a more attacking approach and a more proactive mentality. Although it must be taken into account the extent of Chelsea’s defensive injury crisis; with Terry, Zouma and Matic all sidelined, their task was made all the more difficult.
Hiddink’s men set up in a 4-4-1-1 medium block, with the pressure being led by Costa and Willian, neither of whom did an effective job of putting the PSG back line under pressure. What was notable about Chelsea’s defensive structure was the deep positioning of the wingers, which resulted in Chelsea’s shape almost resembling a back 5/6.
Despite their shape being compact vertically and horizontally, Chelsea still encountered some issues structurally due to the deep positioning of wingers Pedro and Hazard. This proved problematic as they suffered from a lack of access to the PSG wingers in possession as a result of being so deep; it became difficult for them to exert much pressure on the ball. It also left the half-spaces open for Lucas and Di Maria to exploit, as seen in the image above.
Had Pedro been in line with Fabregas, Lucas would not be in as much space to receive the ball as he would have come under pressure from him and Fabregas. Moreover, Chelsea are now suffering from numerical inequality in midfield as it is now effectively only Mikel and Fabregas who are central, with Mikel not having access to Ibrahimovic who has dropped deep from his 9 position to accentuate PSG’s numerical superiority in midfield.
Chelsea’s defensive shape often looked like this with one of the 6s, either Mikel or Fabregas occupying a slightly deeper position than the rest of the midfield to limit the space between the midfield and defensive lines. Mikel, more so than Fabregas, would man-mark occasionally depending on whether a PSG attacker invaded the 6 space. They would be tracked to an extent but after a while they would be ‘tagged off’ to be occupied by another Chelsea player.
The two 6s were fairly static throughout the game, rarely electing to make much vertical movement due to a fear of the back 4 being exposed by Lucas and Di Maria in defensive transition. Chelsea’s connectivity and attacking structure suffered as a result as the wingers would move into advanced positions but would receive little support from the passive 6s, Mikel and Fabregas.
The inability to construct a stable attack is apparent from this image. One prominent issue, in particular, is the positioning of Mikel and Fabregas. There is almost no diagonality in their positioning as both of them choose to occupy the same horizontal line as left-back Baba Rahman. Had Mikel chosen to drop slightly deep into the half-space, he could have possibly drawn Verratti out of PSG’s 4-1-4-1 defensive shape, creating space between the lines for Costa or Fabregas, had he chosen to occupy a more advanced position in between PSG’s defensive block.
Hazard’s positioning is also rather detrimental he is nowhere near close enough to Rahman to be an effective passing option in this phase. Instead, he chooses to sit on the shoulder of Marquinhos for some reason, leaving Baba almost isolated with only one realistic passing option in Mikel.
Where does this leave them?
Should they perform as they did in the first leg, Les Parisiens have every chance of knocking Chelsea out to reach the last eight for the second consecutive season. Laurent Blanc’s men can be proud of such a magnificent performance, a performance which sent out a signal of intent. PSG were dominant for much of the game and controlled the tempo and rhythm of the match, much like teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich do on a regular basis, against a former European champion in Chelsea no less. Performances like these will have everyone within the club believing that they can be a force to be reckoned with and gate crash Europe’s elite after knocking on the door for a number of years now.
Taking into account the absence of three key players, Chelsea can take a few positives from the game after a spirited performance against the French champions at the Parc des Princes. What was worrying though was the tactical mentality of Hiddink and his Chelsea side; for a club claiming to be one of the elites of European football, it is widely expected that they take the initative and look to be on the front foot regardless of the opponent. Performances such as these have become characteristic of English sides when matching up against Barca, Bayern, Real Madrid and now, PSG in recent years. Perhaps, they have come to the realisation that they are simply not as good as these elite clubs and are still some way behind catching up to them.
Written by Miles Olusina.
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