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Eric Devin writes a detailed tactical analysis about Manchester City’s fine 1-0 victory against PSG in the Champions League quarter finals.
On a night when history would be made for one of Europe’s two nouveau riches, despite a floundering performance in the first leg, there were still plenty of pundits who favored Paris Saint-Germain to progress. After all, the sublime attacking talents of Angel Di Maria,Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t be shackled for a second consecutive match, could they? Not by a Manchester City whose millions spent on center backs and defensive midfielders had seen them concede two horrific goals in the first leg, a win for the hosts denied only by a fine performance from Joe Hart. Defend Manchester City did, though, turning in a fine effort with an unchanged eleven, Manuel Pellegrini bravely leaving Yaya Toure on the bench. Credit the Chilean, then, for sticking to his guns, but what of his counterpart, Laurent Blanc, who did essentially the opposite in one of the most confounding tactical decisions in a match of this magnitude in quite some time?
Manchester City: 1. Hart; 3. Sagna, 30. Otamendi, 20. Mangala, 22. Clichy; 6. Fernando, 25. Fernandinho; 15. Navas, 17. De Bruyne (Toure 84′), 21. Silva (Delph 87′); 10. Aguero (Iheanacho 90′) (4-2-3-1)
Paris Saint-Germain: 16. Trapp; 19. Aurier (Pastore 61′), 2. Silva, 5. Marquinhos; 23. van der Wiel, 25. Rabiot, 8. Motta (Moura 44′), 11. Di Maria, 17. Maxwell; 9. Cavani, 10. Ibrahimovic (3-5-2)
Granted, the enforced absences of David Luiz and Blaise Matuidi, coupled with the lack of fitness on the part of Marco Verratti, had presented the Frenchman with some difficult choices, but in selecting an entirely different formation at the Etihad, had Blanc gone too far? The result would indicate the affirmative, but what exactly was Blanc trying to achieve? Was there a method to his apparent madness? Before looking at personnel choices, and the use of a 3-5-2, let’s reflect back on the first leg, and how Paris Saint-Germain were undone tactically. The hosts struggled in three phases of the game last Wednesday: coping with the fluidity of position of City’s attackers, establishing an attacking rhythm going forward from midfield, and a lack of dynamism as regards the forwards. How, then, were Blanc’s choices meant to cope with City in these regards, and how effective were they?
At the heart of much of what Manchester City created in the first leg was the movement of the attacking quartet, in particular Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian was constantly exchanging places with Sergio Aguero vertically, one or the other (or both) tracking back to harry PSG’s midfield or peeling off at the edge of the area to shoot from distance. De Bruyne and David Silva also frequently swapped places, dragging PSG’s defenders about with them, sowing confusion that was underlined by the bizarre positioning of Serge Aurier on Fernandinho’s equalizer. With a 3-5-2, PSG would have not only an extra defender at the back, but Angel Di Maria and Adrien Rabiot would play deeper and more vertically, using their energy to aid Thiago Motta.
As we can see, the two midfielders’ heat maps are essentially mirror images of each other, Di Maria’s free kick duties showing him taking up positions further forward. Both sit deep and narrow, to aid Motta in keeping City’s attackers in check. Combined with an extra defender at the back, the free-roving midfield of City could be kept track of more readily, with Di Maria and Rabiot also presenting themselves as options for the type of short passing possession game favored by PSG. In this phase of the altered formation, then, Blanc could at least be given some credit, even if it came at the expense of Di Maria’s ability to be as involved as the club would’ve liked going forward, needing a goal as they were. City rarely fashioned a strong chance aside from Aguero’s penalty, and aside from Kevin De Bruyne’s superb strike, the hosts’ attackers were generally anonymous going forward.
So, Thiago Motta was afforded more protection, fair enough, but considering he didn’t manage to last the first half, an examination of Blanc’s other maneuvers is warranted as well. As I outlined in my analysis of the first leg, the dynamism and presence going forward of PSG’s midfield in a 4-3-3 is best achieved when there exists some variations as regards the team’s method of attack. At their best, the directness of Matuidi is neatly contrasted with the elegant long balls of Marco Verratti, presenting opponents with a a difficult proposition.In the first leg, however, Blaise Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot acted in a counter-productive fashion, each attempting to gut City’s midfield via their energy and pace, only to be stymied by the pressing of David Silva and Jesus Navas. The two Spaniards did fantastically well in limiting the pair’s passing options, dropping deep to allow, Fernando and Fernandinho to tackle with aplomb.
In the return leg, it was much of the same, but with Angel Di Maria included in place of Matuidi, there would be surely a higher level of wariness on the part of City’s midfield, given the Argentine’s pace and ability to play the ball off the ground. However, that was far from the case. While Di Maria has prospered in three-man midfields in the past, most notably at Real Madrid, Blanc having set out his stall with a 5-3-2 meant that Di Maria, instead of operating in a free role and tormenting opposing full backs with his pace and ability to play crosses or long balls, had to stay narrow, allowing Maxwell to get up and down the pitch. Restricted by this and his defensive duties, the Argentine had a shocker, failing to provide any substantial service to the two strikers and doing little going forward besides drawing a handful of free kicks.
Even given Maxwell’s propensity for getting forward, it is difficult to imagine Di Maria having such a poor match, given how his inventiveness has generally been the step up in class that has made the league such a breeze, were he to be played in a 4-3-3 as opposed to a 5-3-2. Whether played as a nominal right winger or in midfield, with Lucas a part of the forward trio, Di Maria usually ends up taking a free role, and without a large amount of defensive responsibility, he is able to have a more significant impact on PSG’sattack. It is certainly understandable why Blanc would want the former Real Madrid man in midfield in a 4-3-3, as his ability on the ball and passing range, but as part of a five man midfield, space was at a premium and so, too, was Di Maria’s effectiveness.
The third primary question surrounding Blanc’s formation, then, was in the pairing of Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a strike partnership. Both are, on their day, fine strikers, at least when deployed centrally, even if Cavani has gamely done a job on the left of a 4-3-3 for much of his tenure with the team. Being paired together doesn’t, on the surface, seem a poor choice, especially as PSG needed at least one goal to progress. However, with no natural width (again, look at the heat maps of the “wingbacks”) and Di Maria struggling to find space in which to create, the two cut isolated figures. Ibrahimovic did do well on a pair of free kicks, forcing fine saves from Hart, but the only notable chance for Cavani, on a ball over the top, saw a poor touch direct the ball into the ‘keeper’s path. However, until the introductions of Lucas, and then Pastore, service to the two was limited, and despite a decent amount of effort from the pair to find space in which to operate, they were, as a rule, far from effective.
So, in one fell swoop, Blanc managed not only to isolate his strikers, but also to bury his most creative midfielder, to say nothing of asking Marquinhos and Serge Aurier to function as part of a back three. It is this last point which also bears some examination. Aurier has clearly demonstrated over the course of the season that he is an absolute terror with the ball at his feet, but in terms of his defensive contributions, his positioning (see Fernandinho’s equalizer in the first leg) can be found wanting, over-relying on his pace to bail himself out of dangerous positions. Marquinhos is much more assured in terms of his defensive abilities, but doesn’t offer the same directness going forward, and neither is much of a threat as regards their ability to play balls over the top. In the above images, one can clearly see, though, how much space the pair are afforded on the ball.
In an attempt to generate more going forward, Blanc had momentarily switched the two makeshift defenders, in the hopes that Aurier’s pace could be more damaging when given space. However, the image with Marquinhos on the ball is more instructive in this regard. Both were afforded acres of space, with Navas dropping deep to become an auxiliary left back and the back four being compact, facilitating not only maintaining a line but also giving them the ability to double Cavani or Ibrahimovic should a ball be played over the top to one or the other.
Normally, should one need reminding, long balls are in important part of PSG’s game plan. Not only are both Thiago Silva and David Luiz fairly skilled in this regard, but so too are the likes of Marco Verratti and Javier Pastore. However, with only the former Milan man on the pitch, and his effectiveness limited due to being forced to balance the forays of Marquinhos and Aurier, this option was one that could be allowed by City, given the quality of service would likely be lacking. By sitting deep to counter not only a likely ineffective long ball but to likewise guard against the pace of Aurier, City effectively nullified the most important component of what PSG’s center backs generally contribute to the attack.
Thus, Blanc got his tactics largely wrong from the start, as he failed do anything more than effectively nullify City’s attack by playing three at the back. A fine achievement, to be sure, but not one that should have been the team’s primary focus needing a goal as they were. Blanc made two substitutions that were on the pitch for large stretches of the match, with Lucas Moura replacing the injured Thiago Motta just before the interval and Javier Pastore coming on for Aurier with half an hour to play. I would argue that both should have started from the off, but Lucas had played at the weekend and Pastore was coming off a month out with a groin strain, so Blanc’s caution was perhaps somewhat warranted, given that the two could potentially be more effective by facilitating a late winner were the tie still in the balance.
To conclude, then, how did the shifts that Blanc made upon the pair’s introductions alter the team’s approach? Lucas’ introduction for Motta saw the team move to a 4-3-3, with Aurier and Silva the center backs, Marquinhos the defensive midfielder and Lucas deployed on the right, Di Maria and Rabiot maintaing their places in central midfield and Maxwell and van der Wiel operating as natural fullbacks. Here, we can see the shape fairly clearly as the team chase a goal kick, Marquinhos sitting very deep and the two fullbacks pushing on. However, despite the system being more natural vis-a-vis PSG’s normal state of operations, we can see here that Rabiot and Di Maria are still very narrow, continuing to limit their effectiveness, and neither van der Wiel or Maxwell are taking up very advanced positions, despite the team needing a goal. Thus, despite playing a nominally familiar system, the personnel and their tasks meant that it was no more fluid or capable than the 3-5-2.
Pastore has struggled with injury for most of the current season, but he demonstrated emphatically in last season’s run-in how dangerous of a player he could be, and with half an hour to play, Blanc called on the lanky Argentine, withdrawing Aurier. Marquinhos dropped to center back, and Rabiot was situated as the deepest midfielder. Pastore was played in Rabiot’s place on the right, but ended up occupying a freer role, with Lucas doing the same. The knock-on effect of creating a few more chances, however, meant that the midfield, a place of little success for the hosts in the first half, became much more open, as evidenced by these two images. In the first, Fernandinho charges forward in acres of space as Rabiot, Pastore and Di Maria (left to right along the top of the circle) fail to close him down. While he hasn’t displayed much of being a goal threat during his time at the Etihad, he is capable of the spectacular, and given how a goal from City would have (and did) really put the pressure on PSG, the marking on him should’ve been closer.
In the build-up to De Bruyne’s winner, we see a similar issue at play. Pastore (in red box) is well behind the play, with Cavani gamely trying to cover De Bruyne. With the back four and Rabiot packed together centrally, not only has the midfielder’s indifference allowed the Belgian space, it has also opened up the flanks for runs by the fullbacks. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy weren’t hugely involved going forward in either leg of this tie, but a clever overlap by Sagna was instrumental in City’s equalizer, and he has here (white arrow) put himself in position for a ball out to the flank, Di Maria apparently none the wiser. Thus, with PSG defending deeper and deeper and the midfield substitutes pushing higher, more space was constantly being created, meaning that, despite De Bruyne’s stellar finish, there was something of the inevitable as City sought to probe the ever-widening gaps in the Parisian midfield.
With the summer transfer season likely to have a big impact on PSG’s squad, it remains to be seen how this tie will look in the future, but in both legs, Blanc could’ve done considerably better in how he set up his team. Yes, injuries and suspensions played their role, but to veer wildly between a steadfast adherence to a tried and true formation (the first leg) and a bizarrely experimental tryst with another shows a manager whose confidence is potentially lacking given a series of failures in the competition. Despite his impending dismissal, Manuel Pellegrini set out his stall in a markedly different fashion, keeping his tactics simple and overcoming an injury to one of his most influential players. Over two legs, experience and simplicity trumped experimentalism decisively. Simple pressing and hard work from City’s midfield effectively blunted a nominally more talented PSG, decisively underlining the importance of tactical continuity against an unfamiliar opponent. Looking ahead to the semifinals, none of City’s potential opponents will be eager to match up against such a resolute opponent, while PSG have done nothing to dispel their reputation as underachievers.
Written by Eric Devin.