Eric Devin provides a detailed tactical analysis of the Coupe de France final which finished Marseille 2-4 PSG.
MARSEILLE 2-4 PSG
Olympique de Marseille (4-4-2): Mandanda; Manquillo, N’Koulou, Rekik, Mendy; Thauvin (Nkoudou 81′), Isla, Diarra, Barrada (Dja Djedje 70′); Fletcher (Cabella 60), Batshuayi
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): Sirigu; Aurier, Marquinhos, Silva, Maxwell; Rabiot, Stambouli (Luiz 75′), Matuidi; Di Maria, Ibrahimovic (Kurzawa 90′), Cavani (Moura 76′)
While credit must go to Franck Passi for trying to make a fist of a cup final, especially with it being his final match in charge of Marseille, there is also something to be said for logic. The interim manager (it now appears he will remain in charge pending a change in ownership) tried a number of different formations in an attempt to thwart the all-conquering Paris Saint-Germain. His various tactics certainly displayed an innovative touch, but could things have gone a bit better as regards personnel, or with a more holistic approach?
Passi’s opening gambit did make sense, at least going forward. In utilizing what essentially functioned as 2-2-4-2, Marseille definitively put PSG on the back foot. Batshuayi and Fletcher played close to each other up top, their physicality forcing the back four to play very narrow, as indicated by the yellow line. Not only did this prevent the likes of Serge Aurier and Maxwell getting forward, as they were tasked with aiding in defense more than they would in normal circumstances, but it also allowed OM to establish width more naturally.
In this phase of play, the pace of Benjamin Mendy was a fine weapon, as the young left back (white arrow in image on the left) was afforded acres of space, allowing him the chance to get off crosses with regularity, his effectiveness magnified by stretching the defense to extremes, hugging the touchline as in the image at right. His accuracy was another story indeed, as was the space available to his potential targets, Batshuayi and Fletcher in the box, but the tactic did seem to set PSG back, if only momentarily. Note the position, in this instance, of Angel Di Maria (red circle), easily the most important conduit for PSG’s attack, his being forced deep placing a chokehold on his effectiveness going forward. On the opposite flank, Javier Manquillo wasn’t as enterprising in attack, but he still did enough to keep Edinson Cavani (red oval) occupied by and large.
In central midfield, Marseille also managed to put the Champions to the test, the normally enterprising Lassana Diarra and Mauricio Isla functioning as a safety valve instead of getting forward. Playing close together to limit the involvement of Rabiot and Matuidi, the two resolved to sit and protect the two center backs, dropping deep and allowing Rekik and N’Koulou to move wide to track PSG’s attackers. In front of the two, Abdelaziz Barrada and Florian Thauvin were thus given what essentially functioned as free roles, cutting inside and shooting, as is the case in this image, or playing balls in over the top in the hopes of picking out one of the strikers. As can be seen in the image, if Marseille can quickly switch play, from Thauvin (surrounded by three PSG midfielders) to Barrada (with ball), or vice-versa, space will thus be created for themselves.
So, Passi resolved, at least at the outset, to take the game to PSG. With what amounted to nothing to lose, one could hardly fault him in this regard, but PSG quickly showed why few have had success in taking this approach. l’OM fashioned the first chance of the match, Barrada’s shot from the edge of the area flashing just wide of goal, but the Champions had the second, and took it with aplomb. The below image shows the buildup to the opening goal, scored by Matuidi and made by Di Maria, but in truth, it was the result of the team perfectly poised to exploit the space offered to them on the counter.
Here, Di Maria has proven incredibly useful, demonstrating the best of his abilities as he had in winning the Champions’ League with Real Madrid. There, he functioned as the ultimate in versatility, shuttling up and down the flanks to track the runs of opponents, easing the defensive duties of Cristiano Ronaldo and aiding in attack when necessary. His pace and endurance are his best qualities, but as his 18 assists in the league this season showed, he also has an eye for a cross as well. With Mendy (white circle) caught out, Karim Rekik (red circle) is forced to slide over and cover Di Maria’s run. The central defender isn’t what one would call slow, especially for his position, but he is certainly no match for the Argentine.
It is here that a reflection on my intital issue with Marseille’s problems being down to personnel and not tactics comes into play. The system chosen by Passi was aggressive and had its strong points, particularly in how it potentially limited the dangerous Aurier. Perhaps, though, a more calculated approach as regards his personnel would’ve been more fruitful, given the lack of defensive effort from Thauvin, Mendy and Barrada. Georges-Kevin N’Koudou had been a doubt to feature at all, given his recent return from injury, and only appeared for ten minutes. Had Passi employed either he or Bouna Sarr, both similarly hard working and athletic, perhaps the runs of Di Maria and Aurier would’ve been covered more closely. A more prosaic winger in place of one of Barrada or Thauvin would’ve afforded Marseille less space centrally, but with Mendy’s lack of positional responsibility, it may have been a risk worth taking.
Inside the box, the runs of Blaise Matuidi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are calculated, splitting the spaces between Diarra, who is tracking back, and N’Koulou, who has moved over in an attempt to cover the space left by Rekik challenging Di Maria. Matuidi, the goalscorer isn’t exactly gifted when it comes to his finishing, but with Di Maria afforded time and space to shape a cross (yellow line) so well, it was relatively easy for the Frenchman to prod the ball beyond Mandanda.
So, Paris Saint-Germain were able to hit Marseille on the counter, but given that they were always likely to have more of the ball, despite Benjamin Stambouli being preferred to the metronominc Thiago Motta, how did Laurent Blanc add further wrinkles to his team’s approach? As previously mentioned, using the full backs to pack the box was successful but offered less in terms of an outlet to start the counterattack, placing the onus almost solely on Di Maria to run the length of the pitch. With the full backs pushed higher up and providing width, Blanc further adapted the roles of his midfield. Here, Adrien Rabiot has dropped to be an auxiliary center back, allowing Serge Aurier to be more of an attacking force.
Inside the red box, Rabiot, rather than nominal defensive midfielder Stambouli, has taken on the deepest role of the midfield three. Not only does he offer more mobility and ability with the ball at his feet than the former Montpellier man, but at 6′ 2″, Rabiot’s height serves also to complement that of Thiago Silva and Marquinhos. Stambouli can then push further forward , using his tackling ability, which is also more refined than that of Rabiot, to close down Barrada or Thauvin more efficiently. Admittedly, given Rabiot’s talent, deploying him merely as a big body isn’t the best use of his skill set, but he did the job in style, the removal of Fletcher on 60 minutes becoming all but inevitable. Despite PSG’s best efforts, though, Marseille did receive a fortuitous equalizer courtesy of Thauvin, and coming so soon as it did, forced a bit more consideration from both sides.
Again, on the evening, Di Maria did his best to recall his halcyon days at Real Madrid, not only doing a tremendous amount of running but also switching flanks in an effort to find space. Here, midway through the first half, Di Maria (yellow arrow) has moved to the left and is running with the ball at his feet. Edinson Cavani (red arrow) is drifting inside, hopeful of receiving a cross, but more important is the way that the Argentine has drawn Marseille’s defense. Due to poor image quality, I have labeled the back four and defensive midfielders with their initials. The curved white line underscores how the six players have shifted over, leaving a potential run for Aurier (white arrow) into space. In the moment depicted, Di Maria ended up drawing a foul, but the moment was typical, as Marseille’s players, cognizant of his threat, continued to seek to close him down at the earliest opportunity, even in dereliction of their positional responsibilities.
The teams went into halftime level, neither having gained much of an advantage after Thauvin’s equalizer, but the aforementioned removal of Fletcher after Cavani had scored to make it 3-1 meant that Passi was growing desperate. The Sunderland loanee was replaced by Remy Cabella, a more natural playmaker, shifting Marseille to their more familiar 4-2-3-1. In the below image, the four white lines show how the formation roughly was set up, as Cabella urges Batshuayi to close down Marquinhos. The former Newcastle player did add a bit more craft and tenacity in the tackle, but the net effect was negative, as Barrada and Thauvin, starved of space between the attacking full backs and Cabella, soon drifted, Marseille’s attacking threat effectively blunted.
Again, the tactical shift itself wasn’t unreasonable, as Cabella’s relationship with the ever-dangerous Batshuayi has had its moments this season, even if not to the level of his connection with Olivier Giroud at Montpellier. However, given the roles that Barrada and Thauvin had been asked to play, complementing Cabella’s introduction with that of a more natural wide player would’ve made more sense. Romain Alessandrini was unable to unseat Thauvin under Marcelo Bielsa last season, and that proved the case here as well, as Brice Djadjedje was brought on to play wide on the right. Alessandrini doesn’t always cover himself in glory, but he has been a much more reliable source of goals and assists than Thauvin, going back to his time at Rennes. Djadjedje, meanwhile, is a natural right back, with no particular attacking qualities.
With his arrival, which was forced by an injury to Thauvin, Marseille then moved to a 4-1-4-1, with Mauricio Isla pushed forward to join Cabella in central midfield. Given that Lass Diarra is a more natural attacking presence, one could be tempted to take Passi to task once more, but the French international is also much more cultured in the tackle than the Chilean. Were Marseille to have gone down to ten men, the match, which was still in the balance, would have been all but over. That said, the same issues of spacing continued to plague the attack, only being ameliorated by the introduction of N’Koudou ten minutes from time.
As the match drifted away, Marseille did manage to claw a goal back, but the team’s attacking philosophy, a welcome gambit in a cup final against a powerful opponent was hardly in full effect. Refreshing as it was to see Marseille push at Paris Saint-Germain going forward, the boldness of Passi’s strategy was similarly undone by his personnel selections. Even taking the match to extra time or penalties would’ve been a massive achievement on Marseille’s part, but the extant differences between the two clubs could have been bridged with a bit more thought on Passi’s part.
Paris Saint-Germain, meanwhile, capped a mildly disappointing season in style, their changes being like-for-like swaps, hewing to their established propensity for letting a hard-working midfield be the backbone of the team. Marquinhos showed why he has become first choice ahead of David Luiz, and Ibrahimovic was at his best, and the rest took care of itself, each player confident in their role. Changes are certainly in store with the departure of Ibrahimovic, but the match was a microcosm of a season of assured performances under Blanc, the continued development of Rabiot and Marquinhos underscoring how tactical continuity can raise the level of even the most impressive set of players.
Written by Eric Devin