Eric Devin writes a detailed tactical analysis of the Ligue 1 match that ended Nice 3-1 PSG.
In Sunday’s thrilling match that all but ended Paris Saint-Germain’s title hopes, Nice prevailed 3-1, the hosts playing a fluid 4-2-3-1 that blunted the visitors’ effectiveness even as they controlled possession and created more shots and chance than their opponents. A coronation of manager Lucien Favre’s continued ability to change systems (Nice started the season with a 4-3-3, spent a long time playing 3-5-2, but have recently settled on this formation after a season-ending injury to Wylan Cyprien) in the face of limited personnel, the match gave the crowd a moment to celebrate the team’s highest finish in forty years and also served notice that their side look to be able to continue on two strong seasons. Even with lengthy recoveries slated for Cyprien and Alassane Pléa, as well as the impending departure of Ricardo Pereira, on loan from Porto, the Swiss manager showed once again that flexibility and thinking outside the box when it comes to players’ roles can be more effective than the financial largesse of teams like Sunday’s opponent.
OGC Nice (4-2-3-1): Yoan Cardinale; Arnaud Souquet, Paul Baysse, Dante, Dalbert Henrique; Vincent Koziello (Mounir Obbadi 84′), Jean Michael Seri; Ricardo Pereira, Younés Belhanda, Valentin Eysseric (Anastasios Donis 75′); Mario Balotelli (Mickael Le Bihan 78′)
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): Kevin Trapp; Serge Aurier (Adrien Rabiot 65′), Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Maxwell (Thomas Meunier 46′); Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi; Ángel Di María, Edinson Cavani, Julian Draxler (Lucas Moura 78′)
Here we see the teams’ early formations and their basic approaches to start the match. PSG are playing their habitual 4-3-3, with the fullbacks and wingers providing the width. The midfield is very compact and slightly deep, to allow them to control possession without being caught out. Nice, seen here, counter with the 4-2-3-1 (yellow lines) in which they were supposedly operating. To counter PSG’s numerical advantage in midfield, the defensive midfielders, Seri and Koziello, play very close to the attacking trio, and all of them are very narrow, entrusting the wide areas to the fullbacks (blue arrows).
This may seem a dangerous proposition given PSG’s fullbacks propensity for getting forward, but the next image gives a more comprehensive idea of how the system evolved to counter that. Here, we see Nice playing what amounts more to a 2-3-2-3. Dante and Baysse are fairly wide, and Seri has dropped slightly, with Dalbert and Souquet playing on either side of him. This gives Nice a bit more width through the middle, with Valentin Eysseric dropping to make up for Seri’s absence in midfield. In attack, there is also more width, with Balotelli moving to the left and Belhanda pushing forward through the middle. Thus, with a narrow central midfield, but width in attack and in front of the defense, Nice were able to counter PSG regardless of whether the visitors tried to play wide or more narrowly.
Here, we can see Nice’s average positions for the match; given Eysseric (13) was the first player to be removed, on 75 minutes, they paint perhaps a more accurate picture of Nice’s approach than a 4-2-3-1. Note Dalbert (29) and Souquet (2) playing fairly narrowly as well, tucking in as previously shown to provide width in defensive midfield. We can also see that Seri (6) is only slightly more advanced than Koziello (26), something that would seem surprising given the Ivorian was often Nice’s creative catalyst, but the second image shows why that is, as he frequently dropped deep to allow Dante and Baysse to move wide. Baysse isn’t exactly an accomplished passer, but Dante and Seri certainly are, and this gave the hosts more options to play the ball over the top, even under the pressure seen here, with Verratti moving to the ball.
Having previously mentioned the attacking inclinations of PSG’s fullbacks, it is also interesting to observe how Nice caught their opponents on the break in this way. On both sides, but more frequently on the right, Nice employed what was essentially a double wingback situation. In this example, Arnaud Souquet, with the ball at his feet, moves inside, as Pereira goes outside (yellow arrows). PSG are in decent position here, at least in not being caught up the pitch (blue line), but Maxwell is fairly narrow, leaving him to face a dilemma over tracking Pereira or following Souquet’s move inside. Centrally, Belhanda and Balotelli steam towards the area anticipating a cross, while Koziello follows Souquet for support.
The second image shows, then, how this became a threat. Pereira has indeed moved wide, and Maxwell, with Draxler doing a poor job tracking back, is caught in two minds. Souquet, preying on this, is in a fairly advanced position, and can either play the ball into the flat for Pereira or cross for Balotelli or Belhanda. Failing this, Matuidi isn’t closing down Koziello, so play can essentially be recycled through the little midfielder. PSG’s defense, once in a decent position, now is poorly organized (blue line), and even if Balotelli and Belhanda aren’t exactly target men, nor can they be ignored in the air, generating a dangerous situation for the hosts as PSG.
It wasn’t only that Nice played well in this match, though, as often PSG played into their hands. Having been “warned” by Nice on the counter, Maxwell and Aurier became somewhat loath to get forward, but rather than Di María and Draxler stretching play in the absence of the fullbacks, the two wingers too often tried to play as a de facto number ten (blue arrows). With Verratti and Matuidi often getting forward in midfield to support them, this did allow PSG to keep the ball in their opponent’s half, but it also allowed Nice to bring more to bear in terms of closing their opponent down, with Souquet and Dalbert playing more as central defenders than as fullbacks. Under such pressure, Cavani was often in space against a sole defender (as here, white circle), but that he was marshalled by Souquet means that Baysse was free to help create pressure. Has Maxwell or Aurier come forward in an instance like this, Nice would have less players available to create pressure and perhaps an opportunity would have presented itself for the visitors.
Before concluding, it would be remiss not to mention Nice’s pressure. Favre didn’t opt for a high press, knowing that could potentially exhaust his team, but in getting a team effort from all of his players, the hosts were able to keep enough pressure on the ball to keep PSG honest. In the first image, Marco Verratti has come between Thiago Silva and Marquinhos to act as an extra man in defense. He has a great range of passing, but in this situation, PSG are thus robbed of his ability with the ball at his feet. Balotelli isn’t haring after the ball, but he is playing high enough to keep Silva honest, especially given the space between the defense and midfield.
The second image shows, though, how the big striker also worked to track back. Here, even as PSG have Maxwell up the pitch, and Di María wide, they are unable to generate much danger, as Balotelli has tracked the run of Verratti. This, in turn, allows Seri to move wide to defend Maxwell as Souquet tracks Di María. Koziello can remain in position centrally, and PSG, even with their movement, can’t create an overload, down to the movement and work of Balotelli. This is hardly the type of performance the Italian has been known for throughout his career, and full credit should go to Favre for convincing the ex-Liverpool man to pull up his socks and help the team.
Nice thus served up a complete performance, Favre once again not only showing a new tactical wrinkle in the absence of key players but doing it not for novelty’s sake, but to create a plan which would be effective against a side so used to dominating the ball. Normally Nice themselves are the side who control possession (third in the league), but against PSG, the hosts adapted supremely well. PSG did control the ball and had many more shots, but they were frequently limited to being from the outside of the area, and by showing their menace on the counter, Nice also made the champions’ fullbacks, normally so dynamic, a non-entity.
The team will undoubtedly be disappointed in having slipped from the title race, but this victory serves as a massive testament to the job Lucien Favre has done as a manager this season. It’s a valedictory statement of the highest order, the summation of his shuffling through a number of systems and approaches as befits the situation and available personnel. That chameleonic character will bode well for next season as the team deal the potential departures of players like Pereira and Balotelli; with Favre in charge, Nice will be able to set themselves up for success no matter the opponent or, indeed, their own resources.
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