PSG assert total control of the wing area
When the draw was made and Paris Saint-Germain’s name came out of the pot a wry expression covered PSG’s officials faces. Excited by the prospect of facing the derailing Manchester United but at the same time thinking about the amount of experience the English side has in this competition.
A tie that was in favor of the Parisians considering the shambles that was at United. But things change, and so did the managerial position at Manchester United. Jose Mourinho was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the loss at Anfield and Solskjaer reign couldn’t have started any better. Unbeaten, drawing only once, unicorns and rainbows all over the place. It was time for the Champions League knock out stages where United’s last home win came against Olympiacos in the 2013–14 campaign.
Hammered with injuries PSG were missing Thomas Meunier, Edinson Cavani, and Neymar. Three experienced players that have contributed to their qualification to the knock out stage. All of the above meant that the favoritism for PSG has decreased and United were considered a threat in the tie with Paul Pogba in fine form along with the pace of United’s forwards.
Solskjaer continued with his usual set up of 4–3–3 with three pacey forwards in Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Thomas Tuchel played a hybrid system similar to the one he used against Liverpool at the Parcs des Princes but with one forward instead of two. Defending in a 4–4–1–1 shape while morphing into a 3–2–4–1 when attacking as Juan Bernat pushed forward to act as a wing back while Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler moved inside.
United’s left side has been their more threatening side for a couple of seasons now. It also factors in their ball progression. Combinations between Luke Shaw, Pogba, and Martial help United advancing further up the field. PSG were aiming to disrupt United’s left side and they did that perfectly. Dani Alves pressed Shaw in the build up phase, as Marquinhos man-marked Pogba out of the game. Additionally Thilo Kehrer never advanced forward, limiting the space available for Martial. Poor execution on counter attacks added to United’s blow as they caused little to no threat to Gianluigi Buffon.
Meanwhile, the option of the wing backs gave PSG an extra player out wide when stretching the field. Bernat played wider than Alves who sometimes switched positions with Draxler. Bernat positioned himself excellently in a couple of attacks throughout the first half, but the PSG players weren’t able to locate him with an accurate pass. United were alert to the threat, and after Bernat’s strides forward Lingard tracked him for the rest of the first half.
One thing that United weren’t able to stop though was Kylian Mbappe’s pace. He first flashed past Victor Lindelof on the right side, but the lack of options in the box made him reset the attack. After that, Draxler found him with an excellent pass on the edge of the box. Mbappe uncharacteristically missed the chance. Luckily for him the TV replay showed that he was marginally offside, something the VAR would have picked up if he had scored. The third time Mbappe appeared as a threat is when Marquinhos found Di Maria with a defence splitting pass. Both Di Maria and Mbappe were offside but the sheer acceleration of the striker gave signs of the threat he posed for United’s defence.
United had to sub both Lingard and Martial due to injuries and in the second half it was the less mobile Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez. Rashford changed his runs searching for space behind Presnel Kimpembe but they were fruitless. The 3–2–4–1 in attack from PSG gave them an extra wide player against United’s back four. United kept their horizontal compactness fearful of a run into the channel from Di Maria or Draxler. As a result, one of the wing backs, Alves or Bernat, had more space out wide. An untracked Alves had enough space and time to put in a cross from the right side. Mbappe headed it down the bottom right corner but David de Gea managed to put it out to a corner kick.
The corner resulted in PSG’s first of the evening as Kimpembe met Di Maria’s excellent cross. In the next 10 minutes PSG exploited the advantage they had of an extra player out wide in addition to the space vacated by the advancing United full back during transitions. Firstly, Marquinhos found Di Maria in the space behind Ashley Young on the left side. The Argentine’s shot was blocked resulting in another corner for Tuchel’s side. The corner was cleared, falling to Alves who volleyed the ball hoping to recreate his goal against Monaco in the semis of the 2016–17 Champions League campaign. It felt like Deja vu until Pogba blocked the shot.
Minutes after, PSG’s midfield combined neatly in midfield for Bernat to find himself in Di Maria’s role as the Argentine occupied his. A reversal in position that still had the same concept, a wide player who had space as United continued to play in a compact horizontal block. Di Maria played an enthralling low cross which was met by a flashing Mbappe whose pace finally got the better of United’s defence. Mbappe placed it sweetly with a single touch past De Gea.
With the score at 2–0 it was looking doomed for Solskjaer’s men. It could have been worse though as Mbappe missed a 1 v 1 against De Gea after he ran into the space behind Shaw. De Gea came again to the rescue after only a minute when he saved Bernat’s show from the left side. PSG built up through the middle, connecting with Draxler who dropped behind Pogba. A position he took throughout the game to present himself as a passing option for Marco Verratti and Marquinhos. Draxler’s pass found Bernat who was sneaking out wide with Young in a cloud of thoughts of whether to press Mbappe in the inside left position, keep horizontal compactness, or protect the area out wide. Eventually, Young failed to do any of the options and Bernat’s shot would have made it the third if not for De Gea’s save.
In a late search of hope United went gung-ho looking for crosses from out wide. Tuchel was prepared though and dropped Draxler and Di Maria — then Colin Dagba — to prevent United from crossing easily as they tracked Shaw and Young. Marquinhos stayed with Pogba to prevent any combinations on the left side, Alves supported Kehrer against Shaw and Sanchez as Thiago Silva cleared most if not all of the crosses. Total neutralization of Manchester United.
Without three of their most important players PSG managed to beat United deservedly. They controlled United’s threat on the left side as the hybrid system gave them an extra player out wide. Often labeled as a group of individuals, PSG might have presented their most impressive collective performance to date.