Thomas Tuchel’s first season at PSG was marked by several tactical experiments as, having had the initial idea of playing his Fantastic Four together, he initially opted for an unconvincing 4-2-3-1 before finding his balance in a 4-4-2 match against Liverpool FC before injuries complicated matters. For his second year at PSG and with a quantitatively strengthened squad in his hands, Tuchel first decided to give continuity to a 4-3-3 and make it his preferred system. Let’s take a look back at this period in this first part of our mid-season tactical review.
After testing a 4-3-3 in friendly matches and during the first two official matches of the season with an Ander Herrera, Marquinhos, Marco Verratti midfield, Tuchel then tested the 3-1-4-2 against Rennes (1-2) and then a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 during the next four games before the match at the Parc against Real Madrid (3-0). This match, which ended with a midfield made of Idrissa Gueye, Marquinhos, Verratti, started a long phase during which the team stabilized in a 4-3-3, forced by injuries in the offensive sector.
Details of the system and its advantages
Offensively and when installed in the opposing camp, the team quickly structured itself in a 2-3-5 which can vary slightly according to the sequences. The overall idea and the spaces to be occupied are clear: the two central defenders and the three players in midfield are in charge of moving and advancing the ball, the full-backs placed high on the width, the two wingers between the lines in the half-spaces and a number nine, which remains fixed between the opposing central defenders. Hence the following diagram:
This structure—a term dear to the Parisian coach—offers a good occupation of all spaces and allows the team to be both well structured offensively to circulate the ball efficiently and generate superiority in key areas of the field, but also to almost always have five players behind the ball in order to cover the key spaces and thus be able to press effectively when the ball is lost by the offensive players.
Tuchel has regularly praised the advantages of this system during post games, highlighting, in particular, his three-man midfield, which he considers to be “a good mix.” Indeed, in addition to offering the team a structural balance in the attacking phase, the 4-3-3 allows the team to press high effectively and to defend well close to the box.
During high pressing phases, Tuchel’s PSG doesn’t try to direct their opponents into a specific area as Manchester City can do but instead adopt a more individualized pressing approach. With this in mind, the 3-man midfield allows the two midfielders Gueye and Verratti to emerge high over the opposing midfielders, while the full-backs can follow the opposing wingers/midfielders off-center. Marquinhos can provide cover for the center-backs, who are often oriented towards the opposing attackers and tend to move out of their zone.
When the team has to defend low, the 3-man midfield allows the central areas to be covered effectively and the presence of Marquinhos as a 6 gives him the possibility to join the defensive line and if necessary to defend in the box as it was the case against teams that cross the ball a lot. That’s what Tuchel explained after Nice/PSG (1-4): “When Marquinhos plays in 6, we can do it fluidly with him: he comes down between the two central defenders when we don’t have the ball and stays in front of them when we do.
A 4-3-3 that produced a good set of results…
From the match against Real Madrid (3-0) which marked the real set up of this 4-3-3, PSG followed a good series: 8 victories in 9 games, only the defeat against Stade de Reims with a very reshuffled team cut the dynamic. This period was mainly marked by the defensive solidity of the team in this 4-3-3, with the famous stat of matches with 0 shots on target conceded when Gueye played, the Senegalese being at the heart of these defensive performances.
The team was good at pressing high against opponents struggling to play short passes from the back. When opponents used a more direct game (Galatasaray or Bordeaux by sequence), the Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe pair was dominant in this area, well helped by Marquinhos in 6 to receive the long balls and be present on second balls. Against Galatasaray for example, there were 19 duels won by Kimpembe out of 27 played and 8 aerial duels won out of 8 played by Marquinhos.
The game against Real was a little different with a less aggressive approach. There was no high pressure but a mid-block fallback in a 4-5-1 with mostly a work of framing and width management thanks to Pablo Sarabia and Angel Di Maria helping the full-backs as a Real was exploiting PSG’s wings.
The team has also learned to manage its weak phases (Galatasaray, Brugge away game) by defending well as a block with wingers helping in defensive transitions, a 3-man midfield to cover the central areas and Marquinhos in 6 to come and help defend in the box. In a series of nine games between the first leg against Real and the 1-2 defeat in Dijon on 1 November, PSG conceded an average of 0.57 xG per game and only conceded three goals, an excellent defensive record.
Paris was struggling to create chances on a regular basis but were losing the ball mostly high up on the pitch. However, in matches against Bordeaux (1-0)and Lyon (1-0), PSG’s conservative approach enabled them to settle easily into the opposing camp and produce an effective counter-pressing move, well embodied by the performances of Gueye and Marquinhos in this area.
Against Angers, Neymar Jr.’s return as an inside left-winger combined with Verratti’s presence on the left side of the pitch provided some good attacking sequences against an opponent who had withdrawn to the middle/lower half. The example below with Paris’ 2-3-5 and the presence of Neymar in half-space creates a positional advantage against the Angers’ 4-5-1 and allows Verratti to find Juan Bernat in the back of the defense:
Facing an opponent better organized in its pressing as was Galatasaray who had modeled its pressing on the Parisian 4-3-3, the team was also able to adapt well by playing more direct football and exploiting the 3v3s with defenders not very skillful in managing depth and 1v1s.
Limitations that generate a series of bad games
After those nine rather successful games cut short by the international break in October, PSG entered a more difficult phase with a 1-2 defeat at Dijon and some lackluster performances against opponents who were able to block PSG’s attacking play and brought a different kind of complexity to the game. PSG’s difficulties in the first half against Lille and Nantes pushed Tuchel to change his system at half-time. PSG struggled for several games to get the ball forward in the last third of the field and find their forwards in advantageous positions.
Globally, opponents understood how to neutralize PSG (Nantes, Bruges, Lille)with slightly different systems but a relatively similar approach: first of all an efficient framing of the Parisian 2+3/3+2 with 2 opposing forwards to manage Marquinhos and the 2 central defenders plus midfielders coming out on the Parisian holding midfielders and wingers/pistons to block the progression on the sides).
On the attacking side, the opponents were able to prevent Neymar and Di Maria from finding spaces between the lines to carry the ball thanks to a 5-man defense or opposing full-backs coming out on top of them. These defensive players were also helped by a midfield folding back in order to reduce the space for the two Parisian strikers to express themselves. Below are two examples with Bruges and Lille. Bruges is in 4-4-1-1 with individual orientations (wingers on Parisian full-backs, Bruges central midfielders coming out on Parisian relays, third midfield on Marquinhos and full-backs ready to come out on Kylian Mbappé/Di Maria):
Lille played Paris with a classic 5-3-2 with wingers on the Parisian full-backs, 2 forwards to manage Paris’ 2 central defenders and Marquinhos, Lille’s holding midfielders coming out to manage the Parisian midfield and the center-backs of their 3-man defense ready to come out on Neymar/Di Maria in half-spaces.
The issue of a Neymar’s overdependence to make the difference between the lines and the lack of associative play between forwards and midfielders with a 9 who participates little in the build-ups was evident. This problem was partly solved during a few games, like in the middle of the first half against Bruges with a refocusing of Di Maria in order to position himself behind the back of the two Bruges midfielders and thus offer a close relay to Mbappé.
Above all these matches have shown the limits of the Parisian midfielders against well-organized opponents who leave less time and space for the Parisian midfielders to connect with their forwards. Without Verratti against Lille and Nantes, Julian Draxler was unable to give the game verticality and speed and repeatedly failed to interpret situations well. Marquinhos also lacked the mobility and quality to position himself in reduced spaces to connect with his forwards. As a result, the team had difficulties in attacking sequences in the opposing camp. According to Whoscored.com, 14 of the 31 Parisian lost balls against Lille were on their own side, including five for Draxler.
Another problem observed against Bruges and in sequences against Angers was the team’s tendency to lose compactness when the high press is not effective. Bruges was able to start build-ups from their goalkeeper and break the high pressure, as was Angers by sequences with direct play and some individual mistakes from Kimpembe and Herrera.
The PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is a tool to quantify the efficiency of pressing. It was 12.14 during these matches compared to an average of eight for PSG. Faced with this scenario, the team was forced to defend low and was unable to maintain a compact block. For example, some players would sometimes go out and press without the whole block doing it together. The exception in this bad series is the match against Marseille with a scenario similar to the one against Real in the first leg and two opponents with the same game plan.
A 4-3-3 in big trouble in Madrid
The first half of the return leg against Real was a little different and showed other limitations, notably thanks to a game configuration rarely seen in PSG’s matches due to its domination in Ligue 1. Tuchel adopted a similar approach in the first leg but faced a Real who had made good progress in the meantime. PSG fell back in a 4-5-1 midfield block with Mbappé and Di Maria in midfield, probably with the idea of exploiting the transitional spaces in the back of Real’s full-backs.
However, PSG was not only struggling defensively against Real Madrid’s fluid and dynamic attacking play, but they were also unable to make good use of transitional spaces except for a couple of sequences. PSG was very unaccustomed to playing this type of transitional game and logically failed to respond: the midfielders were unable to get out of the counter-pressure exerted by Real and the three strikers lacked a connection between them on the few opportunities they had.
After the match, Tuchel did not condemn the 4-3-3, but rather the 4-2-3-1 a formation PSG had played without more success during the second half. However, it was shortly afterward that the 4-3-3 was put aside in favor of the 4-4-2 …