Having lost their previous game against AS Monaco, the pressure was mounting on newly apponted PSG manager Unai Emery to get his side’s campaign back on track. He looked set to get all 3 points till a late strike ensured share of the spoils.
Paris Saint Germain lined up in their 4-3-3 formation which they used to such good effect last season. However, the absences of Cavani and Di Maria from the starting XI was a surprise. It was mainly due to a lack of match fitness due to the two players being heavily involved in international duties for their respective teams. Thiago Motta was deployed in the deep lying playmaker role with Verratti and Matuidi ahead of him to structure the attack better with their efficiency in ball-carrying traits. The front 3 included Moura and new signings Jesé and Harem Ben Arfa.
Too many men behind the ball in build up hamper PSG’s build up
Looking at the front 3 before the game started, one would have expected a lot of chances for PSG due to the dynamism the front 3 of Ben Arfa, Jesé and Lucas Moura offer. These 3 are very mobile and effective players at switching positions which could have opened up a lot of spaces behind Saint Etienne’s back line. However, PSG struggled to create clear chances for the vast majority of the first half. Saint Etienne employed a bold approach as they looked to suffocate PSG in their deep build up by deploying a high line in a 3-5-1-1 formation to reduce the amount of space available for PSG to exploit between the lines. This ploy was successful as they managed to stop PSG from penetrating their block through the centre. It also forced PSG’s front 3 to drop deep which reduced their chances of penetration.
However,PSG had themselves to blame for struggling throughout the first half. It was common to see the players from the forward and midfield line dropping into the spaces in front of the opponent’s second line. This dropping movement is not a problem as long as it is balanced by another player moving into advanced areas. When this is not done as happened in PSG’s case,it leads to a lack of penetration. In the first half, too many players dropped deep for PSG which led to a lack of connectivity into the final third of the pitch. Without such connectivity PSG were compelled to pass in less dangerous areas in their own half without doing much to disrupt the opponent shape. Verratti with his immense pressing resistance did well to move the ball into final third in the absence of such connectivity. Once Verratti moved the ball into the final third, the movements of Ben Arfa ,Moura and Jese came in handy. Such movements combined with Verratti’s great vision led to a save from Etienne goalkeeper after good movement from Ben Arfa through the channels.
However with many players dropping deep, it is possible to create large gaps between the opponent lines by provoking an opponent press. This disrupts the vertical compactness of the opposition. However, once this has been done, it is necessary for players to get into the spaces created as a result of the opponent press. PSG did well getting the opponents to press them but lacked the movements necessary to exploit the created spaces. (See this article by Judah Davies on Napoli. Jorginho excels in provoking opponent pressure by receiving with a closed body shape. Napoli exploit the created spaces by getting men between the opponent lines).
Moreover, the absence of a target man like Cavani up front meant that PSG did not have a plan B if their build up failed. PSG were reluctant to use the wings in the first half maybe due to the absence of a target man up front to convert directly from crosses. However, this was a flawed policy because it made their attacking strategy predictable and easy to defend against. Crosses offer a unique way of destabilising a stubborn defense. Once a cross is delivered, it is attacked by the defenders of the opposition team. After clearing the cross, the defenders are not in the best position to defend another attack resulting from winning the second ball. This creates a small time frame for the attacking team to exploit the temporarily unstable opposition defense. PSG unfortunately were too reliant on attacking through the centre against a packed midfield of Saint Etienne which was always going to be difficult.
Improved attacking play in the second half
Injury to LB Layvin Kurzawa meant Kimpembe had to slot in there. Motta took his place as a CB alongside Marquinhos with Krychowiak coming in for Kurzawa from the bench. PSG started the second half much better. This was due to greater synchronization in the movements of the forwards and midfielders. Compared to the first half in which there were too many players behind the ball, PSG took up better positions as there were more players behind Etienne’s midfield. This led to better penetration when the deeper players managed to find them with passes. Verratti, in particular, looked to pick out Matuidi’s deep runs with surprise aerial balls against Etienne’s high line. This paid off with Matuidi winning the penalty for PSG’s first goal. The addition of Di Maria added variety to PSG’s attacks. The pacy Argentine adds directness to PSG’s attacks which was useful as gaps opened up in Etienne’s structure. To spice things up further, the addition of Cavani added the targetman which PSG lacked in the first half. The Uruguayan striker is good at bringing runners into play. His presence also meant more space for the likes of Verratti, Krychowiak and Matuidi in midfield. PSG’s circulation improved as a result. However, they failed to see out the game as a late goal against the run of play cost them 2 points.
PSG looked to build up through the central areas. Etienne were well organised in the central areas. This meant that PSG were vulnerable to losing possession in deeper areas. It was a cause of concern in some occasions as Saint Etienne could exploit the gaps PSG’s fullbacks left in the build up phase. This led to some chances for them which should have been converted. However, due to 62% possession in favour of PSG, chances were few for St Etienne.
With Arsenal to play against in the Champions League in midweek, PSG need to make sure they sort out their issues soon. PSG will be boosted by the return of ball playing centre back Thiago Silva. His distribution will ensure that PSG’s midfielders can push up more into the attacking third. However, without sorting out their positional issues, PSG will struggle to get the right result against Arsenal. Only time will tell if Unai Emery is good enough to handle their issues after a rocky start.