PSG and Saint Etienne at the Parc De Princes was an intriguing matchup between the huge Ligue 1 favorites and a team that some believe could challenge for a Champions League spot. PSG are a juggernaut but Saint Etienne are also an interesting team. They have taken the mantle from Marseille as perhaps the most aggressive pressing team in France. Of course, their pressing isn’t as frenetic as the Marseille side under Marcelo Bielsa, but it’s quite intense in its own right. With the attacking talent at hand for PSG, utilising that style of play was audacious from Saint Etienne manager Christophe Galtier.
It was the same standard 4-3-3 for PSG but with minor alterations. Layvin Kurzawa and Gregory Van Der Wiel came in at full backs and provided a lot of speed at their position compared to the likes of Maxwell that usually starts for PSG. Adrien Rabiot played instead of Blaise Matuidi for squad rotation purposes. Saint Etienne this season have shifted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation after playing primarily in a 4-3-3 formation to make up for a natural #10 on last season’s team and basing their attack on their wingers.
Saint Etienne’s offensive woes
In many ways, Saint Etienne utilised a very similar gameplan against PSG to the one Marseille used a few weeks ago. ASSE tried to play primarily through the counter and press either when they lost the ball or just got tired of PSG passing between their centerbacks. In comparison to Marseille who mixed their use of pressing, Saint Etienne were more gung-ho about it. In rare instances, Saint Etienne would choose to play a conservative 4-4-2 defensively.
Saint Etienne were appalling going forward, creating very little offensively. 12 of their 14 shots were outside the penalty area and PSG suffocated any attempts of Saint Etienne creating any half decent chances. Just like with Michy Batshuayi, Robert Beric was isolated very often and used as an outlet for Saint Etienne when they wanted to establish possession.
The problem was that when Marseille did similar things with Batshuayi, they would follow it up with actions that were quicker tempo; whether it would be Batshuayi trying to run in behind the centerbacks of PSG or Marseille’s wingers trying 1v1 in an attempt to create quick offense. Saint Etienne did very little of this. Saint Etienne’s passing was non existent and the one time they had a quick combination passing sequence, it netted them their best chance which was an effort from Valentine Eysseric in the 14th minute outside the box that nearly curled in past Kevin Trapp.
PSG deserve credit for Saint Etienne’s attacking woes. PSG gave little to no room for Saint Etienne to work with, and without the individual talent to create something out of nothing, it left Saint Etienne grasping at straws. When PSG weren’t pressuring Saint Etienne after losing the ball, they were willing to drop back slightly and suffocate the space in their own third.
And when Saint Etienne tried to hit PSG on the counter, PSG tracked back and snuffed out any danger.
Angel Di Maria’s centrality
When Real Madrid won its 10th CL title two seasons ago, one of the biggest reasons for their success was that they converted Angel Di Maria into an inside midfielder who would make lambasting runs through the middle. It created a welcome dimension for that Madrid side and it paid dividends in the CL final where Di Maria played a huge role in the Gareth Bale game winner in extra time.
PSG haven’t completely gone the same way with Di Maria, and they may never do what Real Madrid did with Di Maria, but Sunday hinted at the type of damage he could do if allowed to roam in centrally more consistently. We saw signs of it when PSG destroyed Monaco two months ago on Di Maria’s debut for the club including an audacious long ball onto Lavezzi for the third goal in their 3-0 victory. Outside of that, Di Maria has played more or less as your average inverted winger who gets to cut inside with his stronger left foot.
Against Saint Etienne though, it was more the Real Madrid Di Maria that we saw. Though he did play quite a fair bit out wide, he also was allowed to drift inside and almost make it a four man midfield with Cavani as a left forward and Ibrahimovic as a #10/ST. Van Der Wiel’s bombing up and down the right side allowed Di Maria to come in centrally. The third goal in particular was Di Maria at his best, a wonderful throughball to Cavani that led to a tap in for Ibrahimovic.
Performances like this from Di Maria may lead to PSG playing a three man midfield featuring Marco Verratti/Blaise Matuidi/Di Maria, which would arguably be the most dynamic midfield in Europe. Matuidi could make up for Di Maria when he doesn’t fully track back, and it could take advantage of both Verratti and Di Maria’s outstanding ability to create throughball opportunities and PSG have Lucas on the bench so a 4-3-3 formation would still be possible. At the very least, it’s a lineup that could be used domestically without too many repercussions considering the talent at hand.
Bad Pressing: starring Saint Etienne
Pressing against a team as ball dominant as PSG has been attempted before in Ligue 1 recently. Lyon last season in their two 1-1 draws against PSG pressed with the front three of Nabil Fekir, Clinton N’Jie and Alexandre Lacazette. Marseille famously tried an intense man-marking version of pressing against PSG last season and in the second Le Classique last April, it got them a 2-1 lead after 45 minutes in perhaps the biggest game of Ligue 1 last season. With a team like Saint Etienne who don’t have well-renowned offensive talent, using it as a way to create opportunities was a logical idea and if executed properly could lead to maybe 1-2 big chances in open play.
The problem was that it didn’t work for Saint Etienne on two levels. Firstly, their attempt to create a high tempo defensively didn’t frustrate PSG and it didn’t even create chances for themselves in attack. The warning signs were there early on for Saint Etienne. An 10th minute long ball into Ibrahimovic bypassed the Saint Etienne backline with ease and nearly put him on a breakaway. A younger Ibrahimovic would’ve gotten to this ball and had a key opportunity at goal.
Saint Etienne’s backline were consistently trying to play the offside trap and PSG’s attacking trio all had their attempts at getting behind their defense. Two or three more times before the first goal, PSG played direct longballs from their own half, that on another day, could’ve ended up as grade A chances.
The first goal for PSG was a combination of great passing and half-hearted pressing on Saint Etienne’s part.
When Motta receives the ball, Saint Etienne could try and double team him and gamble they could dislodge the ball. Or alternatively they could’ve sat back a little and give Motta some room but try and take out his passing options. Instead, it was a faux-pressing action between the two players closest to Motta that allowed him to pass it to Rabiot and it eventually ended up in a Verratti throughball onto Kurzawa. It also didn’t help that Monnet-Paquet didn’t smell out the danger and track Kurzawa’s run and then Francois Clerc gave a poor attempt at tackling Kurzawa just before he got 1v1 with Ruffier. Again, it was great bit of passing from PSG and it was the type of movement and tempo that they can do on a consistent basis against any defense in France. But it was helped by Saint Etienne’s indecision.
More of this happened in the second half when Saint Etienne continued to play a high line against PSG and repeatedly got burned. Di Maria was played in via a lovely back heel by Ibrahimovic and could’ve made it 2-0.
For a team that has been known for its solidarity defensively over the past few seasons, Sunday night was one of Saint Etienne’s worst defensive performances under Galtier.
Saint Etienne were awful against PSG on both facets. Defensively, they surrendered eight big chances against PSG and gave up an expected goal tally of 4.03, by far their worst number in a single game this season. Going forward they only had two shots in the penalty area and one big chance created. It was a case of having the right idea but a very low bar in terms of the execution at play. PSG picked apart Saint Etienne’s press and suffocated their attack when Saint Etienne tried to create. It was a poor display for a supposed CL contender in Saint Etienne and it showed just how limited they can be against top opposition, which they haven’t had too much of with their easy schedule so far this season.
For PSG it was another further statement as to how far above they are talent wise over the rest of Ligue 1 which was already very well known, and it showed us a window into how PSG could incorporate Angel Di Maria centrally. His movement was excellent and his performance overall was reminiscent of his heyday at Real Madrid and even his first few performances with Manchester United. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had arguably his best game in months and it was a throwback performance, with his willingness to run in behind defenders along with his tendency to drop deep and play as a faux #10. It’s probably too much to ask of him to play like this a lot, but PSG don’t need him to.
It was a very thorough demolition by PSG; the type of performance that shows why some people think of them as one of the top five teams in European football this season.