PSG 4-1 Saint Etienne: When pressing goes wrong

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.
ASSE

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

PSG 2-1 Marseille: Contrasting 4-3-3’s Take Center Stage in Le Classique

It’s been interesting to see the tactical change Marseille have undergone since the departure of Marcelo Bielsa. Last year Marseille played in multiple fluid formations in an ultra aggressive pressing system, whether in a 3-4-3 or a spread out 4-2-3-1. This year has been considerably different as Michel has Marseille playing under a much more conservative (relative to Bielsa) 4-3-3 formation. The use of Abdelaziz Barrada as a left sided central midfielder has been interesting as well, with his presence at times creating at times a 4-2-2-2

PSG countered Marseille’s 4-3-3 with their own similar formation that unlike for Marseille, has been a staple for PSG for quite a long time. Le Classique was home to dueling 4-3-3s, a fascinating encounter between by far the best team in France, in PSG, and a mercurial Marseille club that have been much better than their 16th place showing.

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Marseille’s Conservatism

Under Marcelo Bielsa, Marseille were one of the most aggressive pressing sides in Europe last year. The intense man-marking system had its flaws (both short- and long-term), but it also had its considerable positive effects. Marseille were one of the best at establishing a chaotic tempo and getting out to early leads, very similar to the 2013-14 Liverpool side. The pressing system also suited certain members of last season’s Marseille squad.

This year has been different. Marseille still press but not to the degree they did last season.

Against PSG, it was more of the same. Marseille set up at times in a 4-4-2, very happy to allow PSG to pass from the back.

It’s a considerable change from last season’s Marseille squad but it was also a welcome change in some ways. It displayed a sort of pragmatism that Marseille lacked at certain times last year. What made the new found conservatism even more profound is Marseille found ways to mix and match this with the intense man marking system. Even though Remy Cabella was listed as a LW, he drifted inside with and without the ball.

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Motta is dispossessed, which creates a counter attacking opportunity leading to a handball infraction just outside the penalty area.

When Marseille got it right, PSG had stretches where they clearly struggled to create a passing tempo from the defense onto their attack. It showed more variety in Marseille’s off the ball structure than was present with Bielsa as their manager. It also allowed for OM to soak up pressure and play on the counter primarily, something that they didn’t do much last season. Roman Alessadrini took charge of the right hand side and was very direct while Michy Batshuayi presented himself as a credible target man when Marseille needed to play long balls to him to relive the pressure from PSG’s pressing of the OM backline.

However there were consequences to the 4-4-2 set up that OM played defensively, and PSG exploited it when the opportunity presented itself, especially when Marseille became quite narrow.

Serge Aurier’s Positioning

The use of Remy Cabella as a LW this season has come with mediocre results for Marseille and against PSG that didn’t change; though this time, Cabella was also a hindrance defensively. In the modified 4-4-2 system defensively, Cabella’s positioning was all over the place as he drifted inside many times. Sometimes he & Barrada would alternate who would play as the nominal left sided midfielder in defensive phases.

Occasionally it ended in good results, like the instances where Marseille would try and create transition opportunities. Other times, it left acres of space for PSG to punish when given the opportunity. Serge Aurier is perhaps the most forward-venturing fullback in Ligue 1 and he was a constant nuisance for Marseille with his positioning, putting a huge strain on Paulo De Cegile and the OM backline to cover up.

Marseille PSG

This was a constant theme for Aurier. What made this particularly tough was that Di Maria and Aurier would often times alternate positions. Di Maria would come deeper despite being the RW and Aurier would go forward. Combine that with the brilliant movement of Marco Verratti and It resulted in PSG’s first big chance of the match.

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The constant switching between Di Maria and Aurier was a powerful weapon for PSG, and it also displayed the damage Di Maria could inflict from deeper areas. Aurier when going forward is very comfortable on the ball and it proved too much for Marseille to handle. De Cegile isn’t lacking mobility but there was no chance he could cover the entire right hand side by himself, as Cabella was slow to shift. No LB in the world could, nor should, be faced with 1v2’s against the likes of Di Maria and Aurier. Marseille had no counter to this whilst both Cabella and Barrada were on the pitch and it brings into question why Michel is continually playing both Barrada and Cabella on the left side.

It was a masterclass showing from one of the best RBs in Europe. Aurier wasn’t flawless (he gave up a penalty that could’ve equalized for OM in the 2nd half) but his overall performance displayed both the endless stamina and skillful talent he possesses.

Multifaceted Michy Batshuayi

With Michel setting up Marseille to play primarily on the counter attack versus PSG, Batshuayi was tasked to play multiple different roles. At times he was asked to play as a point of reference of some sorts, other times he tried to give width to compensate for Cabella’s continued escapades into the central area. There were even multiple occasions where Batshuayi would collect the ball from inside his own half, another sign into both how committed Marseille were to playing on the counter and how big a stranglehold PSG had in terms of raw possession.

When Marseille wanted Batshuayi to run through the channels, he had the mobility to do so.

Marseille PSG

Against a lesser type of opponent, these kind of instances could’ve resulted in breakaway caliber of chances. It didn’t against PSG because they have the type of mobility at CB to sniff it out and turn possible quality chances into run of the mill stuff.

The goal by Marseille though exemplified the all -around capabilities that Batshuayi possesses. He collected the ball around midfield to keep hold of possession for the team.

Marseille PSG

And then made a typical center forward run and got on the head of Barrada’s cross.

There were also moments where Batshuayi would try and create offense for himself, one of those instances occurring two minutes after the 55th minute penalty save from Kevin Trapp, resulting in a half chance that was parried away. Performances like this are a strong indicator into the caliber of player Michy Batshuayi could become. Against lesser opponents, Marseille’s half chances could’ve been B+ caliber of chances, and most of Marseille’s chances have Michy Batshuayi’s fingerprints all over them.

Conclusion

The performance produced by Marseille was a indicator that they are certainly not the caliber of a 16th place team, which is also backed up by the data. It wasn’t a perfect performance, as PSG did create three clear cut chances from open play, but that’s usually a given when PSG play anyone in Ligue 1. PSG at times looked genuinely troubled with Marseille’s change of pace defensively and were hit on the counter multiple times including the opening goal. Bordeaux did similar things against PSG earlier in the season and it’s the clear tactic to use against a possession dominant side like PSG.

But it was also a reminder as to the massive gap between PSG and the rest of the field in Ligue 1. On an off day, PSG were still able to get in behind Marseille’s defense. In a battle of 4-3-3s, PSG’s version looked more compact defensively even with Marseille doing a number of things right.

The use of Remy Cabella at times effectively gifted PSG the right hand side and both Di Maria and Serge Aurier took great advantage of it. It looks increasingly unlikely that Marseille’s best lineup shouldn’t include both Barrada and Cabella, and it’ll be up to Michel to play a traditional winger if he wants to keep his version of the 4-3-3.

There are clear signs that Marseille will right the ship and move up the table. The problem is just how quickly can they climb up and salvage a possible shot at a Champions League birth for next season.