UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain – tactical analysis
The UEFA Champions League group stages had reached its penultimate round of fixtures with many spots still up for grabs. Group H was particularly interesting, with the likes of Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig finding themselves together. The latter two had been semi-finalists last year with the French side reaching the final only to lose out to Bayern Munich. However, qualification was not going to come easy for the two sides in this group with Manchester United emerging victorious against them in the earlier game weeks. With United needing just a point to seal qualification to the knockout stages and PSG in danger of finding themselves three points adrift of RB Leipzig after their win earlier, in this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of both Manchester United and PSG in their crucial fixture. We will begin our analysis with the lineups of both sides.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side lined up in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, with Edinson Cavani leading the line. The Uruguayan striker scored two and assisted one in United’s comeback win against Southampton the previous weekend but his form was in stark contrast to that of Anthony Martial, who started down the left-wing. Martial is yet to record a goal or assist this season in the Premier League, a worrying stat considering that he has been the first-choice forward at the club.
Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes filled the other attacking positions, with the former being one of the top scorers in this edition of the competition. Fred and Scott McTominay started in holding midfield as they did in Paris in the previous meeting where they both put in impressive performances. The defence was the same for United, with Alex Telles having occupied the left-back slot for the last few fixtures and making it his own owing to Luke Shaw’s injury.
Thomas Tuchel’s side, however, started with a 4-3-3 formation with Moise Kean, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar forming the attacking trio. The latter two need no introduction with their world-class ability and Kean was finding his feet as well after his move from Everton. Marco Verratti returned to the side alongside Leandro Paredes and Danilo Pereira in midfield. The Italian had been out due to injury and his only appearance in this competition had been as a substitute in the previous fixture against Leipzig.
Nevertheless, his quality is unquestionable and with the likes of Pereira proving to be a solid holding midfield option, Verratti was bound to have more freedom to attack. Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe started as the centre-backs with Alessandro Florenzi and Abdou Diallo the preferred full-backs for this game. Former United players Ángel Di María and Ander Herrera may have hoped to get a start at their old stomping ground but were left on the bench for this clash.
PSG take control while United find their feet
The initial stages of the game saw PSG stamp their authority on the game while the home side took their time to settle in. The French side immediately switched to a 3-4-3 formation, with Pereira dropping in between the centre-backs and allowing the full-backs to push higher. Verratti and Paredes remained in midfield to play as double pivots and to receive and progress the ball up-field. The usage of the 3-4-3 formation also meant that the full-backs could provide width on the attack while the wingers tucked in and we saw this Mbappé and Neymar. The duo was content with drifting towards the centre to receive the ball in the half-spaces and sometimes even in more central areas of the pitch.
United looked to defend this with their 4-4-1-1 set-up off the ball with Cavani and Fernandes initiating the press. Martial and Rashford would push forward in support when the ball was played to their wing while McTominay and Fred were tasked with cutting the passes down the centre. However, PSG were able to spread the United frontline and create passing avenues to their double pivots meaning that they found themselves playing out of the press with relative ease. It did not help Solskjær’s side that they looked off the pace at the start, with the visiting team dictating the passage of play and forcing the home side to defend for long stretches.
With Neymar and Mbappé allowed to move centrally, the United defence also looked out of sorts. Aaron Wan-Bisakka and Telles would have originally been tasked with stopping them respectively but with the two showing good movement, the full-backs could do nothing to follow them and ended up positioning themselves narrowly along the line of their centre-backs. Neymar proved the biggest threat out of the two as well, as the Brazilian would often drop down to receive the ball before making diagonal runs through the thirds from the left to the right side.
With Fred and McTominay caught up in aiding the press, there were spaces between the lines for United and the front three of PSG, aided by runs of Paredes and Verratti, looked to exploit this. With such a narrow structure, United were not well placed to defend the PSG attacks and all they could try to do was get their bodies behind the ball in the opening stages. Even this, however, proved costly after a deflected Mbappé shot found its way to Neymar who made no mistake from close range despite a slightly tight angle.
Having been on the back foot from the start and going a goal down, United had to find a response and managed to jolt themselves back into the game. They looked to keep possession and rotate the ball to play themselves into the game, maintaining a high line and playing something of a 2-4-3-1 formation. Telles and Wan-Bisakka were at the same line as that of the double pivots in Fred and McTominay and this resembled the midfield of PSG as we saw earlier. However, off the ball, the French side settled into a 4-1-4-1 formation, with the full-backs dropping back and Pereira sitting just above the line of defence. Kean would press the centre-backs while the wingers could apply pressure on the full-backs and Verratti and Paredes looked to close down the pivots. It appeared that PSG were able to commit enough men to win the ball back at any given time and hence, United had to find a way to get themselves level and back into the game.
Talismanic Fernandes and Rashford’s eye for goal
It appears that all good things for United in recent times have come through Fernandes and to say so would not be far from the truth as well. The Portuguese midfielder has truly been a threat going forward and his immense work rate along with his passing and shooting has been a crucial part of United’s improved attacking performances. This was no different against PSG as well, with Fernandes constantly troubling the defence. The midfielder looked to attack the half-spaces before playing in a cross or rotating the ball around the edge of the box to put the pressure on the visiting side. While he did so, Rashford would drift inside towards the centre to exploit the spaces that the midfielders have left behind.
Alternatively, when Fernandes moved into the half-spaces on the other flank, Rashford would find himself near the centre of the box, awaiting a cross or any pass in behind. This also opened up space for the likes of Wan-Bisakka to move into and provide greater width in attack. This style of play often meant that United would end up with two forwards centrally, Rashford and Cavani, and they were able to cause problems for the defenders. This meant that PSG had to get players behind the ball to make it harder for United to penetrate and hence, except for Kean, nearly every other player found themselves dropping back to defend.
However, just as it had been for United, getting too many players behind proved to be detrimental for PSG with a deflected Rashford shot finding its way to the back of the net. This time, instead of moving as central as he had before, Rashford found his way to the half-space instead of Fernandes and found himself having enough space to take a shot on goal. The PSG defence had been accustomed to the Englishman staying in the centre and as they looked to cover the threat by crowding the box and staying deep, the left space towards the edge of the box for Rashford to exploit. Scoring against the Parisians for the third time in his fourth game, Rashford proved to be a thorn in Tuchel’s side yet again.
United fail to capitalise and PSG make them pay
It was the hosts who were the better side early on in the second half, with Cavani’s movements causing the PSG defence all sorts of problems. The forward had left the French side as their leading goal scorer and surely had a point to prove after the side failed to renew his contract on expiry. His excellent runs off the ball dragged the PSG defenders out of position and created large gaps in the defence for the other attackers to exploit. As we see above, his darting run to support Rashford down the wing lures Pereira out of his position and stretches the backline. Marquinhos cannot follow in order to cut down space as he risked leaving Martial in behind. Cavani’s quick passing as well meant that PSG struggled to contain him while the rest of the defenders and midfielders could get back in position and United were clearly able to take advantage to create chances.
We see more of the same one again here as well. Cavani’s intelligent positioning means that he has found himself in a perfect position to run clean through on goal. He identifies the space in between the back three and is able to time his run to perfection as well, meaning that he is not caught out by PSG’s high-line. Having slowly played their way into the game, United were clearly looking the dominant side and regularly creating opportunities based on their positioning and movement and Tuchel’s side struggled to cope in these stages. United could have easily been a few goals ahead had they made the most use of such opportunities but two glaring misses from Martial meant that the score stayed level and having narrowly escaped, Tuchel looked to reshuffle his tactics.
Bringing on Mitchel Bakker for Kean and Herrera for Paredes, Tuchel changed his side’s formation to a 3-5-2, or a 3-1-4-2 with Pereira playing as the holding midfielder. Diallo, Kimpembe and Marquinhos formed the back three with Bakker, Verratti, Herrera and Florenzi making up the four in midfield. Neymar and Mbappé formed the attacking duo and in this manner, PSG set up to counter-attack the threat caused by United. The front two had enough quality to trouble the United backline, meaning that Fred and McTominay would not only have to take care of the four in midfield but also aid their centre-backs as well.
The United wingers also had to fall back to then help out the two pivots and in this way, they were pegged back by this sudden change in tactics. The change paid dividends immediately, with Bakker denied by a brilliant save from David de Gea after Neymar played him through only for PSG to score off the resulting corner. Moments later, Fred was also sent off for a second bookable offence, one that seemed a bit harsh but considering that he only received a yellow for his supposed headbutt on Paredes in the first half and was consistently lunging in for tackles, it seemed like it was a long time coming. Reduced to 10 men, United put up a valiant effort, bringing on the likes of Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek and Mason Greenwood in the hope of finding an equaliser to send them through but PSG were resolute in defence and managed to score off a counter late into the game to seal all three points.
The win means that PSG find themselves needing just a point in their last game at home against bottom side İstanbul Başakşehir to secure qualification for the knockout stages. The French side looked in deep trouble after losing to both United and Leipzig in their opening three games but two wins on the bounce mean that they have kept their fate in their own hands.
The same goes for United as well who, despite facing defeat in this game, need just a point away at Leipzig to progress to the next stage. However, this is no easy feat considering that the home side needs a win despite being on the same nine points as United and PSG owing to their head to head results. With just one round left in the group stage, it’s all up for grabs in this group and next week’s games would surely make for interesting watching.