Probably the biggest game of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s nascent tenure at Manchester United came on Tuesday night in the Champions League against PSG. United came into this game on the crest of a wave, having won at Fulham on the weekend to extend their unbeaten run under the Norwegian to 11 games in all competitions. PSG, on the other hand, had limped to a 1-0 win over Bordeaux courtesy of an Edinson Cavani penalty, with the Uruguayan going off injured soon after to join Neymar on the sidelines for this clash.
The absence of two of PSG’s much-vaunted front three was a definite boost for United. Nevertheless, with the likes of Angel di Maria, Julian Draxler and Kylian Mbappe in the side, it would still take a superb display for the Red Devils to make their way past the Parisians.
Solskjaer selected Eric Bailly alongside Victor Lindelof at centre-back, with the Ivorian’s speed to deal with Mbappe a possible reason for this. The side was as expected otherwise.
Thomas Tuchel started Dani Alves on the right wing, ahead of Thilo Kehrer, presumably to deal with Anthony Martial on United’s left. Angel Di Maria returned for the first time to Old Trafford since his ill-fated spell at the club. Draxler played centrally, just ahead of Marco Verrati and Marquinhos, while Juan Bernat continued at left-back. Presnel Kimpembe partnered Thiago Silva in defence.
PSG mark Pogba out of the game
United’s recent resurgence has quite literally been driven by Paul Pogba from midfield. The Frenchman has looked a different player under Solskjaer, providing creativity and goals from his left-sided midfield berth. PSG and Tuchel had done their homework though, as from the early minutes onwards, Marquinhos was all over Pogba like a rash.
The Brazilian tracked the Frenchman closely, not allowing him time on the ball and limiting the positions he could get himself in. Pogba’s limited influence on the match can be seen from the touch map below –
In the first half, Marquinhos would advance as high up as the edge of United’s area in order to shut Pogba down. It could not be clearer that Tuchel had identified Pogba as the key to United’s creativity.
It was telling that one of the few genuine moments of panic in the PSG defence came about on one of the occasions that Marquinhos failed to pick up Pogba’s run.
Pogba was not the only one troubling PSG. They seemed terrified of Marcus Rashford’s pace too, and similarly limited his opportunities to run at their backline –
PSG had come to Old Trafford with a clear game plan: to shut off the supply to United’s forwards from midfield. The plan worked a treat. Rashford and Martial had only 18 and 17 touches of the ball in the first half before Martial had to be withdrawn through injury. This indicates just how effective PSG were at starving United’s attackers of opportunities to counter-attack.
United’s left flank shut down
Another major theme under Solskjaer has been United’s tendency to attack down the left-hand side. Pogba plays off that side, while Anthony Martial has also been one of United’s best players under Solskjaer. Additionally, Luke Shaw provides a greater attacking threat from left-back then Ashley Young on the right.
This explained why Tuchel started with two right-backs, in Dani Alves and Thilo Kehrer. Alves could be effective on the counter-attack while dropping deep to shut down Shaw and Martial. Indeed, PSG’s insistence on closing down United’s avenues of attack down the left often led to situations like below.
It did lead to an abundance of space for Young down the right on multiple occasions, but the United captain was unable to take advantage.
PSG were also diligent in dropping into a 4-4-2 without the ball, aiming to deny United space between the lines.
This combination of Pogba being marked and United’s left flank being shut down led to United struggling to stitch together meaningful attacks. Lingard and Martial’s substitutions through injury were massive blows as well, as it robbed the Red Devils of pace on the counter-attack, and allowed PSG to be bolder in the second half.
Tuchel’s intelligence shines through
Thomas Tuchel has a well-gained reputation for being a tactical mastermind, and he proved this on multiple occasions at Old Trafford. The German was constantly on the touchline, adjusting his team’s shape and structure, and his adjustments in the second half arguably won PSG the game, and possibly the tie.
While PSG dropped into a compact 4-4-2 in defence, in attack Di Maria and Draxler were instructed to take up positions in the half-spaces between the United centre-backs and full-backs. With the threat of Mbappe’s pace pinning Bailly and Lindelof back, there was a lot of space in front of United’s defence for PSG to exploit.
Additionally, Tuchel tweaked PSG’s formation midway through the first half to something more akin to a 3-4-2-1. Kehrer came inside to play as the third centre-back, freeing Alves and Bernat to play as wing-backs and stretch United, which created yet more space for Draxler, Mbappe and Di Maria.
United’s introductions of Mata and Sanchez for Martial and Lingard played right into Tuchel’s hands. He no longer had to worry about United’s pace on the counter-attack, and so the German pushed his side higher up the pitch in the second half, while also telling Mbappe to vary his positioning and drag United’s defenders out of position. One such example is shown below.
Mbappe has gone slightly towards the left, while Bernat is hugging the touchline behind him. This forces Young to come inside to cover the Frenchman, leaving Bernat open, especially since Mata has not tracked back. Further infield, Draxler’s positioning is putting Matic in a similar quandary of having to try and cover two players at once, as can be seen from his body shape.
Neymar and Cavani’s absence turned into a blessing in disguise by the German manager. His side were superbly structured throughout the match, and he made the right in-game tweaks to take advantage of United’s substitutions and put PSG in pole position for the quarter-finals.
In truth, United were outclassed on the night by a superior team and manager. Solskjaer still has plenty to learn at this level, and his attempt to stick to his previously successful methods played into PSG’s hands. The French side were well-drilled and knew what they had to do to stop United, while also ensuring that they got the goals to stamp their superiority. United need to learn from this experience, and while Pogba’s late sending off makes a comeback in Paris even more unlikely, it was nevertheless an eye-opener for the club and its fans.
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