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UCL Teaser: What Bayern Munich can learn from Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-0 win over Lyon

Hint: They are not as unstoppable as we think.

Edinson Cavani and Neymar in action against Lyon at the Parc des Princes in Paris, September 17, 2017.

As midweek Champions league fixtures loom over Europe, one game stands out amongst the rest. Paris Saint-Germain vs Bayern Munich - the best team in France will meet the best team in Germany on Wednesday night in an epic clash that is as much an ideological battle as it is a football game.

Off the pitch, PSG are as different from Bayern Munich as could be. Everyone knows the story. One of the so-called oil-money clubs, the Qatar-owned conglomerate Qatar Sports Investments has spent billions to assemble one of the most devastating squads in Europe. Their financial might was on full display this summer as they spent a combined total of €402m on Barcelona’s Neymar Jr. and Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe.

For comparison, Bayern Munich’s entire squad cost €387.5m to assemble.

What do we know about PSG?

Not a lot, to be perfectly honest. Ligue 1 doesn’t have much of a following compared to the top four leagues, so it’s hard to find detailed accounts of PSG’s games outside of the Champions League. They have a reputation as a team that dominates possession and scores plenty of goals, but that alone doesn’t tell us much. That’s why I took the liberty of looking at one of their recent games against a good opponent - Lyon.

Why Lyon?

Olympique Lyonnais are a strong team. They came fourth in Ligue 1 last year and made it to the semi-finals of the Europa League, losing to eventual runners-up Ajax. While they lost Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal and Corentin Tolisso to Bayern, they remain a very threatening side, enough to make PSG work hard for the three points when they met on September 17.

The reason I chose this game is because it would be the closest representative of how a tie might go against Bayern. Lyon like to pass the ball and play out from the back, something that’s very similar to how the Bavarians do things. It was also a game in which all of PSG’s incredible front three played - Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappe were all on the starting lineup. Overall, the team sheet looked like this:

One key player was missing for PSG, and that was Marco Veratti. The Italian was serving a suspension for picking up two yellow cards in a game against Toulouse. This was very obvious right from the beginning as ...

#1: PSG lacked control of the midfield without Verratti

Paris are a team known for dominating the possession, and that’s exactly what they did. Yet, possession stats can be misleading. While PSG had the lion’s share of the possession at 70.3%, they probably didn’t enjoy the experience very much. Lyon’s midfield and defense closed off all vertical passing channels for the Parisians, making them struggle to get the ball up-field and towards their mercurial attackers.

Lyon engaged a low- to mid-press in the center of the pitch and kept their lines tight. PSG’s midfield duo of Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot were at a loss to produce any defense-splitting passes from the center of the pitch, so they were forced to play the ball wide to fullbacks Layvin Kurzawa and Dani Alves. PSG maintained this horizontal passing game for the entire duration of the match; there were scarcely any chances created from the middle.

Veratti’s stand-in for the night, Julian Draxler, had a poor game. He failed to create any good chances and was anonymous for most of PSG’s attacks. The only central attack from PSG that resulted in a good chance was a splitting pass from Neymar that Mbappe failed to convert. The attack and the defense seemed disconnected and prone to forcing the issue - PSG’s players were forced to play risky passes and long balls over the top to try and break down Lyon’s defense.

The implications: This turn of events bodes well for Bayern. PSG clearly seem to have an Achilles heel in Marco Verratti. If the Bavarians can somehow remove him from the equation, the threat from PSG’s incredible front three reduces greatly. It will all depend on who Carlo Ancelotti chooses to play in midfield - a trio of Arturo Vidal, Thiago Alcantara, and Corentin Tolisso should do the trick.

#2: It’s going to be Kimmich vs Kurzawa, not Kimmich vs Neymar

Every Bayern fan dreads (and secretly relishes) a battle between Joshua Kimmich and Neymar. However, that scenario might not come to fruition. Against Lyon, Neymar played somewhat centrally while left back Kurzawa pushed high up the pitch, almost as another left winger. Bayern fans will be familiar with this scenario - it is almost exactly the same setup Carlo Ancelotti uses with Franck Ribery and David Alaba.

Neymar relied heavily on Kurzawa for support. The left back provided almost all the width on the pitch, getting into regular duels with Lyon’s right back. It was the same story on the right side of the pitch, where former Barcelona man Dani Alves provided all the width. PSG’s forwards in general played rather narrow. Without Verratti’s presence, they were the main supply lines for PSG’s attack.

The implications: There are good things and bad things to say about this. While Kimmich will be glad to not be marking Neymar, that means Bayern’s central defenders will have mark Cavani, Neymar, AND Mbappe. On the other flank, Rafinha vs Dani Alves will be an all-Brazilian duel that the Bavarians will struggle to win — unless of course David Alaba is fit to start. Defending the wide areas will be crucial to the tie (for both teams).

On the attacking front, the wide areas could become a liability for the Parisians. With their fullbacks pushing up so high, they could become exposed to counterattacks. Lyon mostly played through the center so they were untroubled, but a speedy counter by Coman or Robben on the wing could be their kryptonite.

#3: PSG’s attackers haven’t yet gelled with each other

While much has been made of Paris’ newly minted (and super-expensive) attack, the trio of Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappe seemed to be on different wavelengths for most of the game. There was basically no linkup play between Neymar and Cavani and it wasn’t much better between Neymar and Mbappe. Individually, the forwards were sublime - creating chances out of thin air and making the most of the sparse service that they received.

Bayern fans will be familiar with the scenario - it’s similar to the current situation between Kingsley Coman, James Rodriguez, Robert Lewandowski, and Thomas Muller. The passes just didn’t seem to fall at their feet for some reason, no matter how many times they beat their man or found themselves in space. Part of it also had to do with Lyon’s excellent man-marking and ability to intercept the ball. Neymar especially was pickpocketed on numerous occasions.

The implications: This one is pretty straightforward for Bayern. They can’t rely on PSG’s attackers to be out of sync during the tie. This is a team that has scored 21 goals in just 7 league games, after all. Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng will have to be on top of their game to stop the Parisians from running riot. However, the important thing to remember is that PSG can be stopped. If the team maintains its concentration and cuts off the supply lines to the front three, PSG will surely become frustrated.

When you frustrate your opponents, they make mistakes. Bayern need to capitalize on those mistakes when they come.

#4: PSG played rough, and the ref let them

It isn’t all about possession from PSG. They can in fact play dirty if they need to. Lyon were hard done by in the opening minutes of the match when Kurzawa blatantly fouled a Lyon player inside the box. Since this is a league where VAR isn’t a thing yet, the referee waved play on and Lyon were denied a stonewall penalty. The officiating didn’t get much better throughout the match, with PSG’s midfield (especially Adrien Rabiot) making some questionable interceptions to win the ball back from Lyon’s attackers.

The implications: While these transgressions were ultimately irrelevant to the outcome of the game, it shows that PSG have some bite (besides their attack). While Bayern probably won’t be too bothered by such antics, certain players like Arturo Vidal would do well to keep their calm and not get riled up too much.

#5: Miscellaneous Observations

  • Mbappe started the game wide, but he wasn’t getting the ball so he went central.
  • A vast majority of the play was on Neymar’s flank.
  • It will be a miracle if Draxler starts against Bayern. He was really poor.
  • Cavani missed a penalty because the goalkeeper dived to his right. So Sven knows what he has to do.
  • Rabiot could cause Bayern quite a few problems. Most of PSG’s counters went through him.
  • When Neymar did go wide, he was stopped handily by Lyon’s left back.
  • PSG leave a lot of space between defenders, and they depend on their pressing to keep them safe. Lyon had almost no time on the ball around their box.
  • Lyon arguably had better chances than PSG, but squandered them all.
  • Kurzawa had an off-game. He wasn’t very effective in the attack.
  • Thiago Motta is good at recycling possession, but he didn’t do much else.
  • Near the end of the game, Thiago Silva pushed up the pitch to participate in the midfield.
  • I really regret watching Ligue 1.

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