Well begun is half done and Ligue 1 giants Paris Saint-Germain certainly demonstrated that when they visited Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. It was a tough night for fans of the German giants, as Neymar-led Paris exposed the human side of an otherwise ruthless Die Roten machine.
Many aspects of the match were the usual, such as Bayern dominating the match, conceding an early goal and creating a plethora of chances. But in hindsight, PSG needed only a half-hour to inflict irreparable damage on the hosts.
The unexpected change from PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino was the deployment of Julian Draxler at left-wing. Superstars Kylian Mbappé and Neymar Jr. sat upfront in a 4-2-3-1 and led their side to 3-2 victory over the Bavarians.
What were the areas that stood out in Paris’ win over coach Hansi Flick’s men? Let’s take a look:
Bayern Munich’s midfield woes
Les Parisiens came into the match with a resolute intention of causing problems for midfielder Joshua Kimmich. In our preview of the match, we predicted that the Germany international might become a subject of pressing and as it happened, Pochettino assigned Neymar to fulfil this purpose.
“The coach wanted me and Neymar to close the passing lines on Kimmich.” — Mbappe in his post-match interview.
When Bayern built-up from the back, the Brazilian clung to Kimmich like a leech. In addition, Mbappé blocked passing lanes for center-backs and when the team moved upfield, midfielder Idrissa Gueye was particularly aggressive in targeting Kimmich. By taking out the orchestrator, PSG unsettled the Bayern symphony in buildup stage, especially in the first 35 minutes or so.
- Neymar stays on Kimmich and then closes down passing lane for Sule, forcing the center-back to pass to Pavard, who in turn passes to Neuer.
- In the buildup to PSG’s first goal, an unsettled Kimmich was dispossessed by Neymar.
- It was surely a rough night for Bayern’s #6, who took a lot of hits from PSG players. By the end of the match, Kimmich had completed 29(!) passes under pressure (per FBref). PSG knew just how important Kimmich is and targeted him in the first first half an hour.
PSG came prepared as the visitors were successful in overcoming Bayern’s press in the periods of transition (although Bayern did lack their usual precision). They formed triangles, especially in wide areas, and by using quick interplays, PSG bypassed our midfield and attacked an isolated Bayern backline.
The best of defenses tremble when Neymar and Mbappé (supported by Ángel Di María) run at you. The tandem of Leon Goretzka/David Alaba and Kimmich were caught upfield almost everytime PSG attacked. A lot of blame is pinned on Jérôme Boateng and co. but the midfield’s failure to shield the defense has been a regular occurrence for Bayern, this season.
PSG’s remarkable display of perseverance
Credit where credit is due, the persistence of Pochettino’s men while countering Bayern’s game-plan was nothing short of exemplary.
Similar to last year’s final and also, in order to make up for Robert Lewandowski’s presence, Bayern flooded the box with as many men as possible. Aside from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Thomas Müller, Goretzka (later, Alaba), one of the wingers and even Benjamin Pavard looked to rush into the box to overwhelm PSG’s defense.
On wings, Leroy Sané and Kingsley Coman remained wide for most of the match and looked to cut inside with the ball. They didn’t overcrowd the center, but aimed to trouble the opponent’s compact defense by forcing them to shift to one flank and switch the play with a diagonal long ball or a cross to the far post. Sané was often freed up in this manner as Bayern looked to attract Paris’ structure towards the left-side, where Alphonso Davies, Coman and Alaba were combining.
Wings are supposed to be our greatest source of creativity, but PSG’s ‘bus’ simply didn’t give them any space. The Parisians had as much as three men — a fullback, midfielder and winger — closing down a Bayern winger, in order to shut him off completely and force turnovers.
On the occasions Sané or Coman did manage to beat this barricade, they passed the ball to a player positioned at the edge of the box - usually Goretzka/Alaba, Pavard or Kimmich. But PSG’s wall blocked whatever came its way.
PSG’s approach was simple. They simply could not — and did not want to — keep possession. So they defended with eight players behind the ball, outnumbered Bayern’s men in the box and let Neymar and Mbappé use their trickery upfront. Pochettino wanted his team to give this fearsome duo as much space as quickly as possible. The more the Bayern players advanced upfield with the ball and committed to pressing, the greater became Mbappé’s chances of exploiting space with his pace.
Make no mistake, it was an elite ‘bus’ put up by the Red and Blues. No team had made 28 blocks and committed 114 pressures in the defensive-third as this Paris side against Bayern, this season (as per FBref). The men behind Mbappé-Neymar rarely ventured forward and when they did, they tracked back with twice the speed and utmost diligence.
Bayern’s chaotic decision-making in final-third
The reigning champs had 31 attempts at goal but many of those simply didn’t come from a quality goalscoring setting.
“The biggest coulda-woulda-shoulda moments came from the trio of Goretzka, Pavard and Alaba, whose 11 shots generated 1.3 xG, some really tight misses and zero goals.” — ESPN’s match report
As the match progressed, it became increasingly evident that the red shirts were feeling the heat while chasing the game. With PSG presenting an immovable wall and Bayern lacking Lewandowski’s extraterrestrial finishing boots (although Choupo-Moting’s performance as a deputy cannot be praised enough), the attackers frequently took their chances impatiently.
The haphazard shots only gave PSG a chance to attack on the break and the running back-and-forth worsened the matters for a Bayern roster running on a depleted battery.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here also, fatigue was too big of an external factor. Despite PSG’s laudable resilience, there was no stopping this Bayern team, at least not from scoring goals. And this is precisely where tiredness stepped in, like an anchor holding us back from giving that extra push while pressing, steadying our nerves before taking a shot, making accurate split-second decisions, (dare I say) letting Kimmich take those extra two steps to intercept Di María’s pass for Neymar (in the buildup to PSG’s first goal) and in many more areas.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for a team projected to conquer everything. Hopefully, the players have slept it off and are ready to fire on all cylinders. Onwards and upwards for the second leg.