So dramatic has been the season of 2020/2021 so far — a period of non-stop matches, contract extension stories, Sport Bild’s “Brazzo vs Flick” smackdown, Germany’s struggles and above else, tons of GOALS — that the year feels to have passed by in a flash.
Now, with the season-defining moment on the horizon, however, the 72-hours till Wednesday evening will feel like eternity.
In a matchup that is certain to go down as the highlight of the quarter-final round, trophy holders Bayern Munich will reunite with previous edition’s runner-ups Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League. Despite both teams missing their key player, Die Roten and Les Rouge et Bleu secured their last eight berths by a fine margin, defeating their respective round-of-16 opponents S.S. Lazio and FC Barcelona.
Before we get down to business, here is a brief rundown on PSG’s development since the sacking of manager Thomas Tuchel in December 2020.
PSG have undergone notable changes under the newly appointed manager, Mauricio Pochettino. Depending on the availability of players, the Argentine has experimented with various formations, so far. The Parisians have lined up in 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 under him, but the double-pivot seems to be his preferred choice. Similar to Tuchel-era, they are creative with the ball, deploy high-press without the ball and are lethal on the counters.
Midfielders Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes have been crucial to his set-up, with the former playing in a more advanced role and the latter plying his trade as a deep-lying playmaker. Both of these moves have seemed to have brought the best in the duo’s performance.
Unfortunately for Pochettino, the two will be missing the first leg. We can expect PSG to deploy a front-four consisting of Moise Kean in front of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar Jr. and Ángel Di María.
So, what are the areas Bayern Munich can target against PSG? Let’s take a look:
PSG’s vulnerabilities: the two “Gegen-” terms
The first notable weakness plays right into our hands. Les Parisiens are still in the developing stage under a new manager. Their core is quite susceptible to counter-pressing, which is observable after they win the ball.
After winning the ball near their box, PSG aren’t quick in reorganizing themselves and are often overwhelmed when pressed immediately by the opponents. They search for outlets like Mbappe or Icardi to hit the opposition on the break. But when the outlets are marked, it leads to a turnover.
In order to create overloads in the center, PSG wingers are instructed to drift inside, with the full-backs positioning themselves high up the pitch to provide width. As a result, they leave lots of space behind them. These serve as the pathway for the opposition to counter-attack.
Another noteworthy event takes place when PSG move high up the pitch to press and force the opposition to go long. A gap emerges between their defense and midfield in the process, giving opposition attackers a chance to capitalize on the slow reactions and press-induced vulnerabilities of center-backs Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe. While the tall center-halves are able to win aerial duels, they often lose out to opponents pouncing on second balls.
Regardless of whether Verratti and/or Paredes make it to the game, midfield remains Bayern’s high ground in this battle against PSG. Not only does the German trio of Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich form an impeccable unit, it is supported by wingers Kingsley Coman and Leroy Sane, both of whom have fully developed their off-the-ball defending. Thus, Bayern Munich’s engine room could force Parisians into errors with gegenpress and look to capitalize on fast break.
Playing on PSG’s structural problems
Beyond the attacking line, PSG’s shape starts to distort with intelligent off-the-ball movement from the opponent. This primarily stems from lack of coordination, communication gaps between players (Communication is key, just ask a quintuple-winning coach) and structural issues.
Pochettino’s men prefer to block the opponent’s vertical passing channels and force them wide with the use of a compact shape. However, they repeatedly fail to execute the plan properly. Moreover, various clubs have employed creative ways to bypass PSG’s midfield and feed their attackers moving between the lines .
Teams that play short and have ball-playing personnel at the back are able to beat their press and pick a line-breaking pass. Now, this is where their shape starts to disrupt. As soon as an attacker is about to receive a pass between the lines, PSG’s center-backs tend to charge aggressively to restrict his time and space on the ball. In doing so, their defensive shape is disrupted, helping the attackers make runs and take advantage of the empty spaces left behind.
Another method is to have the full-backs pass inside. Barcelona and Monaco, in particular, were successful in deploying this to great effect as they exploited holes between midfield and defense through the use of outside-backs and trapped PSG’s center-backs in a state of indecision.
This is another area of advantage for Bayern as full-backs form an integral part of our buildup. Die Roten’s Benjamin Pavard and co. possess enough individual quality and understanding of the system to assert themselves on the pitch. As a matter of fact, left-back Alphonso Davies happens to be our second-highest involved player, registering 0.65 in xGBuildup per 90 (per Understat).
As is common in teams that have pressing as an integral component, PSG look to trigger their press when the opposition moves wide — also known as making use of touchline. Often while doing so, they fail to coordinate accordingly, leaving spaces on subsequent parts of the pitch. Skilled wingers, like Dembele, were able to evade their press and exploit gaps in half-spaces.
At Bayern, both Coman and Sane are adept at luring markers to wider areas. Given their dribbling and close control, they can consequently absorb and break away from pressure, creating cavities for themselves or the likes of Muller and Leon Goretzka to run into.
Working our way around PSG defense
“How will Mbappe fare?” & “How will Bayern cope without Robert Lewandowski?” are probably the two topics that have occupied our minds. But this could very well be Bayern wing-duo Sane and Coman’s tie to shine. The German giants are one of the few teams to possess this crop of wingers, who can combine buildup qualities, dribbling and speed to devastating effect.
The use of in-behind runs is another strategy opponents have used against Pochettino’s PSG. This particular weakness is an extension of the lack of cohesion point we discussed above.
PSG’s backline isn’t formidable by any means. Whether through a long ball over the top or a piercing through pass, the Red-and-Blues have had an increasingly difficult time keeping track of pace-y running between their center-backs or between a center-back and a full-back.
On an average, PSG have won 1.26 offsides per game, a subpar number when compared with Bayern’s 3.11 (per FBref).
Possession-minded teams often overcommit in the last minutes while chasing a goal and PSG have done no differently than others.
With Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba sitting at the back, the forwards will have no shortage of service. By making use of their well-timed runs and injection of fresh legs in the second-half, Bayern will have ample opportunities to hit on the transition.
Despite their incredible performance over Barcelona in first-leg, PSG have revealed numerous cracks that can expose them to a side like Bayern. The performance of Barcelona (second leg), Monaco and Ligue 1 minnows like Lorient, Nantes, Lille will certainly provide coach Hansi Flick the blueprint to overcome the French giants.
Should the players step up like they did against RB Leipzig, the Bavarians can be expected to create a plethora of chances. From the 14 goals PSG have conceded in the second-half (63% of total GA) in league, eight have been leaked in Pochettino’s three month-tenure, so far (as per Understat). Flick’s men will certainly succeed in finding the breakthrough, provided that they preach patience and work relentlessly — like they usually do — throughout the 90 minutes.