Under Thomas Tuchel PSG have scored an incredible amount of goals in Ligue 1 this season (2.78 per match), regardless of the structure and personnel in the side. However, a team cannot base its success solely on its attacking principles and individual brilliance. In this article I will look at PSG’s pressing structure in recent league matches and, although it has been effective, why they have conceded a number of goals along the way.
In the recent Ligue 1 games against Bordeux and Amiens, PSG set up in a 4-4-2 system with an emphasis of putting pressure on the opposition back line early, forcing defenders to play quickly. In midfield, the two centre midfielders will go man for man in an attempt to close the space between the strikers and midfield lines with the two wide players playing narrow both in and out possession. As we will see, when this works it can be effective but if the timing of the press is wrong, it can allow the opposition to escape the press and play through or become a threat on transition. It is important to note that Bordeux played a 3-4-3 with Amiens operating in a standard 4-4-2 formation.
Forcing the opponent to play long
As we can see from this diagram, the aggressive positioning of the strikers prevent the Bordeux back line from getting the opportunity to play forward with Neymar ready to jump on the pass to the outside centre back on the switch of play. As this happens the structure behind the initial press changes. With Bordeux playing a 3-4-3, Bernat detaches from the back 4 and jumps onto the wing back with Kimpembe coming across to defend the long ball. It is important to note that the two centre midfielders played with aggressive positioning, man marking Besic and Otavio and preventing Bordeux from circulating the ball through their two midfield sitters and forcing the player in possession to either play to the side and make the attack predictable or to go long early. A consequence of a good high press is the opposition playing a long ball down the side, therefore it is vital that the centre back on the side of the ball is across quickly to ensure they are ready to defend the channel. In this instance Kimpembe is able to get across quickly and, when the ball does go long, he is a good position to regain the ball and build an attack through heading the ball down to Veratti who has reacted well to the long ball by turning quickly in order to pick up the second ball.
In the game against Amiens, PSG again gained success through forcing the opponent to play long. In this match the two strikers looked to press with the intent of forcing the centre backs to play long or back to the GK. The positioning of the wide midfielders allowed the strikers to press, being narrow and enticing the Amiens goalkeeper to playing a long-floated ball into the fullbacks that can trigger the wide player to jump out and press aggressively. As we can see in the clip the narrowness of Di Maria and Draxler invite the long-floated balls but the positioning of the wingers allows them to cover the fullback on the pass. On this pass they become aggressive with the fullbacks ready to jump on the wingers and the striker ball side ready to press the backward pass to the centre backs who then have to play long.
In possession structure leading to difficult counter pressing moments
It is no secret that the best counter pressing teams are the teams that are proactive and think about regaining the ball even when they have possession. A prime example of this would be the use of the inverted fullback by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City who ensures that the distances between players are short enough to allow quick regains, particularly in central areas. For PSG counter pressing is of paramount importance, particularly in a league where they will dominate large portions of the ball (Average of 61% possession per match). Therefore, it was a surprise to see them lack a counter pressing structure and allow both Amiens and Bordeux to enjoy moments of transition and break out. This may be down to the characteristics of the players in forward areas. Edinson Cavani is a player who is aggressive in the air and likes to play on the furthest away centre back in order to generate speed when he attacks the cross. His strike partner Kylian Mbappe is more aligned to playing outside the width of the box, either peeling into a position outside the left centre back or rotating with Neymar to receive wide and utilise his qualities in 1v1s in wide areas. Although two differing player profiles can get the best out the players in an attacking sense it becomes difficult for PSG to regain the ball quickly high up the field with distances between the two being so far apart. Contrary to this Liverpool have a front 3 that are narrow and play within close proximity, thus allowing them to surround the ball quickly and either prevent the opponent from making an accurate forward pass or forcing the player in possession to make a mistake.
As seen in the diagram against Bordeux, when Veratti picks up possession of the ball Bernat makes a run beyond with Mbappe and Neymar playing close together in order to create quick combinations, however when Veratti plays through the lines to Mbappe he makes a forward run to support ahead of the ball. This then creates difficulty when PSG lose the ball as the structure behind the ball is not set to regain quickly. With the two centre backs not close enough to De Preville it allows the striker to dictate the situation, either receiving into feet and turning or running in behind into the space when the centre backs step up with no pressure on the ball. In this instance the distance between Veratti and Gueye is too big which prevents the opportunity to apply immediate pressure on the ball, allowing Besic to step out with possession and play a pass through for De Preville. Fortunately for PSG the pace of the two centre backs allows for a recovery, however in the Champions League and against better opposition and against quicker strikers it can allow teams an opportunity to create scoring chances.
Against Amiens, PSG faced similar problems in possession, allowing the opponents to break out and exploit the space in the vacated fullback areas. As we can see there is a lack of balance in centre midfield with both Gueye and Paredes on the same side of the pitch. This then means that when PSG try to play passes through the lines for the inverted wide players they are not set up to regain the ball quickly. In this situation, the set up behind the ball allows Amiens to attack the free space with no one ready to apply immediate pressure to Zungu when he regains the ball. Due to the compactness of Amiens, passes through the middle of the pitch are more likely to be intercepted. Although PSG have numbers in those central areas, if they are in front of the ball when the ball is lost, they cannot influence the game. With both fullbacks playing on the outside of the pitch, it allows Amiens to break out inside PSG’s attacking shape and exploit the spaces vacated down the sides. In this instance Zungu steps out with the ball and Bakker is too far out to recover and prevent Otero from carrying the ball into the final third. If we look at the balance of the team on PSG’s left it is clear that no one is playing deeper than the ball. If passes through the lines are to be cut out it creates an opportunity for Amiens to attack the space on the counter.
When playing in any shape, the key to an effective press is not just the intensity of the initial pressure but the compactness vertically (e.g. midfield to strikers) and horizontally between players (e.g. centre midfielder and wide midfielder). Only when there is sufficient compactness between units and individuals can a team press effectively.
It is rare for the player who initiates the first press to win the ball, therefore there must be support around the presser to ensure players are ready to regain the second or third pass. In the early stages against Bordeux the visitors managed to evade the press due to the distances between the midfield line and forwards. As we can see the distance between Sabaly and Neymar is too big to influence the wingback when he receives possession. Sabaly is then able to find a pass into Besic who can then play through into Hwang behind the opposition midfield. There are a number of issues in this instance that allows Bordeux to play through the lines and attack PSG’s back line.
Firstly, the distance between the strikers and the centre midfield players are too big. Although Mbappe and Cavani apply pressure there is a lack of support from behind, meaning that if Bordeux can find Besic or Otavio they can then turn under no pressure and play forward. Secondly when the ball does go wide Neymar is too deep and unable to influence Sabaly when he receives the ball. When Sabaly is able to find Besic, Veratti leaves his slot on the first touch of Besic, rather than when the ball is travelling. This then gives the Bordeux midfielder time to play through and evade pressure.
Again, PSG were able to recover the situation and allow the ball to go out for a throw in, however, if we look at the Dortmund’s second goal against PSG in the Champions League, teams with higher levels of quality can exploit the space through poor defensive positioning and a lack of awareness of space behind the opposition lines.
It is no secret that PSG will continue to dominate Ligue 1 this season and go on to secure the title fairly convincingly. In possession, they have a number of attacking options that allow them to break down opponents in different situations based on the characteristics of themselves but also the opposition. Out possession, it is clear to see that Thomas Tuchel wants his team to regain the ball high when possible and although they have the capabilities to defend high they can still be exposed to counter-attacking moments and being played through due to a lack of compactness. Although this will have little impact domestically it may be the fine line between success and failure in the Champions League.