After 69 long days, the Champions League was finally back, and boy was it back with a bang! On the first day of the knockout stage, all eyes were on a blockbuster round of 16 tie between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid at the Parc de Princes.
Kylian Mbappé, whose current contract with PSG ends in the summer, prepared to face the side that currently seems to be his most likely destination for the 2022/23 season, while in-form Brazilian winger Vinícius Júnior had a chance to prove his mettle at the biggest of stages. Achraf Hakimi was facing his former employers, while Barcelona legend Lionel Messi prepared to reacquaint himself with some of his old El Clásico foes.
The pressure was undoubtedly on both managers, as their respective boardrooms were expecting a run to the latter stages of the knockout phase at the very least.
Both of them put out their line-ups in their regular 4-3-3 formation, with Karim Benzema making his return from injury and slotting straight into the Madrid front line. Mauricio Pochettino elected to use Lionel Messi as a false nine once again, while Neymar made an appearance on the bench after his injury in late November.
It is not very often that just one visualisation can sum up the story of a match, but the xT (Expected Threat) timeline of this match does a pretty good job of it.
PSG dominated proceedings with over 57% of the ball, but more importantly, it was the areas they had possession in that mattered. 41% of the match’s action happened in Madrid’s defensive third, and PSG had a field tilt of close to 70%.
All of this is not necessarily a problem for Madrid, as they have shown the capability to severely hurt teams on the counter-attack this season with the likes of Vinícius and Benzema in devastating form. But, to be effective they need to get into dangerous areas, which did not happen against PSG.
Vinícius, who generally is their main outlet in transition due to his incredible ball-carrying ability, did get a fair few touches in the attacking third, but they were mainly in the wide areas as he was rarely allowed to cut inside and get in the box.
Benzema had an even worse time as he was forced to drift wide or drop very deep to get the ball, so he was kept very far away from the PSG goal.
Unsurprisingly, neither of them managed to fire even a single shot on goal.
One of the main reasons for this was that Madrid’s defensive set-up made it very difficult for Vinícius to be in the danger areas for counter-attacks, but to understand that we must first take a quick look at how PSG operated in possession.
Pochettino has often used Messi as a false nine of late, and it is easy to see why he has persisted with this. The Argentine international’s tendency to drop very deep in possession allows for a lot of attacking rotations, which is one of the main ways to disrupt opposition defences.
In this match, Marquinhos moved into a more central position while Danilo Pereira dropped deep to form a back-three in possession, opening up space for Messi to drop into. Both full-backs pushed forward while the wingers took positions in the half-spaces. Marco Verratti did look to get forward in the left half-space on occasion, and Mbappé took up a more central position in such cases.
Madrid did not press high up the pitch, and this is entirely understandable given the fact that their opponents had one of the quickest and most clinical forwards in the world in Mbappé, who would always look to exploit any space in behind the defence. Instead, the visitors defended in a 4-5-1 low block. The main issue was that the wingers were asked to track the PSG full-backs, who took up very advanced positions.
Due to this set-up, even when Madrid turned possession over, Vinícius’ counter-attacking threat was negated because he was too deep in his defensive third.
The flipside to this was that the visitors were able to restrict PSG to very few clear-cut chances, as they always maintained numerical advantages in the defensive third.
Ultimately, it was the individual brilliance of Mbappé that made the difference. The French international ran rings around Dani Carvajal all night long, winning a penalty in the second half after the 30-year-old Spaniard hacked him down in the box. Messi failed to capitalise from the spot, but Mbappé spared his blushes late on by scoring a superb stoppage-time winner after dribbling past a couple of opponents.
That goal epitomised how football is a game of such small margins. Had that not gone it, Carlo Ancelotti would probably have felt that his game plan of containing PSG worked well enough. He would have gladly taken a goalless draw ahead of the second leg at Santiago Bernabéu, where Madrid will undoubtedly look to be more adventurous, even more so now with a deficit to overturn.
Tactically, Los Blancos might need to switch it up for their next Champions League match because PSG outwitted them here. Having to defend with the wingers so deep will not work, but letting PSG’s full-backs have a free run on the wings is not a bright idea either.
Perhaps the best solution might be to switch to a 3-5-2 and match the Parisian front line man-for-man, allowing Vinícius and Benzema to focus primarily on the attacking side of things.
In any case, we will be treated to an enthralling and intriguing second leg at the Bernabéu in under a month.
Stats courtesy Transfermarkt, Twelve Football, Opta via WhoScored and Vizz App.
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