PSG 2-2 Montpellier: narrowness versus width
First played second in Ligue 1, and PSG maintain their one-point lead.
PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti was unable to use Javier Pastore from the start – he was fit only for the bench. The only change from the 0-0 draw with Nice was Blaise Matuidi coming in for Mathieu Bodmer on the left of midfield.
Rene Girard made three changes, bringing in Hilton at the back, Souleymane Camara on the right, and Jamel Saihi in the centre of midfield, in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
PSG dominate the centre
This game was a contrast of styles – more specifically, a contrast of formations. PSG frequently played 4-2-3-1 under Antoine Kombouare, but under Carlo Ancelotti they’ve moved to more of a 4-3-2-1, the system he often used at both Milan and Chelsea.
Up against the 4-2-3-1 of Montpellier, this meant the teams were strong in completely different areas. PSG packed the centre of the pitch, with Jeremy Menez and Nene rarely moving out to the flanks, despite the fact we’re accustomed to seeing both of them play out there. They didn’t even more wide without the ball, (as Ancelotti told the equivalent players to do in big games at Chelsea, which made the side 4-3-2-1 with the ball, and 4-3-3 without). This was a straight 4-3-2-1, and PSG had 5 v 3 in the centre, although the Montpellier wide players did a good job of tucking inside to help protect the defence.
Also, it was notable that Menez spent more time towards the left, Nene worked the right. This is the opposite to their usual flanks, a clear message that Ancelotti wants them to stay inside and combine, rather than drift wider.
The result was that the majority of PSG’s attacks came down the centre. There was good combination play for a first half Kevin Gameiro chance, for example, while the free-kick that Alex thumped into the net was also won in a central position. Later on, the equaliser came following good work from Pastore after his introduction, and the use of a 4-3-2-1 by Ancelotti might have been to make the most of Pastore’s talent – that’s the formation he excelled in at Palermo.
Montpellier break down the flanks
So whereas the away side had two fewer players in the middle, they had two extra on the flanks, and they got both full-backs forward well, constantly crossing the ball to the far post. Whilst PSG dominated possession, 57%-43%, they sometimes struggled to get the ball forward (more on that later). This wasn’t a problem for Montpellier, as there was an easy out-ball to a full-back, who could then move forward, combine with the wide players and create overloads.
Therefore, Montpellier used the ball more effectively than PSG, because they were able to have long spells of pressure. They kept winning corners by forcing PSG’s defenders to head the ball behind, and then continued to get the ball, send it out wide, then start again.
Both their goals came from crosses, with Hilton centring for a Younés Belhanda header, then later Olivier Giroud doing the same for John Utaka. PSG actually have two very good centre-backs in the air, Mamadou Sakho and Alex, but they couldn’t stop the initial crosses, and often it was late runners that caused them problems.
However, there were some exceptions to this dividing lines:
1) PSG didn’t take full advantage of their numerical superiority in the centre, because the passing from Blaise Matuidi and Momo Sissoko was poor throughout the game – simple passes were underhit and misplaced. Thiago Motta moved very deep to collect the ball, which meant he was unable to play intelligent forward balls, and PSG missed someone who could dictate the flow of the game and slide passes into Nene and Menez quickly.
2) Despite being surrounded by opponents, Belhanda had an excellent game in the centre for Montpellier, transferring the ball quickly from defence to attack quickly and creating three chances for the away side.
3) In the second half PSG were braver with the positioning of their full-backs, pushing them higher up to force the Montpellier wingers deeper, meaning they were less submissive down the flanks.
Montpellier could and should have won the game, but they conceded a late equaliser when they gave the ball away in the centre of the pitch with men ahead of the ball, and were vulnerable to a quick break down the middle. It was interesting that Girard chose to replace both his holding players, with Benjamin Stambouli and Joris Marveaux on for Marco Estrada and Jamel Saihi. It’s easy to say it in hindsight, but maybe Girard should have kept one of them on and increased the presence in the centre – that was where PSG were likely to get their goal from, even after Pastore’s introduction for Sissoko meant them moving to a narrow 4-2-3-1.
Two sides with different strengths. It was the away side who played better here, constantly flooding the flanks and creating chances. PSG rather relied on mistakes and set-pieces for their goals, and are clearly a significantly better side with Pastore.
With eight points back to Lille, it’s one of these two for the title – PSG have the better players, Montpellier the more cohesive system.