PSG 2-0 Marseille: PSG attack at speed, but fortunate to keep a clean sheet

February 25, 2013

The starting line-ups

A closer game than the scoreline suggests.

With injury problems in defence, Carlo Ancelotti named Sylvain Armand as his left-sided centre-back. David Beckham was on the bench.

Élie Baup named an unchanged side from the XI that triumphed over Valenciennes last week.

PSG’s four outright attackers combined effectively at times, but Marseille will feel they had enough chances to get something from the game.

Formation battle

It’s not often you see a modern European side playing a 4-2-2-2 like PSG’s, and therefore their battle against Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 was interesting on paper. In reality, however, both sides defended with two banks of four without the ball, and the major difference was the style of the wide players – PSG’s darted inside quickly and dribbled towards goal, while Marseille’s stayed wider.

There was also a natural difference in the defensive abilities of the wide players – Foued Kadir and (in particular) Andre Ayew worked very hard to get back and support their full-back, and were naturals in that sense. Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura are number tens, and therefore jogged back into position, making PSG poor at defensive transitions.

PSG attack directly

The key to the opening period was how quickly and directly PSG attacked, and there were a number of reasons for this. First, Marco Verratti was extremely positive and purposeful with his passing, hitting the ball into the final third quickly. Second, the presence of two dribblers looking to come inside meant PSG carried the ball forward at speed naturally, rather than spreading the play wide to the flanks. Third, PSG had clearly been told to hit the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic quickly, who played a couple of fantastic knock-downs and flick-ons for teammates, almost in a pure hold-up role with three runners supporting him.

But the most noticeable attacking player was Ezequiel Lavezzi, playing just off Ibrahimovic to the left. He constantly made clever off-the-ball runs from deep to get in behind the defence, and also dribbled powerfully towards goal – he hit the post in the first couple of minutes after an Ibrahimovic  flick.

Morel v Lucas Moura

As the first half went on, however, the key zone became Jeremy Morel’s battle against Lucas Moura. Lucas was dribbling towards goal dangerously, but Morel wanted to overlap and push him back. In the end, Lucas won the battle, partly because Morel didn’t get sufficient service to justify and take advantage of his ambitious positioning.

Ayew had to bail out Morel by tracking back and challenging Lucas in the first half, and Morel was booked for a foul on the Brazilian when he got caught on the wrong side in the second half. Lucas created four chances (no other PSG player created more than one) and his shot resulted in the double deflection that took the ball into the Marseille net for a fortunate opener.


From then, Marseille gradually became more positive and dominated possession over the 90 minutes. Joey Barton and Jacques Aliaxys Romao stayed in deep position sat the start of the game, but Barton gradually pushed forward as Marseille went in search of an equaliser. The wide players stayed wide.

The most exciting player, as always, was Mathieu Valbuena. A tremendously talented player on the ball but a creative midfielder who, like Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos or Santi Cazorla, relies more upon his appreciation of space and his ability to vary his position, this was a great demonstration of Valbuena’s talents. As mentioned many times before, he’s the perfect ‘central winger’.

When Marseille were struggling at the start of the game he dropped deep to become the third central midfielder, but when he realised his side were controlling the game (from about 30 minutes onwards) he stayed higher up between the lines and drifted from flank to flank, casually helping to provide overloads and stretch the play. He played a number of crosses towards Andre-Pierre Gignac in the box, and played a couple of one-twos to get himself in good positions.

Statistically, Valbuena’s contribution was immense: he played the most passes (81), created the most chances (5) and had the highest pass completion rate (98%). The final statistic is the most remarkable. It’s simply amazing that a creator can (a) play in such an advanced position where he’s constantly under pressure from opponents, and (b) be the primary man responsible for creating chances with clever threaded balls, yet still retain possession so reliably. You won’t find that ‘hattrick’ of those statistic-leading contributions in such a big game again this season.

Marseille dominate second half

Marseille’s dominance continued in the second half. Aside from Valbuena’s role, there was little subtlety about Marseille’s play – they were simply putting consistent pressure on the PSG defence, crossing the ball a lot, and dominating in terms of territory.

PSG had two problems. First, they weren’t comfortable dealing with aerial balls hit into the box in the absence of Thiago Silva, and with Armand not the most comfortable player at centre-back.

Second, PSG completely struggled to retain possession in order to ease the pressure. Yes, they were trying to counter-attack, which maybe forced Marseille to keep resources in defence rather than push men forward, but their decision-making on the break wasn’t good enough to justify such a ‘pure’ approach. They frequently lost the possession too quickly, which meant the ball came back immediately, and they were on the back foot again. They simply weren’t able to control the tempo.

No Marseille changes but continued dominance

Baup only made one substitution, Moudou Sougou on for Kadir down the right, but this didn’t significantly change Marseille’s shape. That continuity was understandable considering the away side were on top, and the lack of exciting potential replacements.

Marseille were actually in a strange position – keeping two holding players on the pitch made sense when PSG were counter-attacking, as Pastore and Lucas needed to be tracked, but when PSG had (rare) spells of possession Marseille didn’t really need two holders, as Pastore and Lucas stayed wider, so Barton and Romao had no-one to pick up. Marseille were a little too passive defensively, although PSG’s tendency to concede possession cheaply meant this wasn’t crucial.

PSG changes

Ancelotti had a much stronger bench, and used all three subs. On 76 minutes he made a double change – Beckham and Clement Chantome replaced Pastore and Verratti. Moura switched from the right to the left, so Beckham and Chantome were told to fill the right ‘half’ of midfield.

Strangely, Ancelotti used Beckham in the centre of the pitch, and Chantome on the right – both can play in either position, but Chantome is a solid, hard-working midfielder and would have been better off alongside Blaise Matuidi, protecting the defence. Beckham could have done a job in his old right-sided position.

Maybe Ancelotti wanted Chantome to track Morel, who continued to get forward, but the Matuidi-Beckham combination is hardly defensively solid, and when Valbuena flashed a shot past the post when unmarked 25 yards out, the decision seemed particularly odd. Still, Beckham and Jeremy Menez (on for Lucas) teed up Ibrahimovic’s winner to secure the victory.


PSG’s four attackers played tremendously direct counter-attacking football in the first half. After the break, PSG showed their immaturity by failing to slow the tempo or control the flow of the game, which put more pressure upon their makeshift defence. Verratti should have helped retain the ball, but was too focused upon playing long, straight passes – while Beckham used his passing ability to hit longer balls too. A sturdy, reliable Thiago Motta would have been useful here.

Marseille were well-organised defensively, conceding an unfortunate first and the second only when chasing the game in stoppage time. However, they lacked the individual quality in the opposition third, with Valbuena the only man to seriously impress, with his clever positioning.

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