PSG 1-1 Chelsea: PSG dominate down the left

February 18, 2015

The starting line-ups

PSG dominated by constantly attacking effectively down the left, and Chelsea relied on Thibaut Courtois to secure a valuable away draw.

PSG selection

Laurent Blanc was without the likes of Thiago Motta, Yohan Cabaye and Lucas Moura through injury, which caused him problems in midfield – although the fact Blaise Matuidi was fit to start was a huge boost.

Blanc played David Luiz in midfield for the first time with Marquinhos coming into the defence, and Edinson Cavani returned to the attack.

Chelsea selection

Jose Mourinho went cautious in midfield, bringing in Ramires and moving Cesc Fabregas to the top of his midfield trio, with Oscar omitted.

Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma, and Thibaut Courtois returned in goal, despite Petr Cech excelling against Everton last week, and Diego Costa played his first game in three weeks as he’s currently serving a domestic suspension.

Match summary

This was cautious and cagey in the beginning, before gradually opening out – although neither manager was adventurous enough to make attack-minded changes and go for the victory.

Solid midfields

With both managers being conservative in the centre of midfield, there was very little creativity from central positions all game. Nemanja Matic sat deep and Ramires occupied the space to his right, while Fabregas simply didn’t seem fit enough to have any influence, offering very little in an attacking sense.

PSG had guile in the form of David Luiz and Marco Verratti in deeper positions, but they rarely looked for penetrative balls into the forwards, and instead played long diagonal passes out to the flanks. It meant the midfield zone was largely neutralised, and the interesting battles were all taking place out wide.

Counter-attack

This felt like an old-fashioned, stereotypically cautious game between two sides largely playing on the counter-attack. But while both were playing on the break, they weren’t particularly good at guarding against the opposition break: neither pressed well when they lost possession, and both pushed their full-backs forward to leave their centre-backs exposed to pace down the flanks.

Chelsea’s main attacking approach – arguably their sole attacking approach – was relying on Eden Hazard’s pace on the left. His direct opponent Gregory van der Wiel is a typically Dutch full-back, always getting extremely tight to his man, and Hazard often found it difficult to turn. He also suffered from a ludicrous number of fouls – nine – mainly from van der Wiel and Verratti, who covered when Van der Wiel skipped forward into attack. Indeed, Van der Wiel’s attacking positioning was the game’s most interesting tactical feature in the first half – he was constantly free, but poor touches meant he failed to exploit that freedom.

This was the game’s key battlezone, with Hazard – whose positional indiscipline cost Chelsea in last year’s semi-final against Atletico, when Juanfran motored past him to create two goals – seemingly unsure whether to track Van der Wiel, or stay in a position to counter-attack. Eventually, Mourinho switched Hazard and the more defensively aware Willian, who did a better job on Van der Wiel.

PSG left

Whether this was an astute move, however, is highly debatable, because PSG became more threatening down the left. PSG also started by attacking on the break, and the game’s first two chances came following a PSG move down that flank, into the space left behind by Branislav Ivanovic’s extremely high, wide attacking position on the right touchline. First Cavani crossed to Blaise Matuidi, then seconds later Matuidi found space to whip the ball in towards Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Courtois saved twice.

Matuidi shuttles out

The more the game continued, the more it became obvious that PSG were only truly threatening down that left flank. They didn’t have genuine creativity in midfield, with Ibrahimovic effective when dropping deep, but doing so frustratingly infrequently. Down the right, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Van der Wiel were simply too clumsy in possession to contribute anything, so it was all about the left. Cavani usually played to that side, but the real key factors were Maxwell advancing steadily from full-back – he played more passes in the final third than any other player – and Matuidi, who was the game’s outstanding player.

Matuidi is an unusual footballer, probably best compared to Ramires, because he’s all about energy and specialises in shuttling forward from a midfield three to provide a presence on the flank. That was crucial here, with the midfield a gritty battlezone and the game all about the contest in the wider areas, and he constantly provided overloads with Maxwell, either in the inside-left channel or on the outside of the full-back.

Matuidi isn’t usually a creative player, but he was in this game, creating more chances than any other player, including the assist for Cavani’s headed equaliser. This was absolutely typical of the game, and one of the interesting things ¬†was the fact Chelsea’s centre-backs were so far apart as Cavani struck.

There was a reason for this – PSG had frequently looked for deep crosses for Ibrahimovic, towering over Cesar Azpilicueta at the far post. John Terry dropped too far back to guard against this problem, the space between he and Cahill was too large, and Cahill’s hand gesture as the goal went in illustrated this – he was essentially asking why Terry was so far away. Cavani is excellent in the air, and while he’s not really suited to a wide role, this shows the value of having a striker in that position – he can provide a secondary penalty box presence. PSG dominated aerially all evening.

Incidentally, while the PSG goal was typical of their attacking approach, it’s difficult to find a more unlikely source of goal than Chelsea’s opener. In the second phase of a set-piece, Terry crossed, Cahill flicked the ball on, and Ivanovic headed into the net – three defenders combining. Blanc said afterwards that he’d spent all week focusing on stopping Hazard, Willian and Diego Costa, then three defenders combined for the goal – “the magic of football”, he said.

PSG’s other good chances also came from the left, although often in the channel rather than through crossing – both Ibrahimovic and Cavani had one-on-ones from a narrow angle against Courtois, having exchanged passes with Lavezzi and Matuidi respectively.

As if to underline the fact both managers were happy with their solid shapes, and a tight game, neither made any changes until 80 minutes. They were all essentially straight swaps, although Javier Pastore on for Lavezzi offered a little more creativity. Still, the previous pattern remained, and as Maxwell crossed from the left and Ibrahimovic’s header forced Courtois to make a diving save in stoppage time, the game was summarised neatly.

Conclusion

In terms of scoreline this was a classic away performance from a Mourinho side, but in reality Chelsea conceded far more pressure than they would have liked, and PSG had a number of good opportunities.

With Chelsea’s major problem coming down their right flank, a better strategy – with the same players – might have been to shift Fabregas back alongside Matic, and push Ramires onto the right flank, with Willian left and Hazard playing in a central role. Fabregas’ defensive qualities aren’t particularly good, which is why he was pushed forward here, but there wasn’t much danger of PSG creating anything from between the lines anyway, and Ramires’ energy might have been better used in the zone PSG were threatening in.

PSG will be encouraged by the number of chances they created, and they might be even more threatening on the counter-attack in the second leg.



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