When Nasser Al-Khelaifi bought Paris Saint-Germain, his goal was clear. He wanted to build a team, that would win the Champions League one day. To reach this, he started to copy the ‘money-giant club model’, which means that he signed every available good player at the market for tens of millions. He appointed Carlo Ancelotti as the coach of the first team, but after two years of working together they said goodbye to each other and started a new project. Then the man from Qatar chose Laurent Blanc, who was considered as a great philosopher, and a big fan of possession-based football. Paris Saint-Germain became a team that played beautiful football – you can read about them here – but struggled to reach great results in Europe. So right after the 2015/2016 season came to its end, the chief executive changed manager again. The successor was Unai Emery, who won the Europa League with Sevilla three times and is one of the biggest minds in football.
“In my head, everything is clear. My philosophy is not difficult to understand: I defend to attack. The game system is only a practical projection of what you think. But then with 20 players I can create hundreds of combinations. Why would I deprive myself of it?”
Starting a new project is difficult
As most of you know, Emery thinks differently about football, than his predecessor. He claims, that he is an attacking-minded manager, but many just see him playing organized, but defensive football. The reason behind this fact might be that he was coaching ‘underdog teams’, facing bigger teams as opponents. These experiences taught him how to defend well, and helped him evolve as a ‘psychologist’.
So it wasn’t a big surprise that at the beginning he was struggling against low-blocks. Teaching your players how to play against a well-coordinated wall is the most difficult part of being a coach. This was easy to see against Monaco and Saint-Étienne, who were organized and used counter attacks properly.
In modern football there are two great trends: staying compact, and widening the pitch.
These things define how a team plays. If they choose to stretch play, they usually try to attack fast with generating passing lanes through the opponent’s defense. With compactness, you try to create great connection between your players, what makes combinations easier. You can guess, which one is used by PSG most of the time, when pressed hard: it’s compactness. They make triangles around the ball and the players provide pass options for each other.
But we shouldn’t forget the fact that with being compact their aim is to free up space on the opposing side of the pitch. With having so many players in the zone of the ball, they try to offset the opposition’s balance. The numerical advantage helps them to avoid losing the ball in their own half, but they create huge amount of space for a free receiver on the other side. This concept can be seen in matches of Guardiola’s teams as well, so we can call it a quite widespread tactic.
As you can see it on the video, in order to switch play effectively, PSG involve their goalkeeper. This highlights their numerical superiority in the ball’s zone, so the opponents can rarely defend well against this.
Due to their great compactness on the ball, Paris Saint-Germain are almost always able to find a free man around the ball. This helps them to get the ball quickly to more advanced areas, which is a huge threat for the opponent. If they press with many players, their defence is unprotected against PSG’s attack, so it remains a big question for coaches, whether they should use high and aggressive pressing against Emery’s side or not.
“70% of my systems are the result of the players qualities. The remaining 30% will adapt to the characteristics of the opponent.”
As you can see, Emery always adapts to the opponent, and this is what makes him an extraordinary coach. He always has plan B, so he doesn’t stick to his ideas when there’s an easier way to penetrate. If they aren’t pressed, he sends his fullbacks high up next to the sideline and his defensive midfielder back between the centre backs, to form a back three. And here comes Emery’s role: nowadays the 4-4-2 is the most wide-spread defensive formation across Europe. In this shape most of the teams use a so-called ‘passive pressing’, which means that the defending team lets the attacking one progress with the ball, and press them only when they reach the halfway line. The most common usage of this is covering zones. Against a space-orientated defence the three at the back concept is a great tool.
With the two central midfielders staying in the middle, they can open up space for the two centre backs (situationally side backs). And, as above quoted, Emery makes his plans fit the players’ qualities. All of the three centre backs he likes to use – Thiago Silva, Kimpembe, Marquinhos – have the abilites to drive forward, so it can be a really effective concept. If one of them steps up with the ball, the two remaining players form a back two, and the team stays balanced.
A different solution is the flat back line. This means that the defensive midfielder stays in his position, and the fullbacks remain deep. With this their circulation improves a lot, passing the ball from one flank to another gets faster and PSG can progress with the ball next to the sideline, or pass it to the midfielders.
And we shouldn’t forget the option, when the opponent uses just one centre forward in their pressing mechanism. Many teams let the same mistake happen, that they still use ‘La Salida Lavolpiana’, which means that their defensive midfielder drops back. But Emery is known as a precise man, so he doesn’t forget making changes in his game plan. In those situations he sends his fullbacks higher again, to free up the flanks and make the pitch as big as possible. With this scheme he forces the opponent to leave their centre forward alone with the two centre backs and the defensive midfielder, so if he stays in front of the midfielder, the ball carrier can progress, but if he attacks the defender, he can get easily bypassed.
When analysing the build-up phrase, I highlighted Krychowiak’s/Motta’s role. But to be honest, their position is not the most interesting one from the midfield trio, but the two number eights. They are the ones who provide balance for the team with their intelligent movements and maintain dominance in the attacking half.
Their first task is to receive from the backs and start the attacks, as with most teams. They tend to move towards towards the halfspaces, where they can choose from two options: receive and turn or use a lateral lay-off.
Let’s start with the first one. The importance of the halfspaces can’t be repeated enough and Emery knows this. He instructs his midfielders to get there, because it eases penetration through the opponent’s wall. When players are able to receive in this vertical zone, they can reach all parts of the pitch immediately. And from that part of the pitch, with just two lines of defenders in front of them they can aim for players between the lines, or start to dribble.
The second option is a lateral lay-off, which is really effective in PSG’s play: I will explain it later, why. With this they can reach a great presence in wing areas, and with the usage of local compactness they penetrate quickly.
In Emery’s philosophy wingers have always had a huge role. Now in Paris it remains the same, but he gives his wingers very modern tasks. As I mentioned above, halfspaces are probably the most important zones of the pitch, so why wouldn’t a team try to use them as well as they are able to? The Spanish coach instructed his wingers to occupy these regions, and as we can see, it works really well and has many advantages. The first thing we should mention is that this gives the positional stability for the team in the possession phase. When a team has a well-balanced structure in possession, it’s much easier to counterpress after losing the ball, as every vertical zone of the pitch is occupied by at least one player; due to their large presence around the ball they can close down the ball-carrier quickly. Furthermore, this positional structure forces the opponent into a very narrow shape. Their wide midfielders and fullbacks can’t stay wide with the progressing fullbacks, as they would lose their horizontal compactness, and could end up in PSG’s easy penetration. And, what is even more dangerous for the defending teams, the wingers position themselves between the lines. So, to be exact, they try to find that place, in which they can cause the most problems for the opponent.
As you can see, PSG force their opponents into a very narrow shape, but they still manage to break defences up. How?
Every defensive shape has two great lines: the backs and the midfielders. Every team, when defending tries to tighten the space between these lines. But they have to find the balance, which makes them able to be as compact vertically as possible, but doesn’t really allow circulation in front of the back line. If a team sits back too deep, and in almost just one great wall, the attacking side will be able to circulate the ball, and you can be sure, that they will exploit it. But if they leave too much space between their lines, the ball can be lobbed there or just passed by the midfielders, and the trouble is there. The key is the balance. PSG are designed to find even the best systems’ weaknesses with these winger roles. In the picture above, it can be seen, that wingers are in the really best position.
And we shouldn’t forget the other great tool of PSG’s wingers: the dropping movement. You can find an example on the last picture above, if you are curious about it. The purpose of a player dropping back deep is to force out individual mistakes. Every defender is man-orientated in his mind, so if he sees that a player close to him starts to move back and asks for the ball, he follows him, no matter what the coach told him. Emery’s side’s aim is to exploit this psychological advantage. The dropping movement drags out the wide midfielder and frees up a huge space on the wing. If the striker and the strong-sided midfielder know their tasks (and in an Emery team they know them), the progressing fullback can get the ball totally free on the wing.
The key moment before Cavani's opener.DiMaría drops in the halfspace and opens up space for Maxwell. pic.twitter.com/rPtft1yQvy
— Faja (@AndrasFajkusz) September 17, 2016
As I mentioned before, PSG use wing areas well when attacking. To have superiority in these spaces, the key is to make them free. And as almost nothing in football happens without any logical reason, Emery’s side tries to benefit from the wingers’ movements. The narrow positioning of the attacking unit forces the opponent into a very centrally compact shape, so the flanks are left free.
We shouldn’t forget one of the newest trends in football, the triple-width system. It was mostly used by Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, and the Catalan manager brought his idea to Manchester as well. This concept means that the strong-sided central midfielder drifts towards the side to help his teammates create connections and maintain stability. Emery realized the concept’s potential, so as soon as he arrived in Paris, he started to teach his team how to use it. When the winger drops, the strong-sided midfielder immediately moves in his position, to help the team keep its positional structure. Or, if they want to penetrate quickly, he runs right next to the sideline. This provides the fullback -who possesses the ball- two options:
- pass to the midfielder, who then make a run by the sideline and cross
- turn to the centre of the pitch and try to benefit from the teammates’s space opening movements.
Furthermore, when a winger drops to receive a pass, the midfielder’s task is to open up the flank for the fullback. The notion behind this is to block the opponent’s fullback, like the basketball players do while screening. This keeps the wing area open for the progressing fullback. So the run and the cross can be completed.
The last thing to mention in connection with the wings is Cavani’s movements. The Uruguayan striker is one of the most hard-working forwards in the world, so it’s not a big surprise that Emery gives him more tasks on the pitch than Zlatan Ibrahimović had in previous few years. Cavani was playing on the left wing during Blanc’s time, so he knows that position quite well and can make well-timed runs towards the centre. He doesn’t really appear on the wing, but very often in the halfspaces. This helps him to run for through balls, as he can move on the blind side of the defenders.
Pressing is maybe the biggest strength of every Emery team. The Spanish coach’s teams are usually among the best pressing sides around the globe, so it’s not a big surprise that PSG has already shown great moves in their games. It is widely accepted that the main purpose of a press is to force the opponent to wing areas. To achieve this, they try to stay centrally compact and leave no passing lanes open for the opponent. The Parisian club possesses almost every skill to be world class at it.
To start analysing their pressing mechanism, we have to talk about pressing styles. The first type of team we should talk about is the one that uses pressing to gain psychological advantage. They are hunting the ball in a quite disorganized shape, and just want to destabilise the ball-carriers and force them to kick the ball long. This pressing is usually used by Marcelo Bielsa’s teams.
The second type is the team that attacks the build-up quite aggressively, but they stay compact and organized during these movements. The usage of man-marking and cover shadows are commonly used by them, so it’s really hard to penetrate against them. For example, Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid uses this pressing.
And the third type is a zone-focused pressing, which concentrates on preventing penetration passively. This means that they remain compact in the centre of the pitch. This style has two different approaches: using pressing traps, and forcing the opponent kick the ball long.
The first one’s main aim is to regain possession during their pressing movement, so they leave a man free, and when he receives, they cut his passing opportunities. The second one is a bit different. As the other, this approach aims to get the ball back, but with preventing forward passes. So, when the opponent has no passing possibilities, they kick the ball long and the pressing team has an easier job to regain possession.
Paris Saint-Germain uses the last type, which means that they focus on preventing every passing opportunity and still remain quite passive. To achieve this, Emery started to use the 4-1-4-1 formation. In this shape the only player who stays high is the lone striker, Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan positions himself close to the opponent’s defensive midfielder, and uses his cover shadow to get him out of the play. The proper distance is the key, so he can’t just simply man-mark the DM, as the ball-carrying centre back could progress with the ball, and he can’t attack the centre-back aggressively, as it would be easy to lob the ball behind him. So he positions himself close to the DM, but still presses the CBs. At the same time, the midfielder line stays close to him, using zonal man-marking. This means, that they always stay in their zones, but in those areas they are able to follow their men’s movements. This keeps the shape balanced and doesn’t let the opponent penetrate with the help of some dropping movements. Behind them, there is a single pivot, whose role is to connect the midfielders and the defenders, so the last line doesn’t have to stay very high when pressing.
He uses zonal man-marking as well, so it’s hard to position a free player between Emery’s side’s lines.
What if the opponent lays it off to the flank? PSG cut all passing lanes, so the opponents have to turn back and start circulating at the back. In these situations the wingers drift towards the wing areas, so the opponent can’t progress with the ball.
It’s clear, that pressing is not always enough; sometimes the opponent finds a way, somehow, to deal with it. They might outnumber you, or simply create great schemes, so you always need to have a plan B. For Paris Saint-Germain, it’s their deep block. In these situations PSG keep their 4-1-4-1 formation, but they remain in their own half. To describe it more precisely, their main aim is to force the opponent to the flanks, concentrating on the central areas. The striker’s task is to prevent circulating in front of the defence, so the attacking team has to look for players between the lines, or on the flank. The wingers usually stay in the narrow shape, but if the ball is on the flank, they try to help the fullback, and generate numerical superiority. The central midfielders cover only space, so it’s even harder to exploit the team’s defence with some dropping movements. The defensive midfielder stays between the lines again, making it hard to find players between the lines, as he can mark them tight. The team shape usually looks like this:
Like every team, PSG have imperfections too. Their counterpressing could be improved in my opinion, as they switch into a very organized defensive shape, much faster than it would be necessary. There is a huge potential in pressing during defensive transition, what they could benefit from. They usually get back to their 4-1-4-1 as soon as possible, so they let the opponent start their attack, without putting pressure on them. And, in another advantage, they could avoid opponent’s counter attacks, which has caused them the most problems so far. If they improved in this area, they would become an even bigger threat for every club in Europe.
The other area where they could improve is the transition from deep block into attack. It can be called Emery’s own problem maybe, because at his former teams he faced the same issue as well. Because when he instructs his team to remain in a deep stance, they struggle to build counter attacks effectively. It happened this year against Arsenal, when PSG switched to a low block, they weren’t able to organize their counters well, the attacks weren’t fast enough. If Emery could solve this problem, they would be better in the underdog’s role.
PSG is facing a difficult problem. The owner wants them to win the Champions League, but there are still stronger teams around Europe. They may have never been this good and had such a great chance to complete ‘The Mission’, but we can’t expect it from them. They will probably win the Ligue 1 again, for the fifth time in a row, and now we can state that a world class team is being built in Paris.