In the second-leg of Paris Saint-Germain’s tie with Borussia Dortmund it was Thomas Tuchel’s faith in his system which proved to be the significant factor in his side’s impressive turnaround. The German manager’s predilection of overthinking big matches led to a first-leg largely void of the attacking verve and personality he had fostered within the squad over the preceding few months.
In the second-leg Tuchel leaned on the tactics that had made Paris one of Europe’s most formidable domestic sides and in the process completely turned the tie on its head. A detailed assessment of the two legs reveals three significant differences between the two fixtures: formation, pressing and personnel.
This was the most significant adjustment Tuchel made between the two matches. In the opening fixture Paris Saint-Germain lined up in a 3-4-3 formation. A shape the club had previously only attempted once in a match against Dijon. The decision saw Paris mirror Dortmund’s shape and in so doing allowed for Tuchel to match his three centre backs with Dortmund’s fierce attacking triumvirate of Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and Thorgan Hazard.
Unfortunately, the system presented several challenges. The first being that Dortmund defended the wings excellently and so the addition of two wing-backs proved fruitless, as Layvin Kurzawa and Thomas Meunier were unable to find space along the flanks.
What is more, it failed to utilise the forward line effectively. Kylian Mbappé often prefers to operate in between the lines and has a tendency to drift toward the left flank. The striker’s movement meant that no one pinned the Dortmund backline and as a consequence the home side were able to close the gaps between its two defensive lines and back-press with their centre-backs. Additionally, it meant PSG were widely imbalanced – as isolated as Mbappé was, Angel Di María was even more secluded.
The lack of space between the lines led to Neymar dropping deeper into midfield in order to receive the ball, until all of Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gueye and the Brazilian were virtually on top of one another.
Therefore, when PSG went to rotate the ball to other side of the pitch, in the hopes of shifting the BVB defensive block, there were no passes available.
Defensively this formation also proved problematic. The advanced nature of the wing-backs left plenty of space along the flank into which Haaland and Sancho were able to run once the ball was recovered in defence or midfield.
The shift to a 4-2-2-2 formation in the second-leg changed the complexion of the tie completely. It instantly provided PSG with more balance in the attacking phase and created more space between Dortmund’s two defensive lines in which Neymar and Di María could work.
Unlike Mbappé, Edinson Cavani and Pablo Sarabia pinned the Dortmund backline, while simultaneously, Gueye and Leandro Paredes drew the attention of Emre Can and Axel Witsel. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Juan Bernat and Thilo Kehrer acted as more traditional full-backs and Paris presented a flatter back four, in which Bernat actively engaged Hazard. Below is an example of PSG rotating the ball in the second leg – notice the balance and positioning of Neymar and Di María.
Less tangible, but still important was Paris’ perceived comfort in a formation the club has played in nearly every match since the start of the year. The amount of positional switches between the front four had come to characterise PSG’s playing style and that dynamism, which was missing from the first-leg, re-emerged in the second. Needless to say, this made marking far more complicated for the Dortmund defence.
Consequently, PSG ignored the wings and instead choose to probe Dortmund centrally. Bernat held inverted positions, or drove at the gap between Hazard and Witsel, which gave PSG plenty of numbers in the centre of the park and put pressure on the slower Hummels in defence.
The formation also addressed the Dortmund counter-attack. Bernat and Kehrer’s flatter positions took away the free runs Sancho and Haaland enjoyed in the first-leg and meant PSG always had a four-versus-three at the back. The result was a plethora of easy recoveries for both the backline and midfield double-pivot of Gueye and Paredes – keeping Paris on the front foot.
The importance of the formation change cannot be understated; it gave PSG balance, comfort and dynamism and most importantly allowed the club to highlight its own talents rather than reacting to Dortmund’s threats.
By and large, PSG are a very good pressing side and therefore in neither leg was the club particularly woeful in this facet of the game. However, Tuchel did make slight tweaks to where and how his side pressed, which had a substantial impact defensively.
In both fixtures it was clear PSG had identified its opponent’s backline’s ball-playing skills as a weakness and as a consequence looked to put it under pressure. In the first-leg this resulted in a blanket approach in which PSG’s front-three and wing-backs put pressure on whomever had possession – challenging all of Bürki, Hummels, Piszczek and Zagadou.
It’s important to note that for the most part this was effective and Paris recovered a number of balls in midfield. However, when it failed it was costly, as it left those large gaps on the wings for Sancho to run into and initiated a three-versus-three defensively. Crucially, the resulting head-to-head between Silva and Haaland was suboptimal and PSG ultimately paid for it on the scoreboard.
The nuanced adjustments in the second-leg largely eliminated these issues. Firstly, instead of attacking all of Dortmund’s backline, PSG instituted a more concerted wing-press and used passes back to Zagadou and Piszczek as the main triggers. In this instance the use of a front-four instead of a front-three allowed PSG to bring a five-man press without activating its defenders.
Furthermore, the flat back-four eliminated the runs Sancho was able to make in the the first meeting. Here it is important to emphasise the work done by Bernat and Kehrer on the Dortmund wingers; forcing them deeper into their own half to collect the ball and cutting out passes in transition.
These slight shifts in pressing once again gave PSG more protection defensively, while still allowing for the home side to dominate and recover possession high up the pitch throughout the first half and was a significant factor in the anxiety that brought about both goal.
PSG were forced into several lineup changes between legs due to a combination of suspensions (Verratti and Meunier), as well as injuries (Mbappé and Silva). However, the results were entirely positive, as the replacements brought important characteristics to the fixture.
As touched on earlier, the willingness of Cavani and Sarabia to pin the Dortmund backline was crucial, but so too were their attempted runs in-behind. These runs rarely bore fruit, but provided an important tactical wrinkle in keeping the Dortmund defence alert and honest to their movements. The PSG tandem were able to keep the field stretched and limit the opposition’s back-pressing, which had foiled PSG in the reverse fixture. What is more, by adding Sarabia and Cavani the overall work-rate increased tremendously; both players are fervent defenders and Sarabia especially was tireless on the counter-press.
Paredes and Kehrer meanwhile filled in admirably. It is nearly impossible to replace Verratti in midfield, as the Italian remains one of the best in the game. Nonetheless, Paredes remained reliable on the ball and was a reasonable shield for the defensive line. At the same time, Kehrer did a splendid job stunting the Dortmund counter-attack – more-or-less marking Sancho and Hazard out of the game.
That said, the biggest addition was Bernat; the Spaniard’s confidence on the ball, coupled with his pace and defensive awareness turned the tide for PSG. The full-back limited Sancho and Hakimi to one meaningful counter-attacking run down the flank. It was this effort that allowed Kimpembe and Marquinhos to focus so intently on Haaland, who in ninety minutes, failed to register a shot toward goal. On top of all this Bernat also struck home PSG’s second goal of the evening – a fitting reward for a first-rate outing.
As glowing as the second-leg was for PSG it also worked to highlight how disengaged the club was in the first-leg. Tuchel made the necessary adjustments to assure victory at home, but over the course of the two matches also betrayed one of his most consistent criticisms: his tendency to play to his opponent in big matches.
The hope is that such a comprehensive second-leg performance will inform Tuchel on future European engagements. This is not the same PSG side of previous years; the squad proved that against Dortmund – advancing to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2016. There is greater depth, more experience and bundles of skill. The 4-2-2-2 formation has been highly effective for PSG since Tuchel started leaning on it in January. The concern heading into the Champions’ League knockout rounds was that it was too offensive. Against Dortmund, PSG proved it has the capacity to go forward and defend well whilst holding that shape. If the competition does in fact resume and PSG can continue to build on the framework set out in the round of 16, they stand a real chance of progressing to the finals.