Ousmane Dembélé’s positioning crucial to PSG’s victory over Real Sociedad

The headlines as always when Paris Saint-Germain play were about Kylian Mbappé (25), as the club triumphed 2-1 (4-1 on aggregate) over Real Sociedad to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals. 

How could they not? The forward was in scintillating form on the pitch as he scored twice to shatter La Real’s hopes that they could mount their own Remontada and dump PSG out of Europe. Off the pitch, Luis Enrique once again fanned the flames as he seemed to confirm that this would be the Frenchman’s last season at his hometown club. 

A statement that ensured that the conversation would remain firmly rooted on the wantaway star and the drama that has enveloped the player and club ahead of his scheduled departure at the end of the season. Mbappé himself did little to distract from this when he suggested that it was true that he had problems, but that none of them were with his manager

And yet all of this noise meant that something was missed in the coverage of the game, something that should be acknowledged and be widely celebrated as a statement performance: the understated brilliance of Ousmane Dembélé (26). 

In the footsteps of Neymar 

Dembélé has hardly put a foot wrong since he joined PSG in the summer from Barcelona, the largest complaint for a professional who seems to be perpetually stuck as a club’s go-to replacement for Neymar (32) is that he has nowhere near the same goalscoring record as his two-time predecessor. 

The winger has only scored once, his lone goal coming against AS Monaco in a 5-2 drubbing earlier in the season, while Neymar had eighteen across all competitions during his final year in Paris. This would be a greater cause for concern if not for the fact that Luis Enrique has not used Dembélé as an orthodox winger. 

The Frenchman has been instead provided with a license to act as the team’s facilitator, a free role using his exceptional reading of the game to help his teammates better express Luis Enrique’s tactical concepts. 

Throughout the season Dembélé has been relied upon to create fluid rotations down the right-hand side as he interchanges positions with Achraf Hakimi (25) and Mbappé. Often this means that Dembélé will take up the deepest position of the three players where he can then attempt to release a line-breaking pass from deep for one of his teammates to attack. 

It’s a situation that has emphasised his talents as a creator over a finisher and has allowed him to pick up eleven assists during his time at the club, a tally that far exceeds his efforts in his last season with Barcelone when he only managed nine. It was as a facilitator that Dembélé delivered his statement performance last night.


Dembélé, The Great Facilitator

The winger lined up in an unfamiliar position as the club’s striker. It was widely expected that his interpretation of the role would be that of a false nine. However, no one was quite prepared for how false a number nine he could be. 

Dembélé only ever kissed the forward line in the briefest of moments, a quick engagement to offer an option for his teammates, and to taunt the disciplined Real Sociedad centre-backs into perhaps following him as he then dropped deep as an auxiliary central midfielder. 

From there he provided an option in the build-up and a means to trigger a change of tempo as a deep-lying playmaker. It was an utterly brilliant plan that completely threw Real Sociedad’s out-of-possession shape into disarray. 

La Real had planned on a similar approach as in the first leg where they had pressed PSG aggressively from the front in a man-orientated system. They had swarmed their opposition, clogging the passing lanes, and causing PSG to be constantly caught in trouble as they to progress the ball from their backline. 

Real Sociedad disrupted

Dembélé’s positioning meant that Real Sociedad couldn’t repeat their earlier efforts in the second leg as there was always a free option in the build-up for PSG, and therefore significantly less pressure on Les Parisiens as they progressed the ball upfield. 

The reward for Dembélé’s movement was as simple as it was beneficial; control of the game. Real Sociedad couldn’t pin their opposition in or cause nearly as many turnovers to threaten with as they could in the first leg, while PSG were better able to create attacking moves. 

It did mean the forward was hardly ever in a position to score, but that never seemed to bother him. His focus was entirely on facilitating his teammate’s movements and allowing them a better chance at winning the game. Something that came across when he threaded the needle from a deep position to assist Mbappé in opening the scoring. 

It was a statement performance that encapsulated Dembélé’s time at Les Parisiens because like everything he has done so far at the club it was entirely understated. Unlike some that have come before him, he was happy to allow others the limelight and to perform a role that put the team ahead of himself. The glory in the end was all Mbappé’s, Dembélé was simply happy to contribute his part to it. 

GFFN | Nick Hartland

More European Football News