The fortunes of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in their domestic campaigns this season could not have been any more contrasting, and with the two coming up against each other in the first knockout round of the Champions League it was the French team who were undoubtedly favourites prior to the tie. Unbeaten in all 26 league games they’ve played and running away with Ligue 1, Laurent Blanc’s side could rightfully count themselves amongst the strongest sides in Europe at the moment, while Chelsea, currently 12th in the Premier League, have been languishing down in the bottom half for pretty much all of their worst season in years.
Chelsea’s form has certainly improved since Guus Hiddink took over on an interim basis, saying that, but even regardless of that they were heavily overrun by a superior PSG side in the early stages of the first leg at the Parc des Princes. Set up in their typical 4-3-3 shape, it was the superb midfield trio of Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti who enabled that dominance – rotating brilliantly to circulate the ball, avoiding any rare attempts that Chelsea made to win it back, and picking holes in the away side’s defensive shape almost at will.
Of the three, Motta and Verratti in particular were at the heart of that control. Rather than one of them being the deepest midfielder all of the time, the two constantly switched positions, dragging Diego Costa and Willian (the most advanced players in Chelsea’s basic 4-4-2 defensive shape) all over the place and making it simple to play the ball beyond them. When Motta dropped his Italian counterpart would persistently show for the ball and cleverly create the option for a pass between the lines, and the same opportunity was made available whenever Verratti moved closer to the centre-backs, David Luiz and Thiago Silva (who moved the ball excellently themselves) as well: a pass they completed practically 100% of the time.
That, alongside consistently poor defensive positioning by Eden Hazard and Pedro meaning they often didn’t support enough in the centre, left the rather makeshift midfield pivot of Cesc Fàbregas and John Obi Mikel exposed far more often than Chelsea would’ve liked. PSG were quick to try and take advantage of this too, with the left-winger Lucas Moura regularly drifting inside and making a number of penetrative dribbles through the middle of the pitch. Ángel Di María also made similar movements starting from the right, albeit with a little less success, while Matuidi, the predominant ball-carrier in the midfield, often had chances to run towards the left half-space from deep.
All those players (and that’s without even mentioning Zlatan Ibrahimović dropping deep) flooding towards the middle and the well built-up possession understandably left Chelsea struggling to get a foothold in the game, although they did manage to prevent PSG from creating too many chances in the first 20 minutes. Verratti had a swerving shot from the edge of the box saved comfortably by Thibaut Courtois, and Lucas had one from a similar position which whistled wide, but fortunately for Chelsea they survived without conceding.
Part of the reason for PSG’s inability to convert possession in the final third into real chances was because of those movements that Ibrahimović was making towards the play, rather than going away from it. That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but it becomes one when the runs of attacking players like Di María and Lucas aren’t far enough beyond him – they were only really penetrating the midfield line, rather than the defensive one. They had the width (provided consistently well by Maxwell and Marquinhos, the full-backs), and they had the dominance in the middle with the constant overloads, but they didn’t have the threat in behind.
And then Chelsea managed to start having a bit of the ball themselves. Prior to this point the only small outlet which Hiddink’s team (in a 4-2-3-1 shape when in possession) had were isolated diagonal runs into the channels from Costa, but Abdul Baba Rahman and César Azpilicueta managed to get forward surprisingly often from the full-back positions when Chelsea did have possession more. It was in these wide areas where the space was for them, Fàbregas often being the one to help find them in a game where he showed some nice distribution when given the chance, and getting into those zones enabled them to pen the home side back a bit, establish themselves in the match and reorganise.
That also enabled them to create their best chance of the game from open play too, when Baba Rahman got some space between Di María and Marquinhos in the 23rd minute and whipped in a wonderful cross towards Costa in the area. The Spanish international’s clever run towards the far post saw him lose his marker, Luiz, but the header back across goal was just too close to Kevin Trapp; the German reacting brilliantly to tip the ball onto the bar.
It wasn’t a period of control that lasted overly long for Chelsea, but crucially they did have more spells on the ball from then onwards. The relief from pressure also seemed slightly beneficial for their defensive shape, and they quickly became a bit more compact horizontally with Hazard and Pedro taking up more narrow positions out of possession. A number of the problems were still persistent though, Verratti with his ability to resist pressure and disguise line-splitting passes being one of the many PSG players who were still enjoying the space, but Chelsea at least halted the flow and made it a bit more difficult for them.
Proof of those issues still remaining was remarkably evident in the build-up to the opening goal of the game, which started when Motta found an unmarked Lucas in the middle of the pitch. Gifted time to control the ball, turn and accelerate towards an almost empty Chelsea midfield, the Brazilian powered past the static Mikel with ease – getting to the edge of the box before the Nigerian eventually brought him down with a clumsy foul.
Mikel received a yellow card for that, and he was punished even more when Ibrahimović’s powerful free-kick deflected off him, past the unfortunate Courtois, and into the back of the net to give PSG a 1-0 lead in the 39th minute. Even in spite of the tackle (and inability to stop the run earlier) by Mikel the goal was far from all his fault though, the complete lack of structure leaving him completely isolated to a one-on-one in the centre of the pitch. If you’re setting up to defend for large portions of a game, that’s definitely not how you do it.
Chelsea were at least very quick to recover from that setback though. First Willian won a free-kick on the edge of the box after a good run from Hazard down the right flank, which hit the wall and resulted in a corner which came to nothing, but then another wide attack (this time following a Baba Rahman switch of play to Willian) led to another corner from the right. This was whipped in by the Brazilian winger, flicked on very slightly by Costa at the near post, and fell to the feet of Mikel who finished emphatically on the stroke of half-time to make it 1-1.
In terms of the quality of chances created it was actually a quite fairly deserved equaliser, given that PSG didn’t generate anything too brilliant and that the best chance of the half fell to Costa with that header, but on the general balance of play it was anything but. So the home side needed to find some method to convert their dominance into goals in the second-half.
They didn’t make any substitutions at half-time, and neither did Chelsea for that matter, but one thing that Blanc’s team did start doing in the second-half to change things was pushing their full-backs even higher up the pitch. Maxwell and Marquinhos had both supported the attack well in the opening 45 minutes, though having them closer towards Chelsea’s goal would provide them with more of a chance to get in behind and create opportunities from crosses or cutbacks. That ability to get behind the defence was enhanced by the narrow positioning of the two wingers, especially Di María (who swapped with Lucas to go on the left now) and the Argentine often dropped deeper as well which drew Chelsea players out and created even more space.
Because of Di María going into those zones and having more of an influence, alongside his own more inherently attacking style, Maxwell on the left ended up being a bigger threat and beneficiary of this than Marquinhos, the natural centre-back. They were both regularly in advanced areas though and that was yet another factor that contributed towards the French side continuing to dominate in the middle, allowing Motta and Verratti an extra bit of space due to the more stretched positioning.
One of the downsides of this from PSG’s perspective however was that it gave Chelsea more space to run into on the counter-attack. Thanks to the ball-carrying abilities of their three attacking midfielders they were able to have some opportunities to burst out, Willian the more threatening of the trio throughout as he carried on his superb season by finding space well as ever. Hazard and Pedro did a decent job of that too, even if they were rarer in occurrence, while Costa also deserves praise for the large quantity of runs and instances of hold-up play that he provided.
As PSG aren’t a team set-up to counter-press when they lose the ball (they’re actually quite individualistic in defensive phases), they don’t really have a designated tactic to prevent teams attacking them in such a manner. Something they did do well defensively regardless of that though was to halt transitions and break play up quickly with the use of rotated, systematic – or cynical, depending on how you see it – fouls. Of the 16 fouls they committed, 11 were in Chelsea’s half, and a fair few of them were just to slow down attacks.
Chelsea’s threats only really came in sporadic spells though, PSG again, much like the first-half, controlling the game. And while the tactical changes involving the extra use of their full-backs didn’t directly reward them with a goal (even if they should’ve created more from it), one thing that did was the introduction of Edinson Cavani. Brought on for Lucas in the 74th minute, it took him just four minutes to get onto the scoresheet and restore PSG’s lead.
Ibrahimović’s movements to keep dropping deeper meant Blanc still had the problem of a lack of threat in behind in central zones, but Cavani’s mobility and willingness to make those direct runs provided it. After the Uruguayan attacker won the ball back for PSG in their own half of the field to start the move, play quickly progressed to the point where Di María was able to clip a delicate ball over the top of a seemingly bewildered Chelsea backline; Cavani timing his run to perfection and finishing with similar quality through the legs of Courtois.
It was a rare lapse of concentration from them, with both full-backs, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanović regularly making lots of good defensive interventions that should be given recognition, but it ultimately cost them. PSG made a couple of subs after the goal, bringing Javier Pastore and Adrien Rabiot into the midfield for Matuidi and Verratti, while Chelsea made one just prior to Cavani coming on – Oscar being brought on for Hazard. None of those did anything to change the flow of the game though, and Cavani’s goal ended up being the final, notable contribution to the match.
Chelsea’s narrow defeat (going by the scoreline anyway) and the away goal means that Hiddink’s team are very much still in the tie going into the second leg at Stamford Bridge on the 9th March, but PSG should certainly still be counted as the favourites after a dominant performance from them in Paris.