It was the night before chaos. The calm before the storm. The world had been lulled that things were slowly but surely rolling towards normalcy. We wouldn’t know for another few hours yet. That football could go on at Parc Des Princes in Paris, perhaps naively and even cruelly unaware, that we were about to lose Diego Maradona.
It was a match-up between the princes (excuse the terrible pun) of football coaching — Thomas Tuchel and Julian Naglesmann — as Paris St Germain met RB Leipzig in our focus match on matchday 4 in Group H.
Their reputations as brilliant managers and versatile tacticians has earned them plaudits fairly early in their careers. In fact, Tuchel was the one who introduced Naglesmann into coaching when his playing career was ended by injuries. It speaks volumes about German football, that some of the most exciting players in the world right now can be found in the Bundesliga.
The focus on youth, on developing strong institutional structures bodes well for Germany, notwithstanding the hiding they received at the hands of Spain the week before.
Tuchel has at his command perhaps the strongest front 3 in the Champions League in Neymar, Mbappe and Di Maria.
In Upamecano and Konaté, Naglesmann has perhaps one of the best defensive pairing, with both the Manchester clubs rumoured to be eyeing their services.
The match though was decided by the softest of touches by Sabitzer on Di Maria in the Leipzig penalty box early in the first half.
It was enough to earn a penalty, which Neymar coolly despatched past Gulácsi, the Leipzig goalkeeper. Naglesmann would bemoan the awarding of the penalty later calling it ‘a joke’.
From then on, and until the end, it was all Leipzig. For one of the most expensively assembled teams in the world, PSG would end up with only 38 per cent possession. RBL, in their turn, were guilty of missing several gilt-edged chances in front of goal.
It was all down to structure and tactical awareness. PSG were playing a pressing game, something Tuchel’s teams are known for. They press as a unit, from the forwards to the backline, moving as unit, cutting off passing lanes, forcing opponents to take the riskier option, that often ends in their giving away the ball. Yet, after the goal the pressing seemed non-existent.
Neymar and Mbappe were routinely guilty of releasing the pressure off the Leipzig backline.
The central striker in the PSG 4-3-3, often alternating between Neymar and Mbappe, seemed to forget all about cutting off the supply channel to Sabitzer, the deep-lying playmaker for RBL.
RB Leipzig used it to their advantage. Naglesmann’s tactics have usually been partial to a high possession game, with aggressive passing in the opposition half. Lining up loosely in a 4-2-3-1 formation that became 2-5-3 in possession. PSG’s failure to press up top allowed them to push their full backs to overload their forward areas taking the PSG midfielders out of the game.
Herera and Peredes, the PSG midfielders, often had to drop deeper and deeper within their own half to receive the ball, far away from their forwards, and crowded out in the middle of the park. With several willing runners the RB Leipzig players managed to attract and isolate opposition players, creating vacant spaces for other players to occupy and initiate meaningful attacks.
It also helps to have two talented central defenders who can not only keep the ball but also play meaningful passes to their teammates in the opponents’ half.
Upamecano and Konaté often moved into these vacant spaces to do just that. Inexplicably, it did not end up in a goal!
It was a mixture of poor finishing, lack of composure in front of the goal, and pure dumb luck that saw PSG escape this game with all 3 points.
On another day, this would have been another story!
(Aakash Chakrabarty loves commenting on football, because, well, it’s easy to be an armchair expert!)