Paris Saint-Germain hosted Chelsea in the 1st leg of their last-16 tie on Tuesday night. The contrast between their domestic campaigns could not be much bigger. While PSG are cruising 24 points clear at the top of Ligue 1 Chelsea have been rooted to the bottom half of the Premier League table, have flirted with relegation and have had their manager sacked 7 months after lifting the Premier League trophy. PSG were thus heavy favourites and despite claiming the win, the 1 goal margin was not as comfortable as many expected before the game.
Chelsea’s defensive structure
For most of the game Chelsea displayed a very poor defensive structure that played into the strengths of PSG. There were several issues within their system firstly they were very passive electing to drop off and allow PSG to build practically unopposed. Secondly they lacked compactness of any sort; vertically the distance between the defence and midfield was large enough to be penetrated severally by PSG. Horizontally the wingers Hazard and Pedro were man-marking the opposing full-backs who stayed high and wide often making Pedro and Hazard drop into the defensive chain while they were also disconnected from the midfield line. These man-marking roles meant Fabregas and Mikel had large distances to cover both horizontally and vertically and they were, understandably, rarely able to do so effectively and Chelsea thus lacked central control. This meant PSG had several vertical and diagonal options to access the all-important 10 space and half spaces as shown below.
There is inherently a third, often ignored, element to compactness which can be described as “dynamic compactness” which includes the ability to maintain good distances and intensity in shifting, pressing the ball carrier and covering amongst other aspects. Dynamic compactness is crucial both to restrict the attacking possibilities for the team in possession but also in order to force possession turnovers. For me this is the element of compactness that Premier League teams lack the most as they often lack unity in their ball-oriented shifts, fail to press the ball carrier effectively and lack intuitive knowledge of how and when to cover, this is compounded by a lack of the other forms of compactness. Like a typical Premier League side Chelsea demonstrated a lack of dynamic compactness on top of vertical and horizontal and this meant PSG had countless attacking possibilities which, had they exploited, would have put the tie out of Chelsea’s reach.
Luckily for Chelsea PSG were not well organised positionally to take advantage of that horror show, their presence between the lines in particular was not as strong as usual but such monstrosity is liable to be punished.
PSG’s attacking struggles
PSG were as usual very fluid in possession with seamless positional rotations and exquisite combination play. With their positioning they manipulated Chelsea’s shape well creating oceans of space between the lines which the likes of Di Maria, Lucas and Ibrahimovic enjoyed. They had a high central presence created by the central roaming of their wide players in addition to their midfield three and this helped them assume dominance of possession and territory. This also helped them breach Chelsea’s midfield line on several occasions but for much of the first half they failed to create enough chances to match this dominance. Part of the problem was a lack of depth which harmed their ability to penetrate centrally, this was due to Ibrahimovic’s tendency to drop deep which is not a problem in itself but needed balancing runs by either one of the wide players or the midfielders. This was clear as PSG looked very threatening on the occasions Di Maria or Lucas made diagonal runs behind Chelsea’s defence.
With this lack of depth when players like Di Maria or Lucas received the ball between the lines with space to turn, they had to play wide which meant several through ball opportunities were wasted. Another benefit of depth runs in these situations would have been to give the ball carrier more time and space who would then be able to threaten Chelsea’s back line directly.
Chelsea’s offensive transitions
In the early stages of the game Chelsea struggled to get out of their half and there were few or no counter attacks to give their defence respite and this was due to several hasty clearances and a general lack of composure in the face of PSG’s counterpressing.
However towards the end of the 1st half and for most of the 2nd Chelsea improved significantly in this respect and this began to cause PSG several problems. With the excellent ball carrying abilities of Hazard, Pedro and Willian Chelsea could move forwards at pace while Costa frequently made threatening diagonal balancing movements to either pick up through balls or create space for others. However the ability of the attacking midfield trio to play in tight spaces also meant Chelsea had some variation and could counter with a more combination-oriented approach.
2nd half developments
Perhaps observing his side’s lack of depth and how it harmed their ability to penetrate Blanc instructed his full-backs to move even higher and they were now far more assertive in their movements behind Chelsea’s defensive line. The nominal wide players (especially Di Maria) would now drop deeper which would attract Chelsea’s situationally man-oriented full-backs to step out in turn increasing the space for PSG’s full-backs to run into. With PSG still enjoying space between the lines they could play Maxwell and Marquinhos in which created a number of good cutback and crossing opportunities which could and probably should have led to a goal.
Cavani’s introduction gave PSG a central penetration option and demonstrated what they were lacking in the 1st half. His goal was a perfect example of the kind of move that would have led to a pass out wide and a cross in the 1st half.
2-1 is an interesting score for the home side in the 1st leg of a Champions league tie as both teams can feel somewhat satisfied; the away team with an away goal and a one goal margin of defeat while the home team know if they avoid defeat in the away clash they will go through.
As for the game itself there were issues on both sides but PSG will likely be more pleased with their performance despite not fully taking advantage of Chelsea’s major structural issues which partly reveal why Chelsea are struggling so badly.