Although Mauricio Pochettino hasn't had the best start to life with PSG, much hope and promise for the future remain, given his early time in charge so far and the team's form in the UEFA Champions League. The Parisians are yet to lose a game in the Champions League under Pochettino, and despite a disappointing loss to Lille in Ligue 1, they remain in the hunt for a treble. The league title that the Argentinean desperately craved at Tottenham is still within reach and will certainly come even if not this season. So with that, here is RDF Tactics' Tactical Analysis of Mauricio Pochettino's PSG so far in 2020-21.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-2-3-1
Mauricio Pochettino utilized a 4-2-3-1 system throughout his time at Tottenham Hotspur, and it's no surprise that he's now stuck with his tried and tested formation at PSG. The formation allows Pochettino to field four attackers, with fluid movement and positional interchange between them. It also accommodates two defensive midfielders, to which PSG have several outstanding options. Pochettino's 4-2-3-1 formation has some unique positional shifts based on the phase of the game, as the former Spurs and Southampton manager is said to have been inspired by Bielsa's fundamentals of positional play. One of those shifts sees the formation operate very much like a 4-2-2-2 at times in attack.
The lack of natural wingers and the use of quick attacking transitions often aids in this approach, but it's primarily a result of Poch's willingness to allow Neymar, Mbappe and di Maria to float around the pitch as they please. They often create a box-like structure in attack, with the front four operating in close proximity and at least one winger always inverting. Although the changing of shape and movement of the front four can be positive in causing chaos for the opposition, it can also stifle PSG's own attack, as they lack the necessary width to break teams down adequately. The fullbacks have been less adventurous in Pochettino's system than under Thomas Tuchel, leaving the bulk of the attacking down to the front four. If the front-men then operate too close together, they can play into the hands of many opposition teams that set up to defend narrow and compact. Sometimes the team also lack a natural target man up top like a Mauro Icardi or the now-departed Edinson Cavani; however, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar are both too talented for that to ultimately matter.
When it comes to pressing, Mauricio Pochettino's PSG have carried on where Thomas Tuchel left off. However, with a formational shift to a 4-2-3-1, there are now some stark differences. Most prominently, a 4-2-3-1 means that the team often press in a 4-4-2 shape and attempt to stifle their opposition in more of a mid-block than an out-and-out high press and force them out wide. It may still at times float into more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 shape, as the attacking midfielder may do more diligent defending if the opposition's outstanding player is the defensive-midfielder.
For example, against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Neymar followed Joshua Kimmich side to side while also still operating alongside Mbappe whenever one of the central midfielders would push up with the press and mitigate Kimmich's movement instead. Further, the lower PSG are on the pitch, the less likely they are to adopt a 4-4-2 press, as the number ten becomes more likely to tuck into central areas.
However, it has its obvious advantages when aiding in the team's 4-2-2-2 look in attack. When the Parisians win the ball back, their wingers will invert, and the attacking midfielder often stays high alongside the striker. With Mbappe and Neymar the two likeliest to play in those positions, it makes it all the easier for PSG to play quick vertical passes into their danger men.
In longer spells without the ball, a 4-4-2 mid-block will also take precedence, as the central midfielders will shift and slide with the play and combine with the wingers and fullbacks to mitigate threats out wide. One of the weaknesses to PSG's press is that the attackers can sometimes be a bit lazy, whilst a midfield of Verratti and Paredes can also be quite slow. Idrissa Gueye is an exceptional tackler and a more mobile member of the midfield line, but there's only so much ground he can cover. This may be one reason for Pochettino opting for a slightly less aggressive press than Tuchel, but it hasn't necessarily helped the team develop a better defensive record. With the front four sometimes unwilling to get involved as much as their manager might demand of them, PSG can get outnumbered. They may concede crosses and shots as a result of this, or their teammates may be forced into making fouls in an attempt to allow the team to reset. With the Parisians already not having the most aerially dominant defence, conceding set-pieces can be particularly problematic. But if their midfielders and fullbacks are able to stop attacks before it becomes too late, the high position of the front four can also aid in PSG's counter-attacks. So again, there is both some good and bad to their lack of aggression right from the very front.
Out from the back, Neymar and Mbappe (particularly when they are used as the number ten and number nine) will often take turns dropping deep and engaging in the build-up. They're particularly adept at finding space in between the lines and recognizing when to play backwards passes or when they have space to dribble. This variety successfully stops an opposition number six from covering the number ten. PSG's number ten may spend more time running in behind the striker than engaging in the build-up, or they could look to drop deep as the striker stays high. When the opposition also have Angel di Maria to watch out for, it becomes more and more difficult to stop the French champions from breaking through the lines. But again, this can also mean that further forward, PSG lack a natural outlet up front, as their players constantly change position. Mauro Icardi and Moise Kean may offer greater stability in that regard but also have their limitations in being part of the build-up and imposing the same fear factor. When Neymar operates on the left, he is also very likely to drift deep (with an edge toward the left) and engages in the build-up, constantly looking to get on the ball. The other attacking players around him then prepare to receive in space up the field, as Neymar turns at speed and runs with the ball. This dropping in makes it more difficult for opposition teams to adequately press the likes of Verratti and Paredes in initial moves. Then as they are afforded more time and space to get their heads up, Neymar can drift to one side and pull opposition players with him, opening new corridors to exploit. This is another reason why Pochettino has been comfortable operating with more defensively minded attacking midfielders in the number ten position from time to time, as they can also function with the same amount of space interpreting and possession-based attributes when playing out from the back. That said, when players like Rafinha or Verratti play as the attacking midfielder, the shape can become more of a 4-3-3 in attack and certainly a more natural 4-2-3-1 shape in defence.
Now, although the movement in deep from attack-minded players like Neymar is important, there is no man more key to PSG's build-up under Pochettino than Marco Verratti. The PSG midfielder has completed nearly 90 passes per game in Ligue 1, the most by quite some margin. Although the Italian may attempt the odd longer pass, he's particularly key in keeping the tempo of the game moving through quick sideways passes to open up new avenues of space. Although this sounds like a very simple art, Verratti is difficult to stop when he has possession at his feet and is also quite adept at turning under pressure. With varying movements between himself and his midfield partner, he is also difficult to track. The Italian may drop to the side of one of the PSG centre-backs, he might float in between, and he could also operate in between the lines in front of them. Regardless, PSG ultimately want to get the ball into their danger men, and Verratti is key to picking out the right passes at the right moments for his team. Marquinhos and Leandro Paredes are also exceptional in the build-up, with greater freedom and capabilities to pick out longer passes. Presnel Kimpembe meanwhile has the highest passing accuracy in the league (95%), with Diallo and Gueye also in the top five alongside Marquinhos. This means that PSG have several players who are very capable of keeping possession, and that they do not always need to rely on quick, vertical passes up the field to their most dangerous players.
QUICK ATTACKING TRANSITIONS
With that said, quick attacking transitions can also be one of their greatest attributes. Although PSG are ultimately a possession-based side that can be very patient in possession, they've also proven to be deadly on the counter-attack under Mauricio Pochettino. The Ligue 1 champions have scored seven goals from counter-attacks according to WhoScored?, the most in the league. They've also completed the highest number of dribbles (12.9 per game) and adopt the most verticality in attack (29% of their attacks). All of these attributes have risen since the Argentinean's arrival and emphasize Pochettino's desire to get the best out of Neymar and Mbappe without needing a focal point up top. Mbappe is particularly deadly on the counter-attack, with an unrivalled speed and astute awareness of when to pump the brakes and when to press the gas. When he's under pressure with his back to goal, Mbappe will often play a backwards pass to a fullback or central midfielder before spinning in behind for a give-and-go. When he's faced up with a defender 1v1, he will often look to take them on with a bit of speed and skill. But most importantly, in the context of quick transitions, when he's given space to roam, there is nobody else in the world that PSG could want to have with the ball at their feet. Neymar also loves to take players on but utilizes it more in 1v1 situations than counter attacks. Neymar will instead look to run with the ball at speed until he's closed down and often shift it to another player at the exact right moment. Di Maria also has a bit of flair and pizzazz but looks for longer passes when he senses the opportunity to exploit an opposition defence, rather than running with the ball at long speeds like the other two. Mbappe gives the team something completely different, complimenting the attributes of the other two with his incisive movement both on and off the ball.
With Marco Verratti and Idrissa Gana Gueye also being sound ball winners, PSG can win the ball back quickly when they lose it and instantly make vertical passes forward for the likes of Mbappe and Neymar to start again. The Parisians also have a strong emphasis towards the left side of their attack. Only SC Reims have attacked down the left more than PSG, despite Pochettino's men simultaneously also adopting the most vertical approach in attack as well. Neymar will often drop to the left when he comes deep for the build-up, and that is also where he naturally roams immediately after his side win the ball and look to attack. Attacking down this side is both a function of strategically utilizing Neymar's strengths to his advantage and also Neymar's natural inclination to drift to that side. PSG understand who they need to give the ball to for the best results in attack, and this, above all else, is one of their greatest tactical weapons.
Although Mauricio Pochettino hasn't had the best start to life with PSG, much of his tactical nuisance is very apparent and very different from what the team saw before under Tuchel. Whether or not these changes can lead the team to Ligue 1 glory, this season remains to be seen, but the Parisians are at the very least making a valiant charge toward the UEFA Champions League title, with a second leg against Bayern Munich still to play.