How Mauricio Pochettino Readapted PSG’s Structure to Reflect His Football Philosophy
On January 2, 2021, former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was appointed as the new head coach at PSG, replacing his German colleague Thomas Tuchel. Let’s take a look at how the Argentinian was able to leave his mark on the Parisian team during his first months at the club.
Since replacing Thomas Tuchel in early January, Mauricio Pochettino has been able to stamp his mark on Paris Saint-Germain. This is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The former Spurs boss hasn’t changed the team radically and it was hard to see a replica of his Tottenham too, as he barely had time to coach the team into his playing style, as PSG played a game every four days since his appointment. The team is made by the players and Pochettino has the exact same ones that Tuchel had, as PSG haven’t signed a single player during the winter transfer window. It’s no surprise then that Pochettino relied heavily on the legacy of Tuchel’s work at the club, only changing small details. Marginal details maybe, but still important enough to shape PSG playing style in a different way, making the new manager’s touch visible on the pitch.
Pochettino inherited from Tuchel a team used to playing with different systems, changing them during the game according to the different moments. In the last matches with Tuchel, PSG played with three at the back almost every time. Even when playing with a 4-3-3, the build-up of the play was made by a three-man back line, with the center midfielder playing deep between the center-backs, allowing the fullbacks to play ahead.
Below, an example from the match played against Manchester United, a decisive win to qualify for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. PSG played with a 4-3-3 but, when building-up from the back, Pereira sat deep between Marquinhos and Kimpembe, pushing the two fullbacks Florenzi and Diallo upwards.
Pochettino’s PSG took and readapted this structure to build up the play. The two fullbacks still move forward at the same time – but playing in a more advanced position, and there’s one less midfielder, as the system is a 4-2-3-1. Pochettino prefers having an additional passing line in the last third but he doesn’t give up on building up from the back with the two center-backs and center midfielders to consolidate possession. It’s a decisive possession, as it allows the other players to take advanced positions, the fullbacks to move upwards, the inside-forwards to move behind the opponent midfield. It mustn’t be too frenetic, in order not to stretch the team.
The picture above clearly shows PSG’s new structure when in possession. The first build-up is quite comfortable, as superiority is granted in the midfield by quadrilateral formed by Marquinhos, Kimpembe, Gueye and Pereira. The fullbacks (Dagba and Kurzawa) occupy the same line as the advanced midfielders (Draxler, Sarabia and Rafinha), as they seek space behind the Bordeaux midfield.
At the start of the play, the lines are pretty flexible, and their shape heavily depends on the quality of the players deployed in the final third and on the opponents’ pressure. An advanced midfielder can lower deep to assist the midfield and a center midfielder can lie deep in the defensive line. But this is not a systemic movement as under Tuchel and it adapts to the type and intensity of the opponents’ pressure.
In the image below, Paredes is playing between the two center-backs, while Verratti sits deep to favor the build-up and the same did Herrera close to the center circle. The fullbacks maintain an offensive position, Kurzawa draws Dembélé’s attention on the defensive line, while Florenzi is not marked by Griezmann.
Although its structure is often very similar to the one used by Tuchel, Pochettino’s PSG tries to occupy the space between the lines and – maybe the most evident change – utilizes the fullbacks less often. With Tuchel, involving the fullbacks in the build-up was an option available at all times when the central passing lines were closed. Now, the fullbacks playing upwards the pitch is a decoy to stretch out the opponents, making the passing in central areas easier.
PSG always try to keep the ball in the middle – leaning laterally to a midfielder opening wide only if necessary and moving up the pitch in a different way. They don’t often rely on fullbacks, waiting for their play to bring the ball back to the center, but rather build-up centrally, then involving fullbacks at a later stage in the last third, whether directly or indirectly. In fact, their wide position always leaves room for a quick switch of play in case of need.
What Pochettino brought to PSG’s maneuver is clearly visible in the first two goals scored by Mbappé at Camp Nou against Barcelona. In both occasions, the quadrilateral made by the two center-backs and the two center mids is formed when building up, the first moments of possession lower the opponent lines, creating a space behind the defense which is quickly attacked with a switch of play to the fullback.
In Mbappé’s first goal, the play starts after a Barcelona counterattack stopped by Marquinhos, who intercepts a pass by Dembélé to Messi in the last third. Barcelona’s defensive lines are stretched out because of the counterattack and PSG is allowed to quickly consolidate possession, first with a triangle between Marquinhos, Navas and Gueye, and then with a pass from the Brazilian defender to find Verratti behind Busquets. A play that cut out the Blaugrana’s pressure, forcing them to run backwards.
In fact, Verratti turns around Busquets and he’s able to keep the play alive without any resistance. He doesn’t choose to lean on one of the three forwards though, who pin and hold the defensive line tight with their positions, opening spaces on the wings for the fullbacks. The easiest passing line is to Kurzawa, who gets the ball with a switch of play.
After moving the ball to the left, Verratti gets closer to it by moving towards Kurzawa, while Barcelona’s defensive lines were forced to move backwards to their goal. PSG find themselves attacking a positional defense, but had the time to move the fullbacks upwards, bringing Verratti and the two lateral forwards – Kean and Mbappé – behind the Blaugrana midfield, while their classic quadrilateral is formed by center-backs and midfielders down the pitch. The wealth of options behind the lines messes with Barcelona’s midfield, leaving a free passing line for Gueye to Kean, who then passes back to Marquinhos.
These passes lured Barcelona’s defense to the left, creating space on the weak side for Kurzawa, who’s timely served by Marquinhos’ switch of play.
It’s the pass that speeds up the play, also ending it. Kurzawa leans back to Verratti with a first-touch pass. The Italian midfielder gets to the box with a soft touch with the outside foot serving Mbappé, who scores by shooting under the crossbar after a difficult control.
The second goal is scored under very similar premises as the first one. PSG’s play starts on the midfield after a foul on Paredes. Barcelona’s lines are deployed and the Parisians can immediately take the planned positions. The fullbacks are in their high positions and they’re followed by Barça’s wingers – Griezmann and Dembélé, forming a six-man defensive line. The three attackers pin the defense, deploying between the fullbacks and the center-backs. The quadrilateral is closed on the left by Verratti, since Herrera – who substituted Gueye, is upwards, behind the Blaugrana’s midfield.
The switch of positions doesn’t change the build-up of the play. The first passes easily free Paredes on which Pedri is late, as he’s in an unusual center midfielder position between de Jong and Busquets, who was occupying a wide position to follow Verratti’s movement. Paredes gets the ball in the center circle, notices Florenzi’s run into space and accurately serves him in the box, behind Griezmann.
Florenzi tries to find Icardi but his pass is inaccurate and it’s intercepted by Piqué. The ball still reaches Mbappé, who can easily score in a defenseless goal.
So, Pochettino’s mark is already visible, with wide fullbacks, tight wingers close to the trequartista that – along with the movements from the striker, lower the opponent lines and facilitate the build-up, alternating short passes and switch of plays.
The meeting point between Pochettino’s ideas and the talent he has at his disposal seems to be a definitive one. Verratti’s return to the past – in regard to playing in the advanced position he started his career with, is maybe the thing that marks a change from the past the most. Verratti is playing great football in his new role but has specific skills that the team system needs to take into account.
The former Pescara midfielder improves the team’s possession and keeps the lines closer, raising the level of the first pressure on the opponents, compensating the attackers’ lack of defensive attitude. But his tendency to lie deep must be compensated by an opposite movement from one of the other midfielders, in order for the team not to lose a passing option in the last third. And then there are his struggles to contribute with goals and assists – one of the most frequent criticisms made to Verratti, which limits PSG’s offensive potential, preventing other players with a more offensive attitude to play in that position.
Then, Pochettino can barely rely on Neymar, whose role in the system is yet to be defined. Not much for his position, that he can easily find both starting from the left or the center, but rather for his involvement in the plays. Neymar often runs away from the opponents by lying deep on the left-wing, he loves to be involved in the build-up and forces the system to adapt to his tempo and his movements.
In the play shown below, Neymar moves deep to receive the ball from Diallo but – by doing so, he clogs the spaces in the midfield, depriving the team of an option behind the opponent midfield, as Paredes could’ve covered the same zone.
These are imbalances that PSG always accepted in order to get from Neymar what he’s able to deliver, not only in terms of goals and assists but also from the ease with which he’s able to move the ball upwards and create dangerous occasions. Pochettino will also have to deal with these imbalances, considering that occupying certain positions between the lines is critical for his football style. In the image above, for example, Neymar tries to do things on his own, carries the ball from the left to the right, leans on Florenzi and then has to give up and pass the ball back.
Different from Verratti, then, Neymar doesn’t make order when lying deep. He takes risks and always tries the definitive play, creating a lot but also making the system much more unstable. If he lowers and loses possession, PSG are more exposed in transition, as they’re less prepared to react to the loss of possession. What’s more, the Brazilian still needs to familiarize with the new structure when in possession, as he was used to receiving the ball with the fullback on his left side and a striker in front of him (mostly Mbappé) ready to cut behind the lines, with the new positions keeping him more distant to his usual references on the pitch.
So far, results have been encouraging but Pochettino’s job has just begun and it will take time before PSG will actually be able to fully represent the Argentinian’s ideas on the pitch. Like any other manager who worked at the club, he will first and foremost be able to manage the incredible amount of talent at his disposal.