The Season So Far
Put simply, it hasn’t been good. Given the disparity between their budget and those of their domestic rivals, Paris Saint-Germain should be twenty points clear in Ligue 1 and playing the kind of football that would make Pep Guardiola jealous. As it is, they’re in second place, a point behind Lyon, and putting in the sort of turgid displays that made Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England a laughing stock.
The underlying numbers show that Laurent Blanc’s men are still the best team in France: no team has a higher average share of possession, completes more passes, works the opposition keeper more often or restricts their opponents to fewer chances than PSG. Even so, most of their season has been miserable.
The knowledge that they’re miles better than their opponents has led to complacency and Blanc seems powerless to prevent his stars losing interest. They’ve drawn eleven times in the league – more than any other side – and aside from a three-game run in October and November when the players seemed to wake up, they’ve only won twice away from the Parc des Princes all season.
All of the above said, they’re unbeaten in fourteen in all competitions and they thoroughly outplayed Barcelona in September. When the chips go down and their players can be bothered, they’re a force to be reckoned with, and despite all the lows of their season so far, they can knock Chelsea out.
Blanc favours a fairly rigid 4-3-3 with attacking wing-backs, a narrow midfield and hard-working wide-forwards. As the team’s most talented player, Ibrahimović usually comes deep to get the ball and plays clever passes inside the full-backs for the wingers to chase, but the real heartbeat of the team is Thiago Motta, who sets the tempo from the base of the midfield. Verratti and Matuidi usually play either side of Motta and both are pretty complete midfielders.
PSG mostly attack down the flanks and rely on the pace and creativity of their attackers to create chances. Lucas Moura will be a big miss in that respect, while Ezequiel Lavezzi is badly off-form and Javier Pastore is rarely trusted in the big games. This means that the burden could fall entirely on the absurdly talented Ibrahimović.
It’s been noted that Ibrahimović’s capacity for improvisation works better in domestic leagues than in the Champions League, where teams have much better players and more advanced tactics and consequently shut him down. There is some truth in that: despite having been one of the most watchable players of all time, his teams have almost always been hard to enjoy. The temptation to just give it to Zlatan and hope that he does something amazing is always too great. As well as that, Ibrahimović has never seen the point in playing any other way – after all, it usually works.
Despite a troublesome heel injury that has limited his performances this season, the big Swede is still one of the best players in the world. His technique and intelligence remain barely plausible, and though he’s tactically anarchic and doesn’t track back, he could win the game on his own.
Although PSG do not always appear to be on the same wavelength, they’re a solid unit with all the characteristics of a top European side. They know how they’re supposed to attack and how they’re supposed to defend and, when motivated, they do their jobs diligently. They’re usually excellent at set pieces in both attack and defence, so Chelsea scoring shortly after a dead-ball in the first leg was a surprise.
They maintain possession very well and, although they don’t press particularly hard or make lots of tackles, they restrict their opponents to a low number of shots on their goal with clever positioning in midfield and pure quality in the centre of defence.
As well as that, PSG have star power: they’ve got Ibrahimović, Cavani, Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and David Luiz. It’s a team crammed with elite-level talent, most of it capable of turning a game on its head with a decisive contribution.
The problem, as it so often is at nouveau riche clubs, is that they’ve bought a squad of famous names with no shared way of playing. What suits Zlatan Ibrahimović, for example, doesn’t work at all for Edinson Cavani. The way Blaise Matuidi sees the game is very different to Marco Verratti’s vision of football. David Luiz is incapable of playing any way but his own, which makes fitting him into an organised unit very hard indeed. While PSG do a passable impression of a good team, it’s hard not to look at the names on the teamsheet and think they should be so much better.
Another issue is that with no existing culture of success at the club, no history or narrative driving them on, it’s easy for the players to stop caring. They’d rather be at Barcelona or Real Madrid – and most of them are talented enough to have got moves to those clubs – and yet they find themselves being paid €200,000 per week to play in stadiums that barely hold 20,000 people. This shouldn’t be an issue against Chelsea in the Champions League, but the fact is that morale rarely appears to be high at PSG.
What they need is a Mourinho-like figure to create the winning culture of constant self-improvement, but they’ve got Blanc instead, who appears less-and-less like a top-level manager with every passing season. One suspects that Le Président’s time will be up as soon as a better coach becomes available. Mourinho should get the better of him fairly easily.
The $64,000 question for Blanc is "where does David Luiz start?" If he starts in midfield, as he did in the first leg, then Marquinhos will play in the centre of defence and Gregory Van Der Wiel will play at right-back. The safer option, however, would be to put Marquinhos up against Hazard, bring David Luiz back into the middle and let the more trustworthy Thiago Motta protect the back four.
The only other question mark is over Lavezzi, who has been playing like a child that’s only just discovered football. Pastore has been in incredible form, but it would be a big shock if Blanc prioritised Pastore’s artistry over Lavezzi’s work-rate.
Chelsea come into the game as clear favourites but the first leg proved that the two sides are better matched than many anticipated. The Blues should go through, but PSG have too many match-winners to write them off entirely.