After learning about the key injuries of Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé, along with Neymar’s ongoing transfer saga to a possible return to Spain in the ongoing summer transfer window, Paris Saint-Germain signed Mauro Icardi on the deadline day on a season loan deal with an option to make the transfer permanent next summer for 65 million euros
Icardi, who was frozen out at Inter, had captained the Italian giants for around three and a half years and had scored 124 goals in 219 games for the Nerazzurri. After an unsuccessful 2018/19 season, there were several people who had doubts if the striker could replicate his Inter’s goal-scoring record at the French capital.
With seven goals and one assist in the first six games, Icardi announced himself in style and became an instant favourite at the Parc des Princes. At the conclusion of the season, Icardi had scored 20 goals in all the competitions, more than Neymar and only behind Mbappé in the team. Add four assists on top of the goals and it is safe to say that the Argentine had a successful first season with the nine-time Ligue 1 champions.
In this scout report, we will do a tactical analysis of Icardi’s attacking and goal-scoring tendencies and how do they fit into Thomas Tuchel’s attacking tactics at PSG. We will also have a look at the problems that the Argentine brings with himself.
A product of Barcelona’s famous ‘La Masia’ academy, the one thing associated with Icardi throughout his senior career in Inter and now at PSG has been goals.
In the world of increasing ‘False-9’ strikers where a centre-forward often drops deep to influence the play and support his team in the link-up play, Icardi comes out more like a conventional centre-forward who prefers to do his job inside the 18-yard box and loves to be on the score sheet regularly. He is a poacher who likes to make runs behind the defensive line and is deadly inside the penalty area. The striker likes to position himself centrally for most parts of the game and seldom deviates towards wider areas. The following heat map showcases what we just discussed.
It is clear from the figure that while he occasionally drops into deeper areas of the opposition half to contribute in the buildup, it is the 18-yard box in which he thrives. It is fair to say that he is decent in holding up the ball, but he does not drop deep often. Having said that, with time, he has shown improvements in this aspect of the game. Most of the touches in the own half are a result of his defensive contribution in the set-pieces as we will see later in this analysis.
Role in Tuchel’s PSG
We have mentioned the basic characteristics of Icardi’s play in the previous section. Let us delve deeper into those characteristics in this section and see how they fit into the attacking philosophy of the ex-Borussia Dortmund manager.
It is a well-known fact that PSG is blessed with some of the best-attacking talents in the world with Mbappé, Neymar, Ángel Di María at their disposal to name the few. When such an attacking powerhouse is combined with a creative midfield that includes the likes of Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes, it is only natural for the team to create attacks and work the ball inside the box with ease and regularity. The final piece of the attacking jigsaw, thus, is to compliment the attack by putting the ball at the back of the net with the maximum possible efficiency. After all, a football game is only won when the attacking chances are converted into goals. This is where Icardi comes into play. Over the past few years, his shots to goal ratio have been one of the best, if not the best in the world.
This is one of the aspects where the Argentine comes out as a perfect replacement or probably an upgrade to Cavani. According to FbRef, Cavani had a goal conversion of 30% during the 2018/19 season, which is his career-best figures. In the 2019/20 season, Icardi has bettered that with 33%. It is highest in Ligue 1 and the career-best figures of the Argentine as well. Not only that but amongst all the players in the big five European leagues, the Argentine ranks second in the goal-conversion metric, only behind BVB’s Erling Braut Håland.
It cannot be a coincidence that both the strikers enjoyed their career-best figures in shots to goal ratio in the last two years. Indeed, they are really good finishers. But, the system in which they play (Tuchel has also been the manager of PSG for two years now) and the quality of balls they get inside the box also contribute to the figure. PSG is one of the best teams when it comes to creating goal-scoring chances from open play as well as in transitions. Tuchel’s team put a lot of emphasis on working the ball inside the box for the striker to receive it comfortably. The quality of players that they possess provide killer balls to the striker better than most of the teams around. It takes out the striker’s responsibility of involving in the build-up and allows him to focus only on meeting the final balls efficiently.
The figure above shows an instance of a fluid counter-attacking movement of PSG that resulted in Mbappé creating a simple tap-in chance for Icardi. Eight of Icardi’s 20 goals, which is 40% of his goals this season, have been scored through a simple tap in an empty goal, just like above. It highlights the quality of balls that the Argentine gets into the penalty box.
There are more stats that indicate the contribution of the team’s philosophy and quality attackers towards the high goal-scoring ratio of Icardi. The Argentina international has the highest number of goals scored from the six-yard box in the Ligue 1. 53 out of the total 54 shots in this season have come from inside the penalty area, as shown in the following figure.
The following figure illustrates the full jigsaw piece. A quality cross from Juan Bernat from inside the penalty box has been met with a quality finish from Icardi. The Argentine made a clever run from behind the centre-backs to meet the ball with precision and accuracy with a sliding finish.
Overall, the attacking system of PSG has significantly contributed to Icardi’s goal tally this season. Having said that, Icardi’s attacking quality has complimented the attacking system of Tuchel with a plethora of goals. We will see what makes the Argentine so good in the final third later in the analysis.
Apart from his ability as a poacher, another characteristic play of Icardi that fits in well in Tuchel’s system is his tendency to play centrally. As we have already established, the Argentine likes to channel his play in the central areas of the field. On the ball, PSG tends to provide width in the attacking third by positioning the attacking midfielders or full-backs in wide areas. Icardi’s inclination to remain centrally occupies the two centre-backs. This creates a dilemma for the opposition defence. If the full-back pushes inside to close the gap with the nearest centre-back, it creates outside space for the wide-attacker. While if the full-back pins the wide-attacker, it creates space in the half-space that can be exposed by another attacker. The following figure shows the first scenario.
As shown in the figure above, Icardi’s positioning has engaged both the opposing centre-backs which has resulted in their left full-back tucking inside to reduce the gap with the left centre-back. Observe the space it has created on PSG’s right flank. An accurate long ball from the man in possession and PSG entered the attacking third swiftly.
The following figure shows the second scenario in which Icardi’s central positioning is helping to create space in the right half-space.
In the figure above, observe how the opposition centre-backs have occupied Icardi in the centre that has left a huge gap between the opposition’s left full-back and the left centre-back. Pablo Sarabia is running towards space after passing the ball to Di María (man in possession). A pass from Di María to Mbappé and the following pass from the Frenchman into space for Sarabia allow the Spaniard to expose the final third and play a simple low cross for Icardi who taps-in with ease, as shown in the following figure.
The 27-year old striker not only contributes during the possession but also supports the high pressing tactic of PSG. Tuchel’s team likes to engage in the press from the front by preventing the opposition to play out from the back in the wake of winning the possession higher up the field. When the opposition goal-keeper has the ball, the PSG attackers cut all the short passing options to force the opposition to go long.
As shown in the figure above, Icardi cover-shadows the defensive midfielder It prevents the goal-keeper to progress the ball vertically. Moments later, the ball is passed to a free centre-back. Icardi immediately pushes forward to engage in the press with the defender while maintaining his cover-shadow of the defensive midfielder. The other PSG attackers are marking the nearest opposition players which eventually forces them to go long.
Even though Icardi does not appear to be the most “aggressive” forward, his off the ball movements in and around the box creates massive problems for the opposition defence. One such manoeuvre is his diagonal runs in the final third. We have already mentioned that he positions himself centrally when his team is in possession. When PSG gets into the final third, the Argentine tends to make diagonal runs towards a half-space. This movement draws the centre-back who is marking him away from his position consequently creating space in central areas for an attacking team-mate to expose. It can also, at times, help the striker to move closer to the goal to take a shot. Let us analyze both the scenarios.
Observe in the following figure that Icardi is making a diagonal run towards the left half-space. The movement draws the opposition centre-back who is marking the striker out of his position, in turn, opening up a passing lane in the right channel.
Colin Dagba makes a run in the space to put in a cross for the Argentine. Even though this particular attack folded, it highlights the importance of Icardi’s off the ball movement to create goal-scoring opportunities for his team.
As mentioned earlier in this section, the striker’s diagonal runs also assist him in scoring goals. In the figure below, Icardi is seen to be moving away from central space inside the penalty box to attack the half-space close to the six-yard box.
At first, it seems like he is moving away from the goal. This may give some confidence to the defender and the goal-keeper since the striker’s movement has given the goal-keeper time to close the shooting angle at the near post, as shown in the figure below. However, the finishing quality of Icardi is ridiculously high as we have already established. In this case, he puts the ball on the other side of the net with a first-time shot.
To go a little further in showcasing the striker’s finishing quality, have a look at the following figure. It shows Icardi in a similar position as above. Once again, the goal-keeper has closed the shooting angle at the near post. This time, however, instead of the far-post, the Argentine beats the keeper at the near post with a first-time half-volley from an awkward delivery from his countryman Di María.
Icardi is excellent when it comes to taking first-time shots on goal. He has shown over the years that his first-time shots, be it be a half-volley, a volley, headers, closed-angle shots, etc., are accurate more often than not, which contributes to his 33% conversion rate. Barring one or two goals this season, all the goals that he has scored have been from a first-time shot. It is mentioned earlier that the Argentine makes maximum impact inside the 18-yard box. That is why he is not someone you would see taking many touches or making more dribbles in a game. Indeed, he has the lowest number of dribbles (0.8 per 90 minutes) amongst all the strikers in Ligue 1 this season, according to WhoScored.
Another kind of manoeuvre that Icardi often uses is blind-side runs. It is a precise run made by an attacker from behind the shoulder of the marking defender when a final ball is delivered for the attacker. It is one of the most challenging movements to defend against and even the best defenders find it uncomfortable to defend these runs at times. The reason why it is so difficult for a defender is that when an attacker is making a blind-side run, he runs from behind the defender. At the same time, it is also important for the defender to see the ball ahead of him as well as the attacker behind him at the same time, which, as it sounds, is extremely difficult.
For an attacker to make this movement correctly, he has to be an astute reader of a game. He needs to have abilities to find spaces behind the defensive line and to make perfectly-timed runs to break the offside trap. Icardi is one of the best in these aspects.
As shown in the figure above, Icardi is indicating the man in possession (Verratti) to put the ball in the space available in the left channel behind the defender who is marking him. Moments after this image was taken, the centre-back looked over his shoulder to check Icardi. As a defender who was defending in his own third, it was also necessary for him to concentrate on Verratti’s actions. As soon as the defender turned and looked at the ball, the striker was off and he made a quick turn to make a run from the defender’s blind-side. When Verratti put the cross in the box, Icardi was in the pole position to win the aerial duel against the defender due to his run. In this instance, Icardi was provided a perfect delivery and he was able to get past the defender to beat the keeper with a header.
Icardi is an out-and-out striker who does not play in any other position. He generally acquires the most attacking position on the field. Because of this, like most of the strikers, he rarely contributes to the defensive phase of his team when the opposition is attacking via open play or counter-attack.
Having said that, it is the attacking set-piece plays from the opposition when the striker is responsible to make a defensive contribution by positioning himself near the goal for making aerial clearances. The following figure shows an attacking free-kick situation for Club Brugge in a Champions League tie. Observe how Icardi has positioned himself in the defensive line at the near post to clear dangerous deliveries.
The striker has good aerial abilities that make him an essential candidate responsible for making aerial clearance during opposition’s attacking set-pieces. Another reason for his deep positioning is the fact that he is not the fastest player on the side. This makes him inefficient during a quick break in transitions after a set-piece. Players like Mbappé and Di María are better equipped during quick transitions and hence, they stay forward during opposition set-plays.
Overall, Icardi’s first season in Paris has been a tale of two different sides. While the striker saw a dream run in 2019 after scoring plenty of goals, it was followed by a slump in form in 2020, which also saw him getting demoted to bench for the Champions League round of 16 games against BVB.
There is no denial in the talent and goals that Icardi would bring to the French champions, now that they have officially made his deal permanent. His off the ball attacking movements make him extremely dangerous inside the box. As Hernán Crespo, a former Inter and Argentine attacking legend had once said: “No striker in the world matches Icardi’s talent in the penalty box.” Moreover, the kind of centre-forward Icardi is, it fits him well tactically in this Tuchel’s PSG team.
As good as Cavani has been for the Ligue 1 champions over the years, it is clear that at the age of 33, he does not have a lot of years left in him to serve the capital side. Icardi’s egocentric personality outside the pitch has caused turbulence in his relationships with the club personnel and the fans over the years which eventually became the reason for his exit from Inter. If he can curb his non-footballing capers, he has the potential to be a perfect replacement for the Uruguayan and become an important player for the French champions over the next few years.