Arriving at PSG as a “super sub” for 18 million euros, Pablo Sarabia had a mixed first season. In the shadow of the Fantastic Four, the Spanish winger took a long time to integrate into his new team. He was a poor performer in his first few months in France, but he has been on the up in 2020. He had just come out of an incredible season 2018/2019 in which he was an undisputed first-team regular at Sevilla (13 goals and 12 assists). His change of status within a bigger team may have disrupted him at the start. However, Sarabia is a very talented player with a different profile to PSG’s attackers. By taking advantage of injuries to some of his attacking partners, he was able to create a place for himself and assert his value. In this tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, we’ll take a close look at Sarabia’s style of play and what he brings to Tuchel’s tactics.
Formation and style of play
Sarabia is a very versatile player who shows a lot of adaptabilities. He has mainly been seen playing on the right side of PSG’s attack as a winger or attacking midfielder. But as against Dortmund in the second leg and a few other Ligue 1 matches, the Spaniard is capable of playing as a false nine in two-striker tactics. He has rarely played on the left side of the pitch, but that’s already happened this season; proof that the former Sevilla player is very flexible. Sarabia is a player who loves to move between the lines and roam from his position.
He shone in Sevilla with his ability to be very effective in the last 25 metres, both on pass and finish. He is left-footed and has a small build (174cm for 70 kilos), and he compensates for that with above-average playing intelligence to get the better of his opponents. Also, the Spaniard has a good work rate, which allows him to be important with but also without the ball. In a team where the forwards have rather a low defensive contribution, this is not negligible. Obviously, he is a skilled player with a great vision that allows him to make quick and good decisions.
As you can see on his heatmap, he is attracted by the middle of the field and often positions himself in the right half-space. At Sevilla, he was particularly good on offensive transitions, when he had a lot of space. At PSG it’s different because his team has on average 64.4% possession. There are therefore far fewer transitions to play and the Spanish player has to play against very low blocks with little space around him. Faced with very low blocks, PSG must stretch the opponent both in width and depth, and the role of the wingers is essential in doing so. With very offensive tactics, the wingers must position themselves so that they are not in the same area as the full-backs to optimise space. That’s why Sarabia very often positions himself in the right half-space when playing as a winger. This allows him to cover more space and offer different passing solutions to his teammates.
In the picture above, Loïc Mbe Soh stretches the opponent’s block by sticking to the touchline. This increases the distance between each player in Reims and thus creates spaces inside the block. Sarabia positions himself in the right half-space so that he is not in the same line as his full-back and to take advantage of the positioning of the latter. The Spanish player’s position is dangerous because he has a lot of space around him and a possibility to go in-depth.
Sarabia has recently been questioned about his playing style by the Spanish press. Asked whether he was more of a passer, striker or dribbler, the Spanish winger replied that he was a bit of everything, depending on his team’s needs. That’s what makes the difference when you see Sarabia playing; he’s good all over. There are no big weaknesses and that allows him to be flexible in his preferred positions. But the fact that he doesn’t have any major qualities either means that he’s not indispensable in this or that position, as are his attacking partners.
Sarabia is a very collective player and likes to play with his partners. He feels the good opportunity well and his technical quality allows him to be very comfortable in small spaces (especially in one-touch passes). He doesn’t take many risks with his passes, which affects his creative stats a little bit, as we’ll see afterwards. The Spanish winger has made 654 passes this season in Ligue 1, with 148 forward and 167 backward. It must be said that he no longer has the same freedom of space that he had at Sevilla, where during transitions he was able to take advantage of the large spaces left free by the opposing defences. As PSG play a possession game, it takes a lot of creativity and technique to destabilise the opposing block. Sarabia’s stats are correct in this area but well below his attacking team-mates.
The graph above clearly shows the gap between Sarabia and the other attacking midfielders in terms of creativity. He doesn’t push the game forward as much as his team-mates and is, on the whole, more discreet. Whereas Neymar makes 11.5 progressive passes per 90 minutes in Ligue 1, Sarabia only makes 5.19. The latter is at 1.78 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes where Di Maria and Julian Draxler are at 4.1 and 2.5 respectively. However, one should not crudely compare his stats without putting them into context. Neymar and Di Maria have a lot more freedom on the pitch because of their status and importance. There is no space for several playmakers in the team and Sarabia has agreed to be less essential to the build-up play than he was in Seville. The Spaniard is more discreet but we’ll see afterwards that his work without the ball gives his team more stability than they had before.
In the picture above, Sarabia roams from his position to offer a passing solution to Di Maria. At the same time, he frees himself from Montpellier’s marker to position himself in a free zone. He offers the defender a dilemma as to whether to follow him or not. Di Maria sees his team-mate’s move and passes the ball between the lines.
His move attracts the opposing defender onto him and thus frees up deep space for his partner. Sarabia is used to being quite nonchalant without the ball and once he receives it, he is able to quickly accelerate the game and surprise his opponent. His vision allows him to know that a player is behind him and his marvel of directional control allows him to be perfectly oriented towards the opponent’s goal. Sarabia had imagined the action before playing it and had anticipated Di Maria’s movement in depth.
With his directed control, he has the free field to pass the ball to the Argentinian, who scores with a nice lob. Sarabia knows how to keep up with his team-mates on certain actions and bring unpredictability by offering us world-class action.
Sarabia at PSG is also more discreet in his dribbling. Last year in Seville, he attempted 2.28 dribbles by 90 minutes with 1.16 success. This year, he tries 1.47 with a 0.78 success. Overall, he is a more selfless player than before and is less interested in making a difference than he was last year, as other players in the squad are doing it for him. Nevertheless, he remains a player capable of scoring important goals for his team. His late equaliser against Real Madrid with a superb left-footed strike, or his goal in the second leg against Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League, are just two examples.
Less decisive than last year
Despite PSG having more average possession than Sevilla in 2018/2019, Sarabia is touching less ball in his new team. In 2018/2019, he touched an average of 57.4 balls per game, compared to 40.4 in Ligue 1 this season. It is therefore hard for him to make as many differences as last year, with fewer balls and against teams that play low and compact. In 1234 minutes in Ligue 1, Sarabia scored four times and made three assists. Last year in La Liga, he scored 13 goals and made 12 assists in 2881 minutes. It is important to take this into account when judging his Ligue 1 stats. In addition to his Ligue 1 stats, we can add his two goals and two assists in the UEFA Champions League and his eight goals in national cups.
The graph above compares Sarabia’s stats over the last two seasons. All stats are per 90 minutes to disregard the differences in playing time between the two seasons. The stats in xGBuildup90 and xGChain90 remain however equivalent and shows that he is well involved in the build-up play at PSG, despite having fewer balls. But this year, he has been less successful overall in finishing and creating. The gap is quite important in terms of xG, xA and especially KP (lead to shot passes according to Understat).
PSG scored 75 goals in 27 games this season and Sevilla scored 62 goals in 38 games last year. How do you explain the differences in stats from one season to the next when PSG score many more goals per game? The environment is not the same, and it’s very important to take that into account. At Sevilla, Sarabia was one of the team’s technical leaders and a key player. He made his team-mates shine and took a lot of responsibility in finishing. At PSG, everything is different, the Spaniard is surrounded by superstars and Sarabia works for them. Between the three of them, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Mauro Icardi scored 43 goals in Ligue 1. It’s huge and so it’s much harder for him to perform as well as last year in terms of stats.
He works in the shadow of the Parisian superstars but remains important to Tuchel’s tactics. In particular, the PSG winger makes up for his partners’ lesser defensive contribution. He brings a certain balance to PSG and better defensive stability, without forgetting his offensive qualities of course. Tuchel tried to play in Ligue 1 with his four fantastic players (Ángel Di María, Neymar, Mbappé and Icardi) but it seems too risky to do so in the UEFA Champions League, mainly because of the lack of defensive balance.
The graph above shows the pressure exerted by the PSG players in total as well as in the final third of the field. It is a good indicator of the defensive activity of the players without the ball and it shows the efforts they make to retrieve the ball or slow down the opponent’s progress. Sarabia is very good at this exercise, although Di Maria is not so far away from him. The Spaniard is among the players in the squad who press the most in the last third of the pitch (second only to Icardi, who is favoured by his position) and the most active forward player in all areas of the pitch with an average of 20.2 pressures per game. In particular, he is capable of compensating for the relatively weak defensive work from Neymar and Mbappé and providing the defensive stability that PSG have lacked in recent seasons in the UEFA Champions League.
Within this analysis, we have analysed Sarabia’s season at his new club. He’s not as clinical and lethal as he was during his years at Sevilla, partly because he’s playing alongside some great players who are taking up a lot of space. But the Spaniard has shown throughout the season that he could be a more than interesting alternative. Indeed, Tuchel has put his faith in him in some important Champions League matches this season to bring his work rate and technical abilities to the table. It will be interesting to see how he develops in the coming years.