Under the microscope: Key reasons why PSG’s midfield three failed to command the game against Manchester City


One of the finest games of the season ended in favor of Manchester City on matchday five of the UEFA Champions League. Pep Guardiola’s men came from a goal down to beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1. Goals from Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus in the second half saw Man City overwhelm PSG at the Etihad. Despite an exceptional defensive performance from the visitors, the Citizens were simply too superior for the French league leaders.

It was Kylian Mbappe who opened the scoring for the French team. The forward latched onto a Leo Messi cross and dispatched his shot through the legs of the keeper in the 50th minute. The 22-year-old scored his 29th goal in the Champions League to give PSG the lead against Man City. Mauricio Pochettino’s men eventually gave in to the tremendous pressure from the hosts, as they conceded the equalizer in the 63rd minute and the final goal of the game in the 76th.

The PSG midfield was weakened by the absences of Marco Verratti, who was a key figure in PSG’s win over City earlier in the group phase. That meant a midfield three of Idrissa Gana Gueye, Leandro Paredes and Ander Herrera, with their role to sit deep and protect the defense, left a long gap up to the front three.

PSG: 2021-22 UEFA Champions League stats

Despite the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, the home side weren’t struggling to create chances. City’s midfielders dominated the game and were comfortable on the ball as PSG did not press them. They completed a higher number of passes than the opposition’s midfielders. Rodri anchored the midfield for City and also maintained the pace of the game for them.

PSG: 2021-22 UEFA Champions League stats

In the case of PSG, their midfielders were not supported by the front three while pressing the opposition, and at times this left a big gap between the defense and the midfield. They also completed fewer passes as PSG sat back and soaked up the pressure instead of pushing up. PSG did not have anyone to dominate the midfield and maintain the tempo of the game for them. It is usually Marco Verratti who does this job for them, but he lacked match fitness and did not play the game.

PSG: 2021-22 UEFA Champions League stats

The pass zones for PSG indicate most of the passes they played were in the defensive third and failed to keep possession of the ball. City dominated possession of the ball throughout the game and won the midfield battles. The midfield trio of Paredes, Herrera and Idrissa Gueye only played one smart pass collectively, and most of their passes were simple passes. They played their passes outside the opposition’s penalty box and failed to provide penetrating passes to their forwards.

PSG: 2021-22 UEFA Champions League stats

The trio failed to create an xT from their passes as they did not play many passes into the opposition’s penalty area. They lacked the vision to provide such threatening passes. Di Maria, who came on in the second half, had a much higher xT than the midfielders as he played good balls into the final third.

But it was not completely their midfield’s fault as they were not supported by the front three while pressing or even while defending the ball. The ‘off the ball movement’ was minimal from the front three. There were times when the front three should have closed down on the Manchester City players, but they did not do so and because of this their midfielders were left outnumbered in the midfield.

For all the talent that PSG’s front three possess, Pochettino has found it difficult to set up the right midfield to protect his forwards. The ideal midfield for PSG would be the trio of Marco Verratti, Georginio Wijnaldum, and one of Leandro Paredes or Idrissa Gueye. However, the former two suffered injury blows during training sessions in Manchester, ruling them out for this game. It could’ve been a different story for PSG with Verratti and Wijnaldum in the team, and their drive in the middle of the field was sorely missed on the night.

It will be very important for PSG to find the right combination in the midfield that also suits their front three. With Neymar set to miss around two months of football, it is expected that Di Maria will replace him in the front three.