While 13 September may not seem like a special date to most people, it means a heck of a lot to football fans as the UEFA Champions League returned for the 2016-17 campaign.
With both Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal predicted to qualify from Group A, PSG came into the fixture fresh from a frustrating Friday night draw against Saint-Étienne, while Arsenal managed to claim a last-minute victory over Southampton on Saturday afternoon.
PSG (4-3-3): Areola, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Maxwell, Aurier, Verratti, Krychowiak, Rabiot, Di María, Matuidi, Cavani
Almost a fully rotated side from the one that drew at home to Saint-Étienne saw Areola, Silva, Aurier and Maxwell reinforce the back-line ahead of Meunier, Trapp, Kimpembe and Kurzawa. Matuidi stayed in the side but was moved onto the right wing while Thiago Motta, Lucas, Ben Arfa and Jesé made way for Krychowiak, Rabiot, Di María and Cavani.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Ospina, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Bellerín, Cazorla, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Özil, Sánchez
The noticeable changes in the Arsenal line-up saw Theo Walcott miss the match with a knee injury picked up at the weekend. Elsewhere, Elneny and Xhaka were on the bench with Coquelin and Cazorla the preferred central midfielders, while new-boy Lucas Pérez looked on alongside Olivier Giroud with Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez leading the line. Petr Čech started on the bench with David Ospina given the nod.
Arsenal gaps and sloppy pressing play
Although it was early on in the game Arsenal had already been hit by a precise Paris Saint-Germain attack that resulted in an opening goal only 42 seconds in.
While this sort of start was unexpected, the signs as to why it went that way were there early on in the game as Arsenal left large gaps in the central midfield areas that were at times occupied by five or more PSG players. The issue with leaving gaps this large is that they opened themselves up to the high press from PSG due to the lack of forward passes available to the defenders. This often resulted in the ball being lumped long (usually by Mustafi) or PSG winning the ball back. A gap of this size was unexplainable considering Arsenal were playing two central midfielders, and it has to be said that it showed tactical naivety.
The above image shows PSG once again breaking down the right side of the pitch, the same side the opening goal came from. Arsenal opted for an individual press in this game but there were times when not a single player was looking to pressure the man on the ball. We can see here that the retreating Arsenal bodies risk leaving Rabiot open in the middle of the pitch with an option to bring the ball forward. Teams like PSG can’t afford to be given space and many Arsenal fans early on were questioning the decisions being made.
Once again, we see PSG picking the ball up in the central areas. In this situation a single player was pressing the man on the ball while PSG bodies all over the pitch were simply allowed to move into areas of space, creating an out ball. While Arsenal choosing to sit deep is acceptable, allowing teams space inside your own half is always a bad habit to get yourself into and it often led to Arsenal being unable to win the ball back.
PSG cut off the central areas and press in numbers
On the occasions that Arsenal got the ball out wide, the defensive block of PSG would simply shift to the corresponding side and get bodies in position to block all of the forward passing lanes.
In this image we see Alex Iwobi pick up the ball with no other option than to go backwards, with nothing but a sea of blue ahead of the winger. Once again, the creativity was cut off in the final third and for the majority of the game Arsenal were excellent in their build up play up to this point, but the lack of options in the final third often led to the play resulting in little.
Spilling into the second half of the match, we see the difference in pressing once again between the two sides. In this occasion we see PSG shift to a back three with one of the central defenders surging forwards to win the ball, which wasn’t a risky decision considering the lack of runs into the space he left behind.
Three other PSG players quickly get within close limits of the Arsenal player and are able to win the ball back as quickly as it entered the final third. It was much more aggressive and pressing intent from the home side, who were far better at it on the night.
In the image below, we see something that Arsenal had been lacking throughout the 90 minutes: a forward run between the lines.
On this occasion, Mesut Özil was able to play the ball into the on-rushing player who was able to break into the PSG box before winning a corner from the attempted shot. While nothing came from the play, the attacking intent was evident and Arsenal looked much more like their old selves as they took the game to their opponents.
Once again we see Arsenal having forward passes available in the final third with Alexis Sánchez making a diagonal run to get on the end of a nicely timed ball.
While PSG looked happy to sit back and defend at this point with bodies behind the ball, it was important for Arsenal to keep taking the game to their opponents as they looked to press for the equaliser. The root cause for this passage of play started from a much quicker switch from left to right, which allowed Arsenal to find space while PSG shifted over.
The goal for Arsenal came following a piece of wide play near the PSG box. Sánchez was able to lift his head and slide in Iwobi through the gap left in the PSG ranks, who saw his shot saved superbly by Areola, before Sánchez finished off what he started with a lovely finish.
PSG, who had been brilliant defensively all game, were sloppy in this section of play with a lack of communication leading to Iwobi being free on the penalty spot. Although the pass was difficult, the quality Sanchez brings makes these situations entirely possible.
Arsenal’s high line exposed too often
After equalising, Arsenal continued to play their high defensive line while continuing to leave gaps between the lines with minimal pressing. Although Cavani is not the fastest player, the likes of Ángel Di María were able to exploit the gaps time and again.
In this image we see the on-rushing Di María playing in the full-back through the gap left by the wide Arsenal players; this resulted in PSG being able to latch onto the pass before delivering a well-timed cross, only for Ospina to save Arsenal’s hides once more.
Coming back to Di María, in this situation we see the Argentine latching onto a pass before attempting to chip the ball over into the space both Matuidi and Cavani are running onto. Once again, Cavani’s shooting boots were missing and Ospina pulled off a wonderful save, but despite these moments Arsène Wenger refused to make changes to the high back-line.
Finally, we see Cavani being threaded through the gap between the left-back and the left-sided central defender following a lovely weighted ball from Di María, who was outstanding on the day. Had Ibrahimović have been in the side we may have seen a different scoreline, but despite opening the scoring Cavani missed four good chances to find the back of the net, which ultimately ended up costing PSG on the night.
While the headlines will say Arsenal grabbed a superb point in the French capital, the fact is that the away side were poor on the day and relied on luck at both ends of the pitch to come away with a point.
Their pressing game was poor, there were too many gaps left in the midfield, and there looked to be no focal attacking point for most of the match. When I saw Sánchez in the starting line-up I assumed we’d be seeing passes and runs being made between the lines with the occasional direct pass, but the game plan proposed by Wenger didn’t pay off and it played straight into the hands of PSG, who, with a more prolific forward, would have won the game by a comfortable margin.
PSG, on the other hand, were superb; they pressed well, played crisp passes between the lines and, as many of their players alluded to in their post-match interviews, felt that they should have won.
By Alexander Werrett. Follow @WerrettFM