A few thoughts from Real Madrid 1-0 PSG

Real Madrid rode their luck to a 1-0 win over Paris Saint Germain at the Santiago Bernabeu despite being outplayed. Here are three thoughts from the Champions League match.

PSG dominant in defeat

This contest highlighted how strange football results can be. If this had been a higher scoring sport like basketball PSG's dominance would have been reflected in a comfortable win. Instead they go home with nothing against a Real Madrid side whose performance was hardly deserving of even a draw.

Perhaps Laurent Blanc's side could be accused of not being sharp enough in the final third- they had just 3 shots on target to Real Madrid's 8 despite having 60% possession- but this was largely down to poor luck and on another day they could have scored three or four. Adrien Rabiot, on after Marco Verratti went off injured in the 17th minute, struck the post with a wonderful volley. In the 45th minute left back Maxwell provided a teasing cross across the six yard box that fell inches in front of the outstretched legs of both Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Moments later, deep in first half injury time, Angel Di Maria played Cavani through on goal with a brilliantly weighted through ball. Cavani had just enough time to get a soft touch over Keylor Navas who had done well to close the angle quickly but Raphael Varane was able to clear before the ball crossed the goal line. Twice in the first half Ibrahimovc shot inches wide of Navas's right post, once from the left side of the box and once from a free kick.

In contrast, Madrid's goal came when Tony Kroos's speculative effort was deflected by Thiago Silva into the path of the left back Nacho. He appeared to attempt to play a one time pass out of the air across the face of goal but PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp was caught in no man's land and the ball managed to trickle directly into the far corner. It was the one bright spot in otherwise poor performance from Rafa Benitez's side.

Ibrahimovic dropping deep allows PSG to control midfield

Both sides lined up up in matching 4-3-3 formations. Casemiro played at the base of midfield for Madrid with Luka Modric to his right and Tony Kroos playing a slightly freer role when the side were in possession. For PSG Thiago Motta occupied his normal role at the base of midfield with Rabiot to his right and Blaise Matuidi to his left.

In Modric and Kroos Madrid have two of the world's best midfielders at dictating the tempo of a game and keeping possession. It was strange then to see Benitez's side cede the possession battle to PSG so overwhelmingly- the away side ended with 60% possession. A large part of PSG winning the possession battle was the positioning of Ibrahimovic.

The Swedish striker dropped into deep positions in midfield to get on the ball, playing almost as a false 9 and thereby giving PSG a 4 v. 3 advantage in the central midfield zone. With a spare man always available, they comfortably circulated possession around Madrid's midfield three. The graphic below shows the positions where Ibrahimovic received passes, the bulk of which are over 25 yards away from the Madrid goal.

For some sides, having their striker drop so deep to get on the ball would be problematic. If the wide players are more creative, ball-playing types that like to move towards the ball (for instance a Juan Mata or Isc) a side may not have anyone making penetrative runs in behind that will stretch the defense. For example this was a problem Arsenal had early in the season, particularly when playing Olivier Giroud at striker. Giroud would drop deep and use his strength to hold up the ball but Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez- all players that want to get on the ball- were also taking up deeper positions and no one was making those vertical runs behind the defense. When this happens everything occurs in front of the opposition defenders and makes their life relatively easy.

However, in Cavani PSG have a player operating on the left whose main position is a center forward and therefore has the instincts to make those vertical runs behind the defense.

Ibrahimovic's positioning posed a number of tactical dilemmas for Madrid. Benitez's side dealt with him dropping deep by simply allowing him to do so and ceding control of the midfield to PSG. With his side being overrun in the middle of the pitch, Isco began to tuck inside from the right to help even the numbers in that zone. But as a result, PSG's left back Maxwell was free to advance down that channel in loads of space. The warning signs were there early for Madrid. In the 28th minute Di Maria could have played Maxwell through on goal down the left but he failed to spot the pass. Di Maria ended up winning a free kick on the player but you could see several of him teammates' frustrated reactions that he had failed to find the pass. The image below is a screen grab of that incident. Isco is tucked inside tracking the run of Matuidi. Danilo has strangely tracked the run of Cavani all the way to the middle of the pitch rather than passing him off to Varane leaving the entire right side of Madrid's defense exposed.

Later Maxwellcollected the ball in space and played a near perfect whipped cross in that Cavani probably should have managed to get a foot to and equalize. He provided 6 crosses over the course of the game and offered a consistent threat down that channel.

Madrid could have elected to deal with Ibrahimovic's positioning by having Varane step out and track his runs into midfield. This could have evened the numbers in the center midfield zone and prevented PSG from constantly having the extra man available for a pass. However, doing so would have also left a gaping, dangerous gap between the left sided center back Sergio Ramos and the right back Danilo that Cavani would have certainly looked to make lateral runs into. A manager like Pep Guardiola that insists on his side dominating the ball and will therefore take chances to ensure his side are in positions to recover possession quickly would almost certainly have had Varane stepping tight to Ibrahimovic. Benitez however insists on a more rigid, compact defensive system.

Benzema sorely missed, would have helped Madrid play on counter

With PSG controlling possession, Madrid needed to pose a threat on the counter but they were hurt in this regard by the absences through injury of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. Benzema has the strength to receive outlet passes and hold up play to allow his attackers the time to sprint forward. There are also few if any classic #9's better at providing a final pass. His inclusion would have allowed Ronaldo to make darting vertical runs behind the defense on the counter rather than being the one to receive the first outlet pass and hold up play. With Bale and Ronaldo operating as the wide forwards in a 4-3-3 there is blistering pace and directness to operate on the counter. That would have been a real threat today given how high PSGs fullbacks were playing up the pitch.

Manchester United fluid in 4-3-3; Liverpool attacking midfielders stifled

Early on in his reign at Liverpool Brendan Rodgers expressed that his favorite formation was a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder flanked by two midfield shuttlers. Louis Van Gaal went into this season fully intending to play the same 3-5-2 at Manchester United that he had success with at the World Cup with Holland. It was ironic then that Manchester United have recently switched to a 4-3-3 while Rodgers has adopted a system with three at the back similar to the one Van Gaal had planned on implementing at United.

The system changes had paid off for both managers. Manchester United came into today's fixture on the back of a 3-0 win over Tottenham, their most impressive display of the season, while Liverpool hadn't lost in the league since their 3-0 defeat to Manchester United in December, the first time they used the 3-4-2-1 they've since switched to.

In the opening half it was Van Gaal's 4-3-3 that won out. United played some of their most fluid football of the season with Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera finding space either side of Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, the two holders in Liverpool's midfield. Liverpool's system requires a great deal of defensive work in the middle of the pitch from Allen and Henderson because the two attacking midfielders, Adam Lallana and Coutinho today, stay higher up the pitch. As a result, Liverpool can get overloaded in central midfield zones but with three center backs covering in behind it's not always much of a problem in terms of the opposition creating great scoring chances. However, being overloaded in that zone makes it much more difficult to win the ball back which is what we saw today. Manchester United were able to keep possession and dictate the tempo. They had 60% possession at halftime.

Defensively, Van Gaal's side was compact and didn't allow Liverpool to use their four man central midfield to overload them. They defended with a midfield bank of five with Fellaini and Herrera either side of Michael Carrick and Juan Mata and Ashley Young tucking inside from their wide midfield positions. Lallana and Coutinho like to operate in space between the opposition center midfielder and wide midfielder or fullback. However, with United's compact midfield bank of five these spaces didn't exist. Lallana completed just three passes in the attacking third before being subbed off at halftime. Coutinho had more of an impact but didn't enjoy the space to collect possession in midfield and dribble at the defense the way he typically does.

Rodgers tried to change the shape at halftime to give Liverpool more control of the game, replacing Lallana with Steven Gerrard. Liverpool changed from a midfield box with two holders and two attacking midfielders to a diamond with a holder in Gerrard, two shuttlers in Allen and Henderson and a #10 at the tip of the diamond in Coutinho. Gerrard was meant to dictate the tempo at the base of midfield and find penetrating, expansive forward passes. During the extremely brief period he was on the pitch the change in shape seemed to be having the desired impact of giving Liverpool more control of the game. Gerrard completed four passes including a sweeping cross field switch to the right channel.

Liverpool fought well after Gerrard's dismissal but Van Gaal's side were deserving winners. They seem to have struck a nice balance in recent weeks with Rooney in his favored position up front and the excellent Mata getting a run in the side. This result struck a blow to Liverpool's UCL hopes- they haven't been particularly good over the last two games and will need to be at their best from here on out if they're to have any chance of catching United.

Rodgers starts in 4-2-3-1 then makes changes

4-2-3-1 has been the popular formation in the Premier League the last few seasons but one that Brendan Rodgers did not use during his side's surprising second place finish last season. Rodgers has stated he prefers 4-3-3 with a single holding midfielder and two runners over 4-2-3-1 because it allows for more vertical passing options. He's stated that in 4-2-3-1 the two holding midfielders can often end up playing too many harmless side to side passes to one another. You can hear Rodgers explain in the video below.

One of the big pluses with 4-2-3-1 of course is that two deep lying holders provide better cover for the back four than one. When Liverpool played 4-3-3 or a diamond 4-4-2 last season, Steven Gerrard operated as the lone holder. Gerrard is a fantastic player but isn't always positionally disciplined and at 34 isn't as mobile as he once was. As a result, Liverpool's defense was often left too exposed. They scored a remarkable 101 goals but conceded 50, 13 more than the Manchester City side that would beat them to the title and 23 more than Chelsea. Their capitulation at Selhurst Park after going 3-0 up in the penultimate game of the season, a game that would end 3-3 and all but give City the title, summed up Liverpool's biggest problem in an otherwise great season- they were incredibly fluid and could score with ease but struggled to change their approach and tighten things up when circumstances dictated they should do so.

Perhaps as a result of his side's openness last season, Rodgers opted for a 4-2-3-1 today with Lucas and Gerrard holding in front of the back four. Liverpool were certainly more solid and compact defensively. They did not get as stretched on the counter and Southampton didn't create much the opening 45 minutes. However, they also offered far less penetrative passing than we saw last season. When Liverpool play 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1 if you prefer) and Gerrard gets the ball in deep areas he generally has 4 midfielders in front of him to play forward passes into- the two shuttling center midfielders, Coutinho and Allan likely candidates, and the two wide midfielders (Figure 2). As a result Liverpool play more vertically, get forward more quickly and have more players in the attacking third. In the 4-2-3-1, Lucas sits alongside Gerrard, leaving him with only 3 midfielders higher up the pitch to play forward passes into- the #10 (Coutinho today) and the two wide midfielders (Sterling and Henderson today). When the opposition defends in banks of four as Southampton did today, having three attacking midfielders in advance of Gerrard rather than the four we see in a 4-3-3 makes it easier to defend- Southampton's midfield bank of 4 has a 4 v. 3 advantage in the midfield zone (Figure 1). As a result, Liverpool played a lot of sideways passes between the holding midfielders and center backs and struggled to funnel the ball into the attacking third at pace.

Figure 1:  Three advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in 4-2-3-1 formation. Opposition has 2 v. 1 advantage on Coutinho in Liverpool's attacking midfield zone.

Figure 1: Three advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in 4-2-3-1 formation. Opposition has 2 v. 1 advantage on Coutinho in Liverpool's attacking midfield zone.

Figure 2:  Four advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in a 4-3-3 formation. Attacking midfield zone is now 2 v. 2. Wanyama and Schneiderlin each have a direct opponent.

Figure 2: Four advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in a 4-3-3 formation. Attacking midfield zone is now 2 v. 2. Wanyama and Schneiderlin each have a direct opponent.

After Southampton equalized, Rodgers switched to his more attacking 4-3-3 shape replacing Lucas with Joe Allen. Although the shape gives Liverpool more attacking thrust, immediately we saw some of the same defensive problems Liverpool were faced with when they played that formation last season. Gerrard was left to shield the back four on his own and almost immediately Liverpool conceded possession with Gerrard out of position towards the left wing. With no one patrolling the center of the park for Liverpool, James Ward-Prowse got the ball in acres of space in the middle of the pitch and was able to drive uncontested at the Liverpool center backs. The 19 year old Southampton midfielder made the wrong choice in trying to shoot from 25 yards out with better passing options on either side of him but a more experienced side will punish Rodgers' side for allowing themselves to become that open.

Rodgers then replaced Coutinho with Rickie Lambert and moved to 4-4-2. With Allen higher up the pitch than Gerrard Liverpool were even more open and Southampton continued to threaten. Liverpool got the winner however, more as a result of some good fortune and hesitant Southampton defending then Rodgers' tactical changes. Lambert appeared to handle the ball on the sideline in the build up to Liverpool's goal then Southampton failed to deal with the second ball after Clyne initially headed clear a Henderson cross. Sterling nodded Clyne's header towards an unmarked Sturridge at the back post for a tap in.

Incredibly, with his side continuing to look stretched defensively in midfield, Rodgers elected not to use his third sub to bring on a third central midfielder for Sturridge or Sterling. Emre Can seemed like the obvious choice. Instead Sterling, Sturridge and Lambert all stayed high up the pitch and Liverpool defended with a midfield three of Gerrard, Allen and Henderson. Southampton continued to be dangerous and Liverpool were fortunate to escape with the three points. Morgan Schneiderlin rattled the crossbar for Southampton and Shane Long missed an open net with a follow up header.

Rodgers is an excellent manager, adept at changing systems while still getting his sides to play fluid, coherent football. However, his decisions today seemed strange. At home against a side gutted by players departing on summer transfers, you'd have thought he'd be a bit more adventurous with his team selection and gone with a 4-3-3 from the outset. Yet when the circumstances of the match dictated he should make cautious changes, he did not.