Tactical analysis: How Manchester City got past Paris Saint-Germain to secure a final place in the Champions League with pragmatism and adaptability

With a hard-fought 2-1 lead from the first leg in hand, Manchester City hosted Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium until the second leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final.

Just in their second semi-final ever in the tournament, the home side had the chance to reach the final for the first time in their history, but their opponents were never keen to let them come easily, after ending up on the wrong side of Europe’s biggest club football match last season against Bayern Munich.

With Idrissa Gueye suspended and Kylian Mbappé not starting due to injury, PSG had a couple of issues to deal with. They were seriously understood as Manchester City took the lead 11 minutes inside and went on to double their numbers in the second half to secure a historic 2-0 victory. In this analysis, we will try to delve deeper into the tactical setups used by both sides, focusing on Manchester City’s successes:

PSG in possession and Manchester City’s defense

For once, Manchester City were surpassed in possession as Paris Saint-Germain saw over 55% of the ball.

The visitors’ central defense should have had no trouble clearing the pass to Marco Verratti, but the Ander Herrera player managed to shrug them off and fired a low shot past the keeper to give his team the lead.

This system meant that the French champions severely lacked breadth in their attacks, as their access cards prove:

(Image credits: Between positions)

Quite frankly, both sides are terribly central in their average positions, while also being too vertical in front of midfield. This meant that a moment of individual brilliance would be necessary for PSG to unlock the Manchester City defense, and unfortunately for them it never came. Otherwise, most of their 55% possession ended up being pretty useless with regard to attacking threat.

Let us now focus on how City tried to defend themselves against this.

City’s press structure remained unchanged from their updates midway through the first leg, so it was again a sort of 4-1-3-2 where İlkay Gündoğan pushed up from midfield to keep an eye on the deep PSG midfielders – Verratti and Paredes. One minute more important detail was that Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva had switched sides from the first stage, where the Belgian international now moved to the right.

City, however, did very little of such high pressure, especially in the first half. Instead, they were more than happy to sit in a 4-4-2 midfield and let their opponents pass behind, as the visitors’ lack of breadth in attack meant there was little they could do to stretch this defense.

PSG often found their way through midfield using their congestion, especially through Neymar moving into such key positions (as previously discussed) to receive passes that bypassed Manchester City duo Fernandinho and Gündoğan.

Although he was on the left on paper, the Brazilian international did a lot of work in zone 11 and zone 14 (the central areas of the attacking half), as evidenced by his average position and the fact that almost a third of his hand was taken in these regions.

Therefore, PSG often got into such dangerous areas, but their threat in front of goal was quite minimal. This was partly due to the fact that their final ball was bad (often due to the lack of attacking teammates available in dangerous positions), but a great honor must also go to the Manchester City defenders, who were certainly brilliant in this match.

This amount of defensive activity meant that PSG did not hit the target with a single of their shots, while nine of their 14 efforts ended up being blocked.

Manchester City in possession

Even though they only held 44.1% possession, Manchester City did a few exciting things in possession.

Before we look at them, though, let’s quickly rejoice over Paris Saint-Germain’s defensive form – a narrow 4-4-2 that saw Neymar move up ahead of Icardi.

Obviously, their main motives here were to keep the midfield as compact as possible and minimize the space left between the lines.

Manchester City’s system in possession had changed markedly from what we’ve seen too late, but there was good reason behind these changes.

With a lead from the first stage (including two away goals) in hand, the hosts’ primary goal was not to give in. Pep Guardiola is a strong believer in the ideology of defending with the ball, and he certainly did so here, as his 2-4-4 possession was about as immune to counter-attacks as humanly possible with the two midfielders and full-backs, giving everyone the protection they needed, as they were incredibly careful while pushing forward. Not surprisingly, PSG could not register a single shot from a counter-attack.

This was obviously a huge diversion from the 3-2-5 / 3-2-2-3 we are used to seeing, but it allowed Manchester City to hold the ball in a very safe way. Passing triangles were formed quite easily in this system, with the most common ones involving a midfielder, back and central midfielder – Rúben Dias, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gündoğan in the instance below.

Such passing triangles not only ensured safe possession, but they also served to pull PSG rather than try to win the ball back, which in turn would stretch their defensive form vertically.

Manchester City’s direct threat

The opening goal came as a result of just that. An accurate long ball from Ederson to Zinchenko, after being found using a simple back pass, pulled PSG in and their stretched defense could not clear the back.

The visitors’ midfield was left virtually non-existent in transition due to their forward movement as the ball was played backwards to Ederson, so the Ukrainian international could easily find De Bruyne in space at the edge of the box with a cut. -back.

Although the former Wolfsburg man’s shot was blocked, Riyad Mahrez was there to take advantage of the loose ball by placing it at home to make it 1-0.

The second was a counterattack in the textbook stemming from a scenario.

Phil Foden used his pace to get through on the right, and De Bruyne managed to get hold of the rebound and tucked the ball into the empty net.

The young Englishman put in a perfectly low post for Mahrez, who simply could not miss such a position.


If there was any doubt about Manchester City’s unstoppable quality still persisting, they would surely have been removed with this dominant victory. Guardiola’s side showed great pragmatism and adaptability in a modified system that helped them secure a place in the final quite comfortably, even if it did not fit the possession-heavy brand they have maintained this season. The website definitely ended up breaking PSG, who collectively lost their heads late after Ángel Di María sent off, which completely killed the match.

City have the Premier League anything but wrapped up now and are just a win away from a historic Champions League win that will surely make this an incredibly successful campaign. The blue side of Manchester is certainly a happy one.

Down in France, on the other hand, Mauricio Pochettino’s position as Paris Saint-Germain manager has already begun to be questioned. While certainly too reactionary, it is true that the Argentine manager was thoroughly classified on the tactical front here, while his relative lack of success in Ligue 1 (although some of it is also to be attributed to Thomas Tuchel) is also a cause for concern. Therefore, he and his players definitely need to get their action together for the biggest domestic prize offered at the very least.

Statistics with permission for WhoScored.

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