The Champions League has burst back into life, defying the pandemic situation to provide us with a much eagerly anticipated final between the two stand out teams of the tournament - the old aristocrats…Bayern Munich and the nouveau riche… PSG.
The perception we have of PSG is a club that likes to spend on ready-made success. A club that brings in finished articles to get the favorable outcome. But in the midst of the glamour moves and media frenzy, PSG acquired a player who had just accomplished promotion for his side Pescara to Serie A from Serie B but had never played in the top league. He would go on to become the club's heartbeat.. an industrious playmaker that marshals both the defensive and offensive sides of the team
That has been the underrated feature of the PSG project. Their eye for promising talent and their excellent youth development program. In fact, a number of those playing in semi-finals have been youth products of their famous academy. Players like Kingsley Coman, Moussa Dembele, Adrien Rabiot and Christopher Nkunku have all graduated from PSG’s youth academy.
Another peculiar and admirable feature of the PSG project has been their brave choice of coaches. They have not pursued the established elite coaches but sought those with a penchant for modernity. Their previous manager was Unai Emery who dominated the Europa League with unfancied Sevilla and their current manager, Thomas Tuchel, barely cut his teeth at Dortmund.
When we talk about PSG, we think of them usually strolling to Ligue 1 every year by a huge margin without any competition. We think of them having the financial might to make ground-breaking blockbuster signings such as Ibrahimović, Neymar and Mbappe. Ultimately however, we think of them as a failed vanity project which has failed to replicate their domestic success into European glory.
PSG were known for cracking under pressure. Losing matches that were winnable. The Parisians had a Jekyll and Hyde reputation about themselves. They would give a virtuoso performance at Stade de Paris but away from home they would falter embarrassingly. For all his credentials, Tuchel had a real task on his hands. Early reports suggested Tuchel was not welcome and the players were not too happy with the manager.
Despite his tenure seemingly under threat, Tuchel sensationally turned things around and managed to convince his individual superstars to play like a determined team of soldiers. This has been especially evident in the Champions League… Dortmund in round of 16, Atalanta in quarters and Leipzig in semis... when PSG desperately needed someone to guide them mentally and tactically… Tuchel delivered in spades.
Whilst the team has played a 4-2-2-2 system in Ligue 1 - in Europe, Tuchel has always lined up with 4-3-3 formation and it is likely to be the same in the final. A core feature of Tuchel’s set up has been to modify his team’s tactical system during the course of games without changing the underlying philosophy.
If Verratti is fit to start then he will play a pivotal role in midfield. He can dictate the pace and with his distribution PSG can turn defence into attack in an instant. Di Maria will also potentially play a key role... we all know he can perform at higher levels and on the grand stage. He can be the X-factor for PSG. Elsewhere in the midfield, Marquinhos plays as a screen in front of the defense giving them a third defender if need be.
PSG started both their quarter and semis with Neymar playing as a striker. It proved effective as PSG started both their game dominating their opponents and creating a number of chances, due to Neymar’s ability to be conductor and penetrative force in equal measure. In the final we expect it to be a front three of Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria. Mbappe will hunt down the channels. Whilst Di Maria will combine providing the width with playing box to box as a extra cover in the midfield.
Bayern had a bad start to this season under Niko Kovac and at one time where 7th in Bundesliga. So the board decided to sack him and give an interim contract to Hansi Flick who then became the caretaker manager. But the job he did in his first match was exceptional, defeating their rivals Borussia Dortmund 4-0 and from then he never looked back. His record stands at 32 wins from 35 games as Bayern's manager and have just lost twice in his reigns. In those 35 games Bayern have scored 115 goals and conceded only 26. His win % is just above 91%. Just amazing stats.
Bayern Munich are the one of the perfect examples of a multi-dimensional team. Their attacking options are vast and a goal can come from anyone or anywhere on the pitch. If you cover the flanks they will find pockets of space in middle. If you cover the middle part then you expose your flanks to them. Their wingers are equally capable of orthodox wing play as well as making inverted runs into box, latching on to over the top or threaded through balls.
Formation wise, Flick has had clear plans of how his team should be playing. An aggressive 4-2-3-1, with passing anchorman and a pressing forward line. Thiago is their playmaker in chief and much depends on his control on the games tempo. His partner Goretzka will look to move forward In a box to box fashion at every opportunity, whilst ahead of them Muller has regained his top form and looks to play poacher with his smart movement.
But Bayern's main threat is down the flanks. Gnabry has been a star turn scoring goals at will and making a mockery of Wenger’s judgement. Coman has had injuries but he's devastating when fully fit. Even Perisic has gained some minutes and been a penetrative force when utilised. Their supply line is crucial to the target man Lewandowski who is not in the mood to waste chances.
A feature of this seasons Champions league has been the variations in counter pressing. Bayern have displayed a very unique zonal press that has unsettled their opponents (most notably Barcelona). And PSG showed another variation of the counter press that worked so effectively against RB Leipzig.
Against RB Leipzig, Paredes played the quicker smart pass to break the press and that allowed PSG to move forward at will. We saw it again when Verratti came on as a substitute and played a couple of key passes while breaking the press. This could very well be the secret weapon Tuchel has perfected in his team. Even in matches where PSG haven't been on top, they've always been able to pass through the opposition no matter how aggressive the opposition might be.
Bayern may be favorites, but if there's a weakness in Hansi Flick's side, it is the defensive zone occupied by Boateng and Kimmich. Bayern play a high defensive line and have had problems dealing with the long looping ball over the top or through balls down this channel. With Mbappe and Neymar bringing penetration, this could be an area of targeted by Tuchel.
PSG have their own concerns out wide and are vulnerable in their full back areas, especially at left back… Coman, Gnabry and Perisic are all goal scoring wingers capable of featuring on both flanks and can hurt them at any given moment.
Both Bayern and PSG like to keep the ball. Both have midfield generals that are great both on the ball and off it. This could be a match between two midfield playmakers Verratti (if he starts) and Thiago. Much will depend on who gets the better of the battle in the middle of the park.
PSG Sergio Rico, Kimpembe, Tiago Silva, Kehrar, Marquinhos, J. Bernat, Ander Herrera, Marco Verratti, A. Di Maria, K. Mbappe, Neymar
FC Bayern Munchen: Manuel Neuer, N. Sule, Jerome Boateng, Joshua Kimmich, Alfonso Davies, Thiago Alcantara, L. Goretzka, S. Gnabry, Perisic, T. Muller, R. Lewandowski
Prediction: There is a chance Tuchel might come up with a surprise and play on the counter whilst slowly increasing ball domination as the match progresses. Truth be told this match is too close to call. Both teams are even at almost every department. When you are playing against a team like Bayern you do not think about just keeping them out, you just think about outscoring them. That is why attack is the best form of defence and that does seem to suit PSG who are top heavy in terms of quality.
PSG will start this game the way they did against Atalanta and RB Leipzig and try to get an early goal against Bayern. Should that happen, Bayern are likely to creep back into the game and score. Our prediction is a goalfest, but a to and fro encounter with Bayern ultimately being hailed as victors, either by a solitary goal or on penalties. Whilst PSG undoubtedly want it more, will that famous fragility come to the fore once again now that they face a genuine heavyweight?
Amer: Bayern win on penalties. Vipul: Bayern 3-2 PSG