Early on in the season both clubs struggled badly with form. There was an apparent lack of preseason but more importantly both teams seemed to have hit a psychological block. Tuchel's ill relationship with director Leonardo was at a nadir. The German was not happy with the lack of activity in the transfer market. Players detected with COVID 19 would remain in Isolation for the best part of 14 days and that only further emphasised his perception of working with depleted squad.
Across the channel, Kevin De Bruyne complained about the lack of rest with the fixture list being piled to the maximum. But the Citizens had other pertinent issues too. Plagued with defensive frailties, the embarrassing loss to Leicester proved to be the tipping point and Pep Guardiola was forced to look for a centre back in the transfer window. Enter Ruben Dias. The defender has been a revelation ever since joining the blue half of Manchester. The Citizens have never looked back.
Turbulent times at PSG eventually reached boiling point. Tuchel had to leave. This despite having qualified top from a difficult group in their Champions league campaign. But indifferent form in Ligue 1 had left the club board with little choice. Out went Thomas Tuchel and in came the much sought after manager Mauricio Pochettino..
The arrival of Pochettino brought with it a lot of expectations. The former player plays his teams with a certain philosophy. And although trophies have not been in abundance there's no question regarding the credibility of the much sought after manager. And so it showed in their big encounter against rivals Barcelona. The first leg at the Camp Nou gave us a glimpse of exactly what the Argentine wanted from his players. Possession, pressing and verticality. While the team has not been consistent in Ligue 1 (they have lost some key matches at home), their form in Europe has been wonderful to watch.
Inconsistency at home has meant players have found it easier away from home to stamp their authority. The counter attacking system that Pochettino has installed in his few months in charge has worked wonders in away matches. And when those away matches are part of the first leg, PSG can take with them a bag of away goals that count double and give them the advantage at home. So far it has worked.
The Parisians took the advantage away from home against Barcelona and were able to hold them off at home. Pochettino's men were able to the same against defending Champions Bayern Munchen at the Allianz Arena. And although they lost their home match 0-1, the team had already scored enough away goals to win on the away goals rule. The team excels away from home, the away goals rule clearly works in their favour and Pochettino knows exactly how to take full advantage of it.
Neymar and Mbappe have predictably been stealing the headlines with their eye catching performances. They are the glamour boys of this team and they bring with them the unpredictability that forces the audience to move off their seat and take notice. But amongst the stars, there's one name that has slowly and gradually risen to prominence. Leandro Paredes has become Pochettino's most important man. His positioning and functionality is tactically unique.
This is clearly something Pochettino has been working on. The front line might be reshaped keeping the opposition in mind but the the midfield combination remains the same and Paredes presence in front of the defense in crucial. His positioning and passing style have worked perfectly in setting the teams tempo. He can delay the pass or place a quick one two depending on the need of his system and the pressure of the opposition.
With Verratti becoming increasingly unreliable in terms of availability towards the business end of the season, it has been a great source of comfort for PSG that they possess another technical maestro in the midfield who can give them a semblance of control and quality in the midfield third. He also shares Verratti's sense of balance in that he takes up good defensive positions, so if the Italian is out, he can handle the fort on his own.
As alluded to in the introduction, once Ruben Dias was introduced to the backline and Stones brought back from the wilderness, Pep Guardiola's side started winning matches and never looked back. Systematically the team has more variations to their game then they ever did last season. The players look hungry again and the team looks unbeatable. So much so that the English Premier league looks to be in the bag and that's not the only competition they're gunning for. It would not be an understatement to say Pep Guardiola's Manchester side is the inform team of this year's European competition.
Yet the semi-final FA Cup loss to Chelsea is proof of the fact that there's still work to be done. Pep's side looked jaded and slightly slower which could be a result of their gruelling win over Dortmund. Nevertheless, Tuchel's Chelsea were tactically a solid outfit and were able to neutralise City's attack, which for all its quality lacks the penetrative verve of yesteryear. Their build up is more considered and they generally play in a more pragmatic style and Tuchel was able to use that against Pep's men. They cannot afford to look as impotent against PSG.
Not necessarily a reshape, but Pep's system has had a few transitional modes this season. We have noticed his side playing a 3-2-5 as opposed to the more accustomed 2-3-5. Considering most of the players have multifunctional roles, it won't be surprising to see the shapes alter during the course of the game (in typical Pep fashion). While most of the plaudits are there for the defence and offensive midfielders, there's one player that has been gaining everybody's attention.
Phil Foden's form has been top notch and his intelligent movement both on and off the ball has given the team an extra dimension. Staring on the left of the attack, Foden likes to drift inside in a free role. That gives him options to play one/two with his teammates and create space for final pass to finish. His goal tally has risen at just the right moment and Pep has praised his young gun for his intelligence and importance in the team. We should expect him to start this semi.
It would be an understatement to say these coaches like to go toe to toe. Both coaches have strong personalities. They believe in what they do and they do it with the utmost commitment. It is that belief in their philosophy that has given them so much success (both tangible and intangible).
In La Liga, Pochettino was able to beat Pep's all conquering Barcelona side with his Español team that was fighting to save themselves from relegation. It was a battle that drew respect from the harshest of critics. In the English Premier league, during Pep's first season in charge, Manchester City's run of consecutive wins was brought to a humbling halt by a Tottenham side managed by none other than Mauricio Pochettino.
The Londoners showed their superiority in every department. But Pep had answers too. His side were dominant in the next series of encounters. In fact, Pep's Citizens went on to dominate the Premier League like no other and while Pochettino did come close to winning the league himself, his team could never find the same level of consistency or quality.
In what was arguably the greatest second leg match ever witnessed, Pep's Citizens welcomed Pochettino's Spurs with an away scoreline of 1-0. Aguero had missed a penalty in the away game. Right from the whistle, everything went out of control. Both teams attacked like there was no tomorrow. Goals were scored for fun. There was controversy and there was artistry. It was a blitz chess match. It was beautiful to watch. It was a spectacle.
In the end, City were to rue their lack of away goals. Sterling's winner was disallowed for being offside while Llorente's alleged handball goal stood. Pochettino's men advanced to the semi finals and Pep's team were left wounded. Years and seasons have passed and now we have a new battle. A great spectacle waiting to unleash itself. A celebration of football philosophies and fanaticism.
As witnessed in his tenures at his previous clubs, Pochettino is very flexible in setting up his teams tactically. His core foundation, however, remains the same. His current system relies heavily on the midfield combination of Paredes and Verratti. both the midfielders will play a crucial part in keeping the ball possession, breaking the opposition press and setting attackers such as Mbappe and Neymar free. The Argentine manager might have to double up the flanks with Di Maria helping back in order to stop attacks from City's wide men. PSG will most probably line up in a 4-3-3.
Judging by this season alone, it is quite clear that Pep Guardiola's City love a battle. They had to overcome a tricky tie with Dortmund and came out with the satisfying win not just by scoring goals but by also keeping in form Erling Haaland quiet. They will have to do it again with Kylian Mbappe. Counter attacks are still their Achilles heel though and Pep will be wary of his team being opened down the flanks through a PSG counter. The system will involve maximum outlets for attack but the key may be the number of ball playing midfielders in the park. Pep will start with a 4-3-3 which will shape shift to a 2-3-5.
Both coaches will want their teams to press but the set up and triggers might well be different. Pep Guardiola will want his side to apply the first press in a front block to gain back possession and run for a quick transition towards the opposition goal. Pochettino, on the other hand, still needs time to instill the kind of pressing philosophy that his teams follow and this is why PSG play more with a mid-block that allows the opposition to keep the ball and move it with freedom until they enter their half.
That is when PSG switch on and try gain back possession. Having fast paced forwards helps too and if Kylian Mbappe breaks the high defensive line, there is little chance of stopping him. City will be playing a risky game but it is a necessary risk. The big question is does Pep deploy Walker against Mbappe, the orthodox choice but a player who always brain farts in the big game, or deploy his most gifted full back Cancelo against PSG's most penetrative threat.
PSG: Keylar Navas, P. Kimpembe, Marquinhos, A. Florenzi, Kurzawa, L. Paredes, I. Gueye, Verratti, K. Mbappe, Neymar Jr., Angel Di Maria
Manchester City: Ederson, John Stones, Ruben Dias, K. Walker, Cancelo, Rodri, De Bruyne/B. Silva, Gundogan, Foden, Mahrez, G. Jesus
Of course this encounter will not be settled in this first leg. But a few variables do favor the Citizens. Most importantly PSG's lack of form at home. Even though they have improved in the past few matches, the Citizens will be disappointed if they do not leave Paris with one or two away goals.
The game looks nicely balanced with an expected flurry of goals. But as is the case with many first leg matches, the first goal here might not be as crucial. Away goals in general will definitely be game changers and Pep will want his team to take that advantage ahead of the return leg at the Etihad in a fortnight.
A goal scoring game with a 2-3 score line favoring Manchester City. The Manchester side have all the momentum coming into this game and Pep does not need to make any changes to a winning line up. PSG's run should stop at their home ground. PSG 2-3 Manchester City.