3 things PSG must change to avoid another Champions League failure

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Paris Saint-Germain are in danger of yet another Champions League failure. The French giants fell 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of their semifinal Wednesday, and though they remain confident of overturning that deficit at home, they’ve left themselves no room for error next week.

Despite being crowned Ligue 1 champions yet again, PSG’s season – like every other since Qatar Sports Investments took control of the club – will be judged on their performance in Europe’s top competition. To give themselves another shot at hoisting the famous trophy for the first time, here’s what PSG must do to fight back against Dortmund.

Full-backs need to step up

For much of his career, Achraf Hakimi has been lauded for his attacking contributions and constant involvement from right-back. He tallied 17 assists and 12 goals across 73 matches during his successful two-year stint with Borussia Dortmund. This season, he’s among Ligue 1’s leaders for passes into the penalty area and for progressing the ball both with his distribution and strides upfield. He’s also recorded more touches of the ball than anyone else in Paris Saint-Germain’s squad.

But Hakimi won’t face a player of Karim Adeyemi’s industry and overall quality in Ligue 1 every week. His strengths were almost completely nullified.

Adeyemi was magnificent. He kept Hakimi occupied with bustling runs forward from a very wide position, trying to stretch PSG’s backline and therefore pry open gaps for his colleagues either side of the visitors’ center-backs. The defensive side of his game was arguably even better. Hakimi hit the inside of the post shortly after the interval, but that was only when he seemed to intentionally avoid Adeyemi with a wander to the middle. The Moroccan was otherwise hounded by the 22-year-old with sly off-the-ball barges and unsettling nudges while in possession.

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Ian Maatsen – who didn’t let an early yellow card hinder his work – helped form an excellent double act with Adeyemi down Dortmund’s right.

PSG’s other full-back, Nuno Mendes, had a worse time than Hakimi. His solitary attacking contribution was an unsuccessful cross, and he struggled to deal with Jadon Sancho.

The Manchester United outcast, who returned to Dortmund in January on loan, reminded onlookers why he used to be one of the most sought-after wingers on the planet. He relished challenging Mendes with bewitching trickery and a determination to create chances for himself and his team.

It’d be an understatement to say Sancho won this duel. The Dortmund wide man completed the most dribbles of any English player that Opta has on record since the 2003-04 Champions League season – and more than all of PSG’s starters combined. Mendes was a lamb to the slaughter.

This simply wasn’t good enough from the PSG full-backs. Yet Luis Enrique doesn’t have many obvious solutions. Twenty-year-old Lucas Beraldo has filled in at left-back this term, but his unconvincing Champions League starts – especially against Robert Lewandowski in the first leg of PSG’s quarterfinal with Barcelona – won’t fill his coach with confidence. Lucas Hernandez, who started at center-back but is also an accomplished left-back, went off injured. Hakimi’s well-deserved reputation and the limited options in reserve mean he simply can’t be replaced.

Luis Enrique must stick with what he’s got in the second leg while devising ways for his midfielders to better assist his full-backs in attack and defense. The Spanish boss has rebuilt his reputation with some shrewd tactical ideas this season, but this may be his biggest test of all. – Daniel Rouse

Big problems in midfield for PSG

Luis Enrique loves ball-playing midfielders and runners who can break the lines. That combination has served him well enough during his first season at PSG, who’ve already won Ligue 1 and made the French Cup final. He’s helped turn Vitinha into a responsible deep-lying playmaker and 18-year-old Warren Zaire-Emery into a bustling box-to-box midfielder. To hammer home his philosophy, Luis Enrique has oftentimes deployed pass-first midfielder Fabian Ruiz ahead of bruisers like Manuel Ugarte and Danilo.

A midfield three of such quality can break down a stubborn five-man defense, and perhaps Luis Enrique thought Dortmund would line up that way. After all, they’re the underdogs, and they used a 5-3-2 formation in their 2-0 group stage defeat to PSG.

But Dortmund’s head coach, Edin Terzic, knew his players couldn’t possibly play that way again and expect a different result.

“You can say it politely and say we showed too much respect, or you can simply say we lacked courage,” Terzic said after the loss in Paris last September.

Dortmund took a far more direct approach Wednesday, and it rocked PSG to their core. The hosts went for the jugular every time, producing searing runs down the flank or through balls down the middle. PSG couldn’t cope with it. Zaire-Emery was unable to dictate the tempo, and Vitinha was a virtual nonfactor. Ruiz made useful runs into the penalty area but wasn’t the player PSG really needed at the end of those glorious chances.

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

Ultimately, a ball-winner like Ugarte could’ve wrestled back control. Luis Enrique may have no choice but to start the intimidating Uruguayan in next Tuesday’s second leg. PSG can’t let Dortmund dictate the tempo, and they certainly can’t let them go up 2-0 on aggregate as they search for a way back into the tie. They need an equalizer in midfield to balance their approach and ensure they don’t leave too much space behind them. They have to play with far more intensity, even if that means sacrificing some of their silky-smooth operators.

It was too easy for Dortmund this time around. Captain Mats Hummels had a grand old time foxtrotting into midfield and playing passes off the outside of his foot. That just can’t happen. PSG have to deny Dortmund the time and space to make the passes they want – especially when the majority of their efforts end up creating high-quality chances. – Anthony Lopopolo

Let Mbappe cook

One of the core tenets of any manager’s job is to put his players in the best position to succeed. There are various ways to achieve that, but in this instance, we’re being literal.

Luis Enrique’s decision to play superstar forward Kylian Mbappe through the middle, instead of his favored (and best) position on the left wing, actively harmed his team Wednesday. Mbappe is inarguably the most explosive attacking force in the sport, and as we’ve seen countless times, excels in open space. Instead of leaning into those traits, the headstrong manager, as he has for much of the season, put the prolific Frenchman in a central role, flanked this time by ascendant youngster Bradley Barcola and Ousmane Dembele. That obviously can work. Indeed, it has worked all year; Mbappe has 43 goals in all competitions this season. He can do damage from anywhere. But it was painfully clear very early against Dortmund that this approach wasn’t yielding positive returns. Mbappe had the fewest touches of any PSG outfield player in the opening half (26), too often finding himself crowded out by some combination of Dortmund defenders and midfielders who were hyperaware of his positioning at all times.

In theory, that could have created space for his fellow forwards, but making Mbappe anything even resembling a decoy is, frankly, an enormous waste.

Mbappe’s heatmap vs. Dortmund

(Image source: WhoScored.com)

When Randal Kolo Muani replaced Barcola in the 65th minute, the solution seemed obvious: the substitute could play centrally, while Mbappe could slide out to his preferred position. It didn’t happen. Kolo Muani took up the same spot Barcola had occupied, leaving Mbappe to continue toiling.

It was no coincidence that PSG’s best chances of the game came when Mbappe twice drifted out wider to the left and found space in the channel, first cutting inside and striking the post before then setting up a glorious opportunity with a clever chip. In both instances, he was able to build up some steam on the run and put his defender on the back foot. Starting in the middle, often with his back to goal, robbed him of that chance and made life easier for Dortmund.

Luis Enrique’s desire to start Barcola was understandable. The 21-year-old is enjoying a true breakout season, blossoming into a star in his own right. But if his inclusion in the lineup comes at the expense of using Mbappe in his most effective role, it’s doing PSG a disservice.

The Spanish tactician has reiterated multiple times this season that PSG need to get used to playing without Mbappe ahead of the 25-year-old’s expected departure this summer. But this is not the moment to be preparing for the future. All that matters now is getting to the Champions League final, and putting the best forward on the planet in position to succeed is the simplest way to accomplish that in the second leg. – Gianluca Nesci

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