Paris Saint-Germain, 2021–
When Mauricio Pochettino left Tottenham in November 2019, he did so as the most popular and respected Spurs manager of the modern era. So admired was the transformation he oversaw that their bitter rivals Arsenal – perhaps the biggest victims of his success – were credited with an interest in recruiting him; he also continued to be identified as a future manager of both Manchester United and Real Madrid.
A disciple of Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa, Pochettino attracted Spurs’ attention by impressively nurturing so many promising young players at Southampton while creating a consistent and exciting team. At Spurs he did the same with Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and more, inspiring them to not only convincingly challenge for the Premier League title, but to their first ever Champions League final.
Over 12 months after his departure from Spurs, Pochettino returned to management with the team that succeeded his previous one as Champions League runners-up. He replaced Thomas Tuchel at Paris Saint-Germain after the German oversaw a disappointing start to 2020/21, and he is expected to not only inspire them to rediscover their dominance in France, but to another serious challenge in a tournament neither he nor PSG have ever won.
All three of Pochettino’s former teams, Espanyol, Southampton and Spurs, were recognised as attack-minded during his time as their manager, and also for blending quick offensive transitions with positional play – attacking spaces (below) to generate movements and passing opportunities – without losing their defensive balance. Each could switch formations depending on the circumstances unfolding or the demands of a specific opponent – both while with and without possession.
As individual matches evolved and over the course of a season, Pochettino alternated between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations while attacking, and a 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 when out of possession. His choice was guided by the aim of subduing the strengths of his teams’ opponents and of taking advantage of any potential weaknesses.
Pochettino favours building possession from the back. From the first pass – perhaps a goal-kick – his teams seek to gain numerical advantages to work the ball forwards and to reach the attacking half in an organised set-up (below). At Spurs, Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld coordinated, and the two Belgians were consistently ready to receive passes. Dier – whose versatility made him particularly valuable – or Harry Winks withdrew from midfield to form a triangle alongside them in an attempt to create a three-on-two overload against an opponent’s press; either would be replaced in a potential double pivot by a further midfielder, and those further forwards would work to support the lone striker and increase numbers in the final third.
His teams’ attacks are heavily influenced by their full-backs. At Southampton, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne were as important as Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were at Spurs, before Kieran Tripper and Rose or Ben Davies increasingly operated as wing-backs in front of a back three. The width they provided helped them to bypass opponents applying a high press and to benefit from the quality of those players’ deliveries, and encouraged penetrations inside opposing full-backs, another tactic of which Pochettino is fond.
Through their full-backs operating in that way, secondary forwards were encouraged to move nearer to the lone striker. Before managing PSG, Kane was the best striker Pochettino had managed and, under the Argentinian, he became increasingly versatile. His improving passing numbers and willingness to withdraw into deeper positions and link play invited quicker runners to advance beyond him, ensuring Spurs continued to offer a transitional threat, and proved effective on the occasions they had more possession or made regains in midfield. Rickie Lambert performed similarly at Southampton, where he was supported by Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez.
Spurs and Southampton also attacked asymmetrically (below), even if they offered identical patterns and rotations towards both the left and right. Through Son Heung-min drifting infield to combine with Alli, perhaps to operate as a secondary number 10, they had an additional runner penetrating forwards and forcing opposing defences back. Their second 10, remaining deeper, was then able to combine with other teammates; at Southampton, Lallana drifted infield to encourage Shaw or Clyne to overlap, and Rodriguez advanced to support Lambert.
So far in Paris, Pochettino has continued to favour a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and, when required, a 4-4-2. PSG also implement his recognised attacking patterns – their width is provided by their overlapping full-backs (below), and Kylian Mbappé and Neymar attack infield. If the latter is selected on the left he moves to almost permanently occupy the inside left channel, where he seeks to receive to feet.
If Mbappé is instead positioned there, he provides more instinctive movements in behind and across the pitch, so a central midfielder advances from behind him – both Marco Verratti and Julian Draxler have relished instead moving into space in the inside left channel. The direct runs made by Mbappé also represent a particularly effective outlet during moments of transition – particularly those that follow regains in the attacking half.
If they are confronted by organised defensive blocks – a particularly common occurrence in domestic competition – his subtler movements to receive between or in behind opponents are complemented by the ball-playing abilities and vision Neymar, Draxler, Verratti and Angel di María provide. Di María consistently features from the right, where he retains his width more than do either Neymar or Mbappé; when he moves infield he does so at a later stage, and is followed by PSG’s right-back overlapping when, similarly to the asymmetrical shape seen at Spurs, they offer numerous passing options between the lines.
From deeper territory, Leandro Paredes’ passing regularly reaches, between the lines and in central territory, PSG’s attacking players. Mauro Icardi and Moise Kean have, like Neymar and Mbappé, also featured there, and provided both goals and regular movements in behind, even if the latter are performed to create increased space for those behind them.
Pressing and defending
Numerical superiorities remain a priority when Pochettino’s teams defend. The Argentinian has developed a system designed to minimise an opposing team’s time in possession – one that Spurs particularly impressed in applying. Their positional attacks, and their players’ ability to link and play in the attacking half, means that so many of them remain close to their opponents at losses of possession (above), inviting them to immediately apply their manager’s desired press and to quickly regain possession and potentially even score following a direct transition.
It is for that reason that he prefers players capable of making repeated short, intense bursts of activity, contributing to so many of those he inherited at Spurs being quickly excluded from his long-term plans. For all of his positive experiments with a back three, he continues to favour the structural stability that comes with a back four becoming narrow when they first begin to press. Should either full-back in that back four be required to advance, a defensive midfielder withdraws into the defence that shuffles across to maintain the desired back four. That flexibility is as valuable in his full-backs as it is those in defensive midfield; both are asked to cover so much ground that they require periods to recover.
If circumstances dictate that their high press is less likely to succeed, Pochettino’s teams have proved capable of defending from different territory (above) and with a mid-block. At Spurs, their striker represented the reference point for the start of a press that was assisted by their attacking midfielder, their wide forwards, and those in the double pivot at the base of midfield. Midfield boxes were also occasionally formed to provide pressure in central territory, and to discourage their opponents from playing through there.
On the occasions a high press isn’t favourable, the priority becomes closing the passing lanes and inside channels in an attempt to guide play into a wide position. When the relevant spaces are reduced with their movements, possession is instead regained through the full-back and central midfielder combining. Regardless of the height at which they are defending, when some players are instructed to focus on the ball carrier, others prioritise the opponents closest to the ball, and the remainder defend the appropriate spaces against potential passes – typically for Pochettino’s teams, working as an entire unit. Even if his teams remain more effective when aggressively pressing, their ability to adopt different structures gives them valuable variety.
In domestic competition, PSG have so far mostly favoured a high pressing approach (above). Their striker and, most commonly, number 10 take their opposing central defenders, and their wide midfielders aggressively provide support in the wide areas and work to force the ball wide, complementing the advanced positioning of their number 10 and striker. One of their two defensive midfielders also advances – to cover against access back infield and to deter opponents from playing through the centre of the pitch or from switching play – and the other supports closer to the defenders behind him by covering at the second phase of direct play. By doing so, PSG’s central defenders have the freedom, when required, to defend wider, and therefore to encourage their full-backs to advance and support their wide midfielders’ press.
There are also periods when the deeper positioned of their two central midfielders withdraws into PSG’s defensive line, or covers the full-back on his side of the pitch. The difficulty involved in him attempting to cover the other full-back heightens the importance of his midfield partner’s positioning, and with it that midfielder’s ability to defend switches of play to the areas of the pitch where they offer reduced cover. The same principle often existed at Spurs.
It is against their strongest opponents – ordinarily those they encounter in Europe – that Pochettino has preferred his team to defend with a mid-block (above). When they do so, their two wide midfielders withdraw to alongside their two defensive midfielders to form a second line of four, their number 10 will cover against access to the opposition’s deepest-lying midfielder, and Mbappé remains braced – away from his opposing central defenders and mostly free of the responsibility to press – to sprint in behind after regains are made. When those central defenders split to contribute to attempts to build around PSG’s block, Mbappé remains positioned to counter, and is often targeted by direct passes.
If an out-of-possession 4-4-2 is favoured against opponents who leave numbers behind the ball to negate PSG’s significant transitional threat, against their strongest opponents Pochettino favours defending with a 4-3-3 that can also become a 4-1-4-1 mid-block that offers increased security in front of his central defenders without sacrificing his sought-after aggressive pressure in wide territory. The player positioned between defence and midfield can cover behind a full-back or withdraw into defence on either side of the pitch, ensuring that their two central midfielders remain positioned to screen against passes in the centre, and to contribute to attempts to force possession wide. Given opponents often respond by committing more numbers forwards, Mbappé is presented with increased space to attack into.