Perspectives change ridiculously quickly in football.
On Friday night, serious questions were being asked about Luis Enrique’s suitability as Paris Saint-Germain coach. The 3-2 loss at home to Nice, who defended deep and carved them up on the counter-attack, gave them their worst start to a season — eight points from five Ligue 1 games — since the Qatari Sports Investment takeover in 2011.
Four days later on the same pitch at the Parc des Princes however, PSG looked comfortable and controlled as they began their latest whack at the Champions League with a convincing 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund. The result puts them top of Group F after one round of matches, with their next fixture in the competition being a trip to Newcastle United, who drew 0-0 away to AC Milan, on October 4.
We are only six competitive games into Luis Enrique’s PSG tenure, but already there are clear parallels between his new side and his previous one — Spain’s national team. Both show a desire to play dominant, high-possession football; both are trying to implement that while also needing to supercharge the results of a regressing and underachieving side.
PSG have declined since losing the 2019-20 Champions League final and Luis Enrique, who has openly spoken of the club’s “obsession” with the competition, looks to be trying to build something sustainable — a contrast to their signing of a 34-year-old Lionel Messi two summers ago, which was an attempt to push them over the line in Europe.
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That Galacticos approach, with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Messi as the forwards in a 3-4-3, produced a top-heavy side. PSG scored plenty of goals but offered next to nothing defensively, winning through individual brilliance rather than tactics, and suffering consecutive exits in the Champions League’s round of 16.
Last season in Ligue 1 was PSG’s ‘worst’ for eight years in terms of goal difference (though they still finished on plus 49), and they conceded their most goals across the 38 games (40) since 2011-12. A final-day loss to Clermont was one of their 10 in 28 games across all competitions once the season resumed after that Messi v Mbappe epic World Cup final, which saw PSG retain the title by just one point, ahead of Lens — their previous five Ligue 1 championships had all been won by at least 12 points.
Yet things may be changing.
After last night’s game, Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic spoke of “a very united PSG”, a significant compliment given Luis Enrique is still figuring out his best starting XI.
Seventeen players have started across his first six matches, with only six — centre-back Milan Skriniar, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Achraf Hakimi and central midfielders Warren Zaire-Emery and Vitinha — present. The latter three are under the age of 25, and Luis Enrique made Randal Kolo Muani his third different PSG No 9 when he started against Dortmund, having previously used Goncalo Ramos and played Marco Asensio as a false nine.
“What I see is an infinity of possibilities in attack with these players: all international, all young, all endowed with great quality, with a diversity of options,” the Spaniard said after that loss to Nice. “It’s up to us, as staff, to find the best combinations for the players to perform the best, to know which ones get along the best with each other on the pitch.”
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Those combinations started to connect against Dortmund, who set up in a 5-3-2 with fast wing-backs to try to deny PSG space, man-mark their central midfielders, and counter the quickness of Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele:
PSG’s attack has been all about rotations, notably with left-back Hernandez tucking in and Hakimi pushing forward on the opposite flank. Mbappe plays inside, complemented by Vitinha pulling out to the left. There are lots of wide triangles and it typically resembles a 3-2-5.
Against Dortmund, that looked like this:
And here is a first-half example of the detail Luis Enrique is trying to coach.
Vitinha receives a forward pass from Skriniar and is pressed by the Dortmund midfield. When he passes back to Hernandez…
… Luis Enrique, in the right of the two technical areas, is gesturing for him to make a run into the channel to receive a return pass:
He stands still, however, leaving Hernandez with no feasible forward options, and Luis Enrique ends up moving out of the technical area, coaching his central midfielder.
Both PSG’s goals came from wide combinations down their right.
In the build-up to the penalty that became the opener early in the second half, Hakimi passed forward to Dembele and underlapped, but the winger went one-v-one against wing-back Julian Ryerson, driving down the outside:
Having succeeded, Dembele then plays a one-two with Hakimi to get himself in-behind the Dortmund defence and into a cutback position:
Mbappe holds his run short of the penalty area and Kolo Muani’s movement ends up being a selfless supporting run, pulling the centre-backs towards the goal. Mbappe scuffs the shot, strangely opening his body for a left-footed instep finish rather than an instep strike with his dominant right:
But it hits Niklas Sule’s hand, albeit from close range, and a penalty is given. Mbappe then converts.
The second goal, 10 minutes later, was even better.
PSG have a flowing build-up down the left, started following a counter-press regain, and when Mbappe’s cross is cleared, Vitinha collects on the edge of the box.
He dribbles laterally, then sets it back to Hakimi and the pair then play a one-two:
Hakimi keeps his composure, chopping inside to sit down centre-back Nico Schlotterbeck, and curls a finish past Gregor Kobel:
“I think the most important thing tactically is to be organised, because with details and tactical errors, the opposition can punish you,” PSG midfielder Manuel Ugarte said afterwards.
Defensively, PSG were excellent: no big chances allowed, just one shot on target against, and eight of Dortmund’s 14 goal attempts were from outside the penalty area.
Their attack might be taking some time to click this season, but PSG’s counter-press and high press are in full flow.
Their 71.6 per cent possession is comfortably the highest in Ligue 1 so far but they also rank second for high turnovers (58). Dortmund shifted their 5-3-2 to build up in a 4-3-3 and Luis Enrique, again, went with a player-orientated pressing scheme.
PSG made seven high turnovers last night (Dortmund had just one) — double their per-match average in the past two European campaigns, including six in the game’s opening 31 minutes. They have only had more in two Champions League games since 2018-19 (10 against Real Madrid in February 2022, under Mauricio Pochettino; and eight versus Galatasary, under Thomas Tuchel, in December 2019).
Here is one example, when Dortmund tried to play through them centrally early on.
Zaire-Emery presses Mats Hummels, and when he plays forward to Julian Brandt, centre-back Skriniar steps up and forces a one-touch pass to Emre Can. Ugarte beats Can to the ball and is fouled:
The bravery in this approach, particularly against a fast Dortmund front two, can be seen at the point where Ugarte is kicked. Skriniar, a centre-back, is almost up into PSG’s attacking third and they have left a two-v-two on their back line:
“In terms of results, we haven’t necessarily started well, but everywhere I’ve managed, this was the same,” Luis Enrique also said after the Nice game. “I want my players to understand how I want them to play. I also want to get results as soon as possible, but that takes time.”
It took six games for his Roma team to get a win in 2011-12, his first season in senior management, and he had just one victory from his first nine matches with Celta Vigo in 2013-14. On his return to the Spain job in late 2019 after a four-month break for personal reasons, they won just three of their first nine.
PSG host Marseille on Sunday for the first Le Classique of the season, just five days after beating Dortmund — plenty of time for perspectives to be reassessed.
Derby Days, Marseille: Le Classique