The match ups are interesting – Paris Saint Germain are purely designed to attack through the middle of the pitch, while Valencia’s attacking full backs and wide forwards offer them options down the flanks.
Ernesto Valverde has introduced a more structure 4-2-1-3 system since taking over from Unai Emery, and the added midfield depth will be important against Carlo Ancelotti’s narrow PSG side. Ever Banega plays deeper than his predecessor in the Valencia side Jonas, who operated as a deep forward rather than a midfielder. Jonas now competes for a wide forward spot and will be up against Andres Guardado, who offers a more defensive option on the left.
Ancelotti has tried a number of formations during his time in the French capital, but now seems to have settled on two holding midfields behind two advanced midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 system. Lucas Moura has impressed since his move and should make his Champions League debut as one of the advanced playmakers; Javier Pastore is the other natural option although Ezequiel Lavezzi could offer a natural wide option. Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez will also compete for a place in attack with Zlatan Ibrahimovic – should both play they would give Ancelotti the option of changing to a 4-2-3-1 shape.
Valencia have played a 4-2-3-1 variation for a number of seasons and are therefore accustomed to playing with wingers and wide forwards. Against PSG this could be vital, as the French side’s four central midfielders allow lots of space out wide. The away team’s full backs are unlikely to receive much support from the players ahead – even if Ancelotti fields a 4-2-3-1, neither Lavezzi nor Menez are renowned for their defensive contributions – so Valencia’s wide forwards should find themselves with plenty of opportunities to take on Maxwell and Christophe Jallet.
Valencia’s full backs should provide the real difference. Both Aly Cissokho and Joao Pereira are naturally attacking full backs, so should be comfortable over-lapping their wide forwards and doubling-up on PSG’s full backs. Assuming Lucas Moura and Pastore fail to offer adequate protection, this gives PSG two options: either accept a numerical disadvantage of the flanks and attempt to deal with balls into the penalty box, or have central midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti alternately move wide to cover the flanks, simultaneously allowing Banega more space in the middle. Similarly both Jonas and Sofiane Feghouli have the option of staying wide to engage the opposing full back or cutting inside to draw PSG’s midfield away from Banega.
Just as Valencia should dominate the flanks, PSG have superiority in the centre of the pitch. With Matuidi and Verratti positioned in the centre of the pitch and Lucas Moura and Pastore given advanced playmaking roles, the visitors will have four players forming a square around the midfield trio of Valencia. Ancelotti’s forwards are also capable of dropping deep into midfield, meaning at times PSG could have a 5/6-3 advantage in the middle of the pitch.
This should help the visitors control possession, although Valencia’s shape will make it difficult for PSG to create chances. Banega will engage PSG’s deeper midfielders, Matuidi and Verratti, leaving David Albelda and Tino Costa to cover the advanced midfielders. With space at a premium it may be in Ancelotti’s interest for at least one of his attacking players to offer a wide option to draw players away from the centre of the pitch, otherwise Valencia may find containing the French threat relatively straightforward.
Narrow midfields such as Ancelotti’s 4-2-2-2 at PSG, and the 4-3-1-2 system he used with AC Milan, can make it easy for a team to dominate possession but rely heavily on individual brilliance to create chances. At Milan Ancelotti had two world class playmakers in Andrea Pirlo and Kaka, as well as Clarence Seedorf and Massimo Ambrosini. Ibrahimovic is a great talent, but is also PSG’s main goal threat. It remains to be seen whether Pastore and Lucas Moura, both highly rated players, are good enough to pass their way through Europe’s elite.
Valencia’s width combats PSG’s dense midfield. The visitors may dominate possession, but the home side’s options down the flanks should allow them greater attacking opportunities. Banega will be key – being busy enough to put pressure on PSG’s deep midfielders before quickly passing the ball wide when in possession. This is a big test for PSG’s playmakers. Ancelotti has given a lot of freedom to Pastore and Lucas Moura, arguably weakening his side’s defensive solidity in doing so, so he will need them to repay him. Performing in the French league is one thing but the knockout stages of the Champions League are a different test entirely.