The Champions League roars back into action tomorrow night and the standout fixture from Tuesday’s list is the meeting of last season’s runners-up Liverpool and French champions Paris Saint-Germain at Anfield. As soon as those two teams were landed in the same group, the headlines about their respective front trios immediately wrote themselves. While the Reds’ attacking triumvirate of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and (to a lesser extent) Sadio Mane have yet to fire on all cylinders in the early weeks of the season, despite netting eight goals between them in the first five games, PSG’s Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe have been unsurprisingly prolific against the admittedly inferior defences of Ligue 1, with a combined 11 goals from the Parisiens’ five matches thus far. However, it won’t just be the much-feted front three that Jurgen Klopp will need to study closely ahead of Liverpool’s first Champions League clash since the final defeat in Kiev four months ago. Our tactical analysis looks at three other PSG players who could have a big influence on proceedings if the Reds aren’t fully on it – Angel di Maria, Adrien Rabiot and Thomas Meunier.
Angel di Maria
The Argentina midfielder is remembered by some in English football circles for his underwhelming stint at Manchester United four years ago, but since moving to PSG he has rediscovered the type of form which showed why he was once a very expensive purchase for Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford.
In PSG’s first five matches, di Maria has registered two goals and three assists and, intriguingly, he has either scored or set up a goal in each of those games. After assists in their opening three league fixtures, he netted against Nimes and Saint-Etienne in their two most recent outings, suggesting that the 30-year-old is good for at least one key moment in a match on current form.
Di Maria was named on the right-hand side of a front three in the 4-0 win over Saint-Etienne on Friday and, while he largely remained on the right flank, he is not averse to cutting inside when a shooting opportunity presents itself. Of the 16 shots PSG recorded in that game, he registered more than any other player with five and, as the graph indicates, all were either on target or blocked in the general vicinity of the penalty spot. His goal to make it 3-0 and put the game to bed with 15 minutes remaining was a tidy finish into the roof of the net from just outside the six-yard box.
Also, each of di Maria’s shots was struck with his left foot and, not unlike Gareth Bale, he has a knack for cutting inside from the right wing and having a go with his left peg. It’s a threat that, as Liverpool’s left-sided central defender, Virgil van Dijk will need to watch closely, but the Dutchman seems more than capable of stifling the Argentine winger – if he doesn’t have his hands full dealing with Neymar, Cavani or Mbappe.
Liverpool fans might have a reasonable idea of what Rabiot has to offer, with the French midfielder having been linked with a potential move to the Reds recently. Even though Klopp already has a plethora of options as regards defensive midfielders, the fact that the 23-year-old is on the club’s radar would suggest that he is the real deal.
Rabiot is the classic engine room operator who has no problem with carrying out plenty of his team’s dirty work, even if that can sometimes manifest itself in undesirable ways, with two yellow cards to his name already this season. He is very tidy in possession, though, often initiating attacks with short, simple passes from which his flashier team-mates prosper, while he is adept at halting the opposition’s momentum with timely blocks in the middle of the park, something that Thomas Tuchel will hope he can do should Liverpool get a swift counterattack going.
While Rabiot is generally a central midfield operator, he can also be deployed in a wider role and he will manfully cover the full width of the pitch if required. Although PSG haven’t faced any Ligue 1 side who would be expected to compete with them so far this season, their 3-1 win over Guingamp in August represents the toughest match they’ve had, when they needed two late Mbappe goals to clinch the points after trailing at half-time.
The teenage striker obviously grabbed the post-match headlines but Rabiot made some vital contributions when the result was very much in the balance. He made three interceptions in that match (see graph above), more than any of his team-mates, including a vital cut-out 20 yards from PSG’s goal midway through the second half when the score was level and Guingamp were raiding down the right flank. Rabiot also recorded three blocks that evening (see graph below), including one at the edge of the penalty area on the half-hour mark when PSG were 1-0 behind. A second Guingamp goal at that point would really have asked hard questions of Tuchel’s team.
It’s hard to see any Liverpool fan right now speaking ill of the industrious James Milner or Georginio Wijnaldum, but it’s no surprise either that the Reds are keen on Rabiot.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has made a name for himself as a right-back who likes to bomb forward and offer Liverpool a genuine threat on the flanks. In Meunier, PSG have a Belgium international eight years older than his Reds counterpart who carries out the same job. Given the Parisiens’ dominance of the vast majority of their domestic matches, it’s no great surprise that Meunier has the licence to get forward at every opportunity given the relative paucity of the opposition. Don’t be surprised, though, if he spends plenty of time at Anfield in Liverpool’s half.
He has one assist to his name so far this season, setting up Neymar’s opener in the 4-2 win at Nimes two weeks ago. In that match, he was a constant threat from the right-hand side and, as the graph shows, 17 of his 68 passes (one out of every four) was directed into the opposition’s third of the pitch. His pass completion rate is also quite solid, with 51 out of 59 accurate passes (86% in total) against Nimes.
With players of the quality of di Maria and Mbappe operating on the right-hand side just ahead of him, Meunier is usually spoiled for choice when seeking an outlet for his trademark raids along the touchline. Andrew Robertson has barely put a foot wrong since joining Liverpool, but he could meet his match in the Belgium international. Indeed, it was only a few days ago that those two were on opposing sides during the Belgians’ 4-0 win over Scotland at Hampden Park. Tomorrow’s game should be a lot closer, but Robertson will already have a strong idea of how dangerous his direct opponent can be.
Liverpool carry a 100% record for the season into their opening Champions League game, but so do PSG, and the Reds will know that this is almost certainly going to be their toughest test of the campaign so far. The French champions are far more than just the Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe show.