Christophe Galtier will do what many international sides are doing to win major cup competitions: implement a back-three

Man On Monday 008

Things had to change. PSG simply have too much money and talent on their hands to still have nothing to show for it in the Champions League. But this summer, rather than continuing to accept the outcomes of the last few years, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi shook things up. He first secured Mbappé’s signature, which at one point felt impossible after they lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final. He fired their technical director, Leonardo, and replaced him with the famed Luis Campos — the “football advisor” who was responsible for building that Monaco team and the most recent title-winning Lille side. 

Most crucially, Al-Khelaifi has now taken a giant leap by appointing Christophe Galtier – who worked with Campos at Lille. Galtier now becomes the club’s first French manager since Laurent Blanc (2013-2016). For a club that has fostered a globalized, super-brand-like culture that boasts superstars from all over, PSG is attempting to change its ethos. In Galtier’s presentation last Tuesday, the club’s president was adamant that the hire signified a new era. He said it four times.

Part of this decision comes down to Galtier’s nationality and image; most of it has to do with his career trajectory and style of play. This is the man who got the best out of his players at Lille and unexpectedly triumphed over his new employers. His football has historically played into the underdog-esque mentality, based upon gritty high-pressure and high-tempo play, most commonly in a 4-4-2. 

But in his first press conference, Galtier was insistent that he understands the challenge that awaits him. He hasn’t coached superstars like Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé before. Managing their efforts and finding the right balance may be the toughest task of his career. And while it would be fair to assume he’ll begin with his typical 4-4-2 setup, Galtier interestingly told us what he planned to do – something coaches don’t usually do when they first meet the press. 

Galtier said he would look to implement a back-three from the start. 

What would a back-three setup look like?

Working Neymar, Messi, and Mbappé into a cohesive XI proved too difficult last season for Pochettino. I mean, it’s objectively difficult. The only one who actually defends is Neymar, and at this point in each of their respective careers, none are true forwards that can play alone through the middle. The trident may be golden, but it’s a bit deformed. That’s why links to young strikers like Sassuolo’s Gianluca Scamacca make so much sense. Yet in each prong of the trident, you have either the best dribbler in the world, the best player in the world at running in behind, and the best in the world at finding pockets of space in between the lines.

There must be something there. There just has to be. 

Flashes of both chemistry and lack thereof were on display last season. Pochettino afforded his stars so much freedom that they frequently looked disjointed from the rest of the team. A back-three system would keep them on the pedestal they require but provide natural width and balance that can often be taken for granted. 

In midfield, the only player that you could argue is guaranteed to start is Marco Verratti, who is still playing at a world-class level and can operate in just about any system. New signing Vitinha feels like Verratti’s successor more than anything else, at least until we see him in action anyway. Assuming Galtier sets them up in a back three and the “MNM” trio starts, Verratti will have just one partner. As of now, that’s Vitinha, Leandro Paredes, Ander Herrera, Gini Wijnaldum, Danilo Pereira, or Idrissa Gueye. Not ideal, but you’d expect at least one of them to have some sort of revival under Christophe Galtier. This is the coach who brought Renato Sanches back to life.

The biggest reason to give the back-three a go is the quality of the wing-backs at his disposal. Off the right, Achraf Hakimi established himself as one of the best in the world at Dortmund and then at Inter in similar setups. He serves as the perfect wide outlet to drive the team up the pitch and even get into the box and finish off moves. Pushing him back up into his natural wingback position should get the best out of him, especially if he’s overlapping Messi. 

On the opposite flank, Nuno Mendes has already proven to be astute business. He brings a level of dynamism and technical ability that can still be molded into just about anything at such a young age. 

Hakimi and Mendes’ attacking qualities also alleviate the need to purchase a box-to-box midfield world-beater. PSG should only have to attack with five across the front.

The central defenders and goalkeepers are probably the least worrisome groups of the squad, as Galtier really just has a few decisions to make. Marquinhos and Kimpembe have both shown penchants for carrying the ball up the pitch, making them suitable for wider center-back roles. A fit Sergio Ramos is still a fine anchoring option. 

This system is well-suited for a team that wants to win the Champions League

After romantically running through the reasons why managing PSG would be such a joyous challenge, Galtier ended his press conference emphatically by saying he’d lean on a back-three defense. The Parisian press was audibly surprised.

Playing with an extra center-back often feels like a more cautious choice; it’s typically adopted by teams that expect to concede possession and defend the penalty area from central penetration and crosses. That being said, managers like Antonio Conte have continuously shown that it can be successful at the elite club level. It all depends on the players you have available and your footballing education. Inter’s 2021 title-winning side featured rampaging wing-backs like the aforementioned Achraf Hakimi and aggressive forwards that ran into space like Romelu Lukaku. A match made in heaven. Yet the back-three (or -five depending on player roles) doesn’t merely serve as the antithesis to possession-based play, it can also be a substitute.

Chelsea won the Champions League in 2021 with five recognized defenders on the pitch, and have consistently attained both good fluidity and defensive stability under ex-PSG coach Thomas Tuchel. Most of Europe’s best international sides are now leaning on the system to marry those two sides of the game. Deschamps’s France won the World Cup in a 4-2-3-1 of sorts, but have since made the switch. 

Given that PSG’s eventual goal is to win the Champions League – a cup competition – they should follow the example of international teams that boast global superstars. Having at least the flexibility to do will make them so much more dangerous while always keeping their head above water.

Galtier’s words on his first day serve as a clear statement of intent. This is a new era at PSG.  

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