In Germany, there is a saying about the DFB cup competition: “Der Pokal hat seine eigenen Gesetze” or “the cup has its own rules”. What is meant by this is that, in a knock-out situation, any team can go through against any opponent. With the group stage of the Champions League now complete, we move to the knock-out round, a competition where this saying rings more true than ever.
Borussia Dortmund’s run through Group F was resolute if turbulent. Finishing second to Barcelona and progressing with 10 points, their goal difference of 0 really highlights the best and worst of the club at the moment. The ability to score goals through players such as Paco Alcácer, Achraf Hakimi, Jadon Sancho and Marco Reus is somewhat undone by a struggle to avoid conceding. 10 clean sheets in 24 games is a solid return but free-scoring PSG are maybe one of the worst teams they could face.
Having typically lined up in a fairly traditional 4–2–3–1 with holding midfielders Axel Witsel and either Thomas Delaney or Julian Weigl (now of Benfica) being the anchors between attack and a very young defence, Dortmund have recently adopted a 3-man back line which has enabled the irrepressible fullback Achraf Hakimi to charge forward in attack while being able to forego some of the defensive duties necessary in a wide defender. With the wide forwards of Dortmund so often inclined to bring play inside, the wing has become Hakimi’s playground with his irrepressible attacking prowess resulting in 22 goal contributions since arriving in German.
Since shifting to a 3–4–3 in late November, Borussia Dortmund have only been beaten once, scoring 17 yet still conceding 7. An improvement but still with signs of caution in the defence. After dropping points in games against Leipzig and Hoffenheim, the team has shown that no matter what iteration of 11 they line up in, they are inescapably Dortmund; a team unable to see out victories or maintain clean sheets with any real ease or comfort.
This season, the Bundesliga is more open than ever. At the close of Hinrunde, just 7 points separates first place RB Leipzig and fifth place Schalke 04. And for as long as the league remains competitive, Lucien Favre will have his hands full balancing both domestic trophies and the Champions League. In Germany in particular, it is not customary for a team to solely focus on one competition over another. A cup win is a cup win and Dortmund will want everything they can get. Although if their recent performances is anything to go by, it may be more accurate to say that Dortmund will want anything they can get.
In what was dubbed as the Champions League’s Group of Death, Borussia Dortmund’s main competition for qualification came from Barcelona and Inter Milan. Dortmund were not only able to hold their own against these teams but also progress through to the knockout stage. Ultimately, in the round of 16, everyone is on a level playing field and no one should be underestimated, especially not Dortmund. And especially not by Paris Saint-Germain.
Lead by former Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, the PSG of this year is different to the PSG of last season… which is something that seems to be said every year, and every year the team somehow manages to “out-PSG” themselves.
The entity of PSG, the nebulous concept of ‘mate, you can’t support a state-owned investment fund’, has managed to disrupt football a number of times in such a way that has benefitted no one. The purchase of Neymar has been a €222 million splash for a player who has only featured in 51% of all games. Although he has already cemented himself as their all time 7th highest goalscorer, one cannot help but wonder whether it was worth it. His transfer maybe helped to improve their standing as a brand and opened the avenue for Kylian Mbappé but outside of this, it weakened Barcelona without taking PSG to the next level. Some would argue that they’ve barely improved at all in regards to trophy hauls, with Ligue 1 being nothing short of a playground for them. Their quarter final knockout to Manchester United last season all but confirmed Ole Gunnar Solskjær as head coach, a move yet to pay the dividends it had initially promised. A 3–1 defeat for everyone.
But, much like Dortmund, you cannot write this team off. And they are a better shaped team this year than they were before. More depth with more balance, they are more of a squad than they been in recent years. The quality is slightly more evenly distributed across the pitch rather than bulked entirely up top with slight reinforcement at the back. For everything that PSG had in their forwards, they really lacked a heart in the middle of the pitch.
It was under Tuchel last season that centre-back Marquinhos was morphed into a defensive midfielder. Was it a tactical masterstroke or was it out of desperation? Gifted though Marco Verratti may be and precocious as Adrien Rabiot may be, neither took to the number 6 role as effectively as Tuchel had intended (Rabiot, for example, flat out refused and his behaviour lead to him to getting suspended — he now he plays for Juventus and has since struggled to cement himself in their starting 11), but Marquinhos was able to bridge the gap successfully. The purchase of Leandro Paredes seemed to be the missing cog to a team that was still inexplicably lacking in players. The transfer would allow Marquinhos to return to the back line, Verratti to return to the number 8 role and Rabiot to… leave for Juventus having been suspended.
Purchased in the January transfer window from Zenit St Petersburg, Paredes struggled at times as a lone pivot. Clearly able to pick out a pass and make a tackle but baring this brunt alone seemed to be too overwhelming a task for the Argentina international. But when the alternatives had already voiced their displeasure at playing this role, PSG did as they do so often and went shopping.
Setting their sights on the Premier League, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye was maybe not the most obvious solution but has freed all players around him of many defensive duties and has been one of the most under-appreciated players outside of the usual suspects of their attacking force. Ander Herrera of Manchester United, while not a lock on for any starting position, is able to provide the depth and dynamism that went missing after Rabiot’s departure.
Their attacking force, naturally, cannot be ignored. Any team that can feature Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María, Maruo Icardi and Neymar (regardless of how many games he misses) is certainly one to be wary of.
A dream for any manager, these players are all capable of producing magic from seemingly nothing. A team with their talent should outscore any team in the world. But it is maybe in this abundance of attacking stars that PSG fall short. Maybe PSG seem to suffer from a shortcoming that could maybe be pinned on one of complacency or potentially immaturity. Barcelona’s La Remontada, Manchester United putting ‘Ole at the wheel’, taking just five wins from their final 11 games of Ligue 1 last year; there seems to be no situation in Europe or even domestically that Paris can find themselves in without still teetering at the risk of failure. In Dortmund, they may have met their equal in nearly every conceivable way.
With all of this in mind, both PSG and Dortmund are at the table for a reason. In a knockout situation like the Champions League, though, der Pokal hat seine eigenen Gesetze. Having recently purchased the precocious Erling Håland from Red Bull Salzburg, Dortmund’s game-plan of simply trying to outscore their opponent is not the worst idea in the world. Against Paris Saint-Germain, however…