Unai Emery’s PSG Revolution

In my personal opinion Unai Emery has been one of the most underrated coaches within Europe and it is only since he was appointed to the role of Head Coach at Paris Saint Germain (PSG) that people have become aware of his playing philosophy / style. Since retiring from playing, Emery has honed his playing style while achieving success at a number of Spanish clubs, most notably at Seville where he won a hat-trick of Europa League titles. As part of a coaching assignment I was required to document my personal playing philosophy which led me to creating this analysis of Emery’s PSG where I have discussed three of the major principles which lie at the foundation of Emery’s style: Flexible Team Shape, Building from the Back and Players Ability & Understanding.


Flexible Team Shape and Structure

Each position has been colour coded in both the images and videos to help identify and track the changes throughout the game.

The general shape of the team changes flawlessly throughout the match, switching from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3 in an attempt for PSG to dictate the ball at all times which depends on a variety of factors: in – out of possession, area of the pitch, in play – dead ball situations (goal kick etc), time of the game, and score line.

The combination of these two formations is very effective and a hallmark of Emery’s coaching career. The playing philosophy is based on trying to continually create overloads regardless of the area of the pitch to maintain possession and create goal scoring opportunities by penetrating teams methodically.


The versatility allows PSG to remain unpredictable when attacking, which places immense pressure on the opposition who must be alert and focused at all times.

Players occupy 7 different lines within the pitch which creates a variety of different passing options to every position when in possession. This allows the team to make the pitch as large as possible and maintain possession. If we consider that in general there are 3 ways to penetrate a team: 1) through, 2) over and 3) around.

In the 4-2-3-1 the width is provided by both the Full Back’s and Wide Strikers which allows the team to penetrate in wide areas against opposition of may be out numbered 2v1 in wide areas (ie against 4-3-3 or 5-3-2 etc.) It is essential that the Striker and Wide Strikers must play as high as possible which will stretch the opposition creating more space in-between their defensive lines and units (horizontal and vertical) to allow players time and space to maintain possession of the ball.

In the 3-4-3 the width is mainly provided by the Full Back with the Wide Strikers ‘tucking in’ and playing narrow whilst often also dropping into either a Centre Midfield or Centre Attacking Midfield position. This creates an overload in the central areas which is perfect when trying to penetrate a team by playing through them. At this point opposition Full Back’s will have to make a choice to either allow them to roam unmarked into dangerous areas or follow them which will expose space in the wide areas. At the same time as allowing fluidity and freedom when in possession (two of Emery’s main principles) the formation provides a large amount of protection in a central area when out of possession. The three midfielders (Defensive Midfielder’s & Centre Attacking Midfielder) will often either match or over run the opposition forcing them to play long or alternatively try to go around the outside. At this point the Full Back must be comfortable in 1v1 situations and Centre Back’s able to deal with crosses and long balls being delivered in and around the box.

Additionally, Emery’s teams are always “prepared to lose the ball”! When in possession a defensive triangle is created (2 x Centre Back’s & Defensive Midfielder) which provides protection and stability to the team allowing the forward players to intensely press the ball upon a transition instead of having to automatically retreat the shape in fear of being exposed on the counter


Players must all work in tandem as one player out of position can create space which can be exploited by the opposition. For example, if the Wide Strikers decide to play narrow and high while the Full Back’s are still deep and the opponents win the ball, large amounts of space appear in the wide areas allowing them to easily turn defence into an attack on the transition.

The Defensive Midfielder’s are essential within the structure of the team as they are responsible for dictating the shape, as until one of them drop into the Centre Back position, the Full Back’s cannot play further forward and allow the Wide Strikers more freedom in the pitch. Furthermore when defending they must be able to cover for the Full Back’s who may be caught high up the field while screening passes in the opposition strikers.


Dictate the Game: Building from the back

Goal kicks are the most common dead ball situations which occur on average 17 times during a match, while this number increases again if we account for the times a goalkeeper acquires possession (saves the ball or back pass). If a team decides to play long every goal kick essentially becomes a 50-50 with two players challenging for the ball, which is more often than not, followed up by a second 50-50 whenever the ball lands. By playing out for the ball with purpose in a methodical way Emery’s team is able to remain in control of the game at all times.

In order to successfully build from the back Emery first of all creates as much space in their own half as possible by playing the Striker and Wide Strikers high and wide. The Full Back’s then play wide with the Centre Back’s splitting on the edge of the box. During this, the midfield trio of Defensive Midfielder’s and Centre Attacking Midfielder provide intelligent movement to pull players away from players creating space.

If we include the goalkeeper, PSG always maintain a numerical overload which over a large distance makes it easy to maintain possession if the players are technically competent. At this point one of the main aims of play is to switch the play at pace to create an opportunity for the Full Back /Wide Striker to dribble towards defenders at pace in order to provoke defenders leaving their shape and creating spaces to exploit.

A key aspect of building from the back is speed! Although conceptually simple and easy to think of, by making decisions and playing quickly oppositions are forced to become ‘reactive’ instead of ‘proactive’ where they have time to set up and become more organised.


Players Technical Ability & Tactical Understanding

To play possession football successfully the players within the team must have high levels of technical ability and tactical understanding including:


Speed of Play: First time passes, playing with 2 or 3 touch unless dribbling

Awareness: Preparation before receiving the ball

Body shape: To protect the ball under pressure / play a pass with disguise to confuse the opposition

First touch: Away from pressure / on the move (stopping the ball dead provides time to be closed down)

Positional Understanding: Knowledge of where to receive the ball (between the lines) while trying to be on the ½ turn.


Although several of these points are well known among coaches, very few are able to empower their teams will the confidence to perform them under pressure at the elite level or provide them the freedom and opportunity to express themselves while encouraging them to take chances.


Cameron Campbell

All videos were created using the video analysis app CoachCam.

As you can see, the finished product looks amazing and the app is definitely a piece of software which can be used to improve the way in which you coach and communicate with your players or fellow coaches!

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