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Can PSG really cope without Thiago Motta? (Talking Points: Week 2)

Does Thiago’s PSG malaise really Motta? Eric Devin asks the question…

In Paris Saint-Germain’s first match of the season, the Trophée de Champions clash against Lyon, the team’s hallmark was a remarkable fluidity, with just about every outfield player save Thiago Silva making the odd foray forward. Conversely, even the likes of Lucas Moura and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, never the types of players noted for their defensive workrate, did their job to track back, the overall effect being one that was both mutable and efficient.

Combined with a fine set of results during their run of friendlies in the United States, PSG looked in fine form, ready to put last year’s early-season domestic struggles behind them and continue the rich vein of form that had seen them surge past Lyon in last season’s final two months. With Adrien Rabiot having supplanted Thiago Motta in midfield, there would be more pace and individual freedom, making what had been a somewhat stuttering attack at times more cohesive.  

Indeed, all seemed well and good until the first match of the new season. PSG traveled to Lille, a team that, while not the impregnable group under Rene Girard were still going to be difficult to break down, the hulking Renato Civelli having replaced Simon Kjaer. Both teams had their moments in the early going, and the overall feel of the match was a typically cagey affair.

Rabiot, however, was booked twice in the span of five minutes, leaving the capital side to play more than an hour with ten men. Far from the ideal start to a season, the enterprise of Eric Bautheac and Sofiane Boufal had already been troubling PSG, and were it not for some poorly conceived substitutions on the part of Herve Renard, the hosts probably would have gained something from the match.  

As it was, Javier Pastore was removed for Motta at the interval, and what had been a tentative final fifteen minutes for the champions reverted, despite their hosts’ numerical advantage, to being a simple exercise in control. A sublime pass by Blaise Matuidi set Lucas Moura away and the three points were never in doubt. With Rabiot suspended for Sunday’s home opener against promoted Gazelec Ajaccio, Motta was given the start at the base of Laurent Blanc’s 4-3-3. Two superb early goals from Thiago Silva and Matuidi all but settled the result, and while a home opener against a promoted side is hopefully rarely a challenge for a club on PSG’s level, the capital outfit were beyond composed, their efficiency near-frightening.  

Thus, we have seen over the past two weeks both a vibrant, dynamic midfield and one which knows how to rein things in, focussing on tactical discipline to grind out results. One is eye-catching, and one emphasizes a Mourinho-like mentality, scoring only as needed, despite a considerable number of “flair” players in the side. With the level of talent at Blanc’s disposal, either approach will work domestically, but at this point, for the Qatari “project,” the real goal is European success.

As impressive as a free flowing 4-3-3 can be, the best uses of it in the recent past have a player of the likes of a Motta or a Sergio Busquets who can control the game from the back, completing simple passes and judiciously applying the odd crunching tackle to keep the opposition in line. This stability not only gives teammates a fulcrum around which to base their play, but allows a versatility in defence, a player who can shackle an opponent’s most dynamic threat. As talented as all of Matuidi, Rabiot, Verratti and new signing Angel Di Maria are, none of them have the composed nature and single-mindedness to succeed in this role.  

As rumours continue to swirl around the aging Motta’s departure, PSG fans should be careful what they wish for. If the Italian does depart, (wages are the stumbling block at this point) the club will likely not be so lucky to get the type of result with a man down that they achieved against Lille, or to boss the second place side so efficiently once it enters European competition. Particularly with this year’s reconfigured seeding formula, PSG could be facing a very dangerous group, with the likes of Real Madrid, Atletico and Arsenal all among potential opponents.

Without the heady and composed presence of the former Inter Milan man, on-field organization could prove quite onerous should he not be properly replaced. The likes of William Carvalho have been mooted as replacements, and for this writer, that would provide the necessary solidity, but if Motta’s departure is PSG’s last action of the current window, the club could find itself struggling to reach the knockout stages. 

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