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What we learnt from Unai Emery’s PSG in pre-season

Given the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the limited availability of a host of South American players in the wake of the Copa America, Paris Saint-Germain’s foray to the United States to play in the International Champions’ Cup always had the potential for embarrassment.

Yes, these matches only friendlies, and young players are more likely to play important roles than they otherwise would, but with a new manager installed in the form of Unai Emery, a close watch was always going to be kept on the team’s performances.

The team acquitted themselves impressively enough in the United States, but more focus would always be placed upon their domestic curtain-raiser, the Trophee de Champions, which matches the league champion with the Coupe de France winners. With PSG having won all of France’s domestic competitions last season, the match pitted the champions against league runners-up Lyon.

The Rhone club having done well to keep the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso, as well as adding depth in the form of Nicholas N’Koulou, Lyon had been widely tipped as perhaps being capable of genuinely challenging the capital side.

After all, two seasons ago, a Lyon powered by Alexandre Lacazette’s 27 goals and the fine form of Nabil Fekir had been in first place until late in the season, PSG only moving into first place for good on Matchday 34.

Despite having experimented with a 4-3-3 in the United States, as in the win against Inter Milan, new manager Unai Emery opted for a 4-2-3-1 in Austria, with Thiago Motta and Benjamin Stambouli in front of the back four.

Lyon’s Bruno Genesio deployed a 4-3-3 similar to last season, the now-healthy Fekir taking what had been Rachid Ghezzal’s place on the right. With little in terms of surprises for Lyon (besides what seemed a suicidally high back line) tactically, the focus then comes on to Emery’s 4-2-3-1, a formation that has been more or less his signature.

At Sevilla, the system was aggressive, with a focus on a high pressing style. Tackling as a means of starting a counterattack was prized, and although discipline could be an issue at times, Sevilla’s success against a variety of styles was down to their comfort defending in their own half.

In midfield, Emery used a pair of aggressive, physical midfielders, rotating among Grzegorz Krychowiak, Vicente Iborra and Steven N’Zonzi. All three carry an immense physical presence, and while they may be lacking in any particular sort of attacking guile, they combined an elegant brutality in the tackle, providing the ideal platform for the attacking quartet.

With Ever Banega as the number ten, Kevin Gameiro as an altogether unorthodox no 9 and Yevhen Konoplyanka and Vitolo as the wide players, there was a great deal of freedom in attack.

The pace and ability on the ball of Gameiro made him the ideal counter-attacking outlet, while the elegant Banega pulled the strings, the pace and workrates of the wingers generally creating space for the attack-minded fullbacks, Mariano and Benoit Tremoulinas.

Is this starting to sound familiar, for those of you who watched last week’s match? Two defensive midfielders who get stuck in, protecting a decent but not exceptional backline, attacking fullbacks, and a general freedom of movement for the front four?

While the personnel that will make up Emery’s first choice eleven for the biggest matches is far from settled, the seeds of his re-making PSG in his image are already apparent. The acquisition of Krychowiak gives the champions a defensively-minded option without sacrificing mobility.

As wonderful as Thiago Motta is at protecting a back four, he has never been the fastest player, a condition surely exacerbated by his impending 34th birthday. For all of their wonderful talents, none of Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot or Marco Verratti really fit the bill either.

Matuidi’s effectiveness without being able to stretch the match in a box-to-box role was painfully apparent in this summer’s European Championships, Rabiot is a fantastic option going forward, but when tasked with a more defensively oriented role, as often struggled with his positioning.

Verratti possesses the natural aggression and tackling ability to succeed in a defensive midfield role, but to have him solely protecting a a back four would be a near-criminal waste of his sublime passing ability.  Alongside Krychowiak, though, with the Pole to protect the back four, the diminutive Italian can be the catalyst for the counterattacking style that Emery favours.

Too often under Laurent Blanc, the team showed too much of a willingness to over-value possession. Yes, they were fine indeed at keeping the ball, but with it continually circling amongst Matuidi, Motta and Verratti, there was a disconnect between the attack and defence.

In the biggest matches, as a result, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was forced to come deep in central areas to receive the ball, while the wingers resorted to chasing balls played over the top by Motta or the two centre backs.

In this system, possession is valued less, but the attacking players and the fullbacks are given greater freedom. The onus on the two central midfielders to break up play, dropping deep to allow the centre backs to is heavily reliant on their work rates, but in Verratti and Krychowiak (and Matuidi), Emery has a great deal of willingness.

In forward areas, play now centres around the number ten, an elegant player who is willing to track back when necessary, but is more importantly a conduit between the workman-like supporting players and the front three. It is no surprise, then that Pastore has taken over the shirt heading into the season.

A fine distributor of the ball, he is also rarely shy about putting a tackle in, giving him a versatility under Laurent Blanc and Carlo Ancelotti that was much-needed. As one of the two central midfielders or as one of the wide forwards, the lanky Argentine’s struggles with fitness last season were, along with those of Verratti, a big reason for PSG’s stumbles in the Champions’ League.

Last week Saturday, he demonstrated how he could excel in this new role. Rather than being solely a creative outlet, Pastore frequently dropped deep to receive the ball, letting his dribbling carry him past the opposing player. He also ranked second on the team in tackles, helping out the slower pairing of Motta and Benjamin Stambouli. After cutting an inconsistent figure during his first few years at the club, it now appears to be Pastore’s time.

That said, the other parts of the champions’ attacking quartet were equally impressive against Lyon. Lucas Moura and Angel Di Maria worked hard to track back, pressing from the front and frequently switching flanks to draw the Lyon defense out of its shell.

The former Real Madrid player has always been renowned for his work ethic, but it was a pleasant surprise to see Moura, not normally noted for his ability to track back, also turn in a hard-working performance.

There may be something to the performances of Jonathan Ikone and Jean-Kevin Augustin this summer, as the two, along with new signing Jese, will have turned up the pressure on the Brazilian to show determination as regards staying in the first-choice eleven.

Hatem Ben Arfa did score a goal, but his first touch and decision making were suspect at times, and the role of the centre forward with this group of players will be easily Emery’s biggest decision.

Ben Arfa and Jese more readily fit the idea of a tricky, pacy unorthodox striker a la Gameiro, but Emery is unafraid to use a more physical player in the role as well, having given Carlos Bacca the starting role two seasons ago to great success.

Cavani, Ben Arfa and Jese are all suited for the role, but which of them earns the start will likely be a situational issue, the level of opposition ability the determining factor.

The fullbacks also seem to be enjoying the arrival of Emery; Serge Aurier’s brace against Inter Milan was followed by another courtesy of Thomas Meunier against Real Madrid.

Even though those matches were friendlies, Serge Aurier and Layvin Kurzawa, the leading candidates to start at fullback, are also capable of scoring and assisting, making the two essentially auxiliary attackers, much to their obvious joy.

Now, this system necessarily requires a good deal of grit and energy to reach its apex, but in Paris Saint-Germain, Emery may have the squad suited to the task.

Whereas last season saw what was arguably over-use in the cases of several players, notably Matuidi and Verratti, Emerey has always been a fan of player rotation, which bode well for the younger members of the squad.

The likes of Rabiot, defender Presnel Kimpembe and Augustin may not feature extensively this season, but they will, through cup competition and the odd league match, surely be afforded the chance to continue their development apace.

Even veteran players such as David Luiz and Thiago Motta can rest easy, given their versatility and big game experience.

As a final talking point, it would be remiss to ignore the goalkeeping situation at the team, and to see if Emery has tipped his hand at all as regards the upcoming season. In the team’s first competitive match, the incumbent, Kevin Trapp started in net, but failing to control a shot almost gave Lyon the lead with the match less than four minutes in.

Things went better as the match wore on, but Alphonse Areola looked magnificent in their friendlies, and given his wealth of international and loan experience.

The young Frenchman has waited years for this opportunity, and despite a middling end to last season with Villarreal, his control and handling easily exceed that of Trapp.

Thus, Unai Emery has laid down a serious marker. He has aggressively recruited players who will not only give depth to the squad but will complete his given instructions.

Fitness is and will likely be an issue for many players, but in ceding more of the ball to opponents, a well-drilled team under the command of a fiery, charismatic manager seems like a recipe for, if not success, then a marked improvement on the often distracted and torpid performances under Blanc.

PSG made a brave call, but between Emery’s opportunistic tactics and fanaticism on the sidelines, the mandated development in European competiton looks as equally likely as the seemingly forgone conclusion of a league race.

E.D.

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