Never has there been a club so single-minded as Paris Saint-Germain. While trophies are the aim for every modern giant, one particular competition has become an all-consuming obsession for Les Parisiens since QSI’s arrival. Finally progressing under Thomas Tuchel, Wednesday’s meeting with Liverpool could prove a pivotal moment in their pursuit of Champions’ League glory. However, not for the first time, ill-timed injuries have thrown Parisian preparations into doubt as the fitness of Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, both injured on international duty, remains in significant doubt. But as Tuchel’s PSG evolves, Liverpool still have much to fear.
This summer, PSG’s bloated transfer policy seemed to have finally made its mark. A long fixation on big-name forwards has meant other areas remain drastically underdeveloped. A choice between Neymar, Mbappé, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler in attack was balanced out by the retirement of Thiago Motta, the aging Dani Alves and Thiago Silva, an ongoing contract negotiation dispute with Adrien Rabiot and the questionable fitness of Marco Verratti and Layvin Kurzawa. Financial Fair Play a problematic obstacle, obvious defensive replacements were again not forthcoming and PSG remained ludicrously top heavy.
A 3-2 defeat at Anfield in September amounted to a doubling down on those policies that had failed so spectacularly in the past. A one dimensional 4-3-3 and blunt possession football meant a lack of ideas, whilst minimal defensive options forced centre back Marquinhos into an awkward midfield role. Kylian Mbappé’s snap-late equaliser after Neymar’s incisive run nearly saw individual class distract from a wayward overall display once more, as Paris were again outsmarted at the top level. Since then, however, QSI’s one major summer addition has started to have an effect.
PSG have benefitted from Tuchel’s now fully adopted move to a trio of centre backs and a more versatile and effective style, a development exemplified by a uncharacteristically stoic away display in Le Classique last month and the control they exerted over the first hour in Naples. Neither being era-defining displays, but clear signs of a shift away from the mental collapse in losing 6-1 at Barcelona, the cowering exit at Manchester City the year before and being completely out thought by Real Madrid last season. Tuchel’s nousin rejuvenating tactics and team are at the heart of this long overdue evolution, while bringing a host of previously marginalised players to the fore.
Fear of trusting youngsters has long plagued PSG but developing talents now form a sizeable chunk of the team, foremost being 19-year-old French winger Moussa Diaby. In just 448 Ligue 1 minutes this season, Diaby has two goals and five assists; his pace, vision and directness proving incisive from wing-back and/or attack. A fearless intensity was underlined as he ignored calls from Neymar and Mbappé, much to their ire, during a counter attack at Monaco to run on and shoot himself. While Diaby might have picked a pass, his lack of deference was refreshing, he may become key for Tuchel before long.
Thilo Kehrer’s under-heralded arrival from Schalke has also proven a source of satisfaction. The 22-year-old German defender grew up in Rwanda, meaning a fluency in French has seen him settle quickly, while being well-suited to a back three used by Domenico Tedesco as Schalke finished second in the Bundesliga last season. After a shaky start, clumsily conceding a penalty against Angers, Kehrer’s form and Tuchel’s trust saw him usurp World Cup winner Presnel Kimpembe for the trip to Napoli.
Most worryingly for Liverpool however is the revitalising of some more familiar names. Thiago Silva has long been a shadow of the defender that left Milan for Paris, hardly the best centre back in Europe since, or even in the PSG dressing room, but the intelligent, physical, proactive stopper has returned with force under Tuchel. Angel Di Maria meanwhile has quietly moved beyond a sulking, ill-disciplined spell that saw him dropped by Emery as he baulked at playing out of position, and is now hitting some of the best and most consistent form of his career. The Argentine is proving particularly pivotal in driving the team forward and playmaking across the attack with a new found intensity, even accepting a wing-back role on occasion without complaint.
Most impressive has been Julian Draxler’s transformation. Despite a supreme start to his PSG career as a left winger, signing from Wolfsburg in January 2017, the arrival of Neymar and Mbappé seemed to end the German’s run in Paris as it did Lucas Moura’s. However, having moved deeper in midfield under Emery, Draxler has been serene alongside Verratti in anchoring the PSG midfield of late. His guile, range of passing and effortless technical ability have aided a burgeoning partnership with the Italian, supplanting Adrien Rabiot in the process. Taking the ball from PSG has proven remarkably difficult of late.
Although cajoling eye-catching displays from three potentially world class players may not amount to an earth-shattering managerial feat, the heights all three have reached in dramatic turnarounds instigated by Tuchel remains impressive. Add to this the form, hunger and maturity shown by the likes of Diaby and Kehrer and the increased freedom Cavani enjoys in Neymar and Mbappé’s absence, having been oddly frozen out by the pair, the Uruguayan’s outrageous flick and volleyed finish made it 14 Ligue 1 wins against Toulouse on Saturday. Unfortunately for Liverpool, this evolving Parisian squad might not need their €400m strike force on Wednesday night.
1 | Despite Montpellier uncharacteristically dropping points, albeit owing to a moment of madness from Paul Lasne, Andy Delort was again among the goals for La Paillade. Neither, to be fair, had much to do with him, the first coming from an opportunistic scramble and the second deliciously set up by Ellyes Skhiri’s backheel and Gaëtan Laborde’s square ball, but it is undeniable that he is back to his best. Moves to Mexico and England failed to work out for Delort, but his output for Montpellier (seven goals in his last eight matches) has given Michel Der Zakarian’s prosaic attack the focal point it lacked last year, and despite Sunday’s draw, they should continue to battle near the top of the division.
2 | Reims continued to slowly climb the table, recording a win over hapless Guingamp on Saturday. The Champagne club still boast the division’s poorest attack, but a retooled defence, with Julian Jeanvier and Roman Metanire replaced by the Belgian duo of Thomas Foket and Bjorn Engels has been at the heart of their rise. Unbeaten in five, the win sees the club now eighth, a remarkable feat with no player having scored more than two goals.
3 | Lyon’s dull win over Saint-Étienne was deserved, if only, as the introduction of Maxwel Cornet sparked the club into an improved second half display that culminated in Jason Denayer’s near-post winner. Now in second place after their fourth win in five, Lyon hardly looked the part of Ligue 1’s second-best team, and will find those credentials sorely tested by Saturday’s trip to Lille. Les Gones, already without the injured Léo Dubois, will also have to make do without Rafael, whose horrendous tackle on Yann M’Vila is likely to earn him a lengthy ban.
4 | AS Monaco broke a run of 16 games without a win in all competitions in an encounter that brought Thierry Henry is first managerial victory after six prior attempts. Radamel Falcao’s sumptuous free-kick was enough to take three points away from Caen, but the performance was erratic, and VAR somewhat controversially chalked off a last minute equaliser for the Normandy side.
Results: Lyon 1-0 St Étienne, PSG 1-0 Toulouse, Caen 0-1 Monaco, Dijon 0-0 Bordeaux, Nantes 1-1 Angers, Reims 2-1 Guingamp, Strasbourg 0-1 Nîmes, Montpellier 2-2 Rennes, Nice 2-0 Lille, Amiens 1-3 Marseille.