FEATURE | Manuel Ugarte: PSG’s star man so far this season

Since the departures of Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi, PSG’s midfield has always looked a rather weak compared to what Europe’s top teams have to offer. Recruiting players such as Grzegorz Krychowiak and Lassana Diarra over the years and, more recently, Fabián Ruiz has yet to help the French team close the gap separating it from the big European teams. To perform decently in European competition, there’s no secret recipe: Having a highly functional midfield that can cope with the demands of very high-intensity matches – something that PSG never had.

For many years, Marco Verratti was PSG’s all-purpose midfielder. He was in charge of creating chances, defusing the opposition’s pressure during the Parisian possession phases, and he also had to scrape the ball away from the opposition. An accumulation of tasks that were far too large for what is known in Italy as a mezzala di possesso.

But with his age advancing and Luis Enrique’s reported desire not to continue with the Pescara native, Paris will have no choice but to begin a new cycle in midfield with players who meet the criteria of today’s very high level: being able to play with great intensity while maintaining significant technical quality.

Moving on from the “superstar” project with the departures of Neymar Jr., Lionel Messi, and Sergio Ramos, PSG have aimed to rejuvenate its squad while recruiting players who will make them a more coherent team on the pitch. Despite an eventual extension of Kylian Mbappé, the signing of Ousmane Dembélé and Lucas Hernandez, the unexpected signing currently changing the face of the champions is Manuel Ugarte.

PSG paid Lisbon’s Sporting CP €60m (the price of his release clause) to secure the services of the Uruguayan midfielder. Belonging to the Gestifute agency company run by super-agent Jorge Mendes, many fans were surprised that PSG paid such a sum for an unknown player to the general public. Many criticised Luís Campos for his inclination towards another deal with his compatriot.

Marcelo Bielsa, who worked at Lille with Luís Campos in 2017, said: “Luís Campos never wanted to help me. It was impossible to talk football with him. What interested him was only the commercial part, transfers, commissions, agents, and percentages. Football did not interest him.”

It was suspected that this might be what is happening with this deal—a purely lucrative move designed to line the pockets of both parties. The first friendly games the player participated in did not help to think otherwise.

Missed passes, sloppy ball control, and questionable positioning on the pitch were all factors that dominated the Uruguayan’s first friendly games. Ugarte seemed far from being a €60million player.

Once the season got underway, the Uruguayan international showed a new facet of the player he is. From Dr. Jekyll, he became Mr. Hyde – a player we had not yet seen in a Paris shirt. Ugarte defends, Ugarte tackles, and Ugarte intercepts. The Montevideo native is omnipresent in the midfield.

Warren Zaïre-Emery, a rising star in French football and Ugarte’s partner in the Paris midfield, said this after the match against Lens: “I have very good midfielders alongside me. I am thinking of Manu (Ugarte), he is mental. He wins back so many balls.”

He plays a simple and disciplined game in his defensive duties during that game. He is the midfield defensive guarantee, allowing Vitinha or Zaïre-Emery to project themselves forward. In possession, PSG have even switched to a 4-1-5 formation, leaving Ugarte as the only guarantor of the team’s balance. He ended the game with ten balls recovered (best in that sector that night), and eleven duels won (again, the best on the evening).

His ability does not only help protect his defense, but it helps with scoring, too.

Against Lyon, Chasing into the opposition’s penalty area, the 22-year-old collected a ball at Corentin Tolisso’s feet after the Frenchman had failed to control it properly. Tolisso’s only option was to commit a foul if he did not want to see the Uruguayan defying Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes one-on-one. The penalty was then converted by Kylian Mbappé to make it 1-0

For the 2-0, his recovery instigated the action leading to the goal.

Marco Asensio’s 3-0 goal came from a through ball from Ugarte.

After four matchdays in the league, he has 93% of successful passes and 89% of successful passes in the opposition half. This season in Ligue 1, Ugarte has recovered 41 balls in total. Since Opta began analysing the competition during the 2006/07 season, only another Parisian midfielder did better after four games – Thiago Motta with 47. The Uruguayan seems to be adapting perfectly to the league- not too bad for a player bought for €60m.

“They (the PSG team) were oppressive when we had the ball, we did not have time to make three passes. Today, it was impossible, they suffocated us.” Said Yvon Mvogo after PSG’s first game against Lorient. Undoubtedly, the arrival of a player like Ugarte is no coincidence. 

It is still early in the PSG season to conclude whether Ugarte was worth his price. But undoubtedly, he has been one of the most significant assets on the pitch for Luis Enrique so far this season. With the Champions League group stage draw made,  Ugarte and his teammates will have the opportunity to test their mettle on the biggest scene in Europe. As they prepare to take on Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, and Newcastle, Group F promises to be full of pulse-raising games.

GFFN | Jerry-Morel Takou Nguelo

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