Laurent Blanc raised a few eyebrows with his starting XI against a strong Benfica side in yesterday’s International Champions’ Cup game in Toronto. With only Lucas, Maxwell, and Serge Aurier involved as usual starters, and the latter two out of position, the mostly-untested academy graduates (and Kevin Trapp) went through a trial by fire—and they passed with flying colors, emerging 3-2 victors over the Portuguese.
With 5/11 starters (6 if you count Marquinhos) on extended leave from the Copa America, PSG’s European internationals only just in basic training, and Thiago Motta in a…strange state of mind, Blanc put his faith in the academy. Much like PSG’s last friendly, Blanc experimented with the formation, particularly having to use defensively-minded Maxwell in the midfield (which did starve Lucas of the ball). Though friendlies are hardly the apex of formational discipline, it did seem that Maxwell and Adrien Rabiot would sit as a dual pivot while the rest of the team pushed forward; if that’s an intentional observation, then it adds some credit to the theory of a possible change of formation.
Where Lucas suffered from lack of the ball and the occasional foul, our untested youth excelled. Again, Christopher Nkunku bossed the midfield, winning the penalty for the equalizer and remaining remarkably composed in midfield. The versatile attacker found a groove behind Jean-Kévin Augustin and Jean-Christophe Bahebeck and even played his part in the midfield battle. It must be said—though this time he did win a penalty—that he very much does look his age, and while the talent is absolutely there, league and cup play may prove too physical for Nkunku at this time. Even in this friendly, he wasn’t completely sturdy on the ball.
On the subject of Augustin, the 18-year-old, who has recently started on his first professional contract, has been on fire in the preseason. As shown in the opening goal above, the explosive forward has already developed a remarkable touch—with his back to goal, no less, shades of Suarez—and that individual skill came in handy in the buildup to Lucas Digne’s goal. Augustin picked up on a loose touch, left the Benfica defender for dead, and slid it to Digne to power it into the net. In the form he’s been in this preseason, PSG fans can expect that he may just take Bahebeck’s spot as third-choice forward. He’s now listed amongst the first team on the website.
And lastly, that man there—Digne, not quite one of our youngsters, but French and with a point to prove this preseason. You must feel for him, waiting for Maxwell to decline for what seems like an eternity. The Brazilian has remained as consistent as ever, and it’s made the former Lille man’s raw qualities all the more exposed. Losing his spot on the French National team has likely snapped some sense into the guy, and was one of Paris’ few capable defenders in the first half before excelling in the second and scoring the winner. Despite widely reported links to a loan move or even a permanent departure, Digne should look to capitalize on Maxwell’s definitive last season and establish himself as a key member of the squad.
Trapp was tested for the first time and made three good saves and an incredible one (which I tragically cannot find footage of). He certainly looks to be living up to the billing. Salvatore Sirigu came on for him early in the second half, the first of our European internationals to return to action, and at that point we’d regained control of the game, save for one awkward moment where the Italian threw himself at a high ball and nearly let it bounce free of his hands. It’s that sort of aerial shakiness that Sirigu is notorious for, and perhaps Trapp’s arrival will spur him onto a higher level (or maybe it will spur him to Rome).
The biggest talking point, aside from the potential formation change and its implications next season, is the high technical standard that the PSG youngsters are playing to. Benfica played a full starting team and, even if physically overpowered, our inexperienced midfielders and forwards played on a fantastic level technically. You could hardly tell Lucas and Augustin’s first touches apart, and Nkunku coped with the physical difference in midfield with flair and technique. Though a friendly, this really is a massive victory for the youth squad. They went out with great desire and energy and they came back vindicated. More than a Champions’ League victory, the academy is the way to legitimize Paris in Europe, and these lads have done so with the sort of passion that makes you excited for the future.
Sure, it’s a friendly, it doesn’t change if Motta’s leaving or if we’ll win it all again, but for the squad that went out there it means a hell of a lot.
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