The reigning French champions overcame a first half deficit to defeat FC Nantes 1-4 at Stade de la Beaujoire on Saturday. The win keeps Paris Saint-Germain at the top of the Ligue 1 table after eight games with 20 points, two more than last season at this stage, but it was their performance in the first 45 minutes that could be cause for concern.
The first half was one of the worst in recent memory for the Rouge-et-Bleu. It would be easy to say PSG didn’t play well but I would like to give Nantes the credit they deserve. They didn’t just defend well. They pressed well, they countered well, and if not for both goal posts, Paris could have gone into halftime with a 3-goal deficit. Les Canaris didn’t just earn their 1-0 halftime lead, they unarguably deserved more.
Given the quality in the PSG starting XI, you have to say the first half performance of the club was among the worst we’ve seen under manager Laurent Blanc. It’s easy to make “midfielder” Zlatan Ibrahimovic the scapegoat but there’s plenty of blame to go around. Fan favorite Lucas Moura was invisible, Marco Verratti completed only 45% of his passes, Javier Pastore constantly turned the ball over, and Serge Aurier could have seen yellow twice within half an hour. Angel Di Maria managed to force a few opportunities but it wasn’t hard to be the brightest of that first-half bunch.
So what changed? The plethora of Benjamin Stambouli-bashers will point to Thiago Motta’s entry, but the former Tottenham man was hardly to blame for anything Saturday and the turnaround came in earnest the moment the second half began. That owes a lot to Nantes’ pressing fading—easy to put that down to fatigue after a superb, exhausting first half—which led to the reconstruction of the Parisian midfield. With the usually-metronomic Verratti and an extremely lackluster Pastore suddenly rejuvenated (with the help of a bit of yelling by Blanc, I’m sure), Nantes could no longer skip past the center of the park so easily. This took place well before the 65th minute, so before you go decrying Blanc’s rotational policies, realize that it’s more down to a complete failure of all our midfielders in the first half, including Ibrahimovic, which led to those deadly counters.
With the defense not really an issue in the first place, save for a few wild tackles from Aurier, the rebuilt midfield led to a rebuilt attack. Chances in the first half were almost exclusively attempted through long, killer balls from Di Maria or Pastore. Nantes cut these out extremely well but none of the deliveries were particularly stellar. After the break, the ‘route one’ philosophy, which was itself a big part of the reason the first half was so ugly, was supplanted by the usual varied, intelligent play. That especially came through our Argentine heroes, Pastore and Di Maria. Ibrahimovic may have found himself a goal, but the South American connections were nothing short of magisterial.
Di Maria was particularly bright all game with a goal and an assist. His pass to Edinson Cavani led to a goal in the 73rd minute in what may well have been the Uruguayan’s only touch of the game (somehow he always scores) and then the Argentine scored one of his own in the 80th minute as he latched onto Pastore’s beautiful ball for a twirling, lobbed finish. Pastore then added the final goal of the game with a corner delivery leading to a wonderful scissor kick to mark Serge Aurier’s first Ligue 1 goal. The good feelings were flowing and the supporters had practically forgotten the state of panic that arose at the half-time whistle.
Despite that jubilation, four goals is really nothing short of flattering. That first half performance can’t be forgotten and there are serious kinks in PSG’s recent performances that need to be worked out. Lucas had his worst game in recent memory, receiving the lowest score on the team from whoscored. While that does seem apt given his anonymity, Cavani came on and was just as invisible in overall play, popping up only to score his mighty header. While he likely won’t be the subject of much criticism while he’s still finding the net, Blanc must shelf the idea of playing Lucas in this centralized poacher’s role, or else he might just lose his place in the team entirely. Conversely, Zlatan dropping into the midfield and losing possession, as he did many times today, is becoming problematic. Despite his goal in the 48th minute that tied the game, I would certainly argue for dropping the big Swede from the starting XI particularly if it engenders the return of Blaise Matuidi.
Layvin Kurzawa also made very little argument to supplant Maxwell as the starting left-back, with the young Frenchman being powerful as ever going forward but also the solitary weak point in a great second-half defensive line. He has to iron these errors out of his game before taking over the starting spot. Lastly, Salvatore Sirigu hasn’t been afforded any opportunities to regain his place, yet Kevin Trapp has begun to concede his fair share since Bordeaux.
I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh on the team, but much like last week, the scoreline really masks the truth of the performance. Someone needs to knock the complacency out of this group. It feels like ages since we’ve seen the team focused for a full 90 minutes. Either the goal comes early and they relax or they relax from the start and concede first. Despite a very promising preseason, that attitude has crept back into the team and Blanc should certainly consider the return of youngsters Adrien Rabiot and Jean-Kevin Augustin to the squad. Maybe youth can provide the enthusiastic spark, at least in domestic play.