What We Learned: Is Zlatan Holding PSG Back in the Champions League?

Paris Saint-Germain were disappointing last Wednesday as they took on a depleted Real Madrid side and only managed a scoreless draw. For a team primarily focused on winning the Champions League trophy, it was not the performance supporters expected.

The reigning French champions have fallen out of the Champions League the past three seasons at the quarterfinal stage at the hands of teams like Barcelona and Chelsea but with the signing of Angel Di Maria this season came the belief that PSG finally had the player to take them all the way to the final of Europe’s elite competition.

My concern isn’t just about this game, as Paris will most likely qualify from the group no matter what happens in the return leg, it’s more about their chances of even getting past the quarterfinal stage this season. While the defence and midfield put in a solid performance against Madrid, with goalkeeper Kevin Trapp also being awarded the Man of the Match award, it was the attack that concerned me the most. Despite fielding the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, and Angel Di Maria, the team looked toothless going forward and it has to be a concern for Laurent Blanc as they progress in the tournament.

It was made very clear that the club’s hyped attacking trio, dubbed CIA by some, was nowhere near the quality necessary to break down one of Europe’s best defenses. For all the accolades and skill they possess on paper, they failed to display anything close to what they’re capable of on the pitch and the main suspect was Ibrahimovic. Here’s what we learned from the game:


Zlatan and Cavani barely threatened Keylor Navas’ goal throughout the match but that didn’t stop the big Swede from saying he played a good game in an interview afterward:

Here’s the problem Zlatan, you don’t get good chances in front of goal if your movement isn’t precise and in truth, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane didn’t have to cope with a lot of pressure from the forwards on the night. Here’s a look at the average positions from yesterday’s game, via whoscored:

Ideally, Zlatan is supposed to be the deepest of the trio, with Cavani as the most advanced of the three, but in a match where PSG conceded possession to Real Madrid for certain periods, the attack looked flat. Against Ligue 1 competition, Zlatan’s dropping deep doesn’t affect the team as much as Cavani can afford to let go of some of his defensive duties and join the attack. Although, it has be said that Cavani hasn’t been the most clinical finisher since arriving at the Parc but I’d rather have someone at least in position to miss easy chances than to not be there at all. Due to Zlatan’s lack of tracking back, Cavani had to neglect his attacking duties, which meant PSG lacked a focal point in attack. Thus leaving Di Maria, who’s supposed to be the most creative of the trio, with the most forward position on the pitch to the detriment of the team.

Ibrahimovic has been on the decline since last season, despite scoring a respectable number of goals, but that game just went to highlight why the club’s hierarchy might have to consider letting Blanc drop the all-time leading scorer in PSG history for some of these high intensity matches in favor of Javier Pastore who is much more creative with the ball.

If Blanc is unable to bench Zlatan it likely means that we will continue to endure such drab performances from him in these big European games for as long as PSG remain in the competition. It’s up to the manager now to figure out what can be done tactically to get the most out of Ibra and figure out how to cover up his deficiencies.


Blanc will need to find a way to make PSG more of a threat from both sides of the pitch if they are to offer any real attacking threat. Paris have enough width on the right side of the pitch, Serge Aurier and Di Maria providing the quality, but it’s on the left where problems arise with neither Maxwell, Cavani, or Blaise Matuidi capable of providing enough of an attacking presence on that side of the pitch.

For the return leg against Madrid, I think Blanc should consider moving Di Maria to the left side where he’s played some of the best football of his career. This will give PSG more of a balanced threat from both wings with Aurier playing the entire right wing with Marco Verratti providing some cover. With this formation, Blanc would keep the same starting XI but with more of a threat going forward at the Bernabeu.

Another option, which Blanc might not welcome so much, might be to breakup his preferred midfield trio and bring Di Maria into the midfield and starting Lucas Moura for pace on both flanks. This formation would be similar to Madrid’s La Decima, where Di Maria played a vital role from the left side of central midfield by covering the entire flank and helping out the defense, limiting Cristiano Ronaldo’s need to track back as much (in this case it would limit Cavani’s need to track back). This will be a huge risk considering PSG’s major successes are down to its wonderful midfield but If Blanc seeks to retain his job by leading PSG past the quarterfinals of the Champions League, this might be an experiment worth trying.

There have also been suggestions that Layvin Kurzawa should be brought into the team in place of the aging Maxwell. The Frenchman will offer PSG a very strong attacking presence on that side, similar to what Marcelo brings to Real Madrid. However, I think it may be too early to throw the young player to the wolves in such an important match on the road.

Credit to Paris Saint-Germain’s hierachy though. Go back just a few years and the club wouldn’t even have been seen as favorites heading into that match even with Real Madrid’s injuries. It goes to show how far PSG have come as a team but to take the next step some crucial decisions have to be made by the board concerning Ibrahimovic’s untouchable status in the team if the club is to move forward.

Tags Angel Di Maria Blaise Matuidi Champions League Edinson Cavani Kevin Trapp Laurent Blanc Marco Verratti Real Madrid Thiago Motta Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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