Since a hard-earned, youth-charged away win at Lorient, Paris Saint-Germain kicked off a nine-day run of four fixtures—three domestic, one continental—against comparative minnows. In truth, individual analysis of these matches fails to offer the same benefit that tougher fixtures do. With the team so often at half intensity, these 90 minute periods show a Parisian outfit, as usual, prone to complacency and drowsiness. When looked at as a unit, though, these matches shine light on Laurent Blanc’s future at the club, on his tactical ambitions, and where this squad can go from here.
First, the Malmö FF match was one inevitably overshadowed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to his hometown club. It also marked a rise in form for the Sweden international, particularly after a middling performance against Lorient. Most of all, it showed how spirited teams break in the face of the overwhelming quality in the Parisian lineup. Given how Malmö played for most of the game, the 5-0 scoreline is almost absurd. Their press was among the best PSG have faced this season, a genuine full-pitch effort where defending started at the front. Despite putting on their best Jürgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino impression, Malmö found themselves demolished. Nothing went their way. After early pressure, an individual mistake led to Adrien Rabiot nicking the ball for his opener. Angel Di Maria scored his first of his two goals with what seemed to be his first touch of the game. The hosts divine consolation, a (moderately soft) penalty, pinged off the woodwork in the second half. Malmö tired around the hour mark, as teams without the fitness to match their press typically do—their hope was to do damage early and then play a tighter game, but their moment never came and they wilted. The entire Malmö team, per whoscored, dropped nearly half a rating point on average from the 65th minute on. Otherwise, the performance should hardly be over-analyzed—Ibrahimovic played with fervor and Blaise Matuidi bagged two assists, but Edinson Cavani was still muted and tactically, things were the norm.
Against ESTAC Troyes, Blanc showed an uncharacteristic desire to change up the order of things. The relegation favorites, still winless at the bottom of Ligue 1, were sure to provide little threat for the reigning French champions, so it was as good a time as any to try out a 4-4-2 formation. While shifting Lucas Moura and Di Maria onto their natural touchlines was a welcome change, the midfield just wasn’t on. Where the Argentine enjoyed business as usual, drifting around space and pinging the occasional pinpoint long ball through (netting two assists), Lucas enjoyed fewer touches than anyone on the pitch bar Cavani. It was a night that will surely trouble the young Brazilian, despite the 4-1 scoreline. He typically excels as a winger in Blanc’s typical 4-3-3, but was forced to use his starting time in an unfamiliar situation. He is a direct player, one that moves forward the moment he has the ball but not nearly as much without it. One must wonder if he will find his rhythm in a starting role, otherwise, he may have to settle in as the ‘super-sub’. On a brighter note, the biggest headline was youngster Jean-Kevin Augustin scoring his first league goal for the club. Generally limited to late cameos, Augustin snapped at his chance, adding aggression and energy to the Parisian forward line. The 18-year-old is hotly tipped to be a first-team regular, and fans must surely be hoping that Blanc integrates him over the waning Ezequiel Lavezzi. His aggression on the front lines is incredibly refreshing, and clearly he’s not half bad from distance. The only reason his outside-the-box beauty won’t be on more highlight reels is that Kurzawa had done one better.
The following fixture against high-flying Angers, now second in Ligue 1, was a confusing one. The newcomers to the French top flight were set to try to avoid the drop, but instead, a rock-solid defense and a good eye for the counter has led them to legitimate contention for a European place. The game itself was frenetic and at times shapeless, and ultimately ended scoreless. The hosts denied the Parisians repeatedly and some may cling to that as an example that the result was unjust. In the end, though, woodwork is hardly an excuse. Angers gained their position in the league on their defensive prowess, having conceded only one more goal than PSG this season. This match was again concerning for Lucas, who spent most of his time as a ball-starved inverted winger, and Cavani, who managed 34 touches across 90 minutes.
The OGC Nice game should have been a much more exciting fixture, perhaps warranting its own recap, with the southern France outfit also punching above their weight in terms of financial clout. Claude Puel’s men had built up a reputation as a solid attacking team, and the clash had the potential for high-tempo, exciting play. Unfortunately, Niklas Hult’s 42nd minute red card put the match to bed in no uncertain terms. It’s a shame, because before that, the football had been exquisite; this was no doubt down to Ibrahimovic playing his best match this season. Two goals and an assist—the big Swede played a part in all three PSG goals, and his contribution to buildup play was superb. This was not only after the sending off—he was the heart of the side for the entirety of his time on the pitch. He was called on to compensate for a particularly uninspiring Cavani (notice a theme here?), whose first touch was consistently atrocious and whose goal is mostly down to the hard work of Zlatan.
This forward dichotomy, unfortunately, was an altogether too common sight. Early on this season, hopes for Cavani were high. The Uruguayan ended the last campaign superbly and seemed to have a constant eye for goal, even though he saw less than half of the ball than almost anyone else on the pitch. As his scoring run ended, his lack of contribution to buildup play became more and more conspicuous. This month has been particularly unkind to Cavani, despite him finding the net twice. Finishing is the typical criticism of a forward—it’s never enough for fans, expecting everyone to put away all their chances and end up with Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line. While Cavani’s finishing certainly could be better relative to the amount of chances he’s given from the likes of Di Maria, Blanc’s system seems to be so anathema to a poacher. When Cavani isn’t in his own half chasing the ball, he’s in the box waiting for it. His movement, without a doubt, is world-class. There is no contesting that. But the possession system that PSG are so used to, modeled on Barcelona’s, still lacks for the typical skilled, pacey inside forward on the left—the likes of David Villa, Neymar, arguably Lavezzi on his day. Cavani is not that man. Cavani’s best goals are earned by his movement, but the hole he leaves on the left or in the middle is taking its toll on the team. Maybe he needs a spell out, but certainly he’s not challenging Ibrahimovic on form for the spot in the middle. Even as a well-versed critic of the Swede’s undroppable status, he has certainly earned that this month.
The midfield has evolved more than anyone could have expected after the match at the Santiago Bernabeu, mostly thanks to the lithe, curly-haired golden boy that is Rabiot. What a run it has been for the young Frenchman! He’s arguably deserving of his debut for the national side, particularly in place of Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko. Rabiot has endured tough times, perpetually contentious thanks to his mother-agent and his perceived entitlement. His red card in the opener of this season seemed to spell the beginning of another disappointing season for the Parisian youth. And yet, in the face of losing Marco Verratti—the talisman of this PSG side—Rabiot has risen to the occasion in every way imaginable. With an eye for goal, an aerial presence, and vision beyond his years, the youngster has been reconfirming his talent. So what happens when Verratti returns? No one envisions dropping Il Gufetto, and of course, Thiago Motta is a stalwart of the side. My opinion? Drop Matuidi. The more veteran Frenchman has played nearly every minute of football in these past few fixtures, not only under Blanc but Didier Deschamps as well. He needs a rest to recapture his scintillating best—when coming in fresh during the beginning of the season, he carried the team on his back. Until Matuidi can consistently show up with that quality again, Rabiot hardly deserves to be dropped. He could play in the left of midfield, with Verratti sliding into his usual place and Motta behind, with Blanc’s general system preserved. Rabiot is better technically as well, and that might have a positive effect on Cavani if still playing on the left.
The fullback situation, meanwhile, has developed considerably in the past month. Serge Aurier is, without a doubt, the starting right-back. Gregory Van der Wiel put a shift in during the Côte d’Ivoire international’s injury, but was repeatedly ripped apart against Malmö despite his assist. Yet, while Aurier seemed unstoppable initially, it must be said that errors in his game have surfaced. His added width and stamina on the touchline are still invaluable, and in terms of sheer physical presence, he adds much more than Van der Wiel. In terms of the final ball though, he has a lot to work on. Simply put, Aurier has forgotten how to cross. The Dutchman’s ability to find the far post, while not consistent enough to warrant a place in the starting XI, has at least manifested itself several times this season. He is level with Aurier on both assists and chances created despite half the minutes played. More directly, two of Van der Wiel’s three assists have been crosses, while none of Aurier’s are. Though the former Toulouse man is a crowd favorite, and truthfully his starting situation is not at risk, he has had several high-profile scuffs in the past week and he must improve this element of his game if he hopes to be a top fullback. His eight bookings are also a concern, but perhaps his combative nature is beneficial in the long-term.
On the other side of the defense, the topic turns bittersweet. Maxwell is a long-beloved figure at the Parc des Princes, but realistically, age has begun to catch up with him. Layvin Kurzawa is not a successor per se; he’s a very different kind of left-back, with more energy and more stamina going forward. Maxwell’s relative lack of physicality has left him with world-class football intelligence, often playing as a wide midfielder and retaining possession higher up the pitch. Where Aurier opens another route entirely for the attack on the right, Kurzawa can nearly accomplish the same at times on the left. He has work to do on his first touch, timing his runs, and perfecting his crosses—but the potential is there, genuinely, and he serves as a more consistent and frenetic attacking player on the left. If he can outgrow positioning errors, similar to Aurier last season, he can add a new dimension to this team.
Lastly, central defense. There’s almost nothing to say here in comparison to the other dilemmas—Presnel Kimpembe, in his sole appearance this season, has shown that he is perfectly capable of playing against Ligue 1 opposition. David Luiz and Marquinhos are relatively interchangeable, with the former solidly the favorite for the left-sided center-back role, but Marquinhos has put in his fair share of quality appearances as well. Both are solid, with an emphasis on playing the ball and winning the ball higher up the pitch. Then there is O Monstro. Thiago Silva has played more football than any other Parisian player this season, has been booked once (fairly soft), and is in absolutely meteoric form. The Brazilian is unstoppable. He has reached the peak of his game at 31, and few center-backs in the world can honestly claim to be on his level. With news coming out recently that he’d like to retire at Paris, the Parc faithful could not be happier with their captain.
There are more factors, certainly. Javier Pastore will return soon and I will be among many clamoring to see him involved. Ahead of the next run of fixtures, though, beginning with Donetsk, PSG have much to look forward to. The team is finding a rhythm, despite outliers—the squad is capable, and it has strength in depth. Now, the goal is the Champions League. That chase begins anew on Tuesday.