PSG Spectacular in Win Over Angers

Paris Saint-Germain responded confidently to claims that they were not entertaining with an impudent 5-1 win over falling Angers SCO.

Recent criticism has not been unfounded. In their five fixtures of 2016, PSG had yet to score more than twice against any team. A grinding win against amateurs Wasquehal and two extremely scrappy fixtures against Toulouse underlined a poor stretch for the capital club. Despite being the last undefeated team in Europe’s top five leagues, the fans have come to expect scintillating performances. Supporters come for entertainment and energy—if Barcelona can win 5-0 every other week, why not Paris?

Some of that may be exaggerated. Ligue 1 averages 2.4 goals per game, lower than even notoriously defensive Serie A, which sits at 2.6. That’s not to say the league is uninteresting or worse off, but it is among the most physical and defensive in Europe. In the more open games of La Liga, high scorelines are commonplace. Yet, this Parisian side saw out a 5-1 league win over rivals Olympique Lyon just last month, and a 5-0 league win over Toulouse in November. Some complacency had surely crept in if TFC could suddenly hold their own against the champions.

Virtually everything changed Saturday. Angers had previously conceded only 12 goals in 21 games, and the newly promoted team had proved they were a legitimate threat—at least on the defensive end. The Angevins previously held the Parisians to a 0-0 away draw, frustrating the reigning French champions through solid defensive organization.  While the start of the game saw much of the same, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s opener in the 32nd minute signaled a change. The big Swede, flanked by two speedy South Americans on the wing and the occasional run from Blaise Matuidi, latched onto a pass from midfield and hammered in a shot that took a fortunate deflection.

In crept the style. Not since the 6-0 win against EA Guingamp last May have Les Parisiens put on such an immaculate display of football. Despite the absences of two high-profile playmakers in Marco Verratti and Javier Pastore, as well as the conspicuous benching of Edinson Cavani, the fluidity was felt across the entirety of the pitch.

The game was particularly a fantastic turnaround for both Lucas Moura, who would love to dispel his ‘super-sub’ reputation, and the recently out-of-form Matuidi.

For Lucas, a more central role allowed him to use his close control to keep himself from getting crowded out. The modern criticism of the “10” role—that is, the central playmaker—is that they can be easily marked out of the game, and the entire team essentially shut down by the removal of the central creator. The brilliance of the Lucas-Ibrahimovic-Angel Di Maria trio is that all of them are essentially capable of playing that role, interchanging frequently in order to create space for the others. While he has played some of his best football on the right wing, Lucas’ role as a young Sao Paolo youth product was in the middle. The positional freedom has elevated the Brazilian to a new level, already matching his goal tally from the entirety of last season. Indeed, for the first time since his second season in France, Lucas appears to be genuinely growing as a player. He has clearly added a springing jump to his game and a good bit of physicality, evidenced by his holdup play in his assist for Di Maria’s first. If he can find consistency as part of the starting lineup, Cavani will find himself frozen out.

That said, Lucas still relies on the quality of the team around him. The departure of Di Maria—a man who genuinely elevates everyone he plays with—at the same time as the entry of Benjamin Stambouli and Cavani definitely showed how the Brazilian suffers from having someone not quick enough to play with him, rather than feed off him. That did not stop the speedster from lobbing a good ball in toward Cavani in the late stages of the game, but the usually aerially dominant Uruguayan did little to try and meet it. One must imagine that if Ibrahimovic or Di Maria were in that position, they’d make an effort to bring another teammate into play. Cavani tends to see himself as the end route.

On Matuidi’s part, it seemed that offensive freedom was interpreted as a license to ease off defensively. Matuidi has been recovering the ball less and less for the past few seasons, going from a full-fledged defensive midfielder four years ago at 12.5 tackles per game to only 7.5 this season. Laurent Blanc enjoyed giving Matuidi the liberty to be a pseudo-winger, and that paid dividends in the early goings of the season before the team came into its own. Unfortunately, the Frenchman, a cult hero to many PSG fans, had been clearly declining in recent weeks, not quite doing what he’s best at defensively nor using his offensive liberty wisely. Even with the frequent excuse that he could not play with Cavani in the same space as him, he had hardly stepped up in the Uruguayan’s absence. Until today, that is.

“Big Bad” Blaise Matuidi earned three assists, back to his best offensively, and yet he was deployed in a far more defensive manner than in recent weeks. Blanc’s insistence on using a player with such propensity for defensive work as a makeshift winger was ill-conceived. PSG’s possession game, much like any other possession game in world football, is built on ferocious pressing, which Matuidi is key to. Blaise won eight balls in total, per That number hovers just above his average overall, but it’s also higher than any other PSG player on the night by some margin. He was ever-present, harrying Angers whenever they attempted a drive forward. His assist to Ibrahimovic is a lovely example of this—he started that move by winning the ball back in the offensive third.

Even Gregory van der Wiel enjoyed an uncharacteristically complete game. Though still far from getting a glance at Aurier’s spot, his defensive work was genuinely solid. The Dutch national usually prefers to live in the opposition half, often a liability on the break. While it may be fair to say that Angers aren’t the biggest attacking threat, he coped very well with counterattacks when they did happen. As always with Van der Wiel, his game shines in the attacking phase. Earning one brilliant (if a bit fortunate) assist after a flick-on by Di Maria down the touchline, he then enjoyed a part in the best goal of the game, attacking Matuidi’s ball over the defense to smash it into an empty net.

Di Maria for his part enjoys the honor of being the first PSG player to do the ‘double-double,’ with 11 goals and 12 assists in league play. While Matuidi earned the most assists on the night, Di Maria scored two and had the pass before the assist to all three other goals. The Argentina international at his best is immaculate. A truly complete player, arguably the best forward in Parisian colors in recent years. His ability to play direct football makes him even more crucial than Ibrahimovic, though the trio of those two plus Lucas seems to be Blanc’s new favorite (at least while Pastore’s injured). Indeed, Cavani was one of several game-killing substitutions, and his inability to contribute to overall play does seem to spell the end for him in Paris. Expect a summer departure.

On the subject of injuries, as BeIN Sports’ English commentator cheekily noted, “don’t count on seeing the Kimpembe-Aurier partnership again anytime soon.” He’s certainly not wrong, with the 20-year-old Presnel Kimpembe fifth-choice centre back behind the Ivorian, himself a converted full-back. Both are serviceable, but it would be a nightmare to go into a Champions’ League fixture without the services of at least one senior center-back. Thankfully the legion of Parisian injured—including Thiago Silva, Pastore, Verratti, and Marquinhos—should soon return. Blanc announced ahead of Wednesday’s league cup match against Toulouse that there were no long-term injuries, evidenced by Di Maria’s strong return here. Certainly, most fans will be wanting to see a full squad ahead of the Chelsea in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League.

Another combination PSG fans won’t be hoping to see again will be the midfield of Thiago Motta-Stambouli-Matuidi. Despite brilliance in the early goings from Matuidi, much of that great play comes from his defensive contribution and the lack of creativity from this midfield killed the momentum of a genius performance for 70 minutes. The young Adrien Rabiot will surely be pleased the side suffered so much in his absence, though Verratti and Pastore can see themselves happily slotting in once they shake off their injuries.

As we mentioned earlier, PSG host Toulouse on Wednesday, the third time the two teams faced off in 11 days. With the Chelsea game now just a matter of weeks away, Les Parisiens will be hoping to leave behind the gritty nature of their previous five fixtures. The joy in the way the capital club played on Saturday—that’s what Laurent Blanc will want to recapture in the coming days.

Tags Adrien Rabiot Angel Di Maria Angers Blaise Matuidi Gregory van der Wiel Javier Pastore Laurent Blanc Ligue 1 Lucas Moura Marco Verratti Presnel Kimpembe Serge Aurier Thiago Motta Thiago Silva Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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