Paris Saint-Germain move into first place in Group A of the UEFA Champions League after a 2-2 draw against Arsenal last Wednesday night at the Emirates Stadium. It was a very interesting encounter but largely followed the theme of the first leg in Paris as supporters wonder how Unai Emery’s squad didn’t defeat the Gunners after outplaying them for large stretches in both matches.
In the buildup to this crucial fixture, I wrote about how important it was for Emery to get PSG to leave North London with a win. However, given all the unforeseen circumstances that surrounded the match, particularly with injuries and legal issues (Serge Aurier), it’s fair to say the Spaniard did an excellent job.
A victory was the desired result and unfortunately, the draw doesn’t do much for PSG’s reputation around Europe, as most will only remember the result and not the circumstances around the match. To their credit, the performance of the team as a whole will go a long way to soften the media criticism of Emery and give the Parisian faithful something to look forward to in the knockout round of the Champions League.
Emery’s tactical genius was brought to the fore once again. If you remember, in the first leg against Arsenal, the former Sevilla manager put seemingly unmatchable pieces together to get a result. This time he went a step further than the first leg – where he also notable started Blaise Matuidi on the left of the attack – by placing both Thiago Motta and Grzegorz Krychowiak together in what seemed to be an effort to kill the game before it even started. It worked brilliantly, especially in defense as Arsenal only managed one shot on target (and it could have been better if not for the Poland international’s lack of match fitness).
One of the things I said Emery must do when he arrived was to create a plan B, which the team clearly lacked under former manager Laurent Blanc, but the 3-time European winner has gone on to create what I’d call plan C, D, and so on. His know-how for European competitions, which was repeatedly mentioned upon his arrival last summer, cannot be overstated and the performance on Wednesday went a long way to prove it.
Emery seems to slowly be getting PSG able to play with a resilience similar to Atletico Madrid. They’re able to grind out results as well as allow the players the freedom to revert back to their more natural possession-style system if need be. Still, while arguments could be made that PSG would have won if their full squad was available, the game further highlighted the key area Paris must improve going forward.
PSG NEED GOALS FROM ELSEWHERE
This is something that has been discussed many times this season, even by Emery himself. It doesn’t require much thought or tactical astuteness to point to Edinson Cavani as the reason why PSG didn’t win either game against Arsenal. But, the fact that this is becoming a recurring theme in every big game this season might show more of a deeper problem for PSG than just the Uruguayan’s shortcomings.
— Guillaume L. (@GuillaumL_) November 23, 2016
The overreliance on Cavani will only hold Les Parisiens back from reaching their goals in Europe and simply swapping him for another striker next year may not solve the problem either. Cavani has managed a very respectable goal-to-game ratio this season and with 16 goals in as many games for PSG, it’s hard to find fault with El Matador. Quite frankly, PSG may be expecting too much from the former Napoli man, with pressure placed on him to almost win every big match by himself. Look at other top teams around Europe, nearly every top striker at these clubs has a backup option who can shoulder some of the burden when it comes to scoring goals. No forward in the world can score in every game and PSG simply need goals from elsewhere.
In truth, watching Cavani miss easy scoring chances is painful to watch because his movement off the ball is so brilliant. If he was to somehow figure out how to match his finishing with his movement and anticipation, it would definitely put him in the discussion for FIFA Ballon d’Or. And on a lighter note, that’s slightly above his payroll when you consider what Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are currently earning (not to suggest he needs a raise…that can wait).
Both performances against Arsenal have gone to show Emery is capable of doing great things with PSG, but, if the team is to move a step further and accomplish their goals this season, more players must step up. All the tools are there to build a great squad and the future looks bright.
Photograph by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images