Earlier this week, after a mercifully brief rumor mill, Paris Saint-Germain announced the transfer of long-serving midfielder Blaise Matuidi to Juventus FC. An emotional series of PSG tweets marks the occasion with the simple hashtag #MerciBlaise, flashing back to highlights of his six-year stint in the capital. Yet his departure is bittersweet.
Blaise Matuidi rejoint officiellement la Juventus Turin après 6 ans au club 👏
— Paris Saint-Germain (@PSG_inside) August 18, 2017
Many PSG fans, myself included, had turned their backs on him by the end of last season. It’s not hard to see why, either. Unai Emery’s system favored quicker transitions, which the team greatly struggled to adapt to, and Edinson Cavani’s newfound joy in the middle made Blaisou‘s trademark runs forward either cluttered or haphazardly wide. His physique had clearly declined, if not in strength then clearly in stamina, and his technical ability didn’t make up for it. As our good friend Jonathan Johnson has put it, Matuidi’s exit is on a disappointing note, but very well-timed.
But you probably already know that. I’m proposing that it didn’t really have to be this way.
Matuidi, even in his days at AS Saint-Etienne, was always a player synonymous with tenacity and aggression. Fans of our PSG Talking podcast will certainly note that these are traits that the current starting XI really lack. Marco Verratti has both but no physicality, Adrien Rabiot is elegant and physical in equal measure but lacks some defensive instinct, and Thiago Motta is essentially kept shambling along by some dark magic. The club brought in Grzegorz Krychowiak last season to plug that hole, but his confusing and tragic situation in Paris shows little sign of improving. So, with the season already beginning, PSG lack a proper defensive presence in midfield. The irony is that the club has just sold the last good one it had:
Way back in the 2012-13 season, Carlo Ancelotti’s second (and final, as he’d leave for Real Madrid at the end of it) season in charge of the capital club, Matuidi was the sentinel. This was the peak of his defensive power in PSG’s midfield, playing aggressively in a largely ball-winning role and laying the ball off to more creative teammates ahead of him when it came time to pass. While the physical advantage of being a few years younger certainly helps, it’s not as if Blaisou is physically fried at just 30–he works far too hard for that. Unfortunately, Matuidi’s own rise to stardom in Laurent Blanc’s 3-man midfield essentially sealed his premature decline.
When Blanc took over as PSG manager following Ancelotti’s departure, he quickly cemented a trademark possession-friendly style that centered around the marvelous mostly-Italian duo of Motta and Verratti. He squeezed every ounce of talent out of young Marco, modeling him on Xavi and Motta on Sergio Busquets. Matuidi was no Andrés Iniesta, of course (and Blanc no Pep Guardiola) but his appetite for the game was impossible to suppress. He forced his way into the team in a box-to-box role, roaming the entire pitch and contributing on both ends. This begs comparison to current Bleus star N’Golo Kante, but Blaise in his prime was far more happy to attack, owning the entire left side of the pitch at times and still managing to get back and defend. Sure, he couldn’t dribble, but he made that irrelevant.
This transformation is a credit to Blanc’s coaching on one hand. Matuidi is a player who really shouldn’t be anywhere near a possession side, but Blanc saw the potential to really get the most out of his best years, and that he did, with Blaise playing a crucial role in the record-breaking 2015-16 season. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore that this role was short-lived and anomalous. Matuidi’s box-to-box role hinged on the sheer physicality that the Frenchman could offer. His slowdown was impossible to ignore, even in small doses. It didn’t matter if he still had two lungs left if his job was to have three. Ordinary work-rate would not cut it.
Indeed the massive difference in stats shows that Matuidi’s role last year was especially unsustainable in Emery’s team. What good is a box-to-box midfielder when he’s defensively contributing less than half of what he used to as a ball-winner, and not earning his keep on the other end of the pitch? PSG might have tried to play him deeper in midfield, but his lack of technical skill would still expose his depleted stamina–and some reports have said that if he remains in Paris he doesn’t want to lose his attacking freedom. For the player he’s become, there’s really no place for him in the squad. Rabiot lacks some of his energy but in terms of linking up on the ball he’s far and away the best option.
Still, for a short moment in time, Blaisou could quite honestly do everything on the pitch. His burnout in Paris will mean he will have to transform at Juventus but if his past career is anything to go by, he’ll force his way into that side.