It is common for most sports fans to get caught up in narratives and player “schticks.” In the modern 24-hour news cycle, particularly in sports, it’s easy for media outlets to put out enough articles and content to make you start doubting what you are seeing with your own eyes. To a point that you start to believe in the propaganda being dished out by these outlets. We see this in the political arena as well and the music industry in a micro level. An artist can release a mediocre record, but if radio stations are spinning the tracks 15 times per day and you hear it enough times, the record begins to sound pretty good. It’s a fallacy in that sense and as it relates to sports, it’s a huge misconception of how we evaluate players and teams based on what media outlet we’re getting the information from.
When I read articles related to Paris Saint-Germain that are written in a generalized format, I always pay attention to what narrative the writer ties to a particular player. Usually, Neymar Jr. is initially praised for his talent, and then that slowly turns into him being a diva or some nonsensical rumor linking him to Real Madrid with no concrete sources given. Edinson Cavani is pegged as a world-class striker that misses a bunch of easy scoring opportunities and can’t lead a team as the number 9. Or, Thiago Silva was once one of the best defenders in football but is mentally weak and isn’t fit to be a captain, as well as being the reason the Brazil national team got destroyed by Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. These types of narratives are a constant and it’s become easier for me to filter out non-substantive articles based on the headlines. It gets to be a false narrative and irresponsible when I see Paris midfielder, Giovani Lo Celso being referred to in context, as the promising talent for the team’s future, but was completely dominated in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid.
To be clear, this is a fair assessment for that single match, and I’ll indulge into those reasons later. Three months after that match though, we have to be consistent and evaluate his current form. Casual football fans who read articles and listen to certain podcasts could possibly perceive Lo Celso as some weak-minded midfielder who couldn’t perform up to par with the two-time European champions. Those of us who watch Ligue 1 and are supporters of PSG know the Argentina international is far from being weak-minded and has been one of the more consistent players for Les Parisiens since they crashed out of the Champions League.
With the domestic title inevitably wrapped up at the time and no more Champions League football to play, you sort of expected Unai Emery’s men to casually stroll through the remainder of the season, in addition to the World Cup this summer in Russia. The disinterest from the team has been evident in their last eight matches in which three of them have ended in a draw against AS Saint-Étienne, En Avant de Guingamp, and Amiens SC–and most recently the 2-0 loss to Stade Rennais F.C. in what was Thiago Motta’s last home match in a PSG shirt. The Ligue 1 champions celebrated the title after this match and that helped PSG supporters at the Parc des Princes quickly forget about the abysmal performance they just witnessed. Paris narrowly pulled out a 1-0 victory over a stifling FC Girondins de Bordeaux team on April 22, and the lone goal-scorer in the match was none other than Lo Celso.
Aside from the marquee names that PSG has and can buy in future transfer windows, Lo Celso gives the Ligue 1 champions an additional sense of hope and a solid piece to a foundation that they can rebuild the midfield from. On the pitch, Lo Celso moves like a Cadillac, maneuvering through a congested expressway. Smooth in his pace and ball control has impeccable footwork with a deceptive burst of speed, and an ambitious shot taker who can fire from either foot. I see a little bit of Javier Pastore and Marco Verratti in his crafty style of play, but he also possesses a hard-nosed gritty attitude like Motta that is only visible when he’s on the pitch.
The former Club Atlético Rosario Central man has been relatively smart and efficient in his aggression compared to some of the top midfielders in Europe that have a knack for playing with an aggressive edge. In domestic matches, the young midfielder averages 2.3 tackles per match with only 21 fouls and 2 yellow cards all season to show for it. His 42 percent successful tackle rate in league matches is higher than Nemanja Matić (33 percent), Verratti (31 percent), Radja Nainggolan (35 percent), and Sergio Busquets (35 percent) in their respective leagues. Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro and Liverpool FC midfielder James Milner have equally been efficient as Lo Celso in successful tackles at 42 percent, and for the 22-year-old Argentinian, that is great company to be in.
In admiration of Lo Celso’s work rate and his tendency to go for tackles and fight for possession, this tends to put him out of position and leave the defense susceptible in trying to cover a counter-attack and his midfield partners who are higher up the pitch trying to keep possession and create scoring chances. Physically, he needs to be much stronger if he wants to play in big matches against the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, and Casemiro. In the first leg of the Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid, Lo Celso was thoroughly outmatched against Zinedine Zidane’s midfield trio. We surely can make the argument that he was playing out of position in a defensive midfield role–PSG must address this in the upcoming transfer window.
It seemed as if PSG made their only move in the January transfer window by bringing in journeyman Lassana Diarra, if not for anything else, to play as the defensive mid in a big match once he was up to speed. Emery’s decision to start Lo Celso in a key midfield role against Real Madrid was risky to many, but also deemed courageous by a few. I was more on the side of the former. Emery hadn’t been gutsy or made any significant tactical changes that he was willing to die on all season, and I found it faulty that in this match he chose to “show some balls.” I called his bluff after that match and as expected, in the second leg, he reverted to his safe starting lineup, notably bringing back captain Silva after controversially leaving him out of the first match.
Placing Lo Celso in the defensive midfield role was risky, but the Argentine’s workman-like approach wasn’t going to discourage him from going out there and trying his best. His best just wasn’t good enough at the time, particularly against what is recognized as the best midfield trio in all of football. Lo Celso was progressing well before the Madrid tie and even after that hiccup, he has continued to play well and is becoming more comfortable in the PSG midfield. In 31 league matches and logging over 1500 minutes, Lo Celso has become a revelation and is playing consistently good football as the World Cup looms just a month away. Lo Celso is a natural attacking midfielder who has the talent to play in any of the midfield roles. If there is anything to give Emery credit for when it comes to Lo Celso’s progression, it’s that he gave him the game time and opportunities to be exposed to the defensive midfield role, which only makes him more versatile on a much broader scale.
Lo Celso has hit a consistent stride that many PSG supporters have been waiting to see since his arrival in July 2016. He has scored 4 goals in his last 6 matches and has been a bright spot in what has been “the countdown to the World Cup tour” from Emery’s men. In the latest Coupe de France match, Paris were up against an inspired Les Herbiers VF side from the French third division. This was a situation where PSG could have routed them and gotten shamed for it, or they could’ve lost and gotten ridiculed for losing to an amateur team. Somehow, PSG came out unscathed from what most thought would be a lose/lose situation. Lo Celso was the Man of the Match and got a 7/10 from L’Équipe and Le Parisien, as he was the driving force into breaking down Les Herbiers repressive approach on defense. Lo Celso opened the scoring line in the 24th minute, but Paris had to continue to fight and struggle throughout the match until Cavani put the match away in the 74th minute. It was Lo Celso who was pressing all the right buttons, tracking back on defense and made things happen when it mattered most.
I don’t get caught up in “football Twitter,” generalized articles, or talking heads on major sports networks who truly don’t follow Ligue 1. The eye test alone will have you marveling at the ability Lo Celso has, and I recognize he still has a long way to go to becoming world class. With the arrival of Neymar and the growing brand and competition of the French league, more eyes will be on PSG in league matches in the near future. For the moment though, Champions League football is the only time casual fans care to watch PSG, and that to a fault is where all their perceptions become reality. Lo Celso is a gem who was prematurely pitted against the best in the world but hasn’t looked back since. There will be a close eye kept on his progression from pundits and supporters, and rightfully so. But the way he was able to brush off a poor showing in Madrid and continued to work hard and perform at a high level tells me he’s going to be around for a while, and more importantly, he’s proving to be one of Paris Saint-Germain’s smarter transfer window acquisitions in recent years.