Player Spotlight: Thomas Meunier

In a sports ecosystem full of nutmegs, posterizing dunks, one-handed catches, and ankle-breaking crossovers, I have a consequential appreciation of the fundamentally sound athletes who simply get the job done the old-fashioned way. In no way do I ever want to come off as the “proper football” purist, or the “back in the day” guy. We’ve become accustomed to seeing the best players in every major sport possess the ability to do special things with a ball, its become a norm in some respect. But, players like Paris Saint-Germain right-back Thomas Meunier exemplify the style of play that every fan, of any age across the sports spectrum, can appreciate. He is a hard worker, extremely focused, consistent, quality, and all of that without the flash.

The right-back position at PSG has been through its ups and downs over the past few seasons. After the arrival of current Tottenham Hotspur Serge Aurier in 2014, Paris seemed to have found their right-back of the future. Aurier was in constant competition with Netherlands international Gregory van der Wiel and current defensive midfielder Marquinhos under former manager Laurent Blanc during the 2015-16 season. Despite the competition, Aurier continued to perform as advertised and dominated his opponents—ensuring he would be the main man at right-back for PSG.

The arrival of Meunier in 2016 added another element of uncertainty for PSG at the right-back position. Meunier had his doubts about lack of playing time before joining PSG, but the opportunity was there for the taking. After sharing game time with Aurier during his first season in Paris, the Belgian’s consistency impressed then manager Unai Emery, which led to him becoming first-choice right-back in the UEFA Champions League. Although Meunier outplayed Aurier, PSG fans and pundits were not quite sold on him. He didn’t play with the same explosiveness as Aurier, nor did he possess the pace and physicality that Aurier imposed on opponents.

The Ivory Coast international dug himself in a hole with is off-the-pitch issues that unfortunately overshadowed his immense talent. The infamous Periscope video where Aurier insulted his PSG manager and teammates was the stain that could never be removed. Along with an alleged dust-up with French police, and a decline in productivity on the pitch, Aurier’s time with the capital club had run its course.

The uncertainty at right-back for PSG carried into the 2017-18 season. On July 12, 2017, Dani Alves joined PSG on a free transfer from Juventus FC. With Aurier having moved on to play in North London, another battle for the right-back position surfaced between a young Belgium fullback looking to prove himself with a big club and a football legend who despite his age, is considered one of the best right-backs in the world. Not only did Alves have the upper hand largely due to an immaculate resume, but he was also coming off a Champions League run that saw his Juventus side make it to the final where they ultimately lost to Real Madrid.

Soon after the arrival of Alves, Meunier told reporters, “I’m going to keep improving. I don’t think that I start with an advantage over him, so I’m going to have to work. I have nothing to lose.” It’s a daunting task for a young player when your club brings in a legend in the sport that also happens to play your position. Not the ideology for Meunier though—this was all par for the course. A more subordinate challenge that Meunier faced was entrenched in a rumored narrative of the “Brazilian contingent” at PSG. At the time, this included Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Lucas Moura, Dani Alves, and more importantly, Neymar Jr. who had just arrived. The assumption was that to keep Neymar happy in Paris, he would prefer his compatriots on the pitch with him, especially in the most important matches.

The rumors seemed nonsensical at the time, but as the season went along, and Emery stuck with the aging Brazilian even after a string of poor performances, that narrative started to look less like a stretch of the imagination. Although, Alves got off to a hot start scoring a brilliant free-kick in his PSG debut in the France Super Cup against AS Monaco. In a highly anticipated Champions League match against FC Bayern Munich, Alves opened the scoring in the second minute of the match, in what would be a dominant 3-0 win for Paris. Alves was not able to keep this form during the rest of the season though, as his age became a transparent issue in his play, but maybe this was blind loyalty from Emery to a football legend—or the “Brazilian contingent” rumors were onto something.

Subsequently, even with a healthy Meunier patiently waiting to make an impact, Emery continued to feature an out-of-form Alves in all of PSG’s Champions League matches in the 2017-18 season. Meunier took advantage of his 16 Ligue 1 starts, going on to score four goals, compared to just one all season in 23 domestic starts for Alves. The professionalism and patience shown by Meunier while taking a backseat to Alves was admirable and showed a lot of character to the Parisian fanbase—but a simple “like” on a rivals Instagram photo didn’t sit well with PSG supporters.

Meunier upset the Collectif Ultras Paris when he liked an Instagram post of PSG rivals Olympique de Marseille, praising their fans atmosphere at the Orange Vélodrome during a UEFA Europa League match against RB Leipzig. By refusing to apologize, the Belgian’s stubbornness further escalated the situation. The Ultras felt Meunier needed to show respect to the club, fans, and their history prior to Qatar Sports Investments. The situation went further during matches against En Avant de Guingamp and Les Herbiers VF, where the Ultras booed the Belgian as soon as he ran out onto the pitch to warm up. They created tifos regurgitating that every player that wears the PSG shirt must be aware of the club’s history and respect everything the badge stands for.

This was an intense period between players and fans that played out in front of the French media and went from bad to worse. Insert Alves, who did an interview during an international break saying that he would return to FC Barcelona “tomorrow if they called.” And to a much lesser degree, Paris fans were annoyed with an injured Neymar for posting an Instagram photo of him playing poker at home during a match against Monaco. Even with the latter situation being a little redundant, Meunier and other PSG players were surely in an awkward state with one of the more passionate fan bases in European football.

Controversy was back at the doorstep of PSG’s right-backs due to off-the-pitch issues. To add insult to injury, the right-back position took another blow when Alves hurt his knee during a match against Les Herbiers. The injury would eventually rule him out for the rest of the season and more dramatically for Alves, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. A huge blow for Alves, his compatriots, and the entire country of Brazil, but an opportunity for Meunier to seize the right-back position in the upcoming season, as a detached knee ligament would keep Alves sidelined well into the first few months of the upcoming season.

Meunier had no interest in waiting for the upcoming season to make his case as PSG’s first-choice right-back. In the World Cup, Belgium had their best run to date with a third-place finish. Largely due to a fast and physical starting lineup with a relentless counter-attack. With Meunier involved at the beginning, middle, and finish of every attack, constantly applying pressure on the right flank, Belgium’s golden generation led all nations with 16 goals in the World Cup. An 82 percent passing rating, two assists, 13 successful tackles, and five interceptions in the tournament saw Meunier’s stock rise in Europe and indisputably garnered some respect from the hierarchy once he returned to Paris.

The return to Paris for the 27-year-old defender has been significantly inspirational and clutch for Paris Saint-Germain this season. After getting his legs back from a grueling World Cup campaign, Meunier is starting to show once again why he is PSG’s best fullback altogether. Injuries to Alves and Layvin Kurzawa certainly make him the most experienced with youth academy products Colin Dagba, Stanley N’Soki, and new arrival Juan Bernat helping him hold down the fort. Even when Alves and Kurzawa return, Meunier will be head and shoulders above them with his current form, and certainly based off what we have seen of the former when they have been healthy.

So far, in the seven league matches that Meunier has played, he already has two goals and two assists, while averaging two tackles per match. His ability to be in the right position and to make great decisions in those positions in invaluable and is at the core of a much more consistent Paris team under German tactician Thomas Tuchel. The only loss for Tuchel’s men thus far has come in the Champions League against Liverpool FC, a match that was decided by a 91st-minute goal. Paris had to climb back after being down 2-0 early in the match, and right before halftime, Meunier scored a pivotal goal for PSG to make things interesting again. The goal was significant to a tougher mentality this squad has adopted under Tuchel, continuing to grind during difficult matches. It was also a goal that gave Meunier an opportunity to win back the support of the Ultras who traveled to Anfield that day.

After scoring the goal, Meunier urgently ran towards the traveling Ultras in the stands, pointing at the PSG crest on his Jordan Brand shirt, in his own way lamenting his past decisions while showing respect and honoring what the badge stands for. That goal was for his and the Ultras relationship, it meant a lot to the player, the fans, and the evolution of that match. Even after the loss, Meunier took to his Instagram with three pictures showing him pointing to the PSG crest, his shot on goal, and the Ultras with their scarfs raised high at Anfield with a caption that read, “We are Fu**ING PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN.” A passionate post from a normally low maintenance guy, reiterating his understanding of what the badge means to the fan base.

Certainly a rollercoaster ride for Meunier in his first few years in Paris, but his current form and consistency projects calmness and normality for PSG at the right-back position for the first time in what feels like forever. Alves will be returning soon from his injury and will get his share of matches under Tuchel, who shows love to all of his players. But, it should be noted that Meunier will lead the charge in the pecking order going forward. The Belgium international will rarely play a fancy pass or go out of his way to impress the audience with his dribbling skills. The simplicity in his style of play, intense focus, and world-class scoring ability exemplify the workman attitude that is appreciated in all of sport. PSG has Neymar and Kylian Mbappé to provide the flash that is essentially needed for the entertainment of the fans, but they can rest assured there is finally regularity at the right-back position, and they can count on Meunier to simply get the job done.

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Tags Colin Dagba Dani Alves Gregory van der Wiel Juan Bernat Kylian Mbappé Laurent Blanc Layvin Kurzawa Lucas Moura Marquinhos Neymar Serge Aurier Stanley N'Soki Thiago Silva Thomas Meunier Thomas Tuchel Unai Emery
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