Defending Ligue 1 champions, PSG, have had a shaky start to their season but things seem to be falling into place. Dayann Charles documents their changes and improvements so far.
It would be sufficient to describe the start of the 2014-15 season for Paris Saint-Germain in one word: tumultuous. The early months have been bombarded with injuries and the concession of late equalisers in league games coinciding with an apparent dressing room crisis and the defeat of the previously undefeated Barcelona while qualification to the last 16 of the Champions League has also been achieved.
Consistency is a key quality of the best teams, but starting slow and picking up pace is theoretically more desirable than fading away at the end of the season. Perhaps that is the path that PSG are taking this season; whilst currently the only remaining unbeaten team in Ligue 1, the club has also racked up the most stalemates in the division; 6 wins, 6 draws is the tally. The demoralisation of conceding several leads late on was compounded by injuries to key members of the team, with the likes of Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and the prolific Zlatan Ibrahimovic all missing significant portions of the season, with the last of these set to miss the rival clash on Sunday. The mounting problems threatened to do real damage after rumours of a dressing room rift surfaced just a few weeks into the season, with Laurent Blanc’s job under scrutiny.
Furthermore, one of the young talents, Adrien Rabiot looked set to leave the club in January after failing to turn up to training in order to force a move during the summer. When it rains, it pours and this was a cliché that described the bleak situation at the Parc prior to the October international break. But every cloud has a silver lining and since the October break, positives have arisen and there is more to this than meets the eye.
Laurent Blanc was widely criticised during the back end of last season for being tactically naive, primarily due to the Champions League exit late in the quarterfinal tie against Chelsea. This train of thought gained speed thanks to Cavani’s public displays of disgruntlement at being shunted out to the left side of the attacking line in order to accommodate the talismanic Ibrahimovic in the centre of attack. Versatility was not a characteristic Blanc demonstrated, constantly sticking with a 4-3-3 formation irrespective of the situation, forcing the players into the formation rather than moulding the system to the players available and requirements of the game. But the new season has seen some more tinkering and increased maturity from the manager, perhaps due to the pressure heaped upon him. The defensive line and its duties remain ultimately the same; full backs provide width by playing in the vicinity of the touchlines whilst the centre backs split to accommodate the deep lying midfielder(s). But in front of them, variations can be seen. Instead of solely relying on the midfield trio of Motta, Verratti and Matuidi, Blanc has allowed for the establishment of a more genuine playmaker role. On occasion, this has been a position occupied by Lucas but more often than not, you will find Javier Pastore in this role.
This has paved the way for more of a 4-3-1-2 formation at times and although this may seem an insignificant alteration, it has allowed those fringe players, who have come in to replace the injured stalwarts, to flourish in more preferred roles. In addition, it has provided a link between the midfield and attacking lines, especially during counter attacks. One of the most disappointing aspects of the European exit last year was that during the second leg against Chelsea, the attacking trio of Lavezzi, Lucas and Cavani was disjointed from the midfield, relatively isolated from the rest of the team. Although Ibrahimovic is placed at the head of the attack, he has a strong tendency to drop deep and play as if he were a number 10, an element to the team we missed that night. This highlights perhaps why the club was so dependent on him; he was effectively playing as the striker and the playmaker. Blanc may have learnt from his mistakes though and has allowed the implication of a more orthodox playmaker role. This has reduced the responsibilities of those in the most advanced roles, with the likes of Lucas, Bahebeck and Cavani all playing productively in front of Pastore. In fact, this bodes well for the team because the usually Ibra-dependent squad has been able to produce results without him.
The return of Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura
The greatest positive that can be taken from the season thus far is the performances of those players that have stepped up in the absence of the more senior men.
The main beneficiary of the tweaks to the formation has been the mercurial Pastore. As mentioned in my previous article, ‘El Flaco’ has more than a little bit of that special streak and playing mainly in behind the attacking line combined with a long run of games in the first team has allowed him to bloom and exhibit his full repertoire of abilities. And the new season has seen him return to sparkling form, running games from the iconic number 10 position. The last few months have seen quite a turnaround for the former outcast. Having been the first big signing of this era for the club, Pastore performed well in his early PSG career. But the arrival of more established names and the eventual replacement of Ancelotti with Blanc meant Pastore’s impact reduced to a minimum. He often cut a forlorn figure in his performances last year and was seemingly on his way out of Paris during the summer, with the owners looking to offload players to meet FFP regulations whilst pursuing Angel Di Maria’s signature, ultimately an unsuccessful venture.
But Pastore announced he would fight for his place and he quietly went about his business during pre-season. As the season has progressed, he has taken full advantage of his opportunity, putting in fantastic performances on regular occasions, most notably against Barcelona in a 3-2 home victory. His exploits have earned him a recall to the Argentinean national team and the most potent expression of his confidence is the return of his flair. Some of his touches and passes leave you awestruck and this is symptomatic of his belief. Coupled with this is his increased exertion; Pastore now contributes defensively, tracking back and providing cover as required and has become a true team player. I said in my previous article that it would be a loss to football fans if they weren’t able to watch a prospering Pastore, but if he can continue to play in this manner, this is a concern that will not befall us.
With 2 of the usual 3 front line attackers injured in the form of Zlatan and Lavezzi, Lucas Moura was afforded a long run of games too, just like Pastore. Similarly, he has also exemplified development in his game. Early in the season, he received criticism from Jeremy Menez, now of AC Milan. Menez, who performed well in his time at the club and was also a PSG supporter, stated that the ownership seemed to prefer Brazilian players. His qualms were reasonable considering he had contributed a lot more during his time at the club than Lucas, as well as holding a personal loyalty to the club. But maybe this was the medicine that Lucas required because since then he has been in wonderful form. He has netted 5 times in the league which has already equalled his tally for the entire league season last year. His dribbling has been more direct but his has been a key attribute in beating defenders. This season, Lucas has been able to pick up the ball in tight spaces, both in the centre of the park and on the touchlines, and beat those keeping him in close attention. Just like Hazard, he has become susceptible to fouling and he has won set-pieces in dangerous positions on more regular occasions. His final ball still requires work as does his finishing at times, but he has provided a real outlet this season and with conceivably many playing years ahead of him, he has the potential to become world-class.
Improving defensive options
Marquinhos was again pursued by Barcelona over the summer but it would’ve been incredibly unwise of the management to let him go for any fee considering Alex’s departure during the transfer window. David Luiz’s arrival may have signalled limited playing time for Marquinhos but an early injury to captain Thiago Silva in a friendly game against Napoli meant he was thrust into the limelight. And his output for the team has been nothing short of admirable. When he has played, he has slotted in seamlessly, playing with a similar style to Thiago Silva. His range of passing is complementary to the midfielders in front of him and although the team did concede several late equalisers in the matches he has played, he wasn’t exactly at fault. The minutes he has played have been invaluable to his development and although he is currently injured, he has become a trustworthy replacement for the primary centre back pairing of Luiz and Silva, offering them good competition for places. The most emblematic image of his season so far was when he made a very late block on Jordi Alba in the match against Barcelona in order to maintain the 3-2 lead. This was followed by a passionate celebration as if he had scored and deservedly so because it was a vital interception. His fee from Roma was quite large for such a young defender but his performances and potential future with the club may make him a very sound investment.
Although a much more established name, David Luiz still deserves a mention for his contribution to the team. After having signed for an astronomical fee, there was always bound to be scrutiny and I was very much a part of the argument that he was ill-disciplined and liable to mistakes. The events of the World Cup semi finals did nothing to ease my doubts. But thus far, his performances have been outstanding and it is clear to see that he has really enjoyed his time with us. The signs from previous matches are positive; in fact Luiz has done a lot to save the team, with a couple of goal line clearances, most notably away against APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League when the game was tied at 0-0. Probably his best performance came against Barcelona, especially in the last few minutes, where he appeared hell-bent on preserving the 3-2 lead that PSG held as the Catalonians pushed for an equaliser. David Luiz hasn’t shown much in terms of the damage caused to him in that World Cup semi-final whilst playing for PSG, but a few months of good form doesn’t make a world-class defender, as he was proclaimed to be by the chairman upon signing, so he will have to continue to play well throughout the season.
The surprising form of Bahebeck
A relatively unknown player before the start of the season, Jean-Christophe Bahebeck got his chance this season and he has grabbed it with both hands. Following on from a fantastic pre-season which secured his place on the roster, Bahebeck has integrated into the team very well, offering himself as a good attacking option from the bench. With the signings made by the club in recent years, it’s hard for young players to break into the squad from the academy. Hervin Ongenda was sent out on loan to Bastia whilst the talented Kingsley Coman moved on to pastures new after signing a long-term deal with Juventus, hoping to emulate the success of another kid from Paris, Paul Pogba. But the slightly older Bahebeck was given his chance and has so far put in decent performances and popped up with two very good finishes which have gained PSG valuable points in the title race. The latter of these goals was especially impressive considering the circumstances. An early red card for Van Der Wiel in a home league game against Bordeaux saw Bahebeck substituted for replacement right back Serge Aurier in one his few starts. But Bahebeck showed great character in the next game, where he scored the winner within 7 minutes of coming off the bench to seal the comeback victory away at a threatening Lorient side. Latching on to a great ball from Verratti, he rounded the keeper and slotted home from a very tight angle, an accomplished finish for such a young player. With the return of Ibrahimovic imminent, Bahebeck will become third choice striker and will most likely be limited to substitute appearances but he has demonstrated he is not there just to make up the numbers.
Since the October international break, PSG have won 5 matches in a row and the defence has tightened up late on in games. Although Cavani has scored a good number of goals, he hasn’t been clinical; whereas perhaps Ibrahimovic may have bagged himself a hattrick in some of the matches, Cavani has scored one goal whilst squandering several other chances. Cavani will have to be more lethal in the bigger games, but the improvements from the rest of the team and newly-found versatility (relative to last season) of the manager in his tactics certainly are welcoming signs. Some extra buoyancy may be provided by the availability of Adrien Rabiot, who surprisingly signed a new contract through to 2019. Form recently has been much better but the team needs to be more clinical in taking chances.
Despite the strange start to the season, tactically the team has improved, dependence on one seems to be fading while the table if out in perspective is still rather encouraging.
Written by Dayann Charles
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