Adam White

Unsung Heroes

Adam White
Unsung Heroes

This article also appeared as part of the Ligue 1 review on Guardian Sport and GFFN.

Never has a club been as single-minded as PSG. While trophies are the aim for every modern giant, one particular competition has become an all-consuming obsession for PSG since QSI took over the club in 2011. Their meeting with Liverpool in Paris on Wednesday could be a pivotal moment in their pursuit of Champions League glory but, not for the first time, their preparations have been thrown into doubt by ill-timed injuries. Kylian Mbappé and Neymar both picked up injuries on international duty and are struggling for fitness. However, Liverpool still have much to fear from Thomas Tuchel’s evolving team.

PSG’s transfer policy finally seemed to have caught up with them this summer, with their fixation with big-name forwards leaving other areas of the squad drastically underdeveloped. The choice of Neymar, Mbappé, Edinson Cavani, Ángel Di María and Julian Draxler in attack was balanced out by the retirement of Thiago Motta, another year on the clock for 35-year-old Dani Alves and 34-year-old Thiago Silva, an ongoing contract dispute with Adrien Rabiot and the questionable fitness of Marco Verratti and Layvin Kurzawa. With FFP rules proving problematic, defensive replacements were again unforthcoming as PSG remained ludicrously top-heavy.

Those deficiencies were on show in their 3-2 defeat at Anfield in September. Their blunt possession style left them lacking in ideas; their 4-3-3 was one-dimensional; and their lack of defensive options forced centre-back Marquinhos into an awkward midfield role. The team’s individual class nearly distracted from their wayward display when Kylian Mbappé scored a late equaliser after an incisive run from Neymar but, once more, PSG were outsmarted at the top level. Since then, however, QSI’s one major summer addition – Thomas Tuchel – has started to have an impact.

Tuchel’s move to three centre-backs and a more versatile style is improving the team, a development exemplified by their uncharacteristically stoic display at Marseille last month and the control they exerted in the first hour in Naples. Neither were era-defining displays, but both showed clear progress from the mental collapse in losing 6-1 at Barcelona, the cowering exit at Manchester City the year before and their drab exit to Real Madrid last season. Tuchel has been at the heart of this long overdue evolution, improving tactics, rejuvenating the team and bringing previously marginalised players to the fore.

PSG have long been plagued by a mistrust of young players, but developing talents now form a sizeable chunk of the team, foremost among them being the 19-year-old French winger Moussa Diaby. In just 448 minutes of league action this season, Diaby has two goals and five assists, his pace, vision and directness proving incisive. His fearless intensity was underlined when he ignored calls from Neymar and Mbappé, much to their ire, during a counter-attack at Monaco to run on and shoot himself. While Diaby might have picked out a pass, his lack of deference was refreshing. He may become key for Tuchel before long.

Thilo Kehrer’s unheralded arrival from Schalke has also proven a source of satisfaction. The 22-year-old German defender grew up in Rwanda so is fluent in French, which has helped him to settle quickly. He played in a back three for Schalke when they finished second in the Bundesliga last season, so is well suited to Tuchel’s approach. After a shaky start, Kehrer’s has form improved and Tuchel picked him instead of Presnel Kimpembe for the trip to Napoli.

Most worryingly for Liverpool, however, is the way some more familiar names have been revived by Tuchel. Thiago Silva had long been a shadow of his former self, hardly the best centre-back in the PSG dressing room never mind Europe, but under Tuchel he once again looks like an intelligent, physical, proactive defender. Di María was dropped for sulking when he was played out of position by Unai Emery but he has moved past that ill-disciplined spell and is now hitting some of the best form of his career. He is driving the team forward, proving creative across the attack with a newfound intensity, even accepting a wing-back role on occasion without complaint.

The most impressive transformation, though, has come from Julian Draxler. He enjoyed a supreme start to his PSG career as a left winger after signing from Wolfsburg in January 2017, but it looked as if he would go the way of Lucas Moura once Neymar and Mbappé arrived in Paris. However, he has been a serene presence alongside Verratti in anchoring the midfield of late. His guile, range of passing and effortless technical ability have helped him develop a burgeoning partnership with the Italian and supplant Rabiot in the process. Taking the ball from PSG has proven remarkably difficult of late.

Cajoling eye-catching displays from three elite players may not amount to an earth-shattering feat from Tuchel, but the heights reached by Thiago Silva, Di María and Draxler represent dramatic turnarounds and impressive management. With Diaby and Kehrer showing hunger and maturity, and Cavani enjoying more freedom in the absence of Neymar and Mbappé – his outrageous flick and volleyed finish against Toulouse on Saturday made it 14 league wins in a row for PSG this season – the Parisians might not need their €400m strikeforce on Wednesday night.

by Adam White

image: Michael Kranewitter