This article also featured in the GFFN 100 for 2018
Having signed for 40m euros in January and scoring 10 goals from left wing in the next 25 games, Julian Draxler would’ve been forgiven for assuming his place in the PSG eleven was assured for the following season. However, just 6 months after his arrival and €400m later, the arrivals of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar saw Angel Di Maria, Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura and Draxler all either offered to other clubs or told they were free to find new employers. Suddenly, Draxler had a fight on his hands.
All four declined the opportunity, Lucas eventually labelled the odd one out, while Draxler was relegated to the Parc des Princes’ bench with MCN a sizeable roadblock between him and the starting eleven as Adrien Rabiot, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti provided balance in Unai Emery’s midfield. This swift marginalisation affected the confidence and performances of Draxler and Di Maria in particular, both looking a little wide-eyed at what had unfolded that summer.
At one point it seemed as though both would have little choice but to quietly make their excuses in January. Draxler, however, as others skulked, took his chances and grew into the season, proving himself a valuable cog in the PSG machine for Emery and now Thomas Tuchel. Paris’ failure, or inability due to FFP, to replace Blaise Matuidi that window may have rescued Julian Draxler’s PSG career. As neither Jean Michel Seri nor Fabinho arrived, Giovanni Lo Celso was considered too inexperienced to stand in for the perpetually injured Pastore and it was Draxler who assumed a midfield role with at least one of Motta, Verratti and Rabiot always injured.
Originally used in a more natural left sided role, Emery trailing a 442 in what proved to be a vain attempt to pair Mbappe with Edinson Cavani in attack, a feat since achieved by Tuchel, Draxler had moved inside to more of a number 10 role before dropping deeper into Matuidi’s former position as the furthest forward of a midfield trio, affording Neymar and Mbappe more freedom in a front three.
This move now seems an obvious one, the 25 year old’s skill set lending itself to a deeper position. His comfort in possession, range of passing and awareness of space means Draxler’s performances are far removed from the mobility and dynamism brought by Matuidi but Draxler’s grace and guile offers PSG more control and creativity. His undoubted class and can-do attitude had him back in the team, as Emery underlined; “He is very positive, he wants to play, he wants to help, he wants to adapt to several positions”. Although admitting he had to “fight in training”, Draxler finally belonged again.
Despite an underwhelming World Cup, a common theme for German players - being dragged off at half time against Sweden having missed a huge chance was a low point, Draxler returned to Paris with a new manager to impress and new gaps in midfield to fill with signings again non-existent and Adrien Rabiot’s contract situation keeping him on the fringes of the team.
Although tentative a first Tuchel came to rely on Draxler, almost as a holding player, in his gradual move towards 3 centre backs. A burgeoning partnership with Marco Verratti deep in the midfield, most notably in domestic fixtures and at Napoli, has been a key feature of PSG’s play this season. Their interplay, ability to beat opponents and a wide spectrum of passing, has often made two men feel like three. Individually, Draxler goes a little under the radar as he serenely floats around midfield next to Verratti’s all-action, yellow card collecting, referee pestering displays, but he remains quietly outstanding.
A highlight came as a free-wheeling Lille visited Paris, their closest league challengers this term, as Draxler produced a masterful midfield display. Telepathic interplay with Verratti, pitch perfect passing, continually jinking away from Lille players, often picking incisive through-balls and always making the right decision in possession. He only meaningfully lost the ball once all night. Despite perhaps becoming a little wayward in the final third of late, he continues to contribute a steady stream of goals and assists, an intelligent pair of headers in beating St Etienne this autumn being particularly memorable. The first to control on the run and the second to deftly lob Stephane Ruffier.
Despite a standout 2018 at club level, uncertainty remains on the horizon. With Rabiot likely to depart, Tuchel has discussed the need for one, maybe two, central midfielders to be added this winter while, with FFP an issue, a sizeable offer from an in-need Bayern Munich, their squad ageing, Arsenal or Liverpool, both long term suitors, could be enough to tempt Paris into selling. Draxler remains positive on his PSG future however. “I played 47, 48 games last season and am convinced I will play them this season as well.” Draxler said this summer, “I like the club and the city, I feel comfortable there, and that's why there was no reason for me to look for an opportunity to leave.” Not giving him that opportunity should be a priority for Thomas Tuchel and Paris Saint-Germain in 2019.
by Adam White