This article also featured in the 2018 GFFN 100
Less than a decade ago, Thomas Meunier worked as a postman. Scouted at a young age by Standard Liege, Meunier failed to graduate and an ailing career lower down the Belgian pyramid needed supplementing. 30 international caps and a surprise transfer to PSG later, the outspoken Meunier is regarded by most as the premier full back at the Parc des Princes and by some as number one right back on the continent in 2018. Unfortunately for Meunier, however, the question remains: does Thomas Tuchel agree?
Proving himself has become customary for Meunier. Having been scouted by Standard Liege as a youngster, Meunier was eventually released in 2006 after a succession of injuries. A fan of art from an early age, taught by his grandmother in drawing and painting, a frustrated the teenage Meunier considered giving up on football entirely. “There was even a period when I said that I would become a cartoon artist,” Meunier told the Guardian last year. “I was huge fan of Bugs Bunny.”
Nevertheless, after a difficult adolescence, overcoming “some psychological challenges in my youth, like the divorce of my parents,” which he asserts ‘shaped his character’ Muenier, a Manchester United fan as a boy, admitted that it was “when I had a ball at my feet, I was happy,” and took his mother’s advice to persist with his passion. Although he maintains overcoming that initial rejection was troublesome. “If you are, just like me at that age, purely focused on football and your club tell you that you’re not good enough it can be a shock.”
Then playing as a forward, Meunier was awarded a contract with third tier side Virton after a ludicrous ten goal haul during a 15-3 win while on trial, eventually drawing interest from first division sides once more. Club Brugge paid 200,000 euros for the young Meunier’s services in 2011 where, again due to injury absences, he was moulded into an attacking full back.
When the Belgian arrived in Paris from Brugge for 7 million euros during summer 2016, despite playing a prominent part at the Euros for Belgium that summer, starting both Belgium’s knockout out games against Hungary and Wales, few recognised Meunier at PSG’s training ground, Camp des Loges. “When I arrived, not many of my teammates knew me,” Meunier recalled. “Thanks to the Euros there were maybe two players who remembered my name. Thiago Motta had played against Belgium with Italy. I wasn’t in the starting eleven but after the game I swapped shirts with him. He didn’t even remember.”
Although initially slipping under the Radar, Meunier’s stature quickly grew despite being originally brought in as an under-study to then first choice right back Serge Aurier as Unai Emery arrived at the Parc des Princes that summer. Paris’ left-field new recruit quickly engineered a regular spot in the team towards the end of 2016. Having started out as a forward, his gung-ho attacking style, marauding up the flank from full back, proved well suited in a team who had little defending to do.
In November, a thunderous 25 yard volley in injury time to win a Champions League group stage tie at Basel marked the first of many memorable strikes with PSG. Continuing to impress, albeit given limited chances to do so, Aurier’s extended January stay at the 2017 AFCON cemented Meunier’s place in Emery’s plans. As Winter became Spring, Meunier stood out, as many did, in the 4-0 Champions League last 16 first leg win over Barcelona while Aurier watched from the bench.
Despite the sale of Aurier that summer, the Ivorian’s rash defending and poor attitude having been an issue for some time, Munier again found himself relegated to second choice as Dani Alves arrived from Juventus to join an already powerful Brazilian contingent at the Capital club. Although Meunier continued to make an impact when afforded the opportunity, notably scoring both goals in a 2-1 October win at Dijon - including the injury time winner - and producing another spectacular long range volley to open the scoring in a Coupe de la Ligue tie at Rennes, Alves unsurprisingly proved more difficult to usurp than Aurier as the Brazilian remained Emery’s choice for the bigger games despite his somewhat undulating form.
Although rarely seen at the Parc des Princes, Meunier remained an ever present, injury allowing, for Roberto Martinez’s Belgian national team, the former Everton manager’s switch to a trio of central defenders playing to Meunier’s strengths as goals and head turning displays remained common. A hat-trick and three assists in one game against Gibraltar underlined his ability in the final third.
No longer the unknown man, the 2018 World Cup in Russia sparked the most productive period of Meunier’s career. A lovely pass for Romelu Lukaku’s second in a 5-2 demolition of Tunisia capped a threatening Meunier display before his cross provided Nacer Chadli with the chance to round off a memorable comeback in a pulsating last 16 tie with Japan. Having again impressed in beating Brazil to a last four spot as part of another enthralling Belgium victory, it is perhaps telling that suspension robbed Martinez of his flying wing back for the semi final defeat to France. Meunier’s frustrations evident as he posted a man of the match display in beating England to third place, scoring the opener and coming close to what would have been a brilliant second.
Having again shown his worth in Russia, Meunier was parachuted back into the PSG first team this autumn after Alves sustained a serious knee injury during May’s Coupe de France final win over Les Herbies. A string of standout performances seemed to cement the Belgian in the first team once more as goals continued to flow for Thomas Tuchel’s incarnation of PSG, three in three games during September including one at Anfield, as Meunier enjoyed some of the best form, both defensively and offensively, of his career. Having been deployed as a full back previously in the ubiquitous Parisien 4-3-3, Tuchel moved Meunier to wing back, usually in a 3-4-3 set up, which suited the Belgian’s traditionally top heavy skill set.
However, as 2018 drew to a close, Meunier’s rhythm was interrupted. Despite such excellent form, the spectre of competition again haunted him as Alves edged closer to a return while the recent signing, German international Thilo Kehrer, drew praise for his own increasingly assured displays at both wing back, full back and centre back. Kehrer’s versatility, technical ability and superior defensive acumen impressing Thomas Tuchel.
Despite again impacting all three of Paris’ Champions League fixtures until that point, Tuchel was reportedly frustrated at Meunier’s display in the trip to Naples, a 1-1 draw. Having made the wrong decision on a handful of occasions, Paris losing potentially dangerous chances as they dominated early on at the San Paolo, Meunier then missed the visit of Liverpool (although admittedly due to the death of his grandfather) and has struggled to regain his place since as Kehrer was again preferred for the crucial win in Belgrade which saw Paris secure qualification and top a tough group.
Unfortunately for Meunier, despite a productive 2018 at the Parc des Princes and beyond, praise has not always been universal from PSG’s rumbustious ultras. In May the Belgian was roundly booed as he replaced Thiago Motta for the final half an hour of a 2-2 home draw with Guingamp. The PSG full back had liked a tweet praising the atmosphere created by perpetual rivals Marseille’s fans at the Stade Velodrome ahead of their Europa League win over RB Leipzig. ‘Loyalty’ has been a long running issue for PSG’s main supporters group, the Collectif Ultras Paris (CUP) and Meunier’s tweet was seen a disrespectful.
"Contrary to your contracts, respect is not negotiable" read a CUP banner deployed before Guingamp game. "When you sign for a club like PSG, you must at least know its history and its values,” the CUP’s Vice-President told L’equipe, “I do not see [St Etienne’s Stephane] Ruffier ‘liking’ a tifo by Lyon fans or [Marseille’s Florian] Thauvin ‘liking’ one of our tifos. Why do we in Paris have to accept it? We, the ultras, are the guardians of the values of Paris Saint-Germain." Meunier’s refusal to apologize and decision to brand some "pseudo-supporters" and others "12-year-olds" while also telling another fan on twitter they should "know their place”, only escalated matters.
Such forthright and frank statements are not uncommon for Meunier. He was one of very few to vocalise in his sympathy for Adrien Rabiot during his high profile contract dispute while he admitted to RTL after Belgium’s Nations League loss in Switzerland that “there are a lot of things missing… we forgot to defend well." Meunier’s lack of a filter occasionally strays beyond the sensible, a jovial recreation of Robbie Fowler’s infamous ‘line snorting’ celebration on twitter was ill-advised while the player was remarkably honest about his transfer options in the summer as Alves and the CUP got the better of him. "I could target a club like Everton, Valencia or Dortmund, for example,” Meunier told the Belgian outlet RTBF, “Michy Batshuayi made a very good decision choosing to go. The fun is playing football and that's what I’m missing right now."
Confidence and passion have never been issues for Meunier, openly discussing PSG’s chances of going the season unbeaten in Ligue 1. “There’s nothing to stop us thinking about those kind of records and I think it’s quite possible to not lose a single game in a season,” he explained, “fixing goals can help concentrate minds too, and we certainly have the quality to aim high.” Meanwhile, he continually defended himself during the CUP dispute. “Know that my involvement and my passion are devoted to you to 1000%” he told PSG fans via Instagram, “loving what is done elsewhere in France must in no way call into question the respect that I have in fighting for red and blue shirt." Furthermore, a post proudly showing Belgium atop the FIFA world rankings currently sits pinned to his twitter profile.
Although 2018 remains the best year of Thomas Meunier’s career, his place in Paris is again under threat as Thilo Kehrer, Dani Alves and perhaps even youngster Moussa Diaby look to supplant him. In truth, they may have already. With Meunier honest about his need for first team football, the winter window may become his last at PSG with interest remaining wide spread. Whatever happens to Meunier in 2019, he’s proven repeatedly over the course of his career to date, from postman to Parisian, that he’ll always deliver.
by Adam White