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PSG Is A Work In Progress

Paris Saint-Germain's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain's French forward Kylian Mbappe celebrate at the end of the UEFA Champions League first round group A football match between Paris Saint-Germain's (PSG) and Manchester City at The Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on September 28, 2021.
Photo by Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

When Paris Saint-Germain added Lionel Messi to what was already a star-loaded squad, the club had acquired all the raw materials for the assembly of a truly great team. However, due to the various skills, limitations, and disinclinations of its three-headed monster in attack, it also guaranteed itself a weird team, one that would take a lot of thinking, balancing, and tinkering to get just right. What PSG needs more than anything is time. In its 2–0 home victory over fellow Champions League title challenger Manchester City on Tuesday, the team was able to buy itself just that.

None of the match’s statistics do a good job of conveying what exactly happen in Paris. (It’s fitting that a weird team would play a weird game.) PSG scored two goals to Man City’s zero, but the Parisian’s game was far from the offensive masterclass that scoreline might imply. City out-shot PSG 18-6, which comes closer to capturing the truth that City was by far the more attack-minded team, but, then again, only rarely were the Citizens able to crack open PSG’s tight defensive line and create a genuinely dangerous chance. The two teams split possession pretty evenly, 54-46 in favor of the visitors, but 42 percent of the action happened deep in PSG’s territory.

In summary, Manchester City controlled the ball, PSG controlled the game, and neither team played particularly well or particularly poorly. For PSG, the result was more encouraging than it was impressive, but at this juncture, so early into this new, exciting, expectation-laden season, encouragement is plenty.

Tuesday’s match was only the third time in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé started together, and the unfamiliarity showed. Messi was at last able to score his first goal for his new club, and it was a beauty thanks to a very nifty first-time flick from Mbappé on the assist and Messi’s wallop of a shot. But that was just about the only moment of the kind of quality and incisiveness that you would expect to be constant in a team with that front three.

Outside of the goal, Messi looked peripheral to the action. He took only one shot, succeeded once out of only three dribble attempts, and did not create a single chance. Neymar too was relatively quiet. The connection between Messi and Neymar should be an almost unlimited source of magic for PSG, but it feels like they play so far apart on the opposite wings of the team’s regular 4-3-3 formation that they don’t combine with one another nearly enough. PSG won’t really hit its ceiling as a team until manager Mauricio Pochettino can find a way to bring those two closer together. As it stands, only Mbappé is really empowered by the current setup.

In Pochettino’s defense, it’s not easy to draw up a system that can give all three forwards what they need—proximity to each other, plenty of touches, lots of freedom, constant compensatory movements from the rest of the team—while also maintaining some semblance of defensive order. It’s worth remembering that Luis Enrique almost lost his job halfway through MSN’s first season together in Barcelona until Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez finally clicked and became as fearsome a combo as they looked on paper. And while Pochettino still hasn’t figured out how to create the needed synergies amongst the attackers, the fact that PSG played so well defensively against one of the strongest attacks in the world on Tuesday is an extremely promising sign.

Once PSG got the go-ahead goal from Idrissa Gueye in the eighth minute, the team was more or less content to sit deep, let its four defenders and three midfielders batten the hatches in front of their own goal, and bank on Gianluigi Donnarumma parrying away anything that got through. Though City did muster all that possession in PSG’s third of the pitch and took all those shots, PSG’s defense kept everything in front of them, so they didn’t suffer all that much. Letting City have its cutback crosses and mostly unthreatening pot shots was all part of the gameplan once PSG went up, and it worked well.

The Parisians’ most determinative trio of the match turned out to be its midfield line, all of whom played fantastically running all over the place to make up for the front three’s lack of defensive support. Gueye had the opening goal, Marco Verratti had a typically amazing day with his side-stepping Houdini dribbles, his hard little punched passes, and his pinpoint sliding tackles. This was the first time PSG could partner its MNM with Verratti, who is probably the most crucial piece to making it all work. If those four can stay healthy, stay playing, and stay learning each other, then PSG should start looking like its best self sooner than later.

More than anything else, the biggest takeaway from PSG’s performance is that the team remains a work in progress. That a still inchoate version of the team can beat one of the best and most well-developed teams in Europe is a testament both to how good the team already is and how much better it will certainly be in a few months. It will take time and patience, but they’ll get there.

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