Amid a top-heavy, often indecipherable recruitment policy, PSG’s midfield has often been overlooked. While celebrity forwards are regularly signed with much fan-fare and Marquinhos alone seems to have invigorated an under-funded defensive unit, aided by two snappy goalkeeping additions, many of PSG’s recent tactical shortcomings can often be traced back to their midfield.
With the overwhelming possession football of Laurent Blanc’s era long gone, along with two-thirds of the classic Parisian trio that facilitated it – Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta, a lack of control has often been an issue. Thomas Tuchel relied upon an overall intensity to exercise control, often using just two midfielders in various of a 424 system. When that intensity inevitably dropped, PSG were exposed. Since, being unable to cajole the same rigour, Mauricio Pochettino’s midfield has become one dimensional and too easily bypassed.
As the pivotal Champions League last 16 tie with Real Madrid approaches, who are PSG’s best midfield options and what might be the best combination going forward?
1st | Marco Verratti – Who else? PSG are a completely different proposition with Verratti in the team and his repeated fitness issues also might have prevented tangible Champions League success while stopping the “Little Owl” from becoming the world’s best midfielder. Although a running joke in France, his 123 yellow cards in 383 PSG games underlines the bite he brings while Pep Guardiola said he was “in love” with Verratti last year. High praise.
Verratti’s balletic midfield brilliance, in both passing and dribbling, make him unique. But that inimitable style brings a conundrum over his best position, and the positioning of others. The 29-year-old seems wasted as a strict sentinel, placing him too far from the goal to create and leaves him needing defensive support. He’s never worked out as a number 10, partly due to an odd aversion to shooting, and has just 11 PSG goals. His most productive role seem is often in a 4-3-3 with a sentinel behind him and a more dynamic, attacking partner alongside him.
This allows Verratti to flourish as a two-way player, weaving out of impossible gaps defensively while dictating as a final third-quarter-back. PSG have failed to replace Verratti’s more productive partner -Matuidi, who still lacked creativity – while an outright number 10, rarely used by PSG during the QSI era anyway, may restrict Verratti’s potential for influence. The club’s pursuit of Paul Pogba makes all the more sense as a result.
2nd | Idrissa Gueye – Many of PSG’s cornerstone results in recent times have been facilitated by all-action Gueye displays. Manchester City earlier this season, Bayern Munich last season, Borussia Dortmund in 2020 and Real Madrid back in 2019 were all bested by Gueye’s tireless midfield dynamism. However, an average ability on the ball and slightly jarring overlap with Verratti, who only played in half of those games, makes his place in the team a little tricky to manage as he too could often use a midfield anchor for support. At 32, his ability to provide such intensity in bigger games could soon be on the decline.
3rd | Xavi Simons – It may seem punchy placing him so high after just three starts but that says as much about PSG’s lack of midfield versatility as it does about the 18-year-old Dutchman’s talent. With other options uninspiring, the player as yet unconvinced by a new contract and the club likely to splurge on Kylian Mbappé’s replacement this summer, Simons could be the perfect answer to many problems. Not least a lack of prominent young players in Paris’ senior squad. Although throwing him in for the tie with Madrid would be hasty, he could be perfect to bridge the gap to Pogba’s potential arrival for the rest of the season in Ligue 1, giving him a chance to develop and prove he can provide the verve and vision others can’t.
4th | Danilo Pereira – There may be some recency bias involved in the Portuguese midfielder moving above Ander Herrera and Leandro Paredes but he’s hitting form at the right time. Three goals in his last three games have accelerated the bourgeoning confidence of recent months. After signing last season he often proved a little agricultural and unimaginative, Thomas Tuchel was so unimpressed that he usually used him as a stand-in centre-back, but Danilo has looked more like the imposing midfield general Paris had thought they’d signed from Porto of late and he could be a starter against Madrid.
5th | Ander Herrera – A favourite of Pochettino’s, the now 32-year-old started the season in some of his best form for years with six-goal contributions in the first six games. However, he hasn’t contributed a goal or an assist since and his increasing limitations have been exposed in some more than underwhelming recent displays. His contract runs until 2024 but this should be his last season in Paris where he’s been a useful Ligue 1 Lieutenant but affecting late-stage Champions League games may now be beyond him.
6th | Leandro Paredes – If this list was complied last season, the €40m signing from Zenit would have been in contention for second. Paredes has consistently played a low-key role at PSG but, after a disappointing start, his vision and aggression have been useful as Marco Verratti’s understudy. This season, however, his place and influence in the squad has been greatly diminished by Verratti’s improving fitness and the arrival and form of others. Like Herrera, this may be his last season in Paris too.
7th | Julian Draxler – Now 28, the German’s continued presence at the Parc des Princes remains baffling, at least in sporting terms. Although injury saw him miss a dozen games either side of the new year, he was only fleetingly seen otherwise and often looked to be going through the motions. However, his best PSG displays – most memorably at the start of 2019 – have come as a central midfielder where his graceful movement, precise passing and creativity are most useful in France. Pochettino, however, has shown little inclination to use him in such a role.
8th | Georginio Wijnaldum – Ligue 1 has many candidates for the worst signing of the season but Wijnaldum, even if he did arrive for free, may lead the pack. In truth, overtly poor displays aren’t the problem for Wijnaldium, he’s simply been completely anonymous. His, admittedly important, brace in the Champions League draw with RB Leipzig is his only meaningful contribution so far. The 31-year-old has appeared to be unsure over the role he’s supposed to be playing while it seems settling into a notoriously cliquey group of players has been tricky.
9th | Edouard Michut – Only inexperience, he’s started just once for PSG’s senior side, keeps the 18-year-old below Wijnaldum but, as he proved off the bench against Lyon in providing the control that helped shift the balance in PSG’s favour, he has serious talent. In parallel to Simons, although without the threat of an expiring contract, Michut’s obvious potential offers an opportunity for PSG to make use of their academy and add more technical ability and creativity to their midfield group ahead of next season while allowing resources to be used elsewhere.
10th | Éric Junior Dina Ebimbe – After two less than electric loan spell with Le Havre and Dijon, Ebimbe’s presence in the PSG squad proper this season is a surprise but he has held his own during his handful of starts so far. However, it’s very unlikely he’s seen as ready for a more prominent role and was close to leaving for Bayer Leverkusen and Troyes during January. A summer move, loan or otherwise, seems certain.