As Paris Saint-Germain prepare to take on Manchester United in the Round of 16, Zach Lowy, co-creator of Breaking The Lines, caught up with Jonathan Johnson, ESPN FC’s Paris-based PSG & France correspondent, to discuss the French champions’ chances in Europe’s elite competition and whether or not they can banish their ghosts from previous Champions League draws.
ZL: Which major changes has Thomas Tuchel made tactically and mentally with PSG?
JJ: Tuchel has made sweeping changes since his arrival in Paris. For a start, PSG are now tactically flexible for the first time in years. They became wedded to a possession-based 4-3-3 formation because of a mix of player power and the desire to replicate Barcelona’s style during their most recent golden era. That used to dictate the regular starting XI, but it is now being consigned to the past.
PSG’s Qatari owners seem to have realised that mimicking Barça does not produce Barça-style success, and Tuchel is the first coach since Carlo Ancelotti to have a handle on the player power that has dominated the dressing room for the past few years. That was a key factor that killed Unai Emery’s chances of success in Paris.
Tuchel regularly has PSG playing with three central defenders, while he also likes to involve the four attacking talents of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani and Ángel Di María when he can. The result, on the whole, has been greater intensity and some exceptional attacking play at times. Also, key players are no longer untouchable mid-match, which makes game-winning substitutions possible for Tuchel.
ZL: The likes of Neymar and Thiago Silva basically bullied Emery out — what are the key differences between the Spaniard and Tuchel that have resulted in an apparent difference in respect? For example, are certain players doing more off the ball?
JJ: First of all, I do not think that Neymar and Silva can be singled out as players who did not respect Emery. Sure, there were some players, Cavani for one, who fared better under the Spaniard than others, but the big problem predated Emery. That issue was that chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi gave key players, such as Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi, too much influence, and that often undermined coaches. Emery suffered from that more than most, despite the fact that Zlatan had already moved on before he arrived at Parc des Princes — Emery was not even respected by the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa.
The key difference between Emery and Tuchel is that the German truly believes that he is worthy of PSG. That never really felt the case with Emery, who often seemed overawed by the trappings that come with the Parc des Princes hotseat. You could argue that Tuchel did not possess the necessary experience or an extensive enough CV to be handed the PSG job, but his self-belief has enabled him to quickly strike a chord with the key players. He is also respected by them because he communicates very well and often with them, while Emery was the subject of many jokes because of his inability to truly express himself in French. Confidence goes a long way at a club like PSG, and Tuchel has bags of it, while Emery talked about it a lot but did not actually seem to believe in himself in Paris.
ZL: Which players have improved most under Tuchel?
JJ: In collective terms, everybody — this is more of a team than it was for Emery’s second season. Individually, Marquinhos has really impressed through his versatility and maturity, Silva is enjoying some of the best form of his career and Neymar’s partnership with Mbappé is stronger and more vibrant than at any other point since they both arrived in Paris. Adrien Rabiot started brightly under Tuchel and then massively faded before his contract extension turned toxic, but Moussa Diaby has stepped up from the youth academy and really impressed as an impact substitute to maintain a decent homegrown core.
ZL: PSG’s academy is one of Europe’s most fertile, but so many homegrown talents — Kingsley Coman and Dan Axel-Zagadou are good examples — have left for nothing after limited top-level chances. Will PSG’s FFP issues force them to rely on academy talent more?
JJ: I do not think that FFP will necessarily force PSG to start relying more on their academy, I think that it a conscious choice from the club to return to their original mission plan. When Tuchel was hired, part of his mission was to place greater emphasis on youth academy graduates. Throughout preseason and during the campaign, he has involved many homegrown talents and even managed to unearth a real gem in Diaby.
The situation with Rabiot is not a reflection on how much, or how little, PSG have used him. There is certainly little that Tuchel can do when his superiors tell him that a player cannot be used. Yacine Adli was a strange case as PSG fought hard to sign him to professional terms, yet he barely trained with the seniors for most of the first half of the season and was then sold to Bordeaux in January. Other than that, I think that Tuchel is doing a good job of blooding young talents.
The thing that PSG could do better is put a loan system in place that is designed to get the players ready for senior football in Paris. It worked really well with Alphonse Areola and could be just what the likes of Timothy Weah, Alec Georgen and Arthur Zagre need if they are to ultimately make the grade. FFP or not, it is in PSG’s interest to handle their youth academy products better. The Qataris’ vision when they arrived was to have a squad that blended world-class stars with gifted young starlets from the academy, and while PSG already do reasonably well out of their academy, they could do even better.
ZL: With Rabiot wanting out and Lassana Diarra being phased out, do you expect PSG to sign one midfielder in January (Leandro Paredes or Julian Weigl) and then another in the summer, or sign both in the summer and keep Marquinhos in defensive midfield?
JJ: First of all, Diarra is not being phased out — he is on the verge of retirement because of chronic knee problems. If PSG had not been so desperate last winter, he would not have been signed. What is incredible is that they remained desperate in that area through last summer and are still desperate now. Sporting director Antero Henrique has utterly failed to strengthen in defensive midfield, despite Paredes’ January arrival, but has overseen the sales of Blaise Matuidi, as well as Thiago Motta’s retirement and the loss of Claudio Gomes to Manchester City for nothing.
PSG were in absolute disarray in defensive midfield after Marco Verratti’s recent injury, so they absolutely needed to sign somebody before the end of January. They eventually got Paredes, but long-term, PSG wanted somebody like De Jong to partner Verratti. You need at least one more player to rotate and sometimes play a midfield three, so yes, I can still see PSG signing again in midfield, but losing out on de Jong was a hammer blow — particularly for Henrique.
Weigl was Tuchel’s first choice when he arrived, but Paredes caught PSG’s eye since. Had Dortmund not been so light on numbers in defence and midfield in January, Weigl might already be a PSG player and I am sure that Tuchel will want him again this summer. Marquinhos has done well in defensive midfield this season but expecting him to potentially do this without Verratti next to him is suicidal — Tuchel made that clear to his superiors and earned Paredes. It would not surprise me to see Rabiot return to contention at some point after the failure to land Everton’s Idrissa Gueye.
ZL: PSG have taken 56 Ligue 1 points from a possible 63 under Tuchel, while they topped a Champions League group with Liverpool and Napoli — are there any tactical weaknesses Manchester United can identify?
JJ: I think that the obvious tactical weakness at this moment in time is the midfield. No matter how settled the squad now is under Tuchel, fundamental depth issues in certain positions can undermine the group and we saw that in the opening group stage game away at Liverpool. Verratti was absent then, as he still might be against United, and PSG were a worse side because of that. Because of the paucity of options available to Tuchel in the middle, Verratti, as fragile as he is, is irreplaceable.
On top of that, with Rabiot currently off-limits, Tuchel will need creativity from Paredes, Di María, Draxler, or Dani Alves. Di María works better in attack, while Draxler has featured largely from midfield. As good a player as the German is and as good a makeshift midfielder as he is, he often struggles there in the biggest games. Facing United with a potential midfield pairing of Marquinhos and Draxler, or Alves and Draxler, would give United a clear early advantage. After that, Tuchel likes his wing-backs to get forward, so United could also target the wings. However, Neymar’s confirmed absence will change the dynamic out wide for PSG.
ZL: What have you made of Cavani this season? Is he likely to leave this summer and will Mbappé move into the middle long-term?
JJ: Cavani has been good this season — when allowed. Neymar and Mbappé are sometimes in their own world, and while that is probably the way forward for PSG, they still have Cavani under contract and he is still scoring goals at a prolific rate. I do think that Mbappé will move centrally at some point, but for that to happen full time, he needs to be more consistent there. If there is one major criticism of his game right now, it is that he needs to be more focused more in front of goal. As amazing as some of the things that he already does are, he also misses some good opportunities because he is not tuned in.
ZL: What does Henrique’s impending exit signify for PSG’s new direction? Is it related to losing out on de Jong to Barcelona?
JJ: Yes, it is partly down to de Jong, but there are also other factors at play. The fact of the matter is that Henrique has just not been that good since joining as sporting director. He has sold well, something which his past with Porto shows is a strength of his, but his failure to land a defensive midfielder for two consecutive summers, as well as his failure to manage the youth academy adequately, losing a number of talented homegrown gems due to contractual issues, and missing out on Lucas Paquetá on top of de Jong, have all contributed.
PSG also want their sporting director to emit a classy and serious image, which Henrique does not provide. However, PSG are not necessarily looking for a new sporting director — they may well end up going down the general manager route instead, which is where former Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger could come in.
ZL: With Neymar missing the United clash, how will PSG cope without him?
JJ: With Neymar now out for both United matches, PSG can start to prepare without him. Obviously, losing the Brazilian for both legs is a big blow, but the home leg is arguably more of an issue than the away one. At Old Trafford, a draw would be a good result for PSG, but it is at home where Neymar could have really come to the fore. He is a big loss, particularly because of the way he was playing in the Champions League, but I feel PSG are well-equipped enough to get past United over 2 legs. Mbappé, Cavani, Di María and Draxler are all very good attacking options, so I think that Tuchel will be able to construct a team to get a positive result over the two legs.
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