Paris Saint-Germain have once again fallen short of their first Champions League title, thoroughly played off the park by an imposing Manchester City side who capitalized on the Parisians lack of resolve to win 2-0 (3-1 a.g.). For a club boasting a playing squad worth roughly €830 million, it is remarkable to see just how unbalanced and fragile the French champions are.
On Tuesday night, left back Juan Bernat missed his 50th consecutive match after suffering a season-ending Cruciate ligament tear in September. In a position which has long been identified as a weak spot within this PSG side, regular center half Abdou Diallo filled in, going on to endure a turbulent evening in which his opposite number Riyad Mahrez went on to win MOTM with his two goals.
Left back is an ongoing problem for the French champions which has truly never been addressed since the Qatari royal family bought the club in the summer of 2011. Brazilian fullback Maxwell quickly became an integral part of the side when he arrived in the winter of 2012, however over his 5 ½ seasons in France, the fullback would never truly showcase the attacking incentives to support PSG’s stars. His mere 4 assists in 41 Champions League appearances – all of which came in group stage matches which PSG won by a combined scoreline of 16-2 – left the Parisians wanting against stark opposition where more creativity was needed from the wide channels.
Since his departure, Layvin Kurzawa has taken over the mantle, however, the former Monaco fullback has alienated large sections of the fanbase with his off-field antics and poor performances in big fixtures. Kurzawa was even voted as one of the 5 worst transfers of the decade for the club by leading PSG outlet Psgtalk.com – no small feat for a club which has signed such washed-up talents like Spanish winger Jesé for €25 million.
Whilst Kurzawa is a solid option for domestic fixtures, his inconsistency and outright rejection of defensive duties makes him an unreliable figure in must-win Champions League fixtures where PSG are put under significant defensive pressure. Other alternatives in the current squad include 20-year old Mitchel Bakker and the aforementioned Diallo, however, both youngsters have shown a considerable lack of quality in possession, and neither look as if they will make the grade at PSG. The Spaniard Juan Bernat has been a steal since being exiled from FC Bayern for €5 million in 2018, however this current knee injury isn’t his first lengthy spell on the sidelines, and at 28, it is uncertain he will recover as the same player when he returns next season.
On the other flank, one could argue that the outlook is even more bleak, with Pochettino’s 3 current options of Thilo Kehrer, Alessandro Florenzi, and Colin Dagba far from the quality available at Europe’s other leading clubs. Florenzi, a 30-year-old Italian fullback who enjoyed almost 8 seasons at AS Roma has been the routine starter this season, but he looked hopelessly out of his depth against the pace and precision of Phil Foden last Tuesday.
Florenzi is only on a season-long loan at the Parc des Princes, and despite playing more than 30 games for the capital club, it is unlikely his €9 million buyout clause will be activated. Mauricio Pochettino’s insistence on continuing with Florenzi has also stunted the development of Colin Dagba, a 22-year-old French youth international who remains one of the few academy graduates staking a claim in the first team.
Whilst he has featured more regularly in Ligue 1 this season, in the Champions League Dagba made just two short substitute appearances up until the quarter-finals. Florenzi’s positive COVID-19 test in April meant Dagba was finally given his opportunity versus Bayern in the last 8.
Over the two-legged affair, the Frenchman excelled, a fabulous site for the ultras who have rarely had the privilege of seeing one of the academy graduates excel in the first team. This should have been the moment for Dagba to lock down his position after a season in the wings, but it wasn’t to be as Florenzi came back in for the fateful exit at the hands of Manchester City.
The son of French and Beninese parents, Dagba has a lengthy contract in Paris that runs until the summer of 2024. There will no doubt be unrest from the youngster’s side after still searching for a starting position 4 years after signing his professional contract. Having lost talented youngsters like Christopher Nkunku, Moussa Diaby, and Dan Axel-Zagadou for a fraction of their potential value over recent years, PSG must do everything they can to retain Dagba’s services beyond this summer.
The final alternative at right fullback is Thilo Kehrer, a 24-year old German international who was signed just days after Thomas Tuchel accepted the job in 2018. Although the Schalke academy graduate is nominally a center back, the competition for places at the heart of defense – along with his exceptional pace – means he has often been deployed on the right of a back four.
For a long time, this looked like a viable option, with Kehrer excelling in PSG’s march to the final of the 2019/20 Champions League, starting every match in the Lisbon finals. Yet the final sealed Kehrer’s fate, with German sports newspapers Kicker & Bild giving the auxiliary right back the worst rating on the pitch, whilst L’Équipe only rated Neymar with a poorer score. Unsurprisingly, Kehrer has not been entrusted in the big European fixtures this season, failing to start a single match. Though his contract runs until 2023, it is unlikely Kehrer will remain on French shores for much longer.
PSG are no strangers to exuberant summer outlays, with the 4th largest net spend in world football across the past five seasons (-€445 million profit margin). However, far too often Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s vast financial reserves have been splashed on attackers and creative components, unbalancing the squad and leading to disappointment in Europe. Whilst the attacking bench dweller Mauro Icardi cost PSG an unbelievable €50 million, the last two fullbacks (Juan Bernat & Thomas Meunier) were signed for a combined fee of just €11m.
Whilst it isn’t necessarily true that with a bigger price tag comes better performances – highlighted by the likes of Icardi, Kehrer, and Diallo – for PSG to truly compete in the knockout stages, a higher profile of talent must be available in their fullback positions.
As we have seen time and time again, the radiant individual talent within PSG’s attacking front isn’t enough to win a first European title, and a more collective approach to squad building is needed if they are to replicate domestic rival Marseille’s 1993 triumph. This summer it is time for Nasser Al-Khelaifi to address these problematic areas, and in this article, we look at two potential fullbacks capable of altering PSG’s European fate next season.
Position: Left Back
Estimated Market Value: €50 million
Contract Expires: June 30, 2025
Real Madrid have been defined by some woeful transfer business in recent years, with the €115 million outlay on Eden Hazard, just the tip of the iceberg. Amongst these numerous market misfires there has been the odd gem however, with few players taking to Madrid with the same class and poise as 25-year-old Frenchman Ferland Mendy.
Since joining Zinedine Zidane’s side in 2019, Mendy has played 4011 minutes in La Liga, more than the other three marquee signings of the 2019 window – Eden Hazard, Éder Militão, and Luka Jović – combined. In a side that regularly sways between world-class and atrocious, it is the consistency of the former OL fullback which has been a staple for Madrid’s title hopes to stand on once again this season.
Whilst the Galáctico era under Florentino Pérez demands attractive attacking footballers with flair and creativity, it is first and foremost Mendy’s defensive nous which has stood out. Rarely does the Frenchman lose a 1v1 duel or get bullied by the opposition, with his imposing 1.8m stature matched with an impressive change of pace and physicality.
However, that is not to say that Mendy relies on these attributes to bail himself out, rather, these natural physical tools simply compliment what is already a highly intelligent defender. We already mentioned the defensive deficiencies of Layvin Kurzawa as a major area of concern for the 9-time French champions, but even Juan Bernat doesn’t display as impressive defensive numbers as the Le Havre graduate.
Whilst Bernat (stats based off of the 2019-20 season since he has missed most of the current campaign through injury) completes more than twice as many tackles as Mendy on a per 90 basis, the Frenchman has a higher success rate in both pressures and tackles, along with his superior interceptions. This all alludes to an extremely intelligent defender, one who chooses to enter a duel wisely to ensure that he doesn’t foolishly commit and leave his side exposed.
On face value, Ferland Mendy is not an extraordinary creative outlet. In four top-flight campaigns, Mendy has never accrued more than 4 assists in a single season, and his goal-scoring output is even worse, with Mendy needing just 1 more goal this season to equal his best-ever return of two for an entire campaign. This is of course a worry for a player who would cost upwards of €50 million, with his crossing in particular causing numerous Madridistas to pull their hair out.
Not only is it below the standard which fans have become accustomed to with the likes of Marcelo and Roberto Carlos, but it is frankly woeful. Completing just .23 crosses into the penalty area per 90, if Ferland Mendy improved this aspect of his game, who knows how many assists he could have registered with the mercurial aerial presence of Karim Benzema leading Madrid’s attack.
It should be mentioned however that in the French capital this wouldn’t prove as pressing of a concern, with none of PSG’s first choice front line necessarily dominant in the air. Of the 96 goals scored by PSG’s attackers this season (Neymar, Mbappé, Icardi, Ángel Di María, Pablo Sarabia, and Kean) only 7 have been scored with a header, with only loanee striker Moise Kean registering more than one with his head (4).
Whilst PSG’s indifference to crosses already shows why Mendy would be a viable option for the reigning French champions, when one digs deeper into the underlying numbers, it is difficult to see how he hasn’t enjoyed a more fruitful output. When it comes to progressive passing and carrying possession, there are few fullbacks in world football who come close to Ferland Mendy.
Averaging more than 248 yards of forward passes a game, Mendy’s current numbers for the 2020-21 season were less than 40 yards shy of Luka Modrić’s 2019-20 tally, a remarkable statistic seeing as the Croatian is on the ball far more throughout the 90 minutes. His forward carrying distance is even more impressive, averaging up to 180 yards a match this season. For context, a regulation-sized football pitch is between 110-120 yards, meaning that Mendy is traversing a distance of more than 1 ½ football pitches every match in forward possession against some of the toughest opposition in the Champions League and La Liga.
Though he perhaps lacks a cutting aerial delivery, or stinging through ball, Mendy’s ability to carry the ball forward or break lines in possession is sensational. These attributes could provide a key component to unlocking PSG’s attacking trident in dangerous areas where they can interweave towards goal. Particularly left-sided winger Neymar is often found drifting in centrally to pick up possession, and having a fullback like Mendy who can draw in players with his piercing runs will free up the Brazilian to create in the positions where he is most dangerous.
The final factor in Ferland Mendy are his roots with the Parisian giants. Whilst Mendy has only featured professionally for Olympique Lyon and Le Havre in France, the 25-year-old fullback came up through the PSG youth system up until the under-17’s age bracket. Whilst he isn’t a fresh-faced ‘titi coming up from the youth setups, Mendy will no doubt present a figure which fans can identify with. Born in the neighboring commune of Meulan-en-Yvelines, his signing would bring a local edge, and the unanimous approval of having a French international featuring for the club.
Position: Right Back
Estimated Market Value: €17 million
Contract Expires: June 30, 2022
César Azpilicueta is one of the most overlooked players in the modern era, consistently flying under the radar despite being arguably one of the best defenders for the past decade in the Premier League. This season, Azpilicueta has rolled back the years, delivering stellar performances as a guarded fullback in Chelsea’s romp to the Champions League final and Premier League top four.
Since arriving on British shores in 2012, Azpilicueta has delivered far more than just impressive footballing performances at Chelsea, but developed into one of the club’s most influential leaders. José Mourinho’s glowing appraisal of his former captain says it all, stating in a 2014 interview:
“I think a team with 11 Azpilicuetas could probably win the competition (in reference to the Champions League). Football is not just about pure talent. Football is also about character and personality, and Azpilicueta has all the traces of that winning personality.”
Character and a winning personality are factors that Azpilicueta has in abundance, but which PSG have sorely lacked. One look at the two legs against Manchester City put in plain sight the lack of leadership that flows through the French champions, with Ángel Di María’s cynical stamp on Fernandinho, just the most memorable example of a host of needless aggressions which prevented PSG from turning the tie around.
Under Azpilicueta’s guidance, such foolishness wouldn’t be tolerated, and in over 50,000 minutes of senior football, he has been sent off just once. Boasting a decorated trophy cabinet which could be completed with a triumph in the Champions League final this month, the Spaniard would bring a winner’s mentality and experience to kick start PSG’s European history.
His captain qualities are just a portion of what he would offer the French giants however, with his ability both with and without the ball superb. Whilst he isn’t a marauding fullback – something which PSG doesn’t necessarily require as it would take up space for Mbappé, and Di María to exploit – Azpilicueta can still contribute to attacking phases. His 5.05 passes into the final third per 90 putting him in the 96th percentile of fullbacks in Europe’s top five leagues and is precisely what PSG require to unlock their dynamic front three.
Anybody who has watched Azpilicueta across his 10 year tenure knows about what a stoic defender he is, often creating an unbreachable barrier for some of the best attackers in world football to hopelessly stall against. However, what is often overlooked is his impressive ability in pressing scenarios, with his 14.20 pressures per 90 more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s numbers this season.
Though Azpilicueta won’t present any resale value for PSG, the Spaniard is showing no signs of slowing down or dipping in form. Alongside youngster Dagba, PSG will have a formidable pairing with varying skill sets. Dagba would be given the game time he deserves across domestic and Champions League fixtures where PSG are favorites to take the game to the opposition, whilst Azpilicueta would be available when Mauricio Pochettino requires a more pragmatic approach.
Though Azpilicueta unsurprisingly did not come through the PSG academy like his counterpart Mendy, the Spaniard nevertheless has ties towards French football. Having played for Olympique Marseille for two years between 2010-12, Azpilicueta is well aware of the various intricacies of Ligue 1 football, as well as the French language, an invaluable tool to already have at his disposal if he is to come in and be a leader on, and off, the pitch.
By: Adam Khan
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Anthony Dibon / IconSport / Oli Scarff – PA Images