36. Marco Verratti
2016/17 has been a year of transition for PSG. Many big players out, many unknown entities in, including a new manager. Despite the permission for ultras to return to the stands of Boulogne and Auteuil, the large gap between the club’s board and the reality of the football club is still gaping. While the season can’t be considered a success for the club, it can be for one player- Marco Verratti.
Going into the 2016/17 season, Marco Verratti had pressure on his shoulders. The Italian midfielder was becoming a marmite player, hated by some, adored by others, and this split was beginning to show within the PSG fanbase. When the choice not to replace the departing Zlatan Ibrahimović was made clear, Nasser Al-Khelaifi needed another star to step up into that role so he could remain content. In comes Marco Verratti. He symbolised what so many people disliked about PSG: the idea of a player being above the club, because for a true “big” club, the institution reigns above the mere mortals working for it. His talent was undeniable though, and there was still time for him to work his way into the hearts of the few he hadn’t already won over.
First and foremost, who is Marco Verratti as a player? The starting point for me is his comparisons to Andrés Iniesta. They aren’t exactly the same player, but it’s no wonder why he allegedly told Blaise Matuidi that the Italian would be the man to replace him in Catalonia. The small magician has extremely nimble feet and is good for getting out of a tight press, especially with his ability to draw opposing players towards himself and thus away from his teammates.
His passing is one of his great attributes as it sets him apart from other fast-footed midfielders. As soon as he lifts his head he can see where to launch the pass and usually times it to perfection. His ability to see the path and get the depth right is what merits the comparisons to Iniesta. Aside from his hold-up play and passing range, his physicality and dominance on the ball is remarkable, especially given his small size and physique. All this combined makes Marco Verratti a sublime, sought-after footballer who can become a true world-beater on his day, at the young age of 24. As with nearly all players though, he has his flaws. Before the 2016/17 season, his critics were quick to point out his lax attitude to lifestyle (often smoking and going out at night) and his flaws such as carrying the ball for too long instead of relaying it or being too aggressive in his tackles instead of waiting to intercept the ball.
Although he had put up many good performances in the past, he had become a part of PSG’s “untouchables”- players who thought they were more important than the club. His attitude to certain coaches was undesirable and his energy on the pitch was sometimes inadequate. 2016/17 was a chance for him to show his doubters what he was made of and to impress Unai Emery, PSG’s new coach, especially after he brought new midfielders with him in the transfer market. While Hatem Ben Arfa and Grzegorz Krychowiak haven’t broken into the first team (and are likely to leave the club), Marco Verratti’s first half of the season wasn’t what dreams are made of. The Italian started 12 of the 19 Ligue 1 games for the Parisian club where they endured lousy losses to Monaco, Toulouse, Montpellier and Guingamp, ending the year in third place, 5 points behind Nice and 3 points behind eventual champions Monaco.
The team’s shortcomings were greater than Verratti’s, as he was often praised for his champagne-football performances but was rightfully blamed for contributing to the perpetual lack of cohesion between the team and the greater powers within the club, leading to speculation that Unai Emery would be sacked come the end of January. The Spaniard was saved, but he had work ahead of him. If he could not lift the mood in the locker room, who would? The answer came not from the captain or any PSG veterans, but from Verratti himself. The Italian was now all over the pitch and was more respectful of the coach, setting the example for other players. He shouted his teammates on during the game and quickly patched over the errors he was often criticized for.
2017 started off with a bang in a 7-0 win over Corsican club Bastia in the French cup, leading to a 22-game domestic unbeaten run. The team didn’t top the table but quickly bridged the gap to Nice and then Monaco, leading to an intense end of the season where the clubs were only 3 points apart. The team’s best performance (and consequently, Marco Verratti’s best performance) undoubtedly came in the Champions League in a 4-0 demolition of FC Barcelona. It was a game for the history books. For the first time in a long while, the Parc was jumping and rocking. The players knew exactly what they had to do and they delivered. Verratti took advantage of the perplexed Barcelona midfield to free up space for his wingers and fellow midfielders by drawing the press to him. His perfectly timed balls (including a sumptuous assist for Julian Draxler) made him the true star of the show, finally shutting up his critics. It was that night Andrés Iniesta told Blaise Matuidi that the Italian was bound to be his heir, and it was clear as crystal why.
While the end of the season didn’t live up to the expectations that game set (notably the game-that-shall-not-be-named in the return leg of the champions league), Verratti’s unexpected leadership and adversity in the face of a crisis led to calls for captainship. Cavani might have ended the season as player of the year but Verratti certainly did not go unnoticed. The young Italian playmaker had a lot to prove this year and while the season as a whole was nothing short of a disappointment, Verratti can be proud of what he did for the club and the future ahead of him as long as he keeps his performances and determination consistent.
By: Louis Jacques/@Positionista