This summer’s signings of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have firmly put Paris Saint-Germain back on the footballing map.
Last season was one of transition for the French capital outfit as they came to terms with the departure of previous talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Manchester United on a free transfer.
Although there were signs of a stronger collective than when the Swede ruled supreme at Parc des Princes, manager Unai Emery ultimately failed to lead his team out of Ibrahimovic and predecessor Laurent Blanc’s shadows, and they even finished second to Monaco in Ligue 1.
It was always going to take a superstar of the calibre of Neymar to reinvigorate Oryx Qatar Sports Investments’ once ambitious project and after the €222 million signing of the Brazilian and wonderkid Kylian Mbappe (on loan, then €180 million next summer), PSG look rejuvenated — at least on the surface.
Sporting director Antero Henrique and assistant Maxwell deserve huge praise for the work they did this summer to breathe new life into the team.
Not only did the pair lure Neymar and Mbappe to Parc des Princes, they also strengthened the defence and squad chemistry with the arrival of experienced right-back Dani Alves, and managed to replace recently retired Maxwell with Yuri Berchiche.
Henrique and Maxwell’s good work did not only extend as far as recruits. They also did well to move on from the likes of troubled right-back Serge Aurier, long-serving midfielder Blaise Matuidi, talented but inconsistent young forward Jean-Kevin Augustin and versatile full-back Youssouf Sabaly for good fees, while unwanted goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu was handed a free transfer.
On top of those sales, the duo wiped Jese Rodriguez, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Goncalo Guedes, Jonathan Ikone, Odsonne Edouard and Jean-Christophe Bahebeck’s salaries off the books in loan deals, while Maxwell’s wages were also removed by his conversion into a member of the backroom staff.
Despite the signings of Neymar, Mbappe, Alves and Berchiche, PSG also tried to bring in a new goalkeeper in Napoli’s Pepe Reina and a defensive midfielder in AS Monaco’s Fabinho. But both moves failed, leading many to pinpoint the two positions as weak points in Emery’s squad.
Between the sticks is a debatable area. Alphonse Areola and Kevin Trapp have struggled to impress but that is arguably down to the unnecessarily fierce competition the manager has created in a position that has long attracted hysteria in Paris any time a shot-stopper commits anything close to a mistake.
With Emery’s backing, both Areola or Trapp should perform more consistently because their confidence isn’t being smashed every five minutes.
Even though it was on Henrique and Maxwell’s summer shopping list, a new goalkeeper was not PSG’s big summer need. Instead, that was a defensive midfielder and, with no new recruit in that position, you could argue that the Ligue 1 giants failed in that area.
An intense pursuit of Monaco’s Fabinho proved fruitless, while Danilo Pereira remained with FC Porto, leaving PSG with Thiago Motta as the only true deep-lying midfielder in the squad.
Despite an embarrassment of riches in attack with Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler, as well as Neymar and Mbappe, midfield looks comparatively bare.
Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot are now guaranteed starters but neither excel in Motta’s role, while youngster Christopher Nkunku is also better further forward and Lorenzo Callegari has four minutes of Ligue 1 football to his name from last season and has not even received the confidence boost of a new contract.
It could all be part of a plan to ultimately change formation and enable Emery to work with his more familiar 4-2-3-1, which is less reliant on a defensive midfielder like Motta.
However, if the 4-3-3 remains Emery’s system of choice, Motta is either going to be overworked — concerning given his age (35) and declining quality of performance — or somebody might have to be moved forward from the defence to fill the gap.
It could have been worse, too. Henrique was initially unwilling to extend Motta’s contract and the veteran spent a few days at the start of July out of contract.
Had Henrique not changed his mind, PSG would have been another body short in an area that already looks threadbare even at this early stage of the season.