An Old-New Role For Ángel Di María?
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Bayern München
Before the game, we all heard the clichés :
Two champions of “farmer leagues”.
Nouveau-riche vs. Old Money. French Galacticos vs. German Industry.
The stage was set for the 2020 Champions League Final.
In fairness, their joint achievement in reaching this year’s UEFA Champions League Final is both impressive, considering the current devastating worldwide health crisis but also, fairly or otherwise, subject to calls for the dreaded asterisk. From the quarter-final on, these teams competed in one-legged ties, not forced through the rigors of obtaining a result over two matches, one at home and one away. So, instead of playing in five games, and at least two of those in hostile environments, they played three behind closed doors. It may simply be up to personal judgement as to how to view this year’s competition.
Although there was only one goal, it was an enjoyable game and intriguing on multiple levels. From PSG’s tactic to force the Bavarians to play out from the back on their left side, forcing Manuel Neuer onto his slightly weaker foot and putting pressure on the less polished but exciting fullback Alphonso Davies’ in possession to a heartwarming performance by Juan Bernat, former Bayern Munich player once ridiculed by Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, to Kingsley Coman scoring against his boyhood club and several other storylines, this game may not have lived up to pre-match scoring predictions (which final does?) but it certainly delivered in other aspects.
That being said, let’s have a look at the game itself.
Both teams lined up in their habitual formations, with Keylor Navas deemed fit for the match for the Parisians and Leandro Paredes keeping his place in midfield with Marco Verratti watching from the substitutes’ bench. Hansi Flick brought Coman in for Perisic but otherwise, the lineups and formations were straightforward.
PSG, although with less possession, that misleading statistic, looked to be on equal footing with their opponents. They were far from poor, especially in the first half. PSG defended well, especially in the first half. Di María and Mbappé worked hard on their flanks defensively. The team was more concentrated and alert in the defensive transition and made sure that Bayern’s attack was more blunted than in most games this Champions League season. When they had the ball, they managed to look dangerous and could have scored on a number of occasions, through all three of their frontmen. However, they spurned every single one of their chances and Manuel Neuer reminded everyone, including this writer, why he has been the standard-bearer for his position for the past decade. Big save after big save was made, while the PSG frontline failed to find the goal.
The Bayern captain was not, however, the only pivotal factor in the game.
The differences between the two teams were functionality and efficiency. In terms of talent and skill both teams are at the top of the game, but Bayern have that classic/cliché German ruthlessness and pragmatism. At their best, everything they do is boiled down to the simplest and purest goal in football : score more than the opposition. It doesn’t matter who scores or who assists, so long as the ball finds the back of the opposition net. The contrast with the French team was stark. There is a split on the pitch as much as off the pitch between their frontline and the rest of the team. If not more so. They have arguably the most talented front three in the world and one of the most accomplished, with a World Cup, an Olympics gold medal, multiple Champions League titles, La Liga titles, Ligue 1 titles and a bevy of domestic cups successes between them. However, in the colors of PSG, they have never been able to make it click.
Even this interrupted and strange season in which they reached the final, may have that warped perception. This is a dangerously good team, but also a team that has yet to reach maximum functional potential. The victory against Atalanta was exciting but papered over cracks. Neymar’s outstanding and yet unnecessary sixteen dribbles, the popular statistic that has travelled the world, exemplify this. Did he need to complete sixteen dribbles? Perhaps, but unlikely. Were they all in the most effective and efficient areas? Certainly not. Were they helpful? Somewhat.
That is where we find the issue. Neymar, whether playing through the middle or on the left, descends deep into PSG’s midfield to receive the ball often in front of the opposition midfield line. He is their best dribbler and alongside only Lionel Messi in his ability. However, like his former Argentine teammate, his gravitational pull is almost too strong. His teammates immediately give him the ball as soon as he enters the area, their area. Now one of the best attackers in the world is dribbling the ball 50 meters from the opposition goal— or at times facing his own— instead of 25. He can’t score from there, particularly not with defenders and now midfielders barring his way to goal.
In basic terms, too often he is relied upon as the creator and the scorer, although in the last couple of years that last mantle has been well shouldered in tandem with Kylian Mbappé. Because he receives so much of the ball but specifically because he holds onto it so much, Neymar is fouled at an excessive amount. Some of it is provoked, some of it is out of frustration and other times he draws his opponent in, baiting him. Those fouls, though, slow the game and break the flow, which is often what the opposition is aiming to do.
It happened with Atalanta to the point where the only way PSG would go through when they were down with 15 minutes to go was through exactly what happened : a shocking, near-miraculous turnaround. The need for those two goals in 3 minutes could have been avoided however. The Brazilian maestro spent too much time in midfield trying to dribble his way around and past multiple opponents to then be in a position to deliver an assist or score himself. That is without taking into account the mental and physical toll of trying to do so much by himself.
PSG have no natural central midfielder who can break lines with a dribble on the level of Neymar. Not Paredes, not Marquinhos, not Gueye, not Ander Herrera (who had a very good game in the final) and not Verratti (who came in and struggled in his return from injury). They need one however. Verratti and Paredes, in particular, can expertetly break the opposition press and midfield line with a pass at ease. Paredes demonstrated this in the semifinal against Leipzig. That midfield, however, still lacks the necessary acceleration and change of pace to break lines with a dribble. The solution however, may already be in the team.
To find it, we must first look back at former PSG and Bayern Munich manager and successful Champions League-winning coach : Carlo Ancelotti. When the affable Italian tactician delivered the famed La Decima to Real Madrid he did so in a season in which he unleashed Ángel Di María in a left-sided central midfield role as part of a triangle with Luka Modric and Sami Khedira. Of course, the three men in front of that midfield were Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, the BBC. PSG may not have those three attackers but they do have two of the most exciting attacking talents in the world, in Kylian Mbappé and Neymar. Inserting Di María into midfield alongside Verratti and one of Marquinhos, Paredes, Gueye, or Herrera could be the key to unlocking the box that PSG has been trying to open for the better part of a decade. The Argentine would provide the dribble-drive penetration they lack, more press-resistant ability, a ball carrier for Neymar and the rest of the frontline and the work ethic would not drop. It would likely rise up. The Argentine’s work rate may be under-appreciated and may have even dipped in the confines of a less-demanding league but the former Benfica man still appears to have that insatiable desire to be involved and affect the game however he can.
When Di María was first put in that central midfield role in Spain, there were skeptics but by the end of that Champions League year many had claimed him as the best player of the season and, crucially, the most important. This can be replicated in the French capital.
They could also try to rectify this midfield issue another way, by adding more of a midfield presence with one of their fullbacks as Kimmich did this as the game wore on. It is a tactic developed and popularized by Pep Guardiola during his time with Bayern but that requires a particular sort of player and a significant amount of teaching and learning. It also wouldn’t lead directly to more dribble-penetration but might help in their defensive transition. With Di María, however, they have a potential in-house solution. He could be the link that PSG has needed.
That is not to suggest that that one change will hand them a title. There are still other issues in this PSG squad. It is individualistic and needs defensive improvement. Mauro Icardi does not appear to fit Thomas Tuchel’s desired style of play (and may not suit most big clubs’ current style of play) and they are losing leaders and legends in Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva. This may lead to Marquinhos taking up his natural central defensive role which leaves a hole in midfield, although they do have numbers there. There is debate as to whether the rest of the defensive line is to the quality necessary to win a Champions League but they did at least make it to the final.
After such a loss in one of the most famous of sports finals, a few players may be seriously considering leaving for greener pastures. Or they may have. The pandemic makes that difficult. Key PSG players are almost naturally expensive. The climate makes them even more so. Replacing Tuchel— the career of a manager is precarious at best anywhere and perhaps especially so at PSG— would be costly as well. However, it is PSG and with Massimiliano Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino still available they may pull the trigger.
PSG must be applauded for successfully bringing along players such as Presnel Kimpembe and helping develop the young German Thilo Kehrer (who, despite being given a torrid time by Coman, has improved since his arrival), and for the astute signing of players Herrera and Bernat. This team can still rise again and it wouldn’t be the first time. Liverpool did it most recently, failing in one final and going on to win the next.
PSG must now lick their wounds once again and reembark on their quest for Champions League glory. Their solution, however, might just lie in a simple tweak.