Unai Emery’s first season as Paris Saint-Germain manager is not going according to plan.
Recruited to lift the club’s competitiveness on the pitch after Laurent Blanc’s trophy-laden but a little underwhelming tenure, the former Sevilla boss has seen his new team struggle.
The Parc des Princes is not used to defeats in the Qatar Sports Investments era and Emery has certainly delivered more than expected.
This is due in part to the increased quality of other Ligue 1 clubs.
AS Monaco are Europe’s most prodigious attacking team. They’ve scored an astonishing 54 goals in 18 league games, 21 more than Paris, and have grown immensely from last season.
OGC Nice, the Ligue 1 leaders, are a maturing side that has taken great sides in this campaign despite the offseason defection of Hatem Ben Arfa to PSG.
In their meetings with France’s first- and second-ranked teams so far this season, Paris have taken one and zero points, respectively.
Evidently the increased competitiveness of Le Championnat has been a factor in PSG‘s slide, but there are more significant issues.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Luiz were two of the most influential characters in the club’s recent golden era.
In three of Paris’ four consecutive league triumphs, the Swede was the division’s leading goalscorer and named player of the year while also scoring six goals in cup finals.
Luiz, a surprise arrival from Chelsea in 2014, made a rapid and deep impression in Paris.
Ibrahimovic won 12 trophies, while the Brazil international claimed eight in just 89 appearances.
It is not often that a club should lose two such integral players in the same transfer window, and it is from this past summer that so many of Paris’ issues stem.
Both are sorely missed—in terms of on-field contribution and leadership—but which player has proved the greater loss?
If one were making predictions before the season began, one would likely have tipped Ibrahimovic as the more substantial departure.
During his time in Paris, the forward reached a level of dominance usually reserved for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. When his team were bogged down by a dogged defence—as they have so often been in this campaign—Ibrahimovic was able to conjure a goal from nothing.
Edinson Cavani is flourishing as PSG‘s sole striker this season.
Thibault Camus/Associated Press/Associated Press
Partner in Crime: Thiago Silva’s form has collapsed without David Luiz.
Previously, he scored 81 goals in three seasons after largely being forced to play out wide by the presence of Ibrahimovic, but his 23 goals in 22 games are proof that he is excelling in a central role.
Simply put, though, the Uruguayan does not contribute nearly as much as the Manchester United man. Cavani does not drop deep to orchestrate play, and he lacks the physical strength and control that allowed Ibrahimovic to make Ligue 1 goalscoring look laughably easy.
An excellent goalscorer and an occasional striker of excellent goals, Cavani is one of the world’s finest forwards, but he is not Ibrahimovic. If his team-mates fail to create scoring chances, as has consistently happened this season, the South American can do little to contribute.
Ibrahimovic has been missed more than was expected, but his exit has not been the more influential of Paris’ offseason departures.
Instead, it is the sale of Luiz that is beginning to look much more ill conceived.
When rumours of a massive Chelsea bid emerged in the final days of the summer window, there was a mixture of mockery and disbelief. The deal was eventually struck for a reported £38 million, per the Guardian.
With club captain Thiago Silva remaining at the Parc des Princes and rising Brazilian star Marquinhos having completed a three-year apprenticeship often out of position at right-back, there seemed little cause for alarm.
PSG, of course, have no monetary concerns, but UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations mean that such a significant fee also made business sense. This now appears to have been a significant miscalculation, however.
Paris, who tend to dominate possession regardless of the opponent, spend a large amount of time with the ball in the opposition half of the field.
Given those parameters, they are uniquely exposed to the risk of the counter-attack. Full-backs Layvin Kurzawa and Serge Aurier are instructed to position themselves high up the pitch and attack constantly. This exacerbates Paris’ weakness on the break.
PSG‘s central defenders often find themselves outnumbered as their opponent seizes possession and switches quickly into attack.
Francois Mori/Associated Press/Associated Press
This Deal Keeps Getting Worse All The Time: David Luiz’s late summer exit must have surprised Unai Emery.
This is not a new factor, but Paris’ new-look defensive partnership is ill at ease in this situation.
Neither Silva nor Marquinhos likes to advance on the ball-carrier in this situation; both prefer to retreat and use their positioning to deny the opposition a shooting chance.
The problem with this approach is that the ball-carrier is free to pass to an overlapping team-mate arriving at speed. Flat-footed and backpedalling, neither Paris defender is able to adequately react and the goalkeeper is immediately exposed. This exact scenario has played out many times this season.
Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola has been poor this season. His confidence is shaken, and he has been too often beaten by saveable shots, but it is the errors of the defenders ahead of him that account for his poor statistics.
Paris’ No. 1 has conceded nine goals from the last 10 shots on target he has faced. Part of this is down to Areola‘s poor form, but the more significant factor is the quality of chances being offered up.
This is borne out by Emery’s near-constant selection of defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak in an attempt to protect his back line. The evident improvement when Presnel Kimpembe—a naturally aggressive front-foot defender—has played only serves to underline the problem.
The absences of Ibrahimovic and Luiz are both keenly felt by a struggling PSG.
Who Has Been the Bigger Loss for PSG?
The former Sweden international embodied the club’s imperious control of French football, and his exit hinted at a weakness that has been exposed. His aggression and steely attitude transferred itself on to some of his meeker team-mates, and Paris lack their aura of invincibility without him.
It is Luiz, though, whose exit has exposed greater flaws. Without him, Paris are brittle in defence and easily beaten on the counter. Ludogorets Razgrad, Nice, Montpellier and Guingamp have all exploited that weakness in less than a month.