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Can Tuchel stick with PSG’s ‘Fantastic Four’?

by comsmedia

Paris Saint-Germain came out of their double-header against Monaco with four points and seven goals scored, while Thomas Tuchel was given plenty to ponder as he tries to fit his ‘Fantastic Four’ into the same line-up.
Talk of the Quatre Fantastiques of Neymar Jr, Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María and Mauro Icardi has filled column inches in the French sporting press at the start of 2020, and taken up hours of airtime on television and radio panel shows. It also featured prominently on the latest edition of Le Beau Jeu, the official Ligue 1 podcast, released in between the two games in four days between Ligue 1 Conforama’s most powerful club and the only club to deny them the league title in recent years.

These back-to-back fixtures brought together the two most prolific attacks in the French game, and PSG and Monaco did not disappoint neutrals with a 3-3 draw at the Parc des Princes last Sunday being followed by a 4-1 win for the capital side at the Stade Louis II on Wednesday.

Paris emerged from the games eight points clear of second-placed Olympique de Marseille at the top of the table. If Monaco claimed a rare point for a visiting side to the Parc des Princes, PSG hit back by ending the principality side’s run of six straight home league wins. But, with the UEFA Champions League last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund coming into view, what will Tuchel have learned from the last week as he ponders whether to stick with his all-star attacking quartet or adopt a more conservative approach?

Rein in the full-backs

Between the two games, Tuchel made four changes. Out went the injured Marquinhos, Thomas Meunier and Juan Bernat from the defence, while in midfield Marco Verratti dropped to the bench. Colin Dagba, Presnel Kimpembe and Layvin Kurzawa came into the back line, and Verratti’s spot in midfield was taken by teenager Tanguy Kouassi. However, his front four, and the 4-4-2 system, remained unchanged.

While those changes were in part enforced, it was clear from Sunday’s game that the desire of both full-backs – Meunier on the right and Bernat on the left – to get forward left PSG exposed against opponents with quality of their own in the final third. That is something Monaco certainly boast with wide men Gelson Martins and Keita Baldé supporting Wissam Ben Yedder up front. It is also something Dortmund have in abundance, especially having just added Norwegian prospect Erling Braut Haaland to an attack already featuring Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho and more.

The 3-3 draw – the first time PSG had conceded three goals in a home league game in more than nine years – also highlighted Verratti’s limits when required to act as a holding midfielder. Kouassi, just 17 and starting a Ligue 1 Conforama match for the first time, offered considerable physical impact in Monaco and contributed to a more dominant performance from PSG, even if Verratti set up a goal for Pablo Sarabia within moments of coming on.

“We needed what he brought us against these opponents. We have confidence in him, although he played for the under-19s on Sunday so was maybe a bit tired,” said Tuchel, but it is hard to imagine Kouassi suddenly becoming a regular in the biggest games. Speaking of the changes in general, Tuchel added: “We needed to make a few adjustments and show that we were capable of beating this team. We didn’t come up against the same counters as on Sunday, because we protected and pressed better.”

Di María makes defensive difference

That was despite Neymar, Mbappé, Di María and Icardi all starting by the Mediterranean, just as they had done 72 hours earlier. If the greatly improved defensive discipline of Neymar had already been noted, it was the performance of Di María which really caught the eye on Wednesday. The Argentine – loved by Tuchel, who has called him “reliable, very competitive with a superb mentality” – spent much of the evening tracking back and tucking inside, pressing and helping to win the ball back. He also set up the opening goal for Mbappé for good measure – his 50th assist in Ligue 1.

Despite that, and despite Icardi proving largely anonymous, there must be concerns for Di María that he would be the man to drop out should Tuchel decide to revert to the supposedly safer 4-3-3. Then again Di María showed just why the 4-4-2 can work even with the Quatre Fantastiques all on the field.

The quartet has 61 goals between them this season after Mbappé’s late goal that capped PSG’s win on Wednesday and which was also his team’s 50th in the league this season. Paris have scored 37 times in their last eight matches in all competitions, a fearsome record which leads to the obvious question: if you have such an attacking arsenal, then why not use it?

“I think we are talking a bit too much about the front four,” insisted Mbappé. “It’s like we’re part of a five-a-side team, but we are an 11-a-side team. We have very good players, but all this about the ‘Fantastic Four’, it’s not really our thing. We just want to win trophies. We’ll leave the superlatives to those on the outside.”

And Cavani in all this?

Tuchel has a decision to make, as neither he nor his club can afford another exit from the Champions League in the first knockout round. PSG also have to go to last season’s runners-up Lille and play at home to Lyon – two of their toughest fixtures domestically – before the Dortmund first leg on February 18. Finding the right balance is vital.

On the one hand, modest Bundesliga teams like Union Berlin and SC Paderborn have exposed Dortmund defensively recently. On the other hand, Lucien Favre’s side have shut out Barcelona in the Champions League this season and average 2.4 goals a game in the Bundesliga (not far off PSG’s 2.5). They are capable of defending, and they can certainly attack.

The other question surrounds Edinson Cavani – Icardi has shown that he will not score in every game, so is there really no room for the Uruguayan to be given a chance again in the starting line-up? PSG’s all-time record goal-scorer is tantalisingly close to 200 Ligue 1 goals after all, and if he is not to be allowed to leave in the January transfer window, surely Tuchel could use him more regularly than he has in recent weeks? Time will tell…

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