PSG���s First Defeat Of The Season Had Been Coming. It Arrived At Rennes

Despite a frustrating loss to Manchester City in the week, there was an air of celebration about PSG’s trip to Saint-Étienne on Sunday. The hosts, hamstrung by injuries and a lack of impactful signings this summer, had been largely uninspired under Claude Puel, even if they had experienced a slight upturn in form of late. Sergio Ramos made his long-awaited first start for the league leaders and it looked as if, even with Marco Verratti still absent, PSG could begin to have some sense of rhythm about their play.

Not topping their Champions League group is a disappointment, but the squad is now largely fit and starting to fire – as shown by Lionel Messi’s hat-trick of assists in the 3-1 win over Saint-Étienne, no mean feat even against 10 men. Perhaps progress could be made by using the league and cup matches between now and mid-March as a sort of tactical sandbox for Mauricio Pochettino. Indeed, there was already eager mention in L’Équipe of the potential to play with three at the back, with the more mobile Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe flanking Ramos.

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At least, that was the working theory until Neymar, who had been something of a passenger in the match, was forced off with an ankle injury two minutes from time. A scan this week will determine the length of time he is unavailable, but he’s unlikely to return in the calendar year. While not as serious as the metatarsal fractures that marred Neymar’s first two seasons in Paris, or indeed the combination of nagging muscular injuries that limited him to just 18 league matches last season, it’s another setback for Pochettino as he continues to be deprived of a fully fit first XI.

Or is it? There’s no doubting Neymar’s talent and his outsized contributions, especially domestically, where he has averaged a goal or assist roughly every 70 minutes since arriving in France. But might it be time to reevaluate his role as an automatic starter, at least in the current season?

His contract situation, having signed an extension through to 2025 – at which point he will be 33 – and his wages make him all but unmovable. He may prove to be an essential part of the team next season, with Messi and Ángel Di María another year older as well, and Kylian Mbappé potentially headed for the exit door this summer. But to what extent can the club reliably factor in a player who is still yet to play in more than 20 league matches in a season since making his move from Barcelona

Verratti is an obvious parallel, with the Italian’s penchant for both finding the referee’s notebook and picking up muscular injuries well documented. However, there’s no questioning his commitment or tactical ability. When fit, Verratti is ready to scrap and, even when it’s not ideal, he is comfortable working with a variety of midfield partners and in any number of systems.

Sergio Ramos gives Ángel Di María a hug after the Argentinian scored the decisive second goal against Saint-Etienne on the veteran defender’s long-awated PSG debut.
Sergio Ramos gives Ángel Di María a hug after the Argentinian scored the decisive second goal against Saint-Etienne on the veteran defender’s PSG debut. Photograph: Laurent Cipriani/AP

This, to be charitable, is not exactly the case for Neymar. While he can play as a No 10, to give him that role with Messi as an option is laughable, so he will continue to be deployed on the left. This is fine if the side play 4-3-3, with the industrious running of Idrissa Gueye or Ander Herrera offering cover, but that means there is no place for Di María, with Messi taking up a position on the right flank.

PSG are no strangers to playing with four attackers. Even the relatively conservative Thomas Tuchel played with one of Edinson Cavani or Mauro Icardi alongside Mbappé up top with Di María and Neymar on the wings, but that was with Juan Bernat and Thomas Meunier as full-backs. The Belgian had his detractors but he was a more assured defensive presence than Achraf Hakimi, despite the Moroccan’s gifts going forward.

The difference between Bernat and Nuno Mendes is similarly marked at left-back. The fact of the matter is that, with the Portuguese and Hakimi as first choices, PSG cannot play with two in midfield and four at the back, something that has been underscored time and again this season. With Neymar out, PSG might look to play Di María on the left flank in front of a three-man midfield, or Mbappé on the left with Icardi (when fit) leading the line.

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All of these options seem more palatable than the erratically brilliant but also woefully exposed 4-2-3-1 that Pochettino has preferred when Mbappé, Neymar, Di María and Messi are all fit. This leads us back to the options presented by the return to fitness of Ramos. Would a 3-4-3 with Hakimi and Mendes pushed higher up the pitch be solid enough to play Messi, Mbappé and Neymar across the front line?

Potentially, yes, but with the Brazilian injured, that luxury of time to settle on the right tactical balance is in short supply. Can Pochettino, and indeed the club’s Champions League aspirations, afford to wait for Neymar’s return?

The answer here is regrettably no – this team has been at its incisive best if not without Neymar, then at least in a 4-3-3. While one could make the argument that Di María, and not Neymar should be the odd man out if that’s the system Pochettino favours, the Argentinian’s performances since returning to full fitness (he inspired a comeback against Lille and put in another fine display this weekend) have eclipsed that of his fellow South American, to say nothing of his versatility and workrate.

So while Neymar’s bag of tricks, flicks, and dribbles may catch the eye, PSG must be driven by the imperative of Champions League success. This requires far more than the increasingly scattered moments of brilliance he offers. If this aspect of his play is not missed in the weeks to come, nor should it be on the European stage.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

St Etienne 1-3 PSG

Bordeaux 1-2 Brest

Lorient 0-2 Rennes

Monaco 1-1 Strasbourg

Reims 1-0 Clermont

Montpellier 0-1 Lyon

Marseille 1-0 Troyes

Lille 1-1 Nantes

Nice 0-1 Metz

Lens 2-2 Angers 

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Talking points

Another week, another goal for Gaëtan Laborde. The Rennes striker followed a hat-trick in the Europa Conference League with the opener against Lorient in a scrappy derby. Only Jonathan David has found the net more often in Ligue 1 this season. With Bruno Génésio’s side now sitting second, fit-again Jérémy Doku back in the fold, and no European games of consequence until March, might the Breton side have edged above Nice as putative favourites to come second? The two teams square off on Sunday week in an eagerly anticipated encounter.

Gaëtan Laborde celebrates after scoring for Rennes in their 2-0 win against Lorient.
Gaëtan Laborde celebrates after scoring for Rennes in their 2-0 win against Lorient. Photograph: Stéphane Mahé/Reuters

Brest are still only 12th, testament to how badly their season had started, but Michel Der Zakarian’s side have won their last four matches. After thumping European hopefuls Lens 4-0 last weekend, they beat Bordeaux 2-1 on Sunday. Jérémy Le Douaron, who had been plucked from amateur football before last season, impressed with a brace, the second a fine finish. He offered a potent reminder of why Der Zakarian has become synonymous with attractive football over the past four seasons. Sterner tests lie ahead, including a trip to Marseille at the weekend, but for now Brest are flying.

Finally, Ghislain Konan scored a vital late winner for Reims as they beat Clermont 1-0. Óscar Garcia’s side are weathering a spate of injuries that bedevilled them earlier in the season. For their opponents, however, things look far more grim – Clermont have lost five matches in a row and are struggling without veteran defender Cédric Houtondji. With Lens, Montpellier and Angers to come before the break, things are not looking any easier for Pascal Gastien’s side. Their maiden spell in the top flight may be over as quickly as it began.

Pos>TeamP>GD>Pts>
1PSG152040
2Rennes151428
3Nice151326
4Marseille14926
5Lens15725
6Angers15422
7Lyon14122
8Strasbourg15620
9Monaco15120
10Nantes15019
11Montpellier15-119
12Brest15018
13Lille15-318
14Reims15-216
15Lorient15-1015
16Bordeaux15-1013
17Troyes15-1013
18Clermont Foot15-1213
19Metz15-1312
20St Etienne15-1412