Paris Saint-Germain saw the arrival of German tactician Thomas Tuchel in the summer to replace Unai Emery, who then pitched his tent at Arsenal. Tuchel was expected to bring about a change in the way the Paris superclub functioned, both on and off the pitch; making PSG a better team tactically, while also establishing control over a dressing-room that looked like it was in the hands of a few players.
His stint at Borussia Dortmund also showed that he was not afraid of trusting younger players with opportunities, and the World Cup gave him the chance to do so in Paris as well. PSG’s first three games of this season have seen Tuchel give appearances to a clutch of young starlets, with the likes of Timothy Weah, Colin Dagba, Antoine Bernede and Stanley N’Soki all featuring heavily. This is an interesting approach, as Tuchel has a number of world-class stars at his disposal, yet seems to favour playing some of the home-grown youngsters instead. Whether this is because the German feels that younger players are more receptive towards his tactical ideas, or if there are more practical FFP-based concerns at play here is hard to guess at the moment.
What is clear though, is that Tuchel has most certainly shaken things up in Paris, and one of the ways in which he has achieved this has been by giving PSG’s youth a chance, one they have not had in recent years.
We will now take a look at some of these youngsters and their respective styles of play.
Stanley N’Soki was the subject of much transfer speculation over the summer, as he was reportedly Rafa Benitez’s number one target at left-back. He also allegedly turned down a contract renewal offer from PSG, but events over the start of the season may have convinced him that his future is in Paris after all. The 19-year had only one appearance for the PSG senior side before this season started but played the full 90 minutes in both the Trophée des Champions win over Monaco, as well as the opening league game against Caen. N’Soki is the archetypal modern fullback, extremely comfortable when on the attack, and he showed this side of his game with two assists against Monaco. His touchmaps from both the matches mentioned above demonstrate the attacking nature of his game.
N’Soki showed his incredible physical qualities for both assists – for the first, he made a run in behind the Monaco defensive line before crossing for Neymar, while for the second, he easily shrugged off the covering Monaco defender before storming into the box and laying the ball off for Timothy Weah to convert. This does not imply that N’Soki is vulnerable defensively; across the two games, the youngster made 6 tackles and 6 interceptions. However, he is prone to lapses in concentration, as the image below shows –
Nevertheless, it has been an impressive start to N’Soki’s career. While fellow academy graduate Colin Dagba took over his role for the second league game against Guingamp, it seems as though former first-choice Layvin Kurzawa is not in favour under the new regime, and thus this represents a golden opportunity for N’Soki to stake his claim for a regular starting role.
Another one to emerge from the Paris Saint-Germain Academy, Antoine Bernede is a central midfielder by trade, who has shot to prominence after starting both of PSG’s league games so far. The youngster has been likened to compatriot Adrien Rabiot, owing to his nationality and the fact that both of them have come through the ranks at PSG. There are similarities to their game, although Bernede is a more conservative passer, and looks to keep the ball moving at a high tempo rather than seek out the killer pass. He averaged a pass completion rate of 93.5% across the two games and did not look overawed at all while (literally) in the middle of the action.
As his touchmaps given above demonstrate, Bernede played two different roles in the two games. The first game against Caen saw him play as the right-sided midfielder, with Lassana Diarra as the holding player, while Bernede was the holding player against Guingamp. He fit into both roles seamlessly, and that sort of flexibility will be crucial to his development going forward. The most impressive aspect about the youngster was his positioning – he took up excellent positions in both roles, and knew where to be to receive the ball or snuff out danger if required.
Bernede certainly has a long way to go in the game, but with the departure of Thiago Motta from the playing staff, and a manager who is not afraid to give young players a chance, this may be the season where this French kid makes waves across Europe.
PSG do not lack quality in the full-back areas: Dani Alves and Thomas Meunier compete on the right, while Layvin Kurzawa was, until recently, the preferred choice on the left. In such a scenario, it is refreshing that a 19-year old fullback has broken through to the first-team, and played the full 90 minutes in all three of PSG’s games so far. Colin Dagba has been the surprise breakout star at PSG this season, given the aforementioned quality they possess at fullback, but his versatility has helped him out here – he started the game against Guingamp at left-back after the return of Thomas Meunier, having played at right-back in the previous couple of games. Like his fellow youngster N’Soki, Dagba is comfortable on the attack but has not posted the defensive numbers yet to truly convince in the role. Dagba has made only three successful tackles and two interceptions across two games in Ligue 1, which suggests a need to work on the defensive side of his game. His touch maps for the two games show that he has been comfortable enough on either flank –
Dagba is fast and direct with the ball at his feet, always looking to take his man on before drilling a cross in. He has shown a preference for fast, whipped crosses, which catch defenders off-guard and often lead to chances from half-clearances. However, it would do him well to develop some variety, especially once Edinson Cavani starts playing regularly, as El Matador is fearsome in the air. Nevertheless, Dagba has been impressive in the short stint that we have seen so far; only time will tell if he manages to keep his more experienced colleagues out of the side.
Easily the most high-profile of these youngsters, owing to his surname, Timothy Weah has had a stunning start to his career, scoring his first competitive goal in the Trophée des Champions game against Monaco, and following it up with his first league goal in the season opener versus Caen. The fact that he is the son of the legendary George Weah, who had a spell with PSG in the ’90s, has heaped a lot of pressure and expectation on the young man’s shoulders, but so far, he looks like a duck in water, slotting in seamlessly into the side to lead the line in Cavani’s absence.
Weah is not a typical number 9; he tends to drop deep and pull wide to link up with teammates and pull the opposition defensive line out of shape. His heat map for this season demonstrates this well –
This style of play allows him to create space for teammates to burst into, as opposition defenders either move up the pitch and concede space behind, or stay deep and open up space in front of them.
Weah is an intelligent forward at the start of his career and has shown that he has the tactical understanding to play in Tuchel’s system. Whether he gets enough opportunities in remains to be seen; attack is an area where PSG are extremely well-stocked. Nevertheless, he has done his chances no harm with his performances so far, and Tuchel has an able deputy ready and willing to step up when required.
PSG are the last club one would expect to have a bunch of homegrown youngsters in their first-team squad. However, a combination of potential FFP concerns and a manager who believes in trusting the potential of youth has meant that this season has seen a number of kids from the academy make the step up. It will be interesting to chart their journey through this season, as PSG attempt to change their approach towards squad-building, and they could have a number of future stars on their hands if they manage to handle them correctly.