Top flight European football is back, with the French Ligue 1 kickoff a day before the Premier League gets underway. The reigning French champs PSG opened the season on the road against Bastia, playing its first league game since Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Manchester. Here are my observations from PSG’s season opener.
- I was underwhelmed after PSG had such a strong and goal-filled preseason, which included a convincing victory against Lyon. But Bastia presented a different challenge, combining the un-preseason like tactic of parking the bus with the un-preseason like mentality to rough up the game. The result was somewhat expected if you think about it: A Zlatan-less PSG searching for who the new reference point up top will be for them to help break down these defensive teams. The obvious answer is Cavani, and with his exclusion, it isn’t so surprising that PSG were a bit sluggish in the opener.
- To that point, I thought Ben Arfa was quite poor in his debut league performance for PSG. Perhaps he can do a job against teams that won’t be so negative with its style of play, but I think he is better a bit off the front man, perhaps as a backup to Pastore. Like the rest of the front players, Ben Arfa seemed to get more touches in midfield and in wide areas than he did up top, and because of that PSG never really threatened to break down Bastia with link up play down the middle.
- Playing wide isn’t necessarily a problem; I thought the width that Kurzawa and Aurier provided in this game was fantastic. But when you are starting Ben Arfa up top and the only player good in the air in the team is David Luiz, then that width is a bit wasted because crosses are taken off the menu. Cavani would have changed this, but perhaps it was a bit concerning that PSG couldn’t come up with some different ideas on the fly that would have allowed them to break down Bastia with the team they had, because with PSG’s quality you’d expect that level of ingenuity and ability.
- I thought Di Maria was good in this game. He started off on the left but ventured all over the pitch, including switching sides with Lucas on a few occasions. There were almost no chances for PSG to counter, so Di Maria’s brilliant direct passing wasn’t involved, but he made the game’s only goal by playing Jese Rodriguez through and was probably PSG’s most dangerous playmaker for the entirety of the game.
- Speaking of Jese, I thought Emery’s subs were fantastic in this game, even if they were obvious. Dropping Ben Arfa for Jese gave the team a bit of juice, with Jese staying higher up the pitch and getting into the area for the best chance of the game (would have been nice for him to debut with a goal, but Kurzawa took the follow up beautifully).
Verrati’s insertion changed the game immediately; his long balls were magnificent and Bastia couldn’t press the ball off of him. He provided something different in the deep-lying role than Rabiot or Motta did and it remains clear how vital Verrati is to the squad. Motta had a fairly Motta performance, picking up a yellow with a couple of old-man fouls in midfield and recycling possession on occasion, but without many attacks to break up, Verrati and Matuidi offered more to get PSG to the winner.
- Pastore didn’t do much for me in this game, which can be attributed to the clutter Bastia had in midfield. Pastore spent a lot of the game roaming around the pitch trying to find the space where he could most make an impact, but he wasn’t sharp and wasn’t really involved in any threatening attacks. Similar things could be said for Lucas, who lost the ball on a few occasions and didn’t show any of the potential PSG fans have been waiting on for years.
- At the back, like I said before, I thought Kurzawa and Aurier were brilliant in this game. They were constantly bombing forward, pretty much playing winger roles as Lucas and Di Maria cut inside to help move play along. I even remember Aurier making a run in the space between Ben Arfa and Lucas at one point; the full back’s involvement was heavy and necessary in this game.
- And then we get to my favorite (but not the best) player on the pitch from yesterday: Presnel Kimpembe. I saw him a couple of times in preseason but after watching him against Lyon and Bastia, I think this kid is going to be a great centre half one day. For a 21-year-old he is composed and comfortable on the ball and shows a willingness to drive the ball up the pitch when given space. We didn’t see him pressed much in this game, so who knows how he will react to that the rest of the season (when he plays, that is), but his potential is obvious. A few of his passes in this game were wayward or ill-advised, but he can correct those issues over time; he cannot, however, correct his natural instincts, and it looks like Kimpembe’s instincts are to be relaxed and contemplative on the ball. I’m not sure how much he will play this season with the Brazilian trio likely ahead of him on the depth chart, but he looks like he will be a starter for some club sometime soon.
- Bastia’s right winger Saint-Maximin was impressive doing work down the right hand side. With Kurzawa vacating that space, the 19-year-old looked dangerous flying down the touchline, but Kimpembe seemed to provide good cover. Diallo also made his presence known, if only because he had about three ridiculously selfish goes. He looked capable with the ball but didn’t seem to think twice about his next movement.