Why Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe are PSG's biggest strength -- and weakness
All the grumbling about Neymar's diving obscures an important fact: He's the fulcrum of probably the most glittering attack in soccer today. Paris Saint-Germain usually feature him and Kylian Mbappe just behind the Uruguayan Edinson Cavani.
PSG paid a total of €466 million for the "MCN" trio, all of whom featured prominently in the FC 100 for 2018. Remarkably, that regularly seems a fair price, at least by today's standards. Much too good for the French league, each man is averaging a fraction over a goal a game domestically, while in the Champions League they have seven in five games between them.
Each of the three is a star who could reasonably expect to have an entire attack built around him, as Barcelona does for Messi. But that's precisely PSG's problem: The club expects the trio to pull their weight more or less as equals. This isn't happening in part because Neymar blatantly doesn't regard Cavani as an equal. And so PSG's greatest strength is also the biggest liability.
Thomas Tuchel, who became PSG's coach at the end of last season, moved Neymar from the wing to the No.10 role, saying: "We must try to create a structure that lets him express himself perfectly." And Neymar now does. So does Mbappe at his side. Only Cavani doesn't.
The outward signs of tension are the occasional rows between Cavani and Neymar, for each man incarnates his own country's ideal of the game.
The Brazilian, a master of dribbles, flicks, back-heels and short passes, sometimes looks as if he is playing indoor soccer. The Uruguayan, from a small country that doesn't expect to compete on skill with neighboring Brazil or Argentina, exudes ganas (desire) and grinta (grit). Cavani has always been willing to do the running and defensive work in the service of even greater players: Zlatan Ibrahimovic for years in Paris, Luis Suarez for almost his entire career with Uruguay. In fact, Cavani could have been a world-class defender.
But measured by the standards of the world's best forwards, his touch is marginally lacking. A master at getting into scoring positions, he's not the best at converting them. You can see why the thoroughbred Neymar doesn't entirely respect the workhorse, at least not yet.
Last season against Lyon, when PSG got a penalty, Neymar tried to take the ball from Cavani. The Uruguayan held onto it but then missed the penalty. In a less-noticed incident during the same game, when Cavani was about to take a free-kick, Dani Alves grabbed the ball and passed it to his bosom pal, Neymar. Then, when PSG got a penalty against Dijon, with the score already 7-0 and Cavani poised to become the club's highest-ever scorer, Neymar insisted on taking the kick himself, to boos from the crowd.
Cavani, solitary by nature, seems particularly isolated in a PSG squad dominated by Brazilians. He has admitted: "Sometimes, in a team where there are lots of nationalities and different mentalities, it's hard to find a connection between everyone."
Teammates can dislike each other and still combine well on the field, but Neymar and Cavani do not combine well. You see this clearly in the big European ties -- really the only matches that count for PSG. In the team's first two Champions League games of the season, against Liverpool at Anfield (a 3-2 defeat) and then the 6-1 home thumping of Red Star Belgrade, Neymar didn't play a single pass to Cavani. (For his part, Cavani managed just six in the other direction.) Neymar didn't even try to send Cavani one. The Uruguayan was isolated again in their 2-1 home victory against Liverpool.
"Given their quality, it's bizarre they can't find each other several times a match," commented former French international Emmanuel Petit on French RMC Sport television. "It's not normal that there's no relationship."
Petit's colleague, the former France defender Willy Sagnol, hazarded an explanation: "Cavani isn't at ease in small spaces and Neymar is always looking for the small spaces."
Cavani would probably prefer service from the wings, but Neymar and Mbappe have clustered more centrally this season. Neymar occasionally finds Cavani in the acres of space allowed by most French opponents, but in the Champions League you see the Brazilian's preferred game: on the left flank, with Mbappe hovering nearby him, he turns his man and flicks the ball through for the young speedster.
The Frenchman and Brazilian are always praising each other in interviews and are combining well: they've assisted each other five times in Ligue 1 (three for Mbappe, two for Neymar) and nine across all competitions (five for Mbappe, four for Neymar). A Neymar-to-Mbappe counterattack created PSG's second, winning goal against Liverpool in November: Mbappe raced through and crossed low for Cavani, who, with almost his only chance of the game, shot directly against keeper Alisson. Neymar, following up, netted the rebound.
Part of Cavani's frustration is that he has to do almost all the frontline's defensive work by himself. When PSG lose possession, he drops back, tackles and even guides teammates to their defensive positions. Mbappe and Neymar are generally willing to retreat a bit, at least in the handful of games against big teams, but then tend to loaf around waiting for someone else to win them the ball.
Samuel Eto'o, the great Cameroonian forward, remarked: "We know Neymar can dribble past the whole stadium but one wants to see him defend, run after a defender, cover kilometers to do the pressing. Cavani is the only attacker doing it. It's not enough."
This means PSG cannot do what the best modern teams do: press opponents, or even, most of the time, win the ball.
PSG failed to buy a No. 6 (or holding midfielder) this season, further evidence that the club over-invests in the forward line relative to the rest of the side. Now the coach is trying to convert center-back Marquinhos into a "six" instead. The Brazilian ran so much against Liverpool that he had a cramp attack after 70 minutes. None of PSG's other midfielders is a natural tackler; when Liverpool had the ball in the Parc des Princes, the Parisians mostly just sat back and watched. A team that's better in possession than Liverpool (think: Barcelona) could have exacted more punishment.
Cavani, 31, has given PSG his best years and for little sporting recompense. When Tuchel eventually reinforced PSG's defenses against Liverpool, after 66 minutes, the player he took off was the Uruguayan: the lowest-status figure of his front three. Mbappe then moved to centre-forward and Neymar instantly began trying to find him. The following Sunday, poor Cavani was benched for the game at Bordeaux.
After 14 straight league wins, PSG drew 2-2 and dropped its first domestic points of the season -- they drew their next game 1-1 at Strasbourg, too -- but those results won't have kept anyone in Paris awake. The team is still 10 points clear of Lille in second place, and with two games in hand.
A sixth Parisian league title in the last seven seasons could easily arrive before the end of the winter, yet so far it has been a humiliating season for PSG, which tends to view itself as an international team that has the bad luck to be based in France. Since few foreigners care about the French league, most international headlines have been negative.
After seven years of cash injections, the Qatari owners are tired of never even getting to the Champions League semifinals. They want the world's most expensive forward line to take them all the way. They may be disappointed once again.