“Offensive identity is non-negotiable.” When he arrived at PSG, Luis Enrique made no secret of his intentions in terms of play. And this to the great pleasure of Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, now more interested in the idea of having “pleasure” in seeing his team play and build in the long term than through “immediate results”. “If we don’t think we can play offensively, we don’t come. This is my philosophy,” added the Spanish technician, obsessed with possession, control, mastery. A dogma which is not new for the former FC Barcelona coach. And that he managed to insinuate into the Parisian locker room little by little.
The figures speak for themselves, with 65% possession in the league (1st) and 62.5 in C1 (2nd). Except that “Lucho’s” speech gave rise to certain false ideas: possession is not necessarily synonymous with a rain of goals, and even less so in these famous possession phases. Éric Roy understood this well. “Facing this PSG team, you are often the most in danger when you have the ball,” summed up the Brest coach, after the 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes, in the championship, around ten days ago. The Bretons found the key in the second half, as in the first leg (PSG victory 3-2).
Before Act III, this Wednesday (9 p.m.) in the round of 16 of the Coupe de France, neither coach will be surprised by their counterpart's plans. “The advantage of playing this team twice in such a short time is that we know the difficulties we will encounter. They are one of the best teams in the championship, that's why they are third. We will have to be better with and without the ball compared to the last confrontation in order to bring the match to our field", swears Luis Enrique before this "very difficult match", a "final" for the 53-year-old technician, eager to “win as many trophies as possible” during his first season in Paris.
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Note that the data will be significantly different this time, knowing that Brest will have to do without the hub of its midfielder, Pierre Lees-Melou, while PSG will be deprived of Lucas Hernandez and one of its scorers from the return match, Randal Kolo Muani. Luis Enrique will nevertheless recover two of his offensive arrows, Bradley Barcola and Ousmane Dembélé, respectively suspended and spared during the victory in Strasbourg (1-2). Two of its best assets to shine in transition, the strong point of this paradoxical PSG. Because yes, more than during long phases of possession, it is when PSG recovers well, quickly and high that it is the most bleeding. Exactly like Roy said. No offense to Luis Enrique, who gets offended easily in recent weeks. “Everyone sees things in their own way. We have the ball. We are much stronger when we have the ball. The statistics are there. Anyone who doesn’t like it just doesn’t have to look at them,” squeaks the Iberian coach, who relies on the figures when it suits him and who recently recalled that he “didn’t sign for that ", that is to say playing against.
He continued: “Our game idea is very clear. The results reflect this, as do the content of the matches. I have no doubts about the way the team plays but that doesn't mean the opponent can't play better than us. There is an opponent. It happened in the championship and in C1. Afterwards, what people like more or less doesn't interest me much, I want my team to play the way I like it. The former Spanish coach cannot, however, change the nature of his players: they are almost all cut out for wide open spaces, more than for knitting in the opponent's area.
This is obviously true for Kylian Mbappé, who mechanically has less space, playing in the middle, but also for Barcola, Dembélé and Kolo Muani. Gonçalo Ramos is better able to serve in positional play, especially on centers and in pivot, but Luis Enrique has no confidence in him. It's getting worse and worse for the Portuguese, regularly confined to the bench, even when there are absentees up front. Marco Asensio took the opportunity to get the cherry with three goals in the last four matches.
Still, excessive possession should at least allow the Parisians to limit the number of opportunities the opponent has. Except that’s not necessarily the case. Particularly in the second half, they tend to drop in terms of intensity and rhythm. And this even if the opponents mechanically run more. “If you have possession and you circulate the ball adequately, the opponent will run more than you,” notes Luis Enrique, also ruling out any physical problem within his squad. One thing is certain: Paris Saint-Germain “made in Luis Enrique” will not start to play the counterattack and leave control to the opponent. “I didn’t sign for that,” he said again recently. Transitions and possession are condemned to go hand in hand in Luis Enrique's PSG. It is also on this type of rapid attacks that Paris has most often been dangerous, for example in the Champions League. It remains to find the right balance. Lately, it is rather the excitement that stands out, like Strasbourg, when Paris suffered around twenty shots.
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It remains to be seen whether Luis Enrique really has the squad to play the game he likes, whether up front or in the other areas of the game, where efforts must constantly be repeated to give the attackers ammunition. “The coach arrived with clear ideas… but with a lot of ideas. It takes time to digest all that, no matter how good the players are. But I think we're starting to see things that are interesting and that it's much more structured. We can see that there is something emerging, right? Afterwards, maybe I’m crazy,” smiled Mbappé, who has still not announced his decision on his future, in January, after the Champions Trophy. Time will tell if the painting is a work of art.
The C1 round of 16 against Real Sociedad, on February 14 and March 5, will give an idea. “The dynamic cannot be better,” argues Luis Enrique, whose team has not lost since Milan (2-1) in November. In the meantime, there’s no question of thinking about the European Cup right now: “I can’t think about the match after. There's only Brest, it's a final and all the players must be 100%, otherwise they won't be in the team. There is no match more important than Brest, otherwise my decisions would be very clear. The speech certainly is too, if nothing else.