Neymar and Mbappe shine again but PSG must improve despite Anderlecht rout
Only the stunning efficiency of the forwards allowed the Ligue 1 leaders to secure a victory that hid a great number of weaknesses.
At the halfway stage of the Champions League groups, Paris Saint-Germain have a better record than anyone else in Europe. Unai Emery’s side have played three games, scored 12 goals and have yet to concede.
Their latest success came on Wednesday evening in Belgium, where they defeated Anderlecht 4-0. All of their lavish front three of Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar were on the scoresheet, while a fourth arrived late on from substitute Angel Di Maria.
On paper, it was a straightforward success, yet the reality was that their performance was, for a good deal of the game, sloppy and somewhat disjointed. It was, however, an occasion upon which the vast sums spent on their forward line were justified as they transformed an awkward match into an easy win.
The contributions of Neymar and Mbappe were especially strong.
The Brazilian was a wispish presence across the front line, drifting into space when he pleased and inevitably challenging opponents with his direct style. With 17 goals and assists to his credit already this season, he has more than Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen and Mesut Ozil combined.
Cavani, meanwhile, typically loitered on the fringes, with his smart movement getting him into numerous good scoring chances. His evening could easily have been more productive, though he had two efforts chalked out for narrow, but probably correct, offside calls, while he also rattled the bar with a fierce shot.
Furthermore, the offensive three have scored nine times between them in three matches – more goals than 29 of the other 31 teams in the competition. PSG have also led for 246 from a possible 270 minutes in Europe this term. The figures are staggering.
Given these facts, it would seem to anyone who had not viewed the game that the result was entirely just. Anderlecht, despite propping up Group B without a single point or even goal, more than held their own for over an hour.
“There’s progress to be made on a collective level,” Emery admitted after the game. “In this kind of match, it’s important to improve the little details.”
To that end, the Spaniard would have been thoroughly disappointed with his side’s performance in the opening period. Had it not been for the forward’s sparkling efficiency, they could easily have gone in at the break behind, although Mbappe had a novel excuse for their troubles.
“We fell asleep because we scored too early,” he said. “We dropped the pace too quickly.”
Indeed, they looked like a side who believed they would win too easily after the 18-year-old’s early strike, which made him the first player aged under 20 to reach that milestone in the Champions League.
Defensively, PSG were lacklustre, tested by the pace of Henry Onyekuru down the left, and for once relied upon goalkeeper Alphonse Areola to make a string of decent saves. A superior opposition would have taken advantage of their generosity.
“For a moment, we lost our way,” the coach said.
That is something of an understatement; it was not until Neymar put the game beyond doubt with a third goal in the 66th minute that the French side really found a higher gear.
“I had a lot of work to do today,” goalkeeper Areola said after the game, almost surprised by the volume of efforts that came his way.
Perhaps it was because a number of players were featuring for the first time following the international break, on which several picked up minor problems that saw them miss the 2-1 league win over Dijon on Saturday, but this was not the fluent PSG of the early weeks of the season.
There was a sense of arrogance to their play, but not in a positive way. Often, they were sloppy in possession, as if they were not fully concentrated.
It is a malady from which they have suffered in the past. A weak mentality was the chief reason they were eliminated from the competition in February at the last 16 stage by Barcelona, having won the first leg 4-0, and it appears there are still remnants of that problem in their play.
“We were efficient,” argued Marco Verratti after the game, but the truth of the matter is that against better opponents PSG would likely have been in a whole pile of bother after such a mediocre display.
Don’t be fooled by the scoreline, this was a much tighter match than the result might suggest – while the brilliance of the front three has hidden the problems that still lurk in PSG’s game.