Last weekend, Paris Saint-Germain finally looked to be free-flowing in Ligue 1. So often this season, they’ve just about got themselves over the line or had a few moments of brilliance that earned them the three points but their 5-0 demolition of Angers felt like them hitting their stride.
The main absentee? Neymar.
Admittedly, they had plenty of expensive talent on the field that should rightfully kick middle-tier French sides to the curb, but they haven’t done so quite as convincingly in the past. So, is there an argument to be had that, at least domestically, the Brazilian is a luxury that’s holding them back?
For starters, his removal from the starting line-up changed PSG’s shape to the benefit of a number of players.
The main profiteer was Kylian Mbappé, who played more centrally as an abstract striking partnership with Edinson Cavani. Back in his preferred role that saw him shine at Monaco, he was yet again a menace running in behind the defensive line and earned his two-goal haul with aplomb.
That, in turn, allowed Dani Alves more space to move into and be more creative in the final third. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that now he not only has more room in front of him with Mbappé in-field, he also has more options to choose from when picking out a ball to create havoc in the opposition penalty area.
Julian Draxler is also another that looked strong without Neymar in the line-up. The German often enjoys drifting into that hole around 20 yards out to the left of the box, a position that Neymar loves to occupy when he’s creating or cutting inside from the left channel.
In this narrower 4-2-2-2, he was able to play in the kind of positions he thrives in more often. With Javier Pastore dropping deep or offering width whenever the team needed it, there was much more of a fluency to them on the left side of the pitch that can often seem stagnated when people run away from Neymar in similar positions.
This translates to the midfield too, that just seemed more controlled. Adrien Rabiot is beginning to relish his destroyer role yet isn’t being restricted by it, able to have the freedom to push out into the space Draxler often occupies in the 4-2-3-1 formation in transition.
While those of whom have seen their Champions’ League displays would scream that this is what this team does with Neymar too, they have only seen the score lines in Ligue 1, not the matches themselves. Too often, PSG are plodding about in the final third as they try to overcome 10-man defences, attempting too much individual skill rather than working as a collective to break opponents down.
Without the 25-year-old Brazilian international marshalling the troops, they exuded more confidence and played with more freedom. That comes from playing in their more natural roles, rather than marching to the samba beat on the left.
Having said that, this is a one-game example. The last time Neymar missed a game in the league? They drew 0-0 against Montpellier, so they need to do a bit more than this to prove any theory.
The real positive that should come from this is Unai Emery is proving he has the flexibility to morph this side into a totally different beast with whichever line-up they can put out there. No Neymar? No problem, they are still one of the deadliest teams in Europe.
And in the end, what a great luxury Neymar is to have. 11 goals and seven assists in 12 appearances across all competitions? No matter which way you try to twist it, that’s a match-winner and if they can meld him into the mix they showed last weekend, this team could be a frightening prospect for anyone in the world.