The right-back position at Paris Saint-Germain has seen several ups and downs over the past few years. In 2014, Serge Aurier came with a lot of promise and dynamism. However, his off the pitch issues eventually became the reason for his exit two years later. In 2017, Dani Alves arrived in Paris from Juventus with loads of trophies and a recent Champions League final appearance to his name. The veteran could only give one proper season to the French champions. In his second season, his ageing body was unable to cope up with the physical demands of a top European club.
In the midst of all this, the French capital side had signed Thomas Meunier in 2016 from Club Brugge for a reported fee of seven million euros. The then 24-year old Belgian struggled for game time for his first two seasons at his new club. He only played 63.72% of the total games during the first two seasons (Ligue 1 and Champions league only) combined.
After a prolific World Cup in 2018 which saw his Belgium team finish third, Meunier’s stock rose when he returned to Paris. He was promoted as the first-choice right-back for The Parisians. Consequently, his game time for the next two seasons increased to 84.2%.
In this scout report, we will do a tactical analysis of Meunier’s offensive and defensive qualities and how they contribute to the attacking tactics of Thomas Tuchel’s PSG. We will also do an analysis of a shortcoming of the Belgian and its effect on the team.
Meunier has primarily played as an attacking full-back or a wing-back on the right for PSG this season. He helps the team in the attacking build-up and likes to spend most of the time in the opposition half. Having said that, his defensive side of the game cannot be undermined as he brings defensive stability to his side. Hence, he is a key element for the French champions on both the halves of the field. The incredible engine that he possesses allows him to be a box to box player who is active down his entire flank. This is evident in the heatmap below.
The evolution of football has come to a point where players like to showcase their special abilities like the rabonas, chip shots, back-heels, etc. These special moves are now appreciated like never before and they make an essential case for entertainment for the viewers.
Meunier, in contrast, exemplifies an old-fashioned style of a player who believes in getting the job done. He is a hard worker, intensely focused, consistent, quality, and all of this without the glare. While the likes of Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappé brings flash in the team, Meunier creates a balance by showcasing simplicity and calmness in his play.
Role in PSG’s positional play
Thomas Tuchel likes his PSG team to implement positional play soccer, similar to his Borussia Dortmund team. One of the essential aspects of this system is the quick switch of play after drawing opposition players on one side of the field.
In possession, PSG players create an overload on one flank. This forces opposition players to make a lateral movement towards the ball. Once they are gathered on the ball-side flank, it consequently creates a huge space on the opposite wide channel. With a quick switch of play, the free space can be exposed before the opposition lines can shift on the other side.
This is where Meunier comes into play. He positions himself high and wide on the opposite flank during the overloading phase. He is assisted by his attacking teammates who drifts inside to create an outside space that the Belgian can occupy. This makes him the free man who is usually unmarked since the opposition players have gathered on the other side, making him the best value to attack.
As shown in the figure above, Real Madrid players are getting drawn laterally towards Presnel Kimpembe, who has the ball. Observe how Meunier (yellow circle) has positioned himself high and wide. Also, observe how much space he has in front of him. The following figure highlights the importance of Meunier’s current position.
Kimpembe initiates the switch of play with a first-time pass to Marco Verratti. The Frenchman, in turn, looks for Meunier on the right who has acres of space down the right flank. Unfortunately, this attack folded due to an unsuccessful cross from the Belgian. However, it illustrates Meunier’s attacking role in this PSG team under the German manager. His off-the-ball movements during the buildup phase help to influence the attacking patterns of play
It is not only his positioning which is important. What he does with the ball during possession is also vital. With a passing rate of 55.2 per 90 minutes and 82.43% accuracy, it is clear that passing is his strength in attack. As discussed in the previous section, Meunier positions himself higher up the pitch during the buildup. Once he receives the ball, he immediately looks for an opportunity to penetrate the opposition box.
One of the tools that he often uses in attack is crossing. This comes from his early Club Brugge days when he was a striker/ right-winger before turning into a right-back. Meunier constantly looks for crossing opportunities in the opposition box when he receives the possession in the wide channels. He is one of the top five Ligue 1 crossers with the figures of 4.65 crosses per 90 minutes with an accuracy of 32.35%. To highlight the weight of this statistic, Trent Alexander-Arnold has a crossing accuracy of 29.8%.
As shown in the figure above, Meunier has found himself in a pocket of space in the right channel. Observe how Pablo Sarabia has tucked inside to create the space. Neymar spots Meunier’s run and plays a perfect ball in the Belgian’s feet. The full-back immediately penetrates the box with a cross that was headed away by a Monaco defender.
Not only that, but the Belgian is also a useful asset during the PSG counter-attacks as well. As soon as The Parisians win back the possession, Meunier makes a darting run forward on the touchline to penetrate the opposition’s goal. In the figure below, PSG is commencing a counter-attack after winning the ball in the middle of the park. Observe how Meunier is sprinting to overlap Monaco’s left-back. The Belgian put in an accurate cross near the six-yard box but unfortunately, Mbappe’s shot missed the near post by a whisker.
Meunier also averages 1.4 key passes per 90 minutes. This is the fifth-best figure among all the other full-backs in the Ligue 1 this season. Moreover, when it comes to the final third balls, the Belgian’s accuracy is 71.53%, which is not a small number by any means.
Meunier only has one assist to his name in Ligue 1 this season. However, his xA is 2.3, which clearly suggests his underachievement in this aspect. Moreover, he has a shot assist of 1.23 per 90 minutes, which ranks fourth among all the full-backs in Ligue 1. Shot assist means a pass that results in a shot on goal. Even though the assist number looks really low, combining it with shot assist statistics shows that although he does not contribute often towards goal directly, his overall attacking output cannot be neglected.
The first thing one will notice about Meunier is his 190 cm height. For a full-back, he is relatively tall. This allows him to use his size and strength to combat opposition attackers in defensive duels including one v ones. The Belgian engages in 6.56 defensive duels per 90 minutes, winning 60.42% of them. These are really good numbers.
The following figure shows a defensive duel that the Belgian won against Monaco’s Keita Baldé, who is physically competent. The Senegalese easily lost the duel here. Not only that, but Meunier also forced an error from the Monaco attacker in what could have been an easy pass to Aleksandr Golovin which could have opened up a potential goal-scoring chance. The error allowed Idrissa Gueye to cover up the ground with Golovin until the time the Russian midfielder could control the pass.
Meunier’s height and strength also make him a capable man-marker. One of the things that the Belgian does throughout a game is to remain close to the nearest attacker. This is so that it gives him time to effectively close down the marker immediately when the latter win ball possession. This proactive thinking allows the Belgian to dish out several scoring opportunities for the opposition.
During the Champions League tie against Real Madrid, Meunier was against Eden Hazard, who is one of the best wingers in the world. The Belgian was on the scoresheet that day but it was his man-marking performance that stood out. He followed his national counterpart everywhere on the right flank and never allowed the ex-Chelsea player to have any influence on the game. The defender deserves credit for this since it is never an easy task to keep Hazard quiet throughout a game.
As shown in the figure above, Hazard has dropped deep while his team has possession. Observe how Meunier has followed him in the opposition half and kept himself in a relatively close distance. This denies any time and space that Hazard could have once he receives the ball.
Another example is shown in the figure below. PSG has just won the possession back in their defensive third. Observe the positioning of Meunier. His priority is to stay closer to the nearest Lyon attacker rather than closing the gap with the adjoining centre back.
Apart from strong man-marking, Meunier makes 2.8 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per 90 minutes. These numbers may not look significantly high but it is important to know that PSG is not a team that does a lot of defending. Hence, it is unfair to compare these numbers with other defenders from other clubs who relatively takes more defensive actions than the Belgian. However, his successful tackle rate of 68.5% showcases his strong tackling skills. Combining all of these, it is safe to say that the Belgian is technically sound in defence.
Defensive awareness and intelligence
Although Meunier is mentally and technically a strong defender, what sets him apart from the other full backs is his intelligence to read a situation and take accurate defensive actions. Hence, the Belgian plays a key role in bringing stability to the PSG’s defence. The figure below showcases this ability that helps him to make a key interception.
Observe the movement of Meunier during the attacking transition of Real Madrid. Although Hazard is facing the back of the goal, he is initiating the third man run. A passage of short passing play within the formed triangle will eventually result in a through ball to the attacker (Karim Benzema) on the left who is ready to make a run behind PSG’s defensive line. Meunier reads this play accurately and hence, instead of closing Hazard down, he is seen making a move towards Benzema.
This movement helps him to intercept the line breaking pass that could have potentially opened up a goal-scoring opportunity for the Spanish side. This is shown in the following figure.
Meunier is more of a secure player than a flashy one. Offensively, he is seldom seen making a fancy pass or a dribbling skill unless there is a clear chance. The following figure shows that Meunier is in a position to start an attacking duel with the Monaco midfielder on the flank where there is space for the Belgian to make a run.
A lot of wide players will try to engage in the duel to expose the space. Not Meunier. In this situation, he chooses the safest option and distributes the possession backwards. The Belgian is often seen using a similar approach on the defensive third as well. When under pressure, he looks for the safest passing option near him rather than taking on the pressing player.
Although it looks like a defensive mindset, it is an effective one since not only it helps his team to retain possession, but it also avoids possession losses across the field. Because of this mentality, Meunier has lost possession only once per 90 minutes this season. To put it into context, only Nice’s Patrick Burner has a lesser possession loss rate than the Belgian in this season’s Ligue 1.
In modern football, speed and acceleration have become primary attributes for modern-day full-backs. These attributes, however, cannot be associated with Meunier, and this is one of the weak links in the attacking setup of PSG.
Indeed, speed is not an essential requirement for a successful defender. However, for a full-back who plays in an attacking setup that at times becomes 2-4-4 in possession or implements a high pressing system where the full-back needs to be high up the pitch to pin down the opposing winger, the pace becomes a key attribute. The defender will often get caught out of his position and will require speed to retreat backwards for protecting the goal.
Monaco, for instance, exposed this shortcoming within PSG’s setup during their 3-3 draw at Parc des Princes. The Red and White team had set themselves to play counter-attacking football. As shown in the figure below, the opposing winger has drawn the Belgian out of his position in Monaco’s buildup. This has created space on the wide channel.
Meunier tries to engage in a duel with the man in possession in the wake of regaining the ball quickly. However, he loses this battle which results in a two v three situation, as shown in the figure below. Also, look at the space in the wide channel that the man in possession has. Monaco went onto score the goal from this situation to take the lead.
As stated previously, more than an individual limitation, Meunier’s speed rather exposes a flaw in the team’s setup. It can not only open up the wide channel but can also potentially isolate the central defenders against the fast counter-attacking sides, as we saw above. Having said that, there are tactical tweaks that can potentially obscure this shortcoming. One way can be that one of the central midfielders occupy Meunier’s position when the latter pushes forward.
From this scout report, we can say that Meunier is one of the best full-backs in the world at the moment due to the qualities that he possesses. As good as he is at attacking, he equals that on the defensive side of his game as well. His mental attributes are second to none. Only if he could be quicker and more agile, he could potentially be the best full-back in the world.
Just when it looked like PSG had settled the right-back position conundrum for the next few years, the saga might take yet another twist during the upcoming summer transfer season. Meunier’s current contract runs out in 2020 and a new one hasn’t been offered yet. The Parisians need to keep hold of their most experienced full-back. While signing a new world-class player may not be a problem for the cash-rich club, selling a quality player in his prime age for free wouldn’t be a smart financial move.
A player of his quality would fit into any side in the world. It is a no brainer that many clubs would be hoping to hit a bonanza by signing the Belgian for free. According to several reports, he has been heavily linked with Tottenham in recent days. It is very clear why a manager like José Mourinho would be interested in acquiring the Belgian. A skilled player, 28-years old, with a strong mentality marks for an ideal candidate for the Portuguese manager.
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