A friendly defeat in Japan hammered home the fact that Luis Enrique needs a reliable goalscorer before the new season begins
The size of Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe problem was made clear in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Inter in Tokyo, with Luis Enrique’s toothless team failing to make the most of their dominance without their talismanic forward.
PSG were the better side for 80 minutes, dominating possession for the most part, but only led because of a sensational 30-yard strike from Vitinha that came out of nowhere.
The French champions then collapsed, conceding two quick goals, to Sebastiano Esposito and Stefano Sensi, to leave Luis Enrique in no doubt that a swift resolution to the Mbappe transfer saga required if the new manager is to start the season with a reliable goalscorer.
Here we look at somethings we learned during the clash at the Japan National Stadium.
- PSG have the makings of a formidable back four:
PSG’s defensive deficiencies have been repeatedly exposed in Europe in recent seasons. After all, it doesn’t help when you have three forwards unwilling to track back. PSG have also proven desperately vulnerable from a mental perspective, infamously capitulating at the first sign of trouble – and they certainly went to pieces in the closing stages here. But that was only after making changes to what undeniably has the makings pretty formidable back four.
That’s thanks in no small part to Inter, of course. Two years after signing Achraf Hakimi from the cash-strapped Nerazzurri, PSG have now picked up Milan Skriniar – only this time for nothing. The Slovakian started alongside Marquinhos here, with Lucas Hernandez at left-back and Hakimi taking up his usual berth on the right flank, and proving a typically tremendous outlet.
Skriniar isn’t quite up to speed yet – he was given a bit of bother by Marcus Thuram at one point during the first half – but his lack of match sharpness is hardly surprising given the injury issues which saw him miss the second half of last season. But there’s no reason why he shouldn’t slot as seamlessly into this side as Hakimi.
Furthermore, if the versatile left-back Hernandez manages to stay fit – and that is a big ‘if’ admittedly – PSG really will have a defence with no obvious flaws, given Marquinhos and Hakimi are two of the best players in the world in their respective positions.
- Ugarte already looks right at home:
The defence should also be significantly aided by the addition of Manuel Ugarte to the midfield. The Uruguayan’s €60 million transfer from Sporting CP may not have generated a massive amount of hype in Paris, but he could prove one of the most important signings PSG have made in years. At the very least, his arrival appears to signify an important – and long overdue – shift in the club’s transfer policy, away from superstars and more towards specialists.
Ugarte certainly looked like he will have a huge role to play in the 2023-24 campaign, looking right at home in Luis Enrique’s line-up, linking well with Fabian Ruiz and Vitinha. The 22-year-old broke up several Inter attacks while he also used the ball brilliantly, the pick of his passes a lovely lofted the ball into the area for Carlos Soler that ended with Marcos Asensio hitting the post.
It was also no coincidence that Inter suddenly started finding space in between the lines as soon Ugarte was removed from the action. His importance to this side should only grow in the coming weeks and months.
- Stankovic’s son has a bright future:
Inter’s need for a proven, top-class goalkeeper is pressing following Andre Onana’s summer move to Manchester United, and the expectation is that they’ll sign Yann Sommmer and/or Anatoliy Trubin. The latter might not arrive until next year, though, meaning other short-term solutions are being explored.
However, in Filip Stankovic – son of Inter legend Dejan – the club clearly has a goalkeeper of enormous potential on their hands. The 21-year-old appears to have benefited enormously from a couple of seasons on loan at Volendam, whom he helped secure promotion to the Eredivisie.
Stankovic made a number of good saves, while there was absolutely nothing he could have done about Vitinha’s goal. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, he also looked very comfortable with the ball at his feet. He’s still very young, of course, and might be sent out on loan again this season but, no matter what happens, Stankovic looks like he has a future at San Siro.
- Vitinha stepping up:
It’s fair to say that Vitinha didn’t have the best debut campaign at Parc des Princes. There were constant doubts over whether he was really good enough for a team trying desperately to win the Champions League. Kylian Mbappe certainly didn’t appear convinced of Vitinha’s qualities, infamously turning his back on the play after being ignored by the Portuguese during one passage of play against Montpellier last August.
However, Vitinha could be set for a more productive second season, with the 23-year-old netting for the second consecutive pre-season game. It was a stunning strike too. Soler picked up a loose ball in midfield and found Vitinha, who beat Stankovic with a thumping drive from distance.
- PSG lacking star quality:
Above all nobody would dispute that PSG have erred badly over the past five years by investing so heavily in high-profile players, particularly from an offensive perspective. However, what’s been made painfully clear in pre-season is that the team is now seriously lacking star quality up front.
Lionel Messi has already left, Mbappe could well follow him out the door, while Neymar was an unused substitute here. The net result was PSG looking devoid of a real cutting edge in Tokyo.
Granted, Soler was arguably the liveliest attacker on the pitch, while Asensio linked well with those around him and was unlucky to see his first-half effort come back off the post.
But it’s obvious that PSG can’t leave Luis Enrique relying on the former Real Madrid winger for goals this season. Indeed, one could argue that even if Mbappe doesn’t leave, the Ligue 1 titleholders desperately need a prolific No.9 if they are to have any chance of finally winning the Champions League.