PSG’s Death Star needs an engine. It could be Leandro Paredes.

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 23: Leandro Paredes of PSG during the French Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Nimes Olympique at Parc des Princes stadium on February 23, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 23: Leandro Paredes of PSG during the French Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Nimes Olympique at Parc des Princes stadium on February 23, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images) /

PSG showed their quality in the first leg of their round of 16 Champions League tie against Manchester United, but they’re still missing an important piece.

PSG’s 2-0 win over Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie was, by any measure, highly impressive. Without Neymar and Edinson Cavani, the Ligue 1 side dominated a full-strength United, one galvanized by a new manager, riding an 11-game unbeaten streak and playing in front of a rejuvenated Old Trafford crowd.

In a tactical sense, however, the loss of Neymar and Cavani arguably worked to Thomas Tuchel’s advantage. At full strength, PSG would surely have set up in the same way they usually do: With a front five consisting of some amalgamation of Neymar, Cavani, Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler, supported by a defensively-limited midfield and back line. That’s a formidable prospect, but it also would have played to the strengths of Solskjaer’s United. Against a possession-dominant, defensively lax PSG, the Red Devils’ quality on the counter would surely have given them chances.

As it was, Tuchel’s game plan focused less on possession — PSG had only 52 percent — while emphasizing Mbappe’s pace, Marco Verratti’s incisive passing from midfield and a solid defensive base.

While adopting a more cautious approach away from home without two of your best attackers might seem an obvious switch, Tuchel still deserves credit. Indeed, the German is constantly underlining the importance of continuity in his system, and even without Neymar and Cavani has mostly stuck with his preferred 3-2-5 setup in the league. Moussa Diaby, Eric Choupo-Moting, Laywin Kurzawa and others have all taken up positions at the front in the absence of Neymar and Cavani, while Juan Bernat has featured in a role similar to the one David Silva adopts for Manchester City. If he’d persisted with this system at Old Trafford, it’s unlikely to have raised many eyebrows.

And so the question is: What changed? What led Tuchel, by all accounts a stubborn, idealistic manager, to change his approach for PSG’s biggest game of the season so far?

Of course United’s quality is one factor. PSG’s opponents in Ligue 1 don’t boast the individual talent of the Premier League side, and with a significant buffer at the top of the table already, Tuchel presumably feels he can take a few risks in the league as he works on implementing his tactics. The Champions League is a different matter.

But arguably just important a factor in Tuchel’s tactical switch — and one that has largely gone overlooked given PSG’s dominance in France — is the absence in PSG’s squad of a particular kind of deep-lying midfielder.

Marquinhos’ role in the first leg as a hybrid midfielder-defender wasn’t just an indication of a weakened front line. It also suggested Tuchel didn’t quite trust in his players’ ability to monopolize possession against a team of United’s quality and tactical acumen. This concern was supposed to be addressed by Adrien Rabiot, but a dispute with management has left the Frenchmen out of the squad since December.

Though his excommunication might seem extreme, especially considering the lack of depth in his position, Tuchel and QSI, the oil-rich ownership group behind PSG’s quest to win the Champions League, are building a footballing Death Star. Relying on a player that believes they’re too good to supplement the super laser of Neymar and Mbappe, the gravitational glue of Di Maria and Draxler, and the unshakable interior structure led by Thiago Silva simply wasn’t acceptable. PSG found themselves without a centrifuge halfway through the first year of construction. An essential, connective piece they, and the rest of Europe, looked to Ajax to provide.

PSG courted Frenkie de Jong not to flex their financial muscle, but because they lack a player even remotely like him, particularly since Rabiot’s exile. With dribbling reminiscent of Ousmane Dembele and the vision of Cesc Fabregas, de Jong’s ability to draw defenders and progress the ball is why Europe’s elite were after him. A player with that unique combination of skills would be valuable for any team; supplementing attackers of Neymar and Mbappe’s quality, he could have put the French side over the edge in Europe.

With de Jong now set to join Barcelona at the end of the season, we’ll never know. But PSG’s failure to secure the Dutchman’s signature didn’t render their accumulation of footballing arms null and void. Their partially-assembled Death Star drifted in space for only a few days before an alternative fuel cell arrived from Russia. Leandro Paredes, bought from Zenit St. Petersburg on Jan. 29, might not offer quite the same system-altering progressive play de Jong does, but he certainly meets Tuchel’s requirements of a deep midfielder.

Paredes excels at what we might call defending with the ball. What de Jong would’ve brought through dribbling and passing, Paredes brings in positioning and intelligence in possession. Take the first leg against United, for example. With Bernat and Dani Alves shifting backward and forward, respectively, to complete the lines of four in defense and midfield, Tuchel mitigated the risk of Verratti’s forward passing without completely losing his team’s attacking edge.

Next. 25 best club soccer teams of all time. dark

Creativity from the center of the pitch is the best way to create chances, but it’s also the riskiest. Without Neymar and Cavani to justify the possible loss of possession in areas where counter-attacks are at their most dangerous, Tuchel opted for the defensive security of two players in midfield. With the addition of Paredes, he might not need to be so accommodating.

Like many talents in his position, Paredes bears the burden of ensuring his team can commit numbers forward in attack without being exposed defensively. This isn’t just a matter of passing the ball forward and well, but understanding where it needs to go. PSG haven’t ventured into the void of all-out attack as bravely as City have across the past two seasons — they still look to Diaby, Bernat, Alves and Thomas Meunier for security in moments of transition — but the use of the 3-2-5 possession shape, and similar iterations, isn’t exclusive to Pep Guardiola. It’s a commonly held on-ball system because it’s the most effective at spacing the field. And as crucial as players like Neymar and Mbappe are this system, the whole thing would break down without a player like Paredes.

Tuchel might always have intended to take a less idealistic approach in the Champions League knockout rounds — even if de Jong had arrived in January, he would’ve been cup-tied — but Paredes is the type of player he needs to impose his style of football against all teams and tactical setups. As the Argentine’s fitness and familiarity with the team increase, it’s not outlandish to imagine he plays a role as the competition progresses, even without the Brazilian super laser he’s supposed to help load.