Thomas Tuchel didn’t bother trying to hide his frustration. After all, he’d already prepared his answer and a nice rant to go with it. He was just waiting to be asked the question.
When quizzed about the possibility of seeing PSG’s “Fantastic Four” — Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria — playing together again, following their 3-3 draw with Monaco at the Parc des Princes on Sunday, Tuchel was ready. “After we beat Saint-Etienne 4-0 and 6-1, you all said, ‘He found his structure, the fantastic four! He got it!’ I never said it. Now, we drew with Monaco in a 4-4-2, so now what? What do we do? I always said that the problem was not about the structure but how we play.”
It has been a while since the media saw Tuchel losing his cool like this, though he’s right, of course. He never said that the winning formula for PSG was to play with its four superstars on the pitch at the same time. The debate around the Fantastic Four — their compatibility, their chemistry, the balance of the team with all of them in it at the same time — has been happening off and on all season, and it’ll likely keep going until (at least) the Parisians’ clash with Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last-16 first leg in a month’s time.
When Tuchel played them all together for the first time, against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu back in November, the excitement lasted just 20 minutes. They played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Icardi on his own up front and Di Maria, Neymar and Mbappé behind him, and it didn’t really work. Back then, though, Neymar had just come back from injury, as had Mbappe, and it was probably the wrong game and wrong circumstance in which to try it. It was far more conclusive away at Saint-Etienne in Ligue 1, just before Christmas, with Mbappé and Icardi up front together in a 4-4-2 with Neymar on the left and Di Maria on the right. PSG won 4-0.
The latter game was also notably the first time we got to see them all together from kickoff and in this formation, and it was brilliant. Mbappé bagged a brace, Neymar set up two and scored one, and Icardi also got on the score sheet. There was a lot of off-the-ball movement, the quartet linked up well, and their sense of shared understanding was obvious. They did it again and — even better — a few weeks later against the same opponents but in the League Cup, running away 6-1 winners.
It seemed as though the dream of a “Fantastic Four” was well and truly alive, playing together regularly and for each other as well as for the team. For Tuchel, nevertheless, it was a big U-turn. After the Real Madrid game, he was not interested. “It is not possible [to play them all together],” he said following the 2-2 draw in which the French champions fought back with two goals in the final 10 minutes. “Ask [Marco] Verratti or Marquinhos if they found it interesting to be the only two running in midfield. For me, it is not balanced enough at this level.”
What changed Tuchel’s mind? A week after the trip to Madrid, he had a chat with his squad. It was actually a big team meeting in which Tuchel explained that without more defensive commitment and efforts from the front four, he could not play them all together, to which the players, who want this formation — in particular Neymar — replied that they were ready to put a real shift in. The Brazilian again repeated his feelings to Tuchel and teammates following Sunday’s game that he believed PSG could play and win with the “Fantastic Four” as starters.
Sunday’s match vs. Monaco was the first big test to see, if in a big game, the 4-4-2 (or, in its most attacking version, the 4-2-4) was viable. Naturally, the conclusion is yet to be determined. Like Marco Verratti says, PSG have “four of the 10 best players in the world” in their team right now. And of course, they will always create a lot of chances, score a lot of goals and be hard to defend against if they have Neymar, Di Maria, Icardi and Mbappé on the pitch at the same time.
Defensively, it is still a problem. Against Monaco, PSG were too open and their defence too exposed. They conceded too many chances and too many shots — Neymar’s third-minute goal became a 2-1 Monaco lead inside the opening 13 minutes — and Tuchel was not happy. In private, he rued the lack of pressure on the ball both up front and in midfield.
Maybe the key for Tuchel is actually in the midfield and finding the right combination of players to back the all-star quartet. Marquinhos and Verratti? Idrissa Gueye and Verratti? Gueye and Marquinhos? Room for Leandro Paredes, even? Against Monaco, the pairing of Verratti and Gueye showed its limitations. Neither of them is a natural holding midfielder, and to protect the Paris back four, Tuchel needs a player who stays deep and sits in front of the defence. In the first meeting with Saint-Etienne game, Marquinhos and Paredes were the two defensive midfielders, and they certainly have a more defensive profile than both Verratti and Gueye. The better balance of defensive discipline and playmaking is probably Verratti with Marquinhos, but whoever plays there will need some help from the front four tracking back.
Tuchel has never been the most maverick of managers, yet at PSG this season, he has become notably bolder in his tactics. Probably because, as he keeps saying, he loves Neymar, Mbappé, Icardi and Di Maria so much that he would find it hard to drop one of them for a big game. Not to mention the tantalizing fact that they can win a big game together almost out of nothing. He also knows, however, that he needs to win this season and that playing all four from the start against a top team capable of picking holes on the counter-attack is too dangerous.
Will being too bold and playing the “Fantastic Four” be Tuchel’s downfall? Or will he sacrifice one of his superstars to be more solid and less adventurous? He might even mix the two and start with a safer 4-3-3, using the quartet as a group later in games like an impact substitution or a Plan B in a must-win game. Whatever he decides to do, don’t expect this debate to stop for a while.