Sergio Ramos arrives at Paris Saint-Germain with a certain elegance and mystique owing to his brilliance and haul of trophies hitherto at Real Madrid and the Spanish national team.
While he receives tons of criticism due to a certain rashness and excessive lack of control and discipline — the 35-year-old holds numerous records for yellow and red cards with Los Blancos and La Furia Roja — the legendary defender’s personality and fierce mentality cannot be questioned.
PSG’s decision to offer a mammoth two-year contract to a player who’s featured seven times for club and country in 2021 (completing only three games) has raised eyebrows, but one possible beneficiary will welcome his new club’s call.
Achraf Hakimi’s move to Paris probably disappointed a few Chelsea supporters who wanted arguably Europe’s best wide defender at Stamford Bridge. Having been linked with moves to Arsenal, PSG and the Blues, there was a sense that the latter were the right fit, owing to their implementation of wing-backs under Thomas Tuchel.
Even though the importance of the purchase was disputed because of the team’s pressing issues at centre-forward, the player’s gifts and end product meant fans of the club were open to the Moroccan’s acquisition.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team welcome a player who’s contributed to 30 goals in the last two seasons and was beaten by only Atalanta’s Robin Gosens last season for highest-ranked defenders in goal involvements.
Having said that, the big-money purchase immediately raised questions over the 22-year-old’s role under the former Tottenham Hotspur boss, with many highlighting his perceived weakness at right-back.
PSG generally operated in a back four last term, with Marquinhos predominantly returning to centre-back after Thiago Silva departed, where he was partnered with 2018 World Cup winner Presnel Kimpembe.
Ramos’ arrival has led to suggestions that Kimpembe may depart after the Spanish icon’s signing, whereas others have posited a return to defensive midfield for Marquinhos, a position he tended to occupy following the Frenchman’s emergence and Silva’s presence.
However, a partnership involving all three could be Pochettino’s go-to approach next season. This not only protects the ex-Real man whose decreasing mobility in his advanced years means there’s a higher risk of being exposed but also invariably lets Hakimi feature in his preferred right wing-back role.
Kimpembe’s left-footedness means he’s the obvious pick as the left-sided centre-back while the PSG captain features on the right. Theoretically, both players flanking Ramos may be the obvious selection when all three are healthy.
Having said that, the legendary centre-back’s fitness struggles means PSG’s boss may have to utilise a back four at times.
The two-time European Championship winner started only 15 La Liga fixtures last season and featured in only two of Real’s final 22 domestic games. The obvious fears about the French giants bringing on board an injury-prone player may be valid, too, given the recent precedent.
Aside from 2019/20 where the former Sevilla defender started all but three Spanish top flight games, he missed the final eight matches in 18/19, suffered muscle problems in 17/18, knee injuries the year before that and shoulder injuries in 15/16.
Throw in the expected suspensions from bookings or dismissals and there may be worrying signs. Whether last season’s struggles signify a portend remains to be seen but being able to feature for 20 league matches or higher in every season apart from 20/21 may still be seen as acceptable for the Parisians.
The aforementioned indicates a presumed utilisation of different formations next season, but how would a shift to a back four affect Hakimi?
Indeed, the North African wide defender could still thrive.
Even though he may have to interpret his defensive duties differently at right-back, Pochettino could still tap into his attacking strengths in possession. These days. teams tend to attack with five players, effectively defending with as many behind the ball.
While there are always variations, one full-back sometimes pushes forward while the other on the opposite flank stays behind, virtually forming a back three when the team have the ball.
On other occasions, both full-backs bomb forward while the two centre-backs and midfield men stay behind the ball to prevent counter-attacks.
In the first few months after Jose Mourinho took charge at Spurs, Serge Aurier often looked to be a right-winger in the attacking phase with nominal left-back Ben Davies tucking in with the Lilywhites’ CBs.
Leonardo Spinazzola may have offered more dynamism than Emerson Palmieri for Italy from left-back at the just-concluded European Championship, but both generally operated as part of a front five when the eventual winners had good possession.
Giovanni Di Lorenzo barely advanced forward and often formed a back three with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Liverpool are the obvious model for the other variation, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson’s forays into menacing positions mitigated by the midfield three staying conservative.
It remains to be seen how PSG and Pochettino make things work, but Hakimi and Ramos present new possibilities for the tactician who will be expected to reclaim the domestic title and challenge in the Champions League.
Having a pre-season also helps the former Southampton boss implement his ideas, and the North African’s 45-minute involvement in Wednesday’s 4-0 success over Le Mans shows he’s been thrust right into the mix.
Hakimi may still long for a return to the Santiago Bernabeu, but supporters at Parc des Princes will be beneficiaries of the wing-back’s gifts for the foreseeable future as they hope to finally reign supreme on the continent.