LE SPIRO: In-form Draxler holds key
By M. Spiro
The focus may be on other players, but Matthew Spiro believes Paris Saint-Germain's unsung German Julian Draxler holds to the key to Tuesday’s big match at Old Trafford.
Neymar isn't there, Cavani isn't there...maybe Kylian Mbappé will be enough, or perhaps Ángel di María could turn it on against his former team? These are the names most people are talking about in the build-up to Tuesday’s huge Champions League clash. Yet in reality, the outcome of the tie is likely to be decided by the midfield battle, and it's there that Draxler - operating in this new, withdrawn role he has been handed - can show off his undoubted class and exert considerable influence.
Draxler is something of a forgotten man these days. There was great excitement when he joined PSG from Wolfsburg for 40 million euros in January 2017. But after a promising start the young World Cup winner was pushed into the shadows by the arrival of two megastars. It didn't matter how hard he worked in training, he was never going to be picked ahead of PSG’s 400 million-euro recruits, Neymar and Mbappé.
That summer spree was a thrilling one for PSG and French football, but it had its casualties too.
Last season, under Unai Emery, Draxler was condemned to a peripheral role despite his versatility and immense talent. It was a source of frustration to many that this mercurial playmaker simply wasn't getting a look-in. Alerted by Draxler's situation, several leading clubs - notably in England - enquired about signing him last summer. Draxler, however, was encouraged by the arrival of his compatriot Thomas Tuchel and stayed to fight for his place.
It now looks like a good decision. The 25-year-old is playing the best football of his PSG career. Galvanised by Tuchel's man-management, he has performed well in a variety of roles. "I try to adapt to every position where the coach needs me," Draxler told This is Paris on beIN Sports. "This season it's been left wing, number eight on the left, on the right, and even number six. It's important for me to find my place and the last few weeks have been going very well."
They certainly have. Draxler is no longer just filling in the gaps, he has become really important. Not least because PSG have only Marco Verratti available as an established central midfield option. The ex-Schalke man is likely to play a 'no8' role in Manchester, or possibly as a number 10 behind Mbappé, but either way he'll be operating close to the Italian. Those two exquisite technicians have developed a terrific understanding, and they'll be capable of keeping possession regardless of the inevitable pressure that will come from Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba.
By playing deeper, Draxler finds himself facing the goal much more often. This is where his ability to carry the ball forward and play killer passes come into play. Again, this will be fundamental on Tuesday. PSG won't have many chances against United, but Draxler is capable of finding space, spotting runs and releasing the kind of slide-rule passes that Mbappé in particular thrives on.
That Tuchel is unhappy about PSG's failure to sign a specialist holding midfielder is understandable. Yet it has also forced the former Dortmund boss to experiment. Centre-back Marquinhos is looking a little more comfortable in midfield these days, and Draxler has learned the box-to-box role in extra quick time.
That's the advantage of possessing individuals with bundles of natural talent. They are quick learners. And Draxler will show the world just how much he's learned on Tuesday.