As Paris Saint-Germain entered the final 20 minutes of their quarter-final tie with Atalanta, it appeared their inferiority complex regarding the bright lights of the European stage was rearing its ugly head once more.
1-0 down thanks to Mario Pašalić’s opener, Thomas Tuchel had already chucked on a questionably fit Kylian Mbappe on the hour mark to support Neymar’s scintillating one-man show which had failed to result in any sort of tangible reward up until that point.
Mbappe’s introduction certainly altered the dynamic, but Les Parisiens needed just that little bit more.
Enter, Leandro Paredes.
As Michael Cox notes in his analysis of the contest, Tuchel’s three defensive-minded midfielders deployed from the outset had proved ‘effective at winning the ball, but not particularly good at passing it afterwards’, which led to Neymar dropping way too deep to get the ball.
But within 90 seconds of his 72nd-minute arrival, Paredes made an impact, smartly threading an outside of the foot pass in behind for Mbappe to latch onto. The Frenchman found himself one-on-one with Marco Sportiello but was denied by the Italian.
The introduction of the Argentine went under the radar in Les Parisiens eventual triumph, with Paredes providing a certain technical proficiency and verticality in possession which was absent from midfield for the opening 70 minutes. A more harmonious attacking display was the result, and Paredes earned his place in Tuchel’s starting XI for Tuesday night’s semi-final with RB Leipzig.
The genius of sensational string-puller Julian Nagelsmann meant Die Roten Bullen couldn’t be written off, but this was an encounter PSG dominated from the outset, with Paredes’ presence once again proving key.
There was a certain maturity to this display from the French champions, and unlike the more chaotic nature of their quarter-final victory in which Gian Piero Gasperini’s aggressive man-marking system forced Les Parisiens to resort to supreme individualism to prosper, their 3-0 beat-down of Leipzig was a celebration of PSG’s evolution and Tuchel’s emphasis on the collective.
The composed nature of their triumph was epitomised by the work of their number eight.
Paredes’ utilisation was Toni Kroos-esque; he dropped deep into the left half-space and served as the side’s conductor, with his movement facilitating the advancement of Juan Bernat down the left flank and opening up space for Neymar between the lines if Marcel Sabitzer left his zone to press the Argentine.
After struggling in the opening exchanges due to the savviness and well-drilled nature of the opposition, Paredes’ technical proficiency started to blossom against Nagelsmann’s initial 4-5-1 set-up out of possession.
The Argentine was often involved in the swift combinations which helped PSG bypass RB Leipzig’s uncharacteristically timid press with ease throughout, while his ability to play vertically with the utmost precision was mightily impressive.
The 26-year-old’s mastered the art of deception through shrewd body positioning, Sergio Busquets style. So often on Tuesday night was he able to outfox the Leipzig midfield by shaping up to pass one way before darting the ball through to the more progressive option, often Neymar – who dropped deep from his false nine role to receive in and around Kevin Kampl’s zone – a particular sucker for Paredes’ manipulative body orientation in possession.
Only PSG’s superb centre-back pairing and the similarly impressive Angel Di Maria topped Paredes (265 yards) in regards to total progressive passing distance against Leipzig, while the midfielder’s six passes into the final third was matched only by Silva.
All of this was achieved while completing 93.3% of his passes, highlighting Paredes’s efficiency and precision with the ball at his feet.
But since his £36m move from Zenit in January 2019, the problem for Paredes – who played just 807 minutes in Ligue 1 last term – hasn’t been his capabilities in possession. His technique and passing capacity has never been doubted, but his work off of it has come under scrutiny.
The Argentine’s been regarded as somewhat of a liability in this phase of the game, a player not blessed with the requisite intensity and discipline to thrive under Tuchel. The German’s been reluctant to deploy him, perfectly summarised in his usage of three defensive midfielders against Atalanta despite its obvious drawbacks.
But once again, we go back to that word: maturity. It was in abundance amid Paredes’ stellar showing, as he proved his worth in the defensive phase.
The former Roma man should be credited with thwarting, arguably, Leipzig’s best player in Marcel Sabitzer – who generally found himself in Paredes’ zones throughout. His work in protecting the half-spaces was diligent, while his new-found nous was pivotal in PSG’ second on the night.
The midfielder advanced onto Sabitzer high up the field before Peter Gulacsi’s errant pass found its way to the Argentine. Composed, Paredes settled before kickstarting the sequence for Di Maria’s goal by darting his lofted pass into Neymar.
Overall, it was possibly his finest showing in PSG colours, but will it be enough to start Sunday’s final?
The return of Marco Verratti is a huge boost for Tuchel and, if fully fit, he simply has to start against Bayern.
The world deserves a Verratti x Thiago duel on club football’s biggest stage. The battle of the controllers. Dreamy.
Thus, with Marquinhos a sure bet to continue at the base of midfield and Verratti deployed as one of the interiors, it’s between Ander Herrera, Idrissa Gueye and Paredes for the final midfield spot.
Tuchel has a mightily tricky call on his hands, with the balance and dynamic of the midfield set to be crucial against such a ruthless and well-coached Bayern side, who suffocate opponents through a relentless counter-press and befuddle even the stoutest with their fluid rotations and telepathic combination play.
Die Roten are a different beast to the surprisingly tepid Leipzig side on show in the last four, but Leandro Paredes’ work in the middle of the park in his 100 minutes of action over the past two games makes it incredibly hard for Tuchel to drop him.
He’s the man blessed with the technical repertoire and unique passing capacity to penetrate and expose Bayern’s suicidal high line on Sunday, with PSG just 90 minutes away from achieving their long-awaited goal in Lisbon.