Le50 2017 – Giovani Lo Celso
Despite retaining the Trophée des Champions, the Coupe de la Ligue and the Coupe de France (an achievement that Mourinho would no doubt call The Treble), 2016/17 was not a successful one for PSG, losing their Ligue 1 title to Monaco and grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory against Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, leading to much questioning of the club’s recent transfer activities. As PSG’s season petered out, the small cameo played by young Argentinian talent Giovani Le Celso suggests that one of last season’s transfers may soon prove to be a slow-burning masterstroke.
Like Lionel Messi and new team-mate Angel di Maria, Lo Celso was born in Rosario. He rose through the youth ranks at hometown club Rosario Central before breaking into the first team squad, making his debut in July 2015, aged 19, against Velez Sarsfield. Lo Celso immediately settled into the first team squad and went on to make 36 appearances for the club over the next two seasons, notching nine assists and two goals in the process and helping the club to finish third in the 2015 Primera Division and to reach the quarter-finals of the following year’s Copa Libertadores. As a mark of how highly he was rated, for his second season he swapped his number 34 shirt for the number 10 – a number with an aura even more powerful in Argentina than elsewhere. At the same time, his coach Eduardo Coudet adapted to a 4-3-1-2 formation, moulding the team to play to Lo Celso’s playmaking strengths.
In Lo Celso’s own words, “I’m the type of player who likes the ball. I like to play and to help my teammates play. The idea is to always go forwards, to look for the strikers”. Very left footed, he has all the attributes that one would expect from a Latin American number 10, with a beautiful first touch and excellent close control, happy to play a one-touch game in tight spaces or to retain the ball and run. His main weapon, however, is his passing, whether it is a chipped ball over the top or slide-rule defence-splitting passes on the ground.
The obvious comparison at PSG is not family friend di Maria, but Javier Pastore. However, former Lyon star Cesar Delgado, who was at Rosario as Lo Celso made his breakthrough, suggests that the youngster has even more to his game: “you have to also talk about his high work rate without the ball. He sacrifices himself, he wins the ball back, he comes back to get into position. He’s a complete player.”
Many of Europe’s big names were alerted to Lo Celso with Roma, Juventus, Manchesters City and United, Chelsea, Dortmund and Atletico among those who were beaten to his signature by PSG, who secured his signing in July 2016, for a fee believed to be £8.5 million. Lo Celso was immediately loaned back to Rosario for the second half of the 2016 Primera Division, during which he added two more assists and another goal, in nine matches, before he moved to France over the new year.
If Lo Celso, who made three appearances for Argentina in last year’s Rio Olympics, was expecting to move straight into the PSG first team, however, Unai Emery’s response when asked about him, would have put him right: “he’s a player for the future, but I’m thinking about the present”. Instead Emery preferred January signing Julian Draxler, whose form justified his place. Lo Celso had to wait until April to make his debut (as substitute in a Coupe de France tie against Avranches) and, while he warmed the bench for half of PSG’s 2017 league matches, he only featured in four of the last five matches, with one start and three substitute appearances (one of them for just a minute). In that time, however, he gave more than a glimpse of what he is capable of giving PSG.
Against Bastia and one minute after coming on, Lo Celso swept a pinpoint pass wide to Edinson Cavani with the outside of his boot, and continued his run to receive the return pass; a lightning quick right foot control/body-feint/left foot flick combination took out two defenders and his chip over the goalkeeper was surely goalbound before Marquinhos made sure (the goal was given to the Brazilian despite his plea for it to be attributed to Lo Celso). Minutes later the young playmaker was in effect inches away from scoring a double as a superb shot from distance rattled off the bar. In the next match, against Saint-Etienne, Lo Celso’s visionary pass from inside his own half sent Draxler clear through on goal to slot home.
Lo Celso is a sensible young man who knows that he has time on his side. As Delgado observes, “what impresses me the most is his maturity. Rosario is a passionate environment but he plays his football, in his own way, whoever the opponent, however important the match. He’s already a great player, as well as an excellent person.”
PSG fans adore Pastore and they – as well as all neutrals – have been robbed of his artistry in the last couple of years as he has struggled with injuries. They need not worry though: they have arguably an even more talented replacement waiting in the wings.