For the pundits on Canal+’s Ligue 1 review programme, Les Spécialistes, it was something of a radical departure. Usually tasked with the scrutiny of borderline offside decisions or the analysis of new tactical experiments, the panellists on Monday night’s show were asked to study Javier Pastore’s smile. Or, more specifically, its sudden disappearance.
Ever since a jaw-dropping piece of control during a warm-up shortly after he arrived at Paris Saint-Germain, Pastore’s pre-match preparations have been the focus of much more attention than the more perfunctory stretching and jogging of his contemporaries. As a result, the production staff at Canal+ were able to compare and contrast footage of the Argentine’s demeanour in the build-up to PSG’s match at Ajaccio three weeks ago with his behaviour in the hour before kick-off at Bordeaux on Sunday.
At Ajaccio, he was all smiles and loose-limbed jollity. At Bordeaux, a concentrated frown did not leave his face – not when he alighted from the team bus, not when he went through his pre-match routine on the pitch at Stade Chaban-Delmas, and not when he lined up with his team-mates in the tunnel prior to the start of the 1-1 draw. “He doesn’t smile once,” observed host Hervé Mathoux.
PSG may be three points clear at the top of Ligue 1 and on course for the Europa League knockout phase, but that has not spared them from criticism. Paris, it is widely agreed, are impressive on occasion, but they remain a team of individuals. When Pastore isn’t on his game, Jérémy Ménez steps up. When Kévin Gameiro leaves his shooting boots at home, Antoine Kombouaré’s side turn to Nenê.
All four players have sparkled at times this season, but rarely in the same match. Struggling to break down Ajaccio in mid-October, it was Gameiro who turned the game in the visitors’ favour with his first hat-trick in the club’s colours. Nenê initially appeared cowed by Pastore’s presence, but in the last month he has claimed braces against both Dijon and Caen and seems to have relocated the eye for goal that made him the stand-out player in the first half of last season. Ménez has shone in fits and starts, but he has already laid on important goals for all three of his fellow forwards.
For Pastore, however, it’s all gone a bit quiet – hence the vanishing smile. Where his team-mates were content to rely on him in the season’s early weeks, they now seem more determined to do things on their own. Gameiro may thrive on decent service into the penalty area but Nenê and Ménez have built their careers on solo forays into opposition territory and they seem less inclined to let Pastore in on the act than they did a few weeks ago.
The willowy 22-year-old proclaimed his arrival in France by orchestrating PSG’s comeback from a goal down to win 3-1 at Toulouse in late August and he went on to claim five goals in his first seven league appearances, including a brace in a key 3-0 win at Montpellier and the opener in last month’s 2-0 defeat of Lyon. His only goal since then was a sweet volley in a 4-2 win over Caen last month, but the quality of the strike betrayed the fact that it arrived in the 88th minute of a game that was already won.
More damning than the statistics, though, is the sight of Pastore drifting through matches without imposing himself. Walter Zamparini, Pastore’s president at Palermo, claims his former protégé is being punished by “jealous” team-mates, who are electing not to pass to him because they are loath to furnish him with fresh opportunities to hog the spotlight.
The player himself has a more succinct explanation. “The truth is, at my previous clubs, I wasn’t used to playing every three days,” he confessed on Monday, at an impromptu press briefing during a visit to Disneyland Paris with his fiancée. He had already admitted to feeling a “bit of tiredness” after last week’s Europa League game with Slovan Bratislava, and has also complained that “it hasn’t been easy to spend two months living in a hotel”. His legginess is unlikely to be improved by the trans-Atlantic round trip he began on Tuesday, which involves return flights from Paris to Buenos Aires as well as a stop in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla for a World Cup qualifier next week.
Pastore’s cause is not aided either by the thinness of the PSG squad. He has started their last 10 league games in succession and on the three occasions he has been withdrawn, it has never been before the 84th minute. If anything, he is a victim of his own uniqueness. Kombouaré can throw on youth-team graduate Jean-Christophe Bahebeck to provide pace on the flanks if Ménez or Nenê are flagging, while Mevlüt Erding is an ideal like-for-like replacement for Gameiro, but there is no substitute for the Argentine’s technical facility or his match-changing first touch. Having been rushed into action after a pre-season truncated by his involvement in the Copa América, fatigue is likely to be a near-constant companion over the remaining months of the season.
And yet, although he is facing criticism for the first time in his fledgling PSG career, to suggest that Pastore is experiencing anything more drastic than a slight dip in form would be absurd. His spellbinding skill and nonchalant nutmegs have already bewitched France’s football fraternity and his integration into life in the French capital will be expedited further when he moves into a new house on his return from international duty.
“Criticism doesn’t affect me,” he said this week. “When I play well, people speak well of me and and I when I play badly, it’s just the opposite. You just have to know how to take a step back and not pay too much attention.”
PSG face Marseille and Lille in the league before Christmas, as well as hosting Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, and Pastore has already demonstrated a useful knack for raising his game when the occasion demands it. The honeymoon period may be over, but married life promises much - not least a return of that elusive smile.