Newcastle United fans, look away now. If losing Yohan Cabaye was painful, it probably won’t help to learn that he’s not even getting in the Paris Saint-Germain team at the moment.
As one of the stars of Lille’s 2010-11 double-winning team and a core member of the France side that engineered November’s famous comeback against Ukraine in World Cup qualifying, Cabaye is not short of admirers in his home country, but he is not playing for PSG for the simple reason that he is not Marco Verratti.
Since swapping the Bigg Market for the Champs Elysées in January, Cabaye has made only four starts. Instead, he is becoming the player that Laurent Blanc turns to when Verratti needs a breather, starting in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 encounter with Bayer Leverkusen (after PSG had put the tie to bed with a 4-0 victory in the first leg) and coming into the team for Friday’s 1-0 win at Nice, when Verratti was rested ahead of this week’s meeting with Chelsea.
French pundits believe that PSG’s neatly balanced midfield trio of Verratti, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi will give them the edge in their quarter-final against Chelsea, and if Motta supplies the brains and Matuidi the lungs in that triumvirate, Verratti is the wildly and erratically pumping heart.
A short, stocky midfield organiser with incongruously delicate facial features, 21-year-old Verratti brings what the French call a brin de folie (touch of madness) to complement the guile and energy alongside him. Like his countryman Andrea Pirlo, with whom he is often compared, he started out as a number 10, before being converted into a deep-lying playmaker, but the positional switch left his sense of daring fully and thrillingly intact.
Blessed with a Velcro-like touch and an audacious confidence in his ability to shield the ball from opposing players, watching Verratti is the football equivalent of those sweaty palm-inducing YouTube videos of Russian teenagers clowning around on the top of high-rise buildings. When he’s not pulling off outrageous dummies inside his own penalty area, he’s toying with rival forwards by embarking upon seemingly suicidal dribbles in those areas of the pitch where the instruction manual specifically advises you to keep things simple.
Antonio Di Battista, the head of Pescara’s youth academy, who discovered Verratti playing for his village team, describes him as “a predestinato – someone whose talent is apparent from the earliest age”. He adds: “When I found him playing for his team, Manoppello, he was already doing exceptional things with the ball.” According to former PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti, Verratti “sees the game before the others, like Pirlo”. L’Équipe, meanwhile, has asserted that the young Italian is touched by “genius” and has suggested that his passes – such as a showy, scooped through ball against Benfica last October – might one day be “taught at an École des Beaux-Arts“.
Unsurprisingly, however, his compulsive risk-taking occasionally gets him into trouble, both on the pitch and off. After watching Verratti give the ball away one time too many during a 2-0 victory at Dynamo Kiev last season, Ancelotti complained: “It annoys me. He has the qualities to play differently. He’s young, but he takes too many risks.”
He was also chastised by Blanc, Ancelotti’s successor, following a 1-1 draw at Monaco in February. Asked if Verratti took too many chances with possession, the former France coach replied: “The problem when you take such risks is that, if it works, you think it’s fantastic. But when it fails, that’s the kind of question that you ask me.”
Verratti also has an unfortunate habit of getting booked, having accumulated 20 yellow cards in the 53 Ligue 1 games that he has played to date. There are impetuous creases to his game that refuse to be ironed out, but it did not deter PSG from awarding him a new five-year contract in August 2013 that reportedly saw his salary more than double to €2 million per year.
While Verratti acknowledges that he needs to repress some of his more flamboyant instincts, he says that he feels an obligation to give PSG’s fans value for their money. “Football is entertainment,” he told L’Équipe in an interview earlier this month. “A beautiful touch is better than a [purely] physical action. Afterwards, everyone can see it as they like. Sport is becoming more physical, more tactical, and therefore less spectacular, because teams are afraid of losing. It’s a shame. People who go to the stadiums go to see a spectacle. We’re professionals, and we’re doing a job. But football has to be a spectacle.”
Snatched from Pescara (and from beneath the noses of Juventus and Napoli), Verratti joined PSG for a reported initial fee of €12 million in the summer of 2012 and was officially presented to the media minutes before Zlatan Ibrahimović. Sporting director Leonardo joked that there were a lot of people in the Parc des Princes press conference room for someone who was “practically unknown” and Verratti, speaking softly and wearing a grey V-neck sweater, must have felt like something of an apéritif for the main meal that was to follow. He shuffled off stage shortly before The Zlatan Show swept in, but although there was no Eiffel Tower photo opportunity for the Italian, he has become almost as indispensable to PSG as his headline-hogging team-mate. In L’Équipe‘s average season ratings, Verratti (6.24) is second only to Ibrahimović (6.30) out of the entire championship.
To date he has been granted only fleeting opportunities by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, winning just four caps, and must contend with Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio for a place in the Azzurri midfield. But when he does get into the team (and with Pirlo now 34, a vacancy is likely to open up before long), he could prove impossible to budge. Just ask one of the players who’s tried to get the ball off him as he twists and shimmies on the edge of his own penalty area. Just ask Yohan Cabaye.