Will Giovani Lo Celso Be PSG's One That Got Away?
It is difficult to believe that at some point over the next five or six years, Paris Saint-Germain won’t look back and regret their decision to provide Giovani Lo Celso with an accessible pathway out of the Parc des Princes.
Lo Celso arrived at the club in January 2017 after making his name in his native Argentina as part of the attractive Rosario Central side managed by Eduardo Coudet that reached the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores in 2016. Playing as an attacking midfielder, he not only provided goals, assists and incision but at least one “wow” moment every match: a delicate touch, a scooped pass, a confounding flourish.
Playing time was severely limited in his first six months in Paris, but he worked hard to settle in and prove himself useful to coach Unai Emery. He was rewarded with a good set of minutes last season, making 19 starts and 21 substitute appearances across league and Champions League play. He made up part of the midfield three, and was even sometimes employed as the central defensive midfielder - a role he had never previously occupied.
Given those demands, he put together a very solid campaign.
The low point of his season came in the first leg of the club’s last-16 exit from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid. he was rather hung out to dry in that central role in front of the defense (the lack of alternative options perhaps demonstrating some of the same lack of foresight that led to PSG loaning Lo Celso out this season), his inexperience showed. He struggled to establish any sort of presence in the match and conceded a penalty in a 1-3 defeat.
It was a blot on an otherwise promising campaign, one in which Lo Celso displayed the range of his abilities. Fully settled, he seemed set to push on. However, just 10 minutes of action over the course of the club’s first three matches of the new season suggested he wasn’t to the taste of new coach Thomas Tuchel. On the last day of the summer transfer window, he joined Real Betis on an initial one-season loan, with a €25 million purchase option (mandatory if Betis qualify for Europe; executable without PSG’s further approval if not).
It already looks an excellent match. At a top-line level, he has provided five goals and two assists in league and Europa League action, at a rate of a direct goal contribution of 0.72 per 90 minutes. He stole the show in a standout performance in the thrilling 4-3 win away to Barcelona earlier this month, impressing with his ability to make space for himself with good touch and awareness of his surroundings when receiving - attributes also evident in his ultimately futile late strike away to Villarreal on Sunday.
It is difficult to decide which radar best encompasses Lo Celso’s output to date. Betis usually line up in either a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation. In the former, he is part of midfield three; in the latter, one of the two attacking midfielders behind the central striker. Wherever he is positioned, however his role is defined, his numbers are impressive.
In attack, he completes more dribbles and advances the ball into the final third more often than any other Betis player, while also ranking in the top three in terms of xG and xG assisted. In defense, he leads the team in tackles and pressures, and ranks second for pressure regains.
More broadly, no other player in the big five leagues this season with 500 or more minutes of action under their belt has been able to match Lo Celso’s combination of an xG contribution (xG + xG assisted) per 90 of 0.30 or higher, three or more successful dribbles, nine or more deep progressions, 15 or more pressures and over 3.5 tackles and interceptions (indeed, on a possession-adjusted basis, he is making 5.04 successful tackles per 90, seventh best in the big-five leagues). In short, he is providing a uniquely well-rounded contribution.
Unsurprisingly, Betis have made it clear that they want to take up their purchase option next summer. They view Lo Celso as a player around whom an ambitious project can be built. He, too, has suggested he is keen to stay in the south of Spain. If he continues to perform at his current level, market forces may determine otherwise, but at this time, the partnership between Betis and Lo Celso is clearly a mutually beneficial one.
If his high number of turnovers (4.73 per 90, sixth highest in La Liga) means he still cannot quite escape the assessment from Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winner turned columnist Tostão that he is a player of “many moves, few decisive,” he has, in Quique Setién, a coach committed to providing his most talented players with the necessary supporting structure to take the risks required to provide incision. To provide moments of quality like the back-heel that released Loren Morón into the area to score against Celta Vigo.
Given his capabilities, it remains strange that Lo Celso was one of two outfield players not to receive a single minute of playing time for Argentina at the World Cup. Jorge Sampaoli cycled through almost every other combination of personnel and formation available to him but never once called on Lo Celso. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi was left having to do pretty much everything by himself in attack: progressing the ball, setting up chances, taking shots.
There were suggestions from inside sources that the coaching staff were concerned about Lo Celso’s ability to handle the pressure of representing his country at the World Cup, but current interim (possibly soon permanent) head coach Lionel Scaloni was part of that group and has still made the 22-year-old the centerpiece of subsequent national team friendlies.
Lo Celso therefore looks to have bright future ahead of him at both club and international level. The relatively meager figure of €25 million that PSG placed on his head already looks a startling misjudgment on their part. Betis have a player they can enjoy and derive success from right now, and a prime asset if and when he outgrows them.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association