A few minutes before Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced to the French press on July 2nd last month, heralded as yet another high-profile name to join the ranks of rapidly-improving PSG, another player came to sign a professional contract with the Parisian club. There weren’t any journalists present aside of those representing the club’s official website and local newspaper Le Parisien. And yet this name might well come to embody what is left of Paris Saint Germain’s identity a few years down the line.
Adrien Rabiot, 17, had just become the very first homegrown PSG player to sign a professional contract under the tenure of Sheikh El-Khelaifi. At the start of an era which will see PSG spending "€500 million over five seasons" in the words of the club president, succeeding in establishing oneself in a demanding, short-sighted environment was no easy task. But Rabiot has gone through a lot more despite his tender age.
As the Parisian team stepped on the pitch recently against Bordeaux, neither was he looking too nervous at making his competitive debut in the French top flight, standing there between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Motta with all the composure of the world. He went on to have a solid game, having 41 touches of the ball including 68% in the opponent’s half before being replaced with an hour on the clock.
The Parc des Princes stood to its feet to applaud the debut of a player they may go on to regularly see among the star-studded line-up of the French capital.
Some will say Rabiot’s presence had more to do with Carlo Ancelotti’s recent trend of including homegrown players in the starting line-up, not because of their playing attributes, but to keep a sense of identity which even the sternest PSG fans have conceded is rapidly faltering as the club attempts to spend its way to the top of European football’s ladder. As club legend Antoine Kombouaré was fired last winter despite the club standing atop the Ligue 1 rankings, only to be replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, some fans feared that despite PSG probably ending up raking the silverware (they failed to bring home the Ligue 1 trophy in the end), it would not really be their club anymore.
Attempts to quell such concerns led Ancelotti to give playing time to players who, despite their quality, would possibly not get into the starting line-up were it not for their Parisian background. Homegrown Clément Chantôme and Mamadou Sakho have enjoyed runs in the starting eleven despite the latter being statistically the most liable defender in one-on-one situations last season. On the other hand, the centre-back that topped these statistics, Serbian international Milan Bisevac, was offloaded to Lyon.
In a similar vein, French players who were born in the Paris area have been seemingly fielded just to make sure PSG retains some sense of identity. Substitute goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez played the opening game against Lorient in place of Italian international Salvatore Sirigu, perhaps the club’s most consistent performer last year. Blaise Matuidi and Jérémy Ménez were regulars in the first eleven, rubbing shoulders with Pastore or Maxwell.
This attempt to mix up established foreign products with more-less domestic talents has proven shaky so far, as testified by PSG’s failure to win a game in its first three appearances of the season. What’s more, it has been shown as an admission of weakness by the coaching staff, attempting to keep PSG’s core fanbase as they simultaneously try to reach out to a worldwide audience.
And though some might have felt the inclusion of homegrown midfielder Adrien Rabiot alongside Thiago Motta was in line with this proclivity to artificially maintain a sense of local pride in an otherwise directionless structure made up of Italians, Brazilians, Argentinians and Swedes of Yugoslavian descent, he proved them all wrong with a composed display that should see him earn a regular spot in Ancelotti’s line-up down the line.
His self-effacing appearance, both in the way he looks, with a long curly hair hiding most of his face, and the way he swiftly moves around the pitch, fists clinched carefully at the height of his chest, always looking for the empty space rather than the confrontation with his opponent, betrays a strong character borne out of a special childhood.
After making his debut in the US Créteil youth academy, far from the shining lights of INF Clairefontaine where the most talented pupils of the Paris area usually go to better their skills, Adrien Rabiot quickly got noticed for his passing range and composure on the ball and was offered a six-year contract at Manchester City in 2005, another club on the cusp of proceeding to major, Arab-financed overhauls. But he only stays for six months, leaving England with the feeling of being misunderstood by his team-mates and coaching staff, played in the wrong positions and asked the wrong instructions.
His father, a staunch PSG supporter who taught him football in his early childhood, suffered a tragic accident in 2006 leaving him entirely paralyzed, victim of what is commonly known as the locked-in syndrom which shuts down all the body’s muscles except for the eyes. He was unable to see his child play ever since, until December of last year when the Paris SG Under-19 staff, in cooperation with Auxerre’s youth team, decided to accomodate a special stand in the AJ Auxerre reserve ground to enable Adrien’s father Michel to see his son play for his beloved club. The PSG team went on to win the game 3-2, the first two goals scored by Rabiot before he was replaced at half-time to watch the remainder of the game with his dad.
Watching him play, it is easy to understand why he would have failed to impress the English youth coaches. Hardly a physical presence despite his height, Rabiot is not one for adrenaline-filled challenges on the ball when an attacking midfielder comes his way. His positioning and tactical awareness usually make up for a natural tendency not to enter tackles, one on which he has however put a lot of emphasis in recent months.
After going back to France, he was scouted by PSG and rose through the PSG youth ranks at a startling pace. His work ethic combined to a likeable persona off-the-pitch made him a favourite both among his team-mates and the PSG staff, who arranged a special stand for his father to come and watch him with the U20s against Auxerre last year.
His playing style could fit most leagues, even England today as the massive influx of Latin coaches gradually made room for the aerial, holding midfielder to freely express himself. What Manchester City failed to do with Rabiot has been the club’s most obvious failure since catching the limelight ; to been to bring in homegrown players and blend them with the star names making up the team’s roster. But it might just be what Paris SG will succeed in doing, with the exact same player, seven years later.
The first homegrown player at PSG to get a professional contract since the Qataris took over, Rabiot is destined for big things. In the end, he might hold the keys to the Parisians’ self-image much like John Terry has done for Chelsea and Iker Casillas for Real Madrid.
You can find Igor on Twitter @Mladenovic_.