When Paris Saint-Germain let midfielder Marco Verratti move to Qatari side Al Arabi for €45 million this summer, it came as a bit of a shock. The writing had been on the wall for the transfer all summer long, but the 31-year-old had won 30 trophies during an incredible 11 years at the club, was still playing at an extremely high level and seemed like a perfect tactical fit for new PSG manager Luis Enrique.
Despite this, PSG moved him on — somewhat ruthlessly, in fact. Was it down to financial fair play? Did the Italy international have injury issues that would cut his career short? In the weeks that followed, a more obvious reason emerged: 17-year-old academy product Warren Zaïre-Emery was not only ready to step into Verratti’s shoes, he was ready to take the world by storm.
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There’s nothing in PSG’s modern history that compares with what Zaïre-Emery is doing right now. At 17, he has cemented his place as a starter at one of the world’s top clubs, looking incredible comfortable in a side featuring world-class players like Kylian Mbappé, Achraf Hakimi and Marquinhos.
That’s not to say PSG haven’t enjoyed their fair share of academy success stories: midfielder Adrien Rabiot broke into the first-team age 18 and impressed; defender Presnel Kimpembe did too, although that happened in his early 20s; defender Mamadou Sakho captained the club at age 17 — a Ligue 1 record — although that was before the Qatari takeover that sparked a new era of expectations and standards in Paris; while striker Nicolas Anelka and winger Kingsley Coman became superstars but were moved on before they had a chance to establish themselves firmly in the first team.
Zaïre-Emery’s rise is on another level entirely. He made his PSG debut last August as a substitute in a 5-0 league win away to Clermont, aged 16 years, 4 months and 29 days — almost a year to the day younger than when Rabiot made his bow — which made him the youngest to appear for PSG in an official match. Then, in October, he came off the bench in a 7-2 victory over Maccabi Haifa to become the club’s youngest-ever player in the Champions League.
A year on and the whole world is talking about him thanks to some incredibly accomplished performances in midfield. So how can a player look this good at such a young age?
The secret is simpler than you’d think: Setting Zaïre-Emery’s obvious technical ability aside for a moment, it’s striking that of all the 17-year-olds you see break into senior football, few look as physically ready. His body is compact, with a low centre of gravity that enables him to go shoulder-to-shoulder with players and bounce off them. He rarely goes to ground or loses possession and has an incredible knack of emerging from duels with the ball still at his feet.
He also likes to drive forward and break through the opposition lines. Among midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues, he ranks in the 82nd percentile for successful take-ons and the 84th percentile for progressive carries, using his body like few others in the game.
PSG’s opening goal against AC Milan on Champions League Matchday 3 perfectly encapsulated this. Vitinha played a square pass to Zaïre-Emery, who was 15 yards inside his own half. Milan midfielder Tijjani Reijnders tried to intercept the pass, but Zaïre-Emery moved his body and pushed the ball into space with a couple of touches to get ahead of his opponent. Reijnders, looking to recover, practically draped himself across the 17-year-old’s back, but Zaïre-Emery shrugged him off twice while surging forward 30 yards. He then picked a fine pass to Mbappé, who scored with a brilliant finish.
There’s another element which is important too: Zaïre-Emery delayed his pass to Mbappé until he committed both Reijnders and Yunus Musah to him. As a result, that opened up space for Mbappé to attack the centre-back in a one-vs.-one without having to worry about other defenders.
It’s something Zaïre-Emery does frequently. If you ever watch a PSG highlight reel and wonder how the likes of Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Randal Kolo Muani are streaking through on goal, the answer might be that Zaïre-Emery has sucked in three defenders and chipped the ball into space for his teammates to run on to.
This combination of physicality, dribbling and passing is lethal and rarely seen in one so young at the top level. But for Zaïre-Emery it’s only half the equation.
He already has a viable end product, with three assists in four Champions League games, plus two goals and two assists in nine Ligue 1 starts so far. The first of those two strikes was a 20-yard thunderbolt against Brest, hit with venom after bursting past an opponent with ease.
Zaïre-Emery is also chiefly in charge of PSG’s build-up play from the back, in what is an extremely possession-focused system favoured by Luis Enrique, as he’s the best passer in the team. His typical midfield partner Manuel Ugarte is more of a battler and tackler, while goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma isn’t a natural with the ball at his feet, so that puts pressure on the teenager to take responsibility for the ball in deeper areas. As a result, there have been a couple of giveaways in dangerous areas, but that’s the risk/reward balance that top clubs accept when playing this style.
In these deeper areas, he looks a bit like the legend he replaced, willing to take the ball anywhere on the pitch at pretty much any angle, just like Verratti used to year after year after year. The difference is Zaïre-Emery is built more like a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney, mixing the strength to bounce off tacklers in a way Verratti never could.
When you watch a 17-year-old player impress not just on the Ligue 1 stage, but against Newcastle and AC Milan in the Champions League too, it sparks real excitement over what’s to come.
“The way Warren Zaïre-Emery is playing, it is just not normal to run the show [for a] 17-year-old,” Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry, who is coach of France’s U21s, told CBS Sports last month. “He was the only one who held his own [in a 4-1 defeat against Newcastle] at St James’ Park. He has been magnificent at the moment. Sky is the limit. I have never seen a player that young being so mature. This guy has no limit, for me.”
It takes most players years to compile the abilities he has and forge them into a complete skillset. Moreover, his feet are firmly on the ground as seems to be surrounded by good people and a strong family unit.
“Warren is a diamond,” Luis Enrique told a news conference ahead of the return leg with Milan. “He is still young so naturally, there are still things to improve. He plays in relation to his teammates. He knows where to go on the pitch — it’s the sign of a great player. It is easy to coach a player like him with his innate characteristics. His biggest quality is his humility. He is 17 years old. It comes from his education I think and from his parents.”