FEATURE | Presnel Kimpembe – coming of age?

Presnel Kimpembe is a lucky man: the last time he played in a football match, he produced a masterclass. He left football observers, who might not get to see the game played at the highest level for some time, with a good impression. Against Borussia Dortmund, in PSG’s final game of the season since the COVID-19 outbreak stopped all the footballing action, the French international played a big part in his club’s first Round of 16 success since 2016. His superb display in an empty Parc des Princes held a smattering of similarities with the one that put him in the spotlight four years ago against FC Barcelona, when Les Parisiens gloriously trounced the Catalan giants 4-0. Has he finally become the world-class defender strong enough to carry PSG’s defence on a long-term basis alongside Marquinhos?

“Overrated,” is the word that comes out of a lot of mouths when debating Presnel Kimpembe. In truth, since his incredible breakout performance in that fixture, the French defender’s high quality performances have become both scattered and minimal. Of course, benefitting from his club’s outsized domination in France, he played well enough in Ligue 1 and in the various cups to be viewed as one of the league’s best and earn a France call for the 2018 Russian World Cup. But the Champions’ League flops in which Kimpembe participated in, most notably the one against Manchester United, left observers dissatisfied.

Spell in the wilderness

To many, these failures emphasised the fact that Presnel’s actual qualities were over-exaggerated because of factors like his colourful temper, his permanent grin, his social media popularity and his key role in being a key atmosphere-maker for the France squad as they headed towards 2018 World Cup triumph.

Those are things you obviously cannot take away from him. And, despite him often getting mocked by social media users for being the “music guy” during France’s Russian journey, that role was a critical one, albeit off of the pitch. It takes a simple watch of the great TF1 documentary “Les Bleus 2018: inside the Russian journey” to fathom that, despite playing only one game in the entire tournament, he gave his body and soul to liven things up and unite the group.

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But for Kimpembe to progress and be taken seriously as a complete on-field presence, he had to step up in this domain. The season immediately after the World Cup win was a particularly tough one for the Frenchman. Probably his worst since signing his first professional contract with PSG in 2015. A shame, because it could have, or should have been the season to confirm his potential as Tuchel’s tactical hesitations, playing in a hybrid 4-4-2 with Marquinhos in midfield, made him a regular starter.

The climax of PSG’s season was obviously the double-confrontation against Man United. Two games that perfectly embodied the defender’s tendency to produce schizophrenic performances. In all fairness, the first leg in itself was the perfect summary of Kimpembe’s best and worst traits. He looked shaky in the first ten minutes, got booked in the eleventh (endangering himself and limiting his movements for the rest of his match), but came out of nowhere to open the scoring just after half-time (his first ever goal for the club) at Old Trafford. This effort clearly saved his day and was enough to get all the fans excited about the prospect of him playing a role in the second leg in Paris, with the notion fast developing that Kimpembe was definitely a big-game player.

The latter did not go as planned, though. In the 88th minute, as United were timidly trying to find an opening, a tame Diego Dalot shot was deflected. Tame? Unfortunately, touched on the way through by Kimpembe’s arm, leading the officials to award United a penalty after consulting with VAR. Marcus Rashford scored it, eliminating the Parisians in the final moments. After the game, Kimpembe was singled out, as the post-mortem into another crumbling showing on the biggest European stage from the team from Paris began. Unfortunately for Kimpembe, this marked the beginning of a very long end of the season.

Maestro Kimpembe?

PSG eventually won the league, but failed in the Coupe de France final against the season’s feel good side Rennes. At the Stade de France, with the Parisians maintaining a comfortable two goal-lead, a cross from Hamari Traoré was deflected by Kimpembe into PSG’s goal. His mistake manages to destabilise Les Parisiens just before half-time, eventually leading them to lose the cup final on penalties.

The lack of concentration which led to Rennes’ goal is a more general defect that Presnel Kimpembe has always struggled with. He is an explosive defender, strong and aggressive. His style of play, although not always efficient, remains very braggadocious, and has on many occasions camouflaged his shortcomings in terms of his overall placement and passing.

This penchant for inconsistency has surely prevented the world from considering him among Europe’s best defenders. Yet, he has proved on some other occasions that he could be ranked in this category. The latest being his monstrous display against Dortmund on March 11th, in which he completely shut down Erling Braut Haaland. That game was a monument to Kimpembe’s best: pace, strength, authority, tackling efficiency, mastered risk-taking… PSG eventually won 2-0 and exorcised their old European demons.

But the question remains unresolved: has Presnel finally reached the level of maturity required to be fully taken seriously? In a So Foot article following the game, something quite interesting was pointed out: every time Kimpembe has played his best football for PSG, he has been stood alongside Marquinhos in defence. Or, better put: Thiago Silva was absent. Kimpembe and Marquinhos definitely represent the club’s future at the back. Kimpembe’s rough and tumble nature, matched by his sheer athleticism, and Marquinhos’ sense of placement and passing, make their complementarity blindingly obvious.

With 35-year-old defender Thiago Silva very likely to leave the club this summer, it looks like a handover of power within the Parisian defence is imminent. And it is likely to make Kimpembe, for the first time in his Parisian career, the first choice in defence alongside Marquinhos. Their partnership could benefit Kimpembe a lot: he will have more responsibilities in the dressing room and a new status to uphold. A good moment for him to let down his old habits and finally become, at the age of 24, the man all the Parisians are expecting him to be.