Thiago Motta thriving as an elite player at PSG

Posted by Michael Cox

Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty ImagesOnce an unheralded midfielder for Barcelona and Inter, Thiago Motta (l) has become a star with PSG.

It sounds ridiculous to suggest a player with two European Cup winners' medals should regard the competition as unfinished business -- but Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian midfielder Thiago Motta will be desperate to triumph in the competition for a third time.

After all, while Motta has a variety of hard-earned medals -- he's won titles in three different countries -- his European successes must feel rather hollow.

He was an unused substitute in Barcelona's 2006 victory over Arsenal, sitting alongside Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta on the bench in Paris. Then he was denied the opportunity to play in Inter's 2010 triumph because the third member of Barcelona's famous midfield trio, Sergio Busquets', rather distasteful simulation in that season's semifinal at the Camp Nou meant Motta was suspended for the final in Madrid -- therefore he's the only player to have won the Champions League for two different sides, having not played in either final.

Motta is a peculiar player -- difficult to classify, perhaps because of his varied footballing career. He's surely the only footballer in history to have played an international final within three separate continental confederations -- he was an under-17 finalist with Brazil in the South American championships of 1999, was part of a Brazilian under-23 side that competed in the Gold Cup of 2003, before briefly appearing in the Euro 2012 final for Italy.

He was born and raised in Brazil but moved to Barcelona at the age of 17, before reaching his peak in Italy. He enjoyed life in Serie A so much that he changed his footballing nationality and became an Italian international, possible because of heritage from grandparents on both sides of his family. Therefore, his football DNA is mixed: Brazilian, Spanish and Italian -- not a bad combination. If you trust the stereotypes, that is a country famed for attacking, a country famed for passing and a country famed for defending. Motta should be an all-round footballer.

That might explain why he's such an adaptable midfielder. Although widely acknowledged as a holding midfielder, the position he currently occupies at PSG, at the international level Cesare Prandelli has used him at the top of a midfield diamond, starting the pressure from high up the pitch. He is, in many ways, a true all-rounder.

Coming off the back of a disappointing, injury-hit campaign in 2012-13, Motta has been one of PSG's star performers this season. That's not easy in a side featuring such illustrious names, particularly going forward, but his combination of physical presence and impressive technique has made Motta arguably Laurent Blanc's second-most important player after Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

It would be tough to argue that Motta was a better individual than Edinson Cavani or Thiago Silva, but looking at Laurent Blanc's options across the pitch, Motta is one player he really can't lose. Given past events, Motta might not appreciate the comparison, but he's essentially become PSG's version of Busquets.

John Berry/Getty ImagesPrimarily a holding midfielder, Thiago Motta has some versatility on offense as well, making plays for others.

In simple terms, Motta is a defensive midfielder -- protecting the centre-backs and starting passing moves from deep. But his role this season has been tremendously all-encompassing. In particular, he spends a significant amount of time covering the full-back positions, because Maxwell and Gregory van der Wiel have been given increased license to attack under Blanc. Maxwell has spent the season scampering forward and taking advantage of his fabulous relationship with Ibrahimovic -- cultivated during shared spells at Ajax, Inter and Barcelona before PSG -- which was particularly obvious in the 1-1 draw with title rivals Monaco, when he repeatedly stormed forward and provided the assist for Ibrahimovic’s opener.

On the other flank, van der Wiel has improved significantly over the past twelve months, fighting off the challenge of former captain Christophe Jallet to make the right-back berth his own. In PSG's 5-0 thrashing of Anderlecht on the Champions League Matchday 3, the Dutchman twice set up Ibrahimovic for simple tap-ins -- the Belgian club couldn't cope with van der Wiel's constant advanced positioning down the right.

PSG's two full-backs have recorded seven assists already this season -- six of them for Ibrahimovic, the other being a van der Wiel cross converted by Maxwell against Marseille, the two full-backs attacking simultaneously.

With those two players positioning themselves so high, Motta's defensive discipline has been absolutely crucial. He's always on hand to dart across and make a challenge to halt an opposition counterattack down the wings. Sometimes, like Busquets, he seems like an additional centre-back.

His defensive discipline is vital with PSG's midfield trio -- Blaise Matuidi is an energetic box-to-box midfielder that needs someone positionally reliable behind him, while Marco Verratti is outrageously gifted in a playmaking sense, but lacks the physical ability to fight his own battles. Motta enables both to play their natural game, and has been superb individually in recent weeks -- a very harsh red card against Marseille is the only blemish on a stellar season so far.

Like Busquets, a key feature of Motta's game this season has been his tendency to harass opponents in advanced positions, attempting to win possession quickly. "We should become better out of possession," Motta said earlier this season, when asked about the changes Blanc would make to the side. "It's important that we regain possession as quickly as possible."

That was particularly obvious during the game against Monaco, when Motta simultaneously covered the flanks while performing a fine man-marking job on Joao Moutinho. The Portuguese midfielder was uncomfortable being fielded as a No. 10 when his side were being dominated, so dropped into increasingly deep positions to collect possession. Motta followed him all the time, denying Moutinho the opportunity to influence the game. He repeatedly won the ball quickly.

It's not quite Barca-style pressing, but we should remember that both Motta and Blanc have connections to the Spanish champions -- Blanc spent a season there as a player in 1996-97, unfortunately being signed by Johan Cruyff a day before the Dutchman left the club. During Jose Mourinho's spell as an assistant at Barca, Blanc and Pep Guardiola were the two players who enjoyed discussing tactics and strategy with him. There's an element of Barca in this PSG under Blanc -- their average share of possession has improved from 56 percent to 64 percent, their pass completion rate from 85 percent to 88 percent.

Motta is proving useful in an attacking sense, too. His two identical headed goals from corners in the 4-1 win over Olympiakos were crucial -- he then showed his adaptability by taking a corner late in the game, providing Marquinhos with the fourth goal. In fact, Motta has recorded an assist in each of PSG's three European games this season -- he took the corner for Ibrahimovic's header against Benfica, and played a lovely through-ball for the Swede's fourth goal against Anderlecht.

Everything ends with Ibrahimovic, but increasingly, everything starts with Motta. Previously a relatively unheralded midfielder, he deserves recognition as one of Europe's best all-round footballers.

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