PSG wonderkid Warren Zaire-Emery offers hope for French giants' Kylian Mbappe-less future

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The 17-year-old has been one of the standout players for Luis Enrique's side so far this season, and profiles as a homegrown leader going forward

Marco Verratti hasn't got his desired move away from Paris Saint-Germain. Not yet, at least. The Italy midfielder has long been a stalwart of the Parisians' XI, but when a number of Saudi Pro League clubs reached out to PSG enquiring about a potential move, the player's head was turned immediately.

Verratti hasn't made a matchday squad this season, and seems almost certain to have played his last match at Parc des Princes. It is a matter of when — not if — he jets off to the Middle East, either to Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

Replacing, or perhaps replicating, his impact on the club will be no easy feat. Here is perhaps the best midfielder in the club's recent history, a European Championship winner, with nine Ligue 1 titles to his name, publicly anointed as 'successor' to Andres Iniesta by the man himself.

But rather than reach out into the transfer market, and dip into their apparently bottomless nation-state-funded piggy bank, PSG have looked inward for a replacement. Their only midfield signing this summer has been a defensive option in Manuel Ugarte, a hard tackler who is at his worst when asked to dribble.Instead, they have turned to the jewel of their academy, handing Warren Zaire-Emery Verratti's position in the line-up.

The 17-year-old has been given a chance to impress for one of the world's biggest clubs, and, so far, it has been a masterstroke in the early days of new manager Luis Enrique's reign.

  1. Impossible to ignore
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    Impossible to ignore

    The youngster has been around for a while at this point. Zaire-Emery was one of the droves of top talents that have risen through the PSG ranks in recent years. But unlike the many who had brief chances before going elsewhere — among them Christan Nkunku, Kingsley Coman and Mike Maignan — Zaire-Emery has, thus far, stuck around. One of the since-fired Christophe Galtier's few achievements as PSG boss, in fact, was to give the 16-year-old the chance to express himself as part of the Parisians' first team.

    And this was a warranted achievement, too. Zaire-Emery has long been tagged for success by the PSG hierarchy. His father was a prominent coach in Paris' youth football season, which served as a launching pad for his ascendancy through the PSG system. Academy coaches recall a nine-year-old who tore up his age group, and was forced to play with PSG's Under-11s.

    Things only improved from there, as Zaire-Emery represented the U19s at the age of 14 and starred in the UEFA Youth League. By 2021, he was arguably too good for that level, and last summer earned his first call up to the PSG first team.

    The plan, at the time, was to have Zaire-Emery train with the senior squad, and drop down for reserve and youth fixtures. But he was simply too valuable to ignore, and the injury-struck Parisians called on him for 26 Ligue 1 appearances and a Champions League last-16 start against Bayern Munich. Last year was miserable in Paris; Zaire-Emery was arguably the only redeeming quality.

  2. In his natural role
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    In his natural role

    Admittedly, the best of Zaire-Emery was only available in glimpses. Galtier rather misused the midfielder, too often deploying him awkwardly at right-wing-back, or occasionally as an attacking midfielder to relieve one of Leo Messi, Kylian Mbappe or Neymar.

    But when deployed in his more natural central position, Zaire-Emery flourished. He scored a decisive third goal against Montpellier in Ligue 1 — a strike that helped PSG pull away in the title race for good. He bossed proceedings in a 4-2 win over Nantes in March, handed a defensive midfield start in lieu of Danilo Pereira — who offered centre-back cover. And although Messi and Mbappe grabbed the plaudits in that game, it was Zaire-Emery's constant running and measured passing that set everything up.

    And even when misused, Zaire-Emery managed to have an impact. PSG were miserable in their Champions League knockout loss to Bayern, but the teenager held his own when given the unenviable task of keeping Coman quiet.

    This season, though, Parisians are starting to see the youngster's best. For the first three games of the season, he has arguably been PSG's best midfielder, playing just in front of Ugarte, and serving as an all-round presence in the middle of the park.

    Sometimes he skips into the final third, others he distributes from deep. Regardless of the exact decision, Zaire-Emery has been ruthlessly efficient in his play, completing 92 percent of his passes on the season so far, and adding an assist to top things off. That's not bad for a 17-year-old playing in one of the most physical leagues in Europe.

  3. Homegrown hero
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    Homegrown hero

    PSG have long coveted local talent to represent the club on the pitch. They are not particularly special in that sense — all fans like when local players wear the shirt. But there is something unique in Paris' clamour for Parisians to take their place in the team. It is, no doubt, linked to the strength of PSG's academy. Countless top talents have been developed in the French capital before being forced to seek opportunities elsewhere. The Parisian inability to hold on to their own is truly concerning.

    Many of the world's best were either born near Paris or joined — and left — the PSG academy. It's a fault that can partially be attributed to the Qatari Sports Investment project, an ownership group that has long prioritised big names over youth. The result has been a top European side that now only has one recognised academy player sustaining a run in the side. And that player, Presnel Kimpembe, seems unlikely to be a guaranteed starter when he returns from injury. It is perhaps why PSG fans have been so willing to forgive Mbappe; he is in possession of a French passport, even if he went the long way around to represent his hometown club.

    Zaire-Emery, then, can be the next Parisian to assume that role. The midfielder is a local talent and a boyhood PSG fan. The sight of him with megaphone in hand, leading the ultras in song after last week's win over Lens felt rather symbolic in terms of the leadership role he is already taking up at the club.

    Internationally, meanwhile, he has represented France at every youth level, and a first U21 call-up from Thierry Henry, who recently hailed his "physical impact", landed on his doorstep this week. If Zaire-Emery continues to get his chance, PSG could quite easily see their star man function as a key cog in France's national team for years to come.

  4. Where next?
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    Where next?

    This story has been told before. It happened with Nkunku, who seemed to be breaking into the team before he left. It happened, to an extent, with Coman, who was once the youngest player to appear for the Parisians. It was supposed to happen with Maignan and Adrien Rabiot.

    These aren't all Ballon d'Or-winning talents. This is not like overlooking the next Messi or Ronaldo. But are all either established internationals or soon-to-be impact players for major clubs. They're the kind of youngsters that PSG fans have long been excited about, before having their hopes quashed by inevitable exits.

    Now, though, they might just have found their cornerstone. Luis Enrique has long been a proponent of youth — something he showed by handing teenagers Gavi and Pedri major roles for an otherwise very experienced Spain side. And he seems likely to keep faith in Zaire-Emery the team. The manager has already benched more established, more expensive players than the teenager, and seen his team pick up points as a result.

    This won't all be smooth for the Parisians, who have currently only won one of three Ligue 1 games. Zaire-Emery will experience dips in form, and perhaps be asked to do too much, too soon. Still, with Mbappe likely leaving at the end of the season, PSG will need their Parisian of the future. They might just have found him.