It has been an ideal start to the season for French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Unbeaten and five points clear at the top of Ligue 1 after nine matches, Laurent Blanc’s men have also recorded two wins from as many games in the UEFA Champions League and only trail Real Madrid on goal difference.
Les Parisiens have already beaten the likes of AS Monaco, Olympique de Marseille and Shakhtar Donetsk across all competitions, and the capital club’s traditional slow start to new campaign has been successfully avoided.
Key to this early-season success has been PSG’s solid three-man midfield unit.
Since taking over as coach back in the summer of 2013, Blanc has preferred a trio comprised of Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matudi. It is easy to see why.
Now that the three are tuned into the same frequency after plenty of time playing together, they have a strong understanding.
They are capable of collectively dominating their opponents, both domestically and in Europe, frequently out-passing them and giving them next to no time on the ball because of their tenacious nature.
Motta is the brains behind the PSG midfield. Although the Italy international was far from his 2013-14 best last season, the 33-year-old has been reinvigorated after a lengthy battle with the French giants over a new contract.
The Azzurri star was eventually handed a one-year extension back in August, and since then, his performances have been closer to the supreme displays witnessed at Parc des Princes the campaign before last.
Motta’s presence has a calming influence on the team. His appearance as a half-time substitute in the 1-0 win away at Lille OSC on the opening day of the season was the perfect example of why PSG cannot be without him when he is in form and focused.
Prior to the Italian’s introduction, Les Parisiens’ midfield looked sloppy and was lacking shape. Motta came on to replace Javier Pastore in order to compensate Adrien Rabiot’s first-half red card and completely changed the game.
All of a sudden, PSG were in control. Motta was his usual metronomic self and, even though not fully match fit, was snapping into tackles and asserting his authority on his team-mates.
Verratti, Motta’s partner in crime, has also enjoyed a good start to the season.
The Italian duo have an almost telepathic understanding, and the younger midfielder has started to add impressive maturity to his already well-documented technical ability.
Verratti, who has often been a walking yellow card in the past for PSG, has shown surprising restraint and discipline on the pitch. It was only in the recent 2-1 win over bitter rivals Marseille that the 22-year-old picked up his first Ligue 1 booking this season.
Considering that he accumulated 12 last term and has broken into double figures in each of his three full campaigns in Paris so far, it is a minor miracle that it has taken this long to receive his first caution.
Sewing it all together is the irrepressible Matuidi. The France international is a beastly presence in the PSG midfield, and his all-round ability, not to mention his boundless energy and commitment, makes him an indispensable member of the starting XI.
This season, Matuidi has been better than ever. The 28-year-old even enjoyed a prolific run of form that saw him rack up two Ligue 1 goals and assists in four matches, as well as another goal for Les Bleus in a friendly win over Serbia.
Although often taken for granted when on the pitch, it is only when the PSG No. 14 is off the pitch that the extent of his influence truly becomes clear.
Without him, like in the 4-1 away win over FC Nantes recently, there is a big hole in the midfield, and the team become more cumbersome without his robust and athletic presence.
The France international has looked a little tired in recent weeks, hence why he was probably rested in the build-up to the Marseille game. However, his slightly jaded displays are nothing compared with the accumulated fatigue he was suffering from last season after the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Together, Motta, Verratti and Matuidi make up one of the most formidable midfield trios in world football, and there are only a few teams better at winning back possession and retaining it than PSG.
As dominant and adept at keeping the ball away from their opponents as they can be, though, Blanc’s preferred midfield lacks creativity and forward thrust at times.
Notably in games against smaller opponents, when complacency becomes a factor for the Ligue 1 juggernaut, the dominant Motta, Verratti and Matuidi trio is not absolutely necessary.
Instead, PSG would arguably be better with Javier Pastore on the pitch.
The Argentina international is one of the most proficient creators at Blanc’s disposal in the French capital, and often the Ligue 1 champions are found lacking invention with El Flaco watching on from the substitutes' bench.
In terms of Pastore’s fitness, the start of this term has not been ideal for the South American or PSG.
The 26-year-old has had to battle back to full match sharpness without a pre-season because of this summer’s Copa America, and once the gifted playmaker was in shape, fellow Argentinian Angel Di Maria had already found his feet, limiting opportunities for Les Parisiens' No. 27 to get full 90-minute run-outs.
Pastore is now pretty much back to optimum condition, but Blanc is struggling to find a place for him in the starting XI on a regular basis.
Along with star man Ibrahimovic, the former Palermo man is the most creative figure in the PSG squad, and for certain games, Le President needs to find a spot for him to make an already impressive midfield that little bit better.
Often deployed as one of the three central midfielders when one of Motta, Verratti or Matuidi is unavailable or rested, Pastore is miscast that far back on the pitch.
Although last season’s surge in confidence and form has enabled him to perform adequately from that position, El Flaco needs to be played in his preferred attacking midfield role as often as possible.
This is difficult to achieve when Ibrahimovic is on the pitch, though, because the Swede likes to drop deep to collect the ball and moves into exactly the space that Pastore likes to occupy.
Outside of the Argentinian, Benjamin Stambouli and Adrien Rabiot provide good depth in midfield. However, neither Frenchman is at the level yet where they can usurp any of Motta, Verratti, Matuidi or Pastore.
The only possible way to better Blanc’s favoured Motta, Verratti and Matuidi combination is by somehow adding Pastore to the mix, and that is realistically only possible when one of Ibrahimovic or Edinson Cavani is unavailable.
Pastore playing in front of that midfield trio and just behind a front two is when PSG’s midfield is at its strongest.
However, with that system unlikely to be used very often because of the presence of Ibrahimovic and Di Maria, Pastore in for one of the regular midfield three in order to offer a creative boost would give Blanc his strongest midfield.