Thomas Meunier taking his chances to star for Paris Saint-Germain
PARIS -- Seven goals and eight assists from 10 competitive appearances across all competitions for club and country so far this season would make Paris Saint-Germain's star attacking trio of Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Neymar happy. However, these statistics do not belong to any of them; instead, they belong to the PSG's right-back... and not even coach Unai Emery's regular first choice in that role!
It's not Dani Alves who boasts such impressive figures this early in the campaign but his positional rival, Thomas Meunier, instead. The Belgium international scored twice away at Dijon FCO last Saturday to snatch victory for PSG when a disappointing draw looked inevitable at Stade Gaston-Gerard, further endearing himself to supporters in the process. Meunier now has three goals and two assists to his name from just six outings with Les Parisiens this term, and the 26-year-old has only featured domestically in Le Championnat and the Trophee des Champions: he has yet to play a single minute in the UEFA Champions League.
Speaking with Canal+'s Canal Football Club on Sunday, Meunier revealed that he started his career in Belgium in attack, which explains his prolific (for a defender, anyway) current form in front of goal.
"I used to be an attacker, yes," said the man from Sainte-Ode. "The instinct to score goals? It has always been in me. When I was younger, we played against village teams and we were winning 18-0 and stuff like this. I scored lots of goals and it was awesome. For me, there is no better feeling on the pitch than scoring a goal.
"I started in attack at the professional level but because of competition, I gradually moved backwards. First I was a midfielder but finally I ended up at right-back."
Meunier's brace in Dijon won't be remembered as the most beautiful goals he has ever scored, certainly not in PSG colours when you recall his stunner away at Basel in the Champions League last season, but they illustrate consistency. Also, when added to the former Club Brugge man's strike at home to Girondins de Bordeaux before the most recent international break, a pattern quickly emerges.
Meunier has scored all three of his club goals this campaign by running into the penalty area close to the far post, and it's something he feels happens often because his PSG role is similar to the one he enjoys with Belgium at international level. "The back post? Yes, I often score that way," said Meunier. "Against Bordeaux, it was the same [as it was against Dijon]. For Belgium, we play with three at the back. It is a little similar with PSG but in disguise because we play very attacking football but the system pushes me forward."
However, despite his prolific exploits in attack, Meunier finds himself in a rotational role at Parc des Princes because of Alves' presence. The Brazil international has not been as effective as his right-back rival in Ligue 1 but he has still been consistent and has delivered when there is plenty at stake. Alves' opening goal in the recent 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and his superb free kick and assist in the Trophee des Champions victory against AS Monaco in preseason, are proof of that. However, PSG's No. 32 did let himself down recently in a way that Meunier almost certainly would not have done by getting involved in the childish Neymar-Cavani set piece spat and showing support for his fellow Brazilian.
The competition between Meunier and Alves at right-back is healthy, though, and despite Meunier admitting that his rival is a "fractious" character and that it "hurts" to lose the starting role he fought hard to earn last term, he has realised the ex-Barcelona and Juventus man's considerable quality and admirable longevity. "He is exceptional," Meunier said of Alves. "I do not need to paint a picture for you. If he is this efficient and decisive at this age with PSG as he was when he played for Barca and Juve, then it is because he is Dani -- for me, he is the best of the best.
"When I learned that he was coming, of course I asked myself questions, that was for sure. After my good debut season, I told myself that perhaps I would get a little more credit and that my status would change. However, the club jumped on an opportunity to sign a free agent."
"Let us say that the coach [Emery] has not forgotten my efforts and work from the past year -- he has full confidence in me. However, the reality is that I have become second choice and that hurts a bit."
Meunier was linked with a number of European clubs this summer, such as Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United and even Spartak Moscow, but he's unwilling to throw the towel in on his time in Paris just yet. "I am not aware of anything -- Real, Juve, United, whoever you want, there is nothing," Meunier stated. "People have sent me text messages saying 'you are going to Juve?' and I have told them that I am not aware of anything."
Although he might not be interested in a move away from PSG for now, other European clubs are certainly taking notice of his impressive start to life with the French giants. Meunier has had the fans onside from very early in his time in France and the combination of his happy-go-lucky character, consistent performances and eye for spectacular goals have turned him into something of a cult favourite.
After playing his way into Emery's starting XI instead of Serge Aurier, Meunier now has to do it all over again with Alves and even though he is making a good fist of it so far, there will come a time -- possibly in the Champions League -- where the Belgian starts to feel hard done by.
If Alves is still Emery's preferred option at right-back by the end of the campaign, then the 2018 FIFA World Cup could be the perfect opportunity for Meunier to put himself in the shop window. PSG might then be forced to recognise that Meunier deserves more than just a bit-part role.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.