David Beckham's move to Paris Saint-Germain felt like a publicity stunt from the beginning. The idea of a player like Beckham, who looked a bit too old for Major League Soccer, heading to a Champions League team with a stable of midfield talent would have seemed patently absurd if he were anyone but David Beckham. His celebrity transcends football, making him a useful commodity for any team, but at the age of 37, he didn't necessarily seem useful as a footballer to a team with the talent and aspirations that PSG have.
Lots of outlets mocked the move, including this one, which printed the headline "David Beckham to Paris Saint-Germain: Actually a real thing that's happening". In his introductory press conference, he revealed that his entire salary would go to charity, causing everyone to ease up on the jokes. Sideshows are fine as long as they help a good cause.
Except Beckham isn't a sideshow. He started against Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday because he's one of PSG's best midfielders, and certainly their best passing midfielder. He displaced Marco Verratti, the young crowned jewel of Italian football who is already being dubbed as the new Andrea Pirlo. Somehow, even at 37 years of age, Beckham is still better than Verratti. Whether Carlo Ancelotti intended for Beckham to become a key cog in his side or not, it's obvious that he's more than a marketing ploy. He helps PSG win matches, at the highest level of the game.
Beckham didn't make his debut until February 24, nearly a month after arriving at PSG, and his first appearance was only 15 minutes long. Still, it was obvious from his first appearance that he was cut out for Ligue 1 and that he had what it took to hang with the (mostly young) stars in the PSG team. His touch and the effortless nature of his long passes were immediately striking, and with each substitute appearance, Verratti was put more and more on notice.
The only thing that the Italian has on Beckham is youth, something that he doesn't take advantage of much. He looks to have studied too much of the current version of Pirlo, not the mid-20s version that had a bit more dynamism to his game. Verratti doesn't do much in the way of tracking back or quickly closing down players, leaving most of the dirty work to his central midfield partners -- industrious players like Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi.
This isn't really a knock on Verratti, especially considering that the team concept didn't require him to do a great deal of hard defensive work, but his lack of mobility -- no matter if tactics, work-ethic or physical limitations were the cause -- was the ultimate reason he was displaced by Beckham on Tuesday. If he doesn't cover a lot of ground quickly, there's literally nothing that he offers over the 37-year-old. Verratti is only 20, but he already plays like someone who has lost their mobility to old age.
From the opening minutes against Barcelona, Beckham's class was obvious. His 72 percent passing accuracy in the game doesn't tell the story of his performance in the slightest. While most of PSG's players were conservative with their passing, it was Beckham's job to start attacks with longer passes and take more risks than anyone else. According to WhoScored, he played seven accurate long balls. He looked like he would have no problem hitting a dime from 60 yards. While Verratti made no serious mistakes after replacing Beckham on the 70th minute mark, there was a clear gap between him and Beckham. It was a fantastic display of the difference between being world class and simply being very good at long passes.
Of course, Beckham wasn't always this type of player. He made his name as a right winger for Manchester United and England, then continued in that position at Real Madrid. He spent most of his LA Galaxy career as a central player, but the transition from being a right winger to being a deep-lying playmaker certainly wasn't immediate. Bruce Arena came up with the idea, and while Beckham's loan moves to AC Milan were derided by fans who thought he was showing a lack of commitment to Major League Soccer, they certainly aided in that transition and helped him become the player that helped the Galaxy to win MLS Cup in each of his final two years. His role as Milan's right-sided shuttling central midfielder in Ancelotti's 4-3-2-1 formation proved to be a perfect halfway house between the right wing and central midfield positions that helped him become what he is today.
It took time for the Galaxy to build the perfect side to accommodate Beckham and his lack of mobility in MLS, a league that might be more about fitness and athleticism than any other league in the world, but they eventually found an ideal mix of players. Paired with the incredibly active Juninho, flanked by goal-scoring threats Landon Donovan and Mike Magee, playing with poacher Robbie Keane in front of him and defensive rock Omar Gonzalez behind him, Beckham settled into his deep-lying playmaker role. He forged a new identity, transitioning from being branded as a celebrity who didn't care about playing in MLS to being thought of by even hardcore MLS fans who cared nothing about his celebrity as an important piece on a back-to-back champion that was finally more about his game than his image.
Beckham is also a much tougher player than he was in his 20s or early 30s, something that can probably be attributed to the treatment he endured early in his time with the Galaxy. He was lucky that he came into the league while Jesse Marsch, one of the nastiest defensive midfielders to grace the game with his presence since the turn of the millenium, still played for Chivas USA, and while MLS officials hadn't yet learned that debilitating injuries were not prerequisites for bookings. Beckham entered a hard man's league with lax officiating, and was welcomed to the league by Marsch back in 2007.
Perhaps the best part of this clip is in the opening seconds leading up to the tackle on Beckham, in which commentator Eric Wynalda implores the referee to start booking players to establish control of an extremely physical game. Mid-sentence, he is abruptly cut off by Marsch, who kicked Beckham with no reasonable intention of winning the ball. Before this game, Beckham probably didn't know quite what he was getting into. By the end of his Galaxy career, he shrugged off challenges similar to this as if they were commonplace and simply part of the job description.
After his time in MLS, no one should have doubted Beckham's ability to go back to Europe and become a contributor to a Champions League side. He reacted strongly (and perhaps unprofessionally) to Marsch's challenge back in 2007, but by 2012, reactions like that were a thing of the past for him. He played through back injuries in both the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup playoffs and, while obviously laboring, put in brilliant performances in both of those MLS Cup Finals.
Mocking his move to PSG and implying that he could no longer perform at the highest level was wrong. He needs to be paired with an athletic and mobile midfielder like many aging players do, but that doesn't take away from his quality and what he can bring to a team. He also hasn't been a disruptive player or someone who acted like they were more concerned with their image than their performance for a very long time. Even into his late 30s, he's played hurt and refined his game.
As strange as it may seem to those who watched him become a seemingly self-absorbed megastar a decade ago, as well as those who derided him for putting England above the Galaxy five years ago, he belongs where he was on Tuesday night. Somehow, an English right winger who moved to MLS for a supposed working retirement fits in perfectly as a 37-year-old regista at Paris Saint-Germain, playing in the Champions League.
Despite all of his career transgressions to this point and all of the indications that his signing was a publicity stunt, Beckham is doing what he's supposed to do: playing a legitimate role on a legitimate team.