Rising Ballers

Warren Zaïre-Emery is ahead of schedule

France has its next prodigy — how do we keep letting this happen?

By JACK HALLINAN

He just has that je ne sais quoi

With the corny French joke out of the way, it’s time to talk about Paris Saint-Germain’s Warren Zaïre-Emery. 


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Every so often, one of these players comes along who starts playing senior football at a ridiculously young age. We’ve had quite a few in recent seasons, some of them previously written about in this column, such as Gavi, Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz.

But in terms of his immediate importance to the squad and positional maturity, the 17-year-old Zaïre-Emery might outstrip them all. 

When I say positional maturity, I’m referring to the sliding scale by which we should judge young prospects depending on where they play. Attackers tend to burn brightly early, like Michael Owen back in the ’90s or Mbappe in the late 2010s. At the other end of the pitch, defenders and goalkeepers can take a little more time to acquire the requisite seasoning, with midfielders somewhere in between. 

Of course, every rule has an exception. For every Edouard Mendy, who didn’t goaltend professionally until he was 24, there’s a Gianluigi Donnarumma starting 30 matches for AC Milan at 16.

But a 2006-born player becoming PSG’s most important midfielder just 16 matches into the 2023-24 season is truly absurd. 

And while Zaïre-Emery has really come into his own this season, casual fans may not have realized how much he played last season. The youngster made 26 Ligue 1 appearances in 2022-23, including eight starts, for a total of 929 minutes played, per Fbref — as a 16-year-old. That’s more than Mbappe played in his own age-16 season. Holding any young player to the Mbappe standard is patently unfair, but with Zaïre-Emery, his trajectory thus far shows that he’s in the same talent zip code as his PSG teammate. 

But what makes him so special?

Zaïre-Emery has arguably the most essential skills for a modern, attack-minded midfielder: game-breaking dribbling ability paired with wise decision-making.

Standing a lanky 5-foot-10, the young Frenchman has long legs and coordination, which means he can stretch for the ball and control it around defenders even when it’s feet away from his center of gravity. The ball just sticks to his feet when it has no right to.

His dribbling numbers reflect his skill level, too. In the past year, Zaïre-Emery has averaged 2.37 progressive carries and 1.21 successful take-ons per 90 minutes — good for the 87th and 78th percentiles, respectively, among his positional peers. Now, those figures are impressive as is, but you have to remember they also include his age-16 stats, upon which he will likely improve during this season. At his age, a year can make a tremendous difference in his development. 

He’s not just a ball progressor, either — he can finish plays at will. In 15 appearances across Ligue 1 and the Champions League, Zaïre-Emery has two goals and five assists from midfield, which puts him on pace for 13 or 14 goal contributions in the league, assuming he stays healthy. In comparison, in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, Jude Bellingham had 12 goal contributions in the Bundesliga. 

Of course, that’s not to say Zaïre-Emery is better than his English counterpart. The Bundesliga plays fewer matches than Ligue 1, so naturally that boosts Zaïre-Emery in raw output. Plus, Bellingham had a non-penalty expected goals plus assists tally of 0.38 per 90 minutes, which more accurately reflects the quality of shots Bellingham took and created, to which Zaïre-Emery’s 0.18 per 90 pales in comparison. But the prodigious Bellingham was 19 when he posted those numbers, and PSG’s starlet still has two years until he reaches that age.

As much as his numbers have impressed me, I don’t think they fully capture Zaïre-Emery’s importance to this PSG squad.

The club has long had a messy, incoherent midfield, and the 2023 summer transfer window brought even more upheaval and turnover to the squad. Seven midfielders left PSG either on permanent or loan transfers, including some big names in the world of football: Marco Verratti, Georginio Wijnaldum and Leandro Paredes. That doesn’t even include the departures of Lionel Messi and Neymar, two of the most dynamic attackers ever. 

In a rather questionable series of transfers, PSG signed 12 new players over the summer to fill the gap left by its exodus, but only one new midfielder in Manuel Ugarte. Among a group of relatively inexperienced midfielders, new manager Luis Enrique needed somebody to step into the void and command the center of the park. Zaïre-Emery did so without fuss and now leads PSG midfielders in appearances. No matter how Enrique rotates his players, Zaïre-Emery starts unquestionably right now. I’ve already used this word to describe it, but I find myself compelled to say it again: this is not normal, it’s absurd

He already has a signature game this season to show for it: PSG’s 3-0 Champions League win versus AC Milan, in which Zaïre-Emery had two assists and generally dominated the midfield. Neither were highlight reel passes, but both sequences displayed his spatial awareness and ability to dribble into open space before releasing the ball at the right moment. 

At club level with PSG, trophies will undoubtedly come. But I’m more excited to see what Zaïre-Emery can accomplish with the French national team. Mbappe isn’t going anywhere, and Les Bleus produce a staggering amount of talent on top of prodigies like Zaïre-Emery. He already captains the French U21 team under manager Thierry Henry (who knows a thing or two about being a precocious talent) and just received his first senior team call-up. 

By the time the 2026 or 2030 World Cups arrive, Zaïre-Emery could be the next Paul Pogba-esque talent leading France to glory.

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