PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain confirmed the signing of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon on a free transfer on Friday — a move which gives the French champions a much-needed boost of experience and character, but also creates an intriguing situation between the sticks.
At 40 years old and after 17 memorable years with Juventus, the day that many thought would never come has arrived — Buffon will play for another club, not to mention outside of Italy for the first time in his career.
The former Azzurri star might not be the shot-stopper he once was, but his ability remains such that he is arguably a slight upgrade on last season’s starting goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and a significant cut above substitute Kevin Trapp.
That slight difference between the France international and the Italian in terms of current ability, though, is not enough to justify Buffon taking an undisputed starting role over Areola.
Buffon has enjoyed a glittering career, with World Cup, Europa League, numerous Serie A, as well as Coppa Italia titles to his name, and his €52 million transfer fee from his 2001 move from Parma is still a record for a goalkeeper.
Buffon is Italy’s most-capped player, made the second-most appearances in Serie A history and was second in the Ballon d’Or in 2006 but Champions League success has so far eluded him, and that is what has drawn him together with PSG — they both want the same thing.
The French capital outfit could not overlook a player of Buffon’s stature when it became clear that he would like to keep playing, but they should not kid themselves that this is a long-term move either.
With UEFA’s financial fair play still a lingering worry, even if Buffon’s signing is not a concern in that respect, Areola’s future takes on added importance. The chances of selling both the youth academy graduate and Trapp this summer are slim, with just one likely to be granted a move away, and the only player that should be is the German.
Areola was regularly an unsung hero in PSG’s 2017-18 campaign, both domestically and in Europe, so simply giving up on him and installing Buffon as the undisputed No. 1 would be a slap in the face. However, there is logic in the idea that Areola can still learn from the great Italian, and that is what new coach Thomas Tuchel is banking on moving forward.
Buffon appears to be under no illusions and is aware that his immense experience and winning mentality is something that PSG are in desperate need of.
“For the first time in my career, I am leaving my country, and only a project as ambitious as this could have encouraged me to make such a decision,” he told the Ligue 1 giants’ official website. “I have followed the club’s incredible progression in recent years, and I know what dreams PSG and its fans hold in their hearts.
“I am going to bring all my energy, all my experience and all of my desire to win, to help my new club achieve all the great objectives it has set out for the future.”
Chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi also appears to have recognised the need for somebody of Buffon’s character in the Parc des Princes dressing room, playing up his experience and hopes that it will rub off on his new teammates.
“His incredible career, as well as his ambitious personality, unifying and elegant, make him one of the most-admired and respected players in world football,” Al-Khelaifi said. “At 40 years of age, his passion for football is as strong as ever.
“Within our project, Gianluigi has found the ideal environment to set himself extremely high objectives and transmit his experience, not only to the other goalkeepers at the club, but to all of our players.
“Our supporters will know how to welcome Buffon with the enthusiasm and love that he deserves.”
Buffon’s arrival does deserve to be greeted positively by PSG fans, which it has been so far, but it should not necessarily signal the end of Areola’s time with his formative club. Les Parisiens‘ No. 16 has progressed well over a number of years after loan spells with Lens, Bastia and Villarreal, and after establishing himself over Trapp as Unai Emery’s regular starter, he does not deserve to be shunted into a substitute role.
Areola conceded just 25 goals in 34 Ligue 1 appearances alone last term, putting in a string of impressive performances in the Champions League too, and was deserving of his place in France’s World Cup squad. His hard work should not be forgotten just because PSG have signed somebody who could give the capital club a short-term boost towards their objective of continental success as it would be a long-term strategic error to let go of such a high quality homegrown player.
Buffon’s arrival should represent the final stage in Areola’s apprenticeship, but it remains to be seen if that is what the plan is and whether he is prepared to go along with it. If he is not, then PSG should do everything they can to persuade him to go on loan one more time and not leave for good, handing Trapp a short-term stay.
However, Buffon’s three-match ban in the Champions League means whoever the second senior goalkeeper is this coming season will get at least three continental group stage games to impress.
That could prove key in Tuchel’s attempts to persuade Areola to stay in Paris to learn from his idol, while getting a decent number of minutes, and it is something that PSG should really push for instead of completely resetting the goalkeeping hierarchy yet again.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.