This article can also be found in the first issue of Onside Inzaghi along with much more on Europe's top 5 leagues.
Adrien Rabiot was understandably frustrated. "We always say the same things, we always do the same things, and in the end, we are always beaten in the same way." Despite preparing all season, breaking the world record transfer fee twice and facing, by their standards, an out of form opponent, PSG were comfortably beaten at the Bernabeu. “It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon,” Rabiot continued “but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted.” Such complaints are nothing new. Although the second round tie’s second leg was still to come, PSG’s Champions League capitulation was tinged with the inevitable and a sense of deja vu. The eventual exit ensured Unai Emery’s departure, leaving German Thomas Tuchel to struggle with the same obstacles of rampant short termism, an unruly squad and perpetual mental fragility which have plagued the Parisiens in pivotal games for some time.
Paris St Germain are newcomers, only forming as recently as 1970 after the merger of Stade Saint Germain and FC Paris while Qatar Sports Investment’s arrival in 2011 has over-inflated their reputation and status. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic said in 2016; “What happened before that, with all respect… this club was born the day the Qataris took over.” In Ligue 1 terms, PSG had often been a fairly successful club and remain the sole major representative of one of Europe’s largest and most influential cities but the obvious scope for a major European footballing power to develop at the Parc des Princes was never truly realised, despite promise in their late 80s and early 90s zenith.
A pair of league titles and a haul of seven cups in the 80s and 90s puts PSG’s historical stature beneath that of Marseille, Lyon, St Etienne, Monaco and perhaps even Nantes and Bordeaux. Even now, despite the dominance that has led to three domestic trebles in four seasons, PSG are yet to truly assume the mantle as the genuine leader of world football that Paris has always threatened to provide. PSG’s entire philosophy unwittingly feeds into the idea that the club itself is not a powerful or meaningful entity and merely the vessel for a collection of celebrity forwards. Paris lack heart, pride and weight, and despite their domestic omnipotence and incomparable wealth they are, at least in part, repeatedly held back as a result.
This is highlighted by the outright failure, so far, of their quasi-galacticos policy which, despite the club throwing billions of euros at players every season, has seen them plateau for some time. The Madrid tie as a whole played out as other Champions League exits have during the QSI era, where PSG are yet to go beyond the quarter finals under Qatari rule. Monaco’s run to the semi finals last year, not to mention usurping PSG to win the French title, despite a policy rooted in youth development and a much smaller budget, only underlined the flaws in the Paris plan and amounted to something of a humiliation.
The 4-0 first leg win over Barcelona last season seemed to have been a turning point but the return leg’s disintegration was almost laughably familiar. When faced with a genuine chance to better a club Paris see as their ‘peers’, a team that they can’t overwhelm via sheer weight of star players, mental frailty, a lack of leadership and simple mistakes under pressure continue to hurt them. The team, just like the club, lacks presence. Barcelona’s intensity, ferocity and sheer persistence was enough to completely dismantle PSG in the ’remontada’ 6-1 defeat at the Nou Camp, rather than an irresistible, unplayable Messi inspired classic Barca display.
While the reasons for their catastrophically weak performance are by no mean limited to this, Unai Emery’s side again mirrored their club as a whole; lacking leaders, gumption, direction and stature. It was a similar story in the previous years’ second leg quarter final loss at Manchester City. Kevin De Bruyne’s goal sealing City’s progression almost by default after another insipid, lacklustre display after Laurent Blanc’s bizarre switch to the barely (never form the start) used 352 set up.
Although many of their issues are also at least partly situational (the regular lack of domestic resistance in particular) as well as of their own making, for Tuchel to mould this team and, perhaps more importantly, the club itself into an outfit capable of challenging for the trophy PSG’s hierarchy has become obsessed with, a change in tact is needed on almost all fronts. Some identity needs to be established beyond the plasticy, shallow club and its ethos Paris have managed to design for themselves during the QSI era.
Runaway player power and pandering to their stars has become a central theme. Although Neymar has been its epicentre this season, player dominance has long been ingrained, predominantly during Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stay in Paris. The overriding feeling is that, from some player’s perspectives, PSG as a club doesn't truly carry much significance. Which may be partly a byproduct of the ‘new money’ style set up and the complete overhaul of everything under QSI, but it is also born out of an inability to add to, or prize, the image or perception of the club itself.
Although it may take some time for PSG to be regarded with reverence like Manchester United, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, the club have made few steps in that direction. Neymar not returning to Paris for their title win and merely instagramming his congratulations with a shot of his TV and a poker game in the foreground says a lot about his respect for the club. While a tantrum thrown against Lyon over Edinson Cavani taking set pieces which resulted in him being given oversight in all dead ball situations was merely a continuation of the attitude that allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to stop his final game for the club early, have his children run onto the pitch and then head down the tunnel without being subbed and leaving his teammates to play out the final few minutes of an admittedly meaningless game with Nantes with 10 men. As a result, chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s comments to L’equipe last month that "Nothing & no single person is bigger than the club, that goes for coach & players. The club comes & always will come first", seem rather hollow.
Focusing on recruiting these superstar forwards to begin with has only heightened the sense of meaningless surface sheen at PSG. A front line that cost 500m euros, including names like Neymar, Cavani, Mbappe and Di Maria, and Ibrahimovic beforehand, has led to the a neglect of the rest of the squad. Problem areas have started to develop, a mere glance past the headlines acts makes for surprisingly underwhelming reading when comparing PSG to those they considered themselves on par with. Once again it is a policy defined by a naive desperation for immediate success with little care for solid foundations.
Goalkeeper, full back, depth at centre back and large parts of the midfield remain issues. Kevin Trapp’s calamitous spell in Paris seems to be coming to an end but his errors, inability to deal with crosses and disastrous distribution will take some forgetting. A cut price option at the time, 9m euros from Frankfurt, to leave room to sign the latest big name forward to become available, Angel Di Maria (63m), it became clear that his was far below the level required.
This is a situation mirrored in Yuri Berchiche’s signing at left back, the lack of a replacement for an ageing Thiago Motta in midfield, the hole left by Blaise Matuidi’s dynamism and sticking with only three centre backs. One of which, Presnel Kimpembe, is very inexperienced and another, Thiago Silva, has failed to live up to his reputation for some time. With such context, the 180 million euros to be spent on Kylian Mbappe, his talent aside, despite the presence of Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore, Cavani and Neymar, is almost laughable.
A lack of direction or any sense of a holistic policy in this area has been an issue since the departure of Leonardo in 2013. Patrick Kluivert’s stint proving particularly farcical, the Dutchman not recognising new signing Thomas Meunier as they shared a taxi on PSG’s preseason tour. “To get to the airport of Los Angeles, I sat in the same car as him,” the Belgian explained, “I greeted him, we talked a bit, then he asked me a little reluctantly who I was. ‘I am a PSG player’ I told him. He did not recognise me."
However, Tuchel is already asserting himself, looking to develop the players he has rather than splurging on big names or cutting corners with cut price alternatives, which is also a by product of FFP. “If the transfer window closed tonight, I would be very happy,” the German asserted at his unveiling, “I am confident in the players that have built this team. I need to learn to know them. Sometimes, you have to put faith in patience, allow young players to grow.” Putting ‘faith in patience’ could be a pivotal change of direction in the longer term for a club that has recently done anything but.
Allowing ‘young players to grow’ has long been an issue in Paris. Tuchel is seen as more of a “project” manager rather than one who might bring the promise of instant results like Antonio Conte, Max Allegri or Carlo Ancelotti, developing those players produced by what has been a criminally overlooked academy will be key. Tuchel’s two year contract however, shows little faith his ability to develop youth development in the long, or even medium, term and an unwillingness to truly buy into Tuchel’s ideals. While Unai Emery has made progress in this area, putting faith in Adrien Rabiot and Alphonse Areola, bringing on centre back Presnel Kimpembe and allowing Giovanni Lo Celso to flourish, the lack of a playing core raised by PSG has fed into the lack of weight to how to club is perceived.
It was telling that Adrien Rabiot was the man to criticise his sides display at the Bernabeu. Although Kimpembe and Areola have been more prominent this season, he is the only member of the squad to come through the youth system, to have PSG hardwired into his footballing outlook and as a result is arguably the only player to buy into the idea that winning for PSG might mean more than just winning.
In QSI’s attempts to manufacture a superclub they seem to have overlooked the role homegrown talent has played in their rival’s successes. While Real Madrid are aguebly an exception to the rule, La Masia’s influence at Barcelona, the role Manchester United’s Class of 92 and the prominence of Bayern Munich’s youth products are all hard to ignore when looking at their recent peaks. Given the club’s murky Financial Fair Play situation and with the fee for Mbappe due this summer, Tuchel may have little choice but to develop what he has.
Although ‘mercenaries’ might be a little strong, PSG’s leaderless group of highly paid superstars and egos has breed a certain disunity. Again, the squad’s pronounce cliques date back to Ibrahimovic's days but these social groups are so entrachted that Le Parisien produced a venn diagram detailing the divisions. Unai Emery’s decision to keep an aging and faltering Thiago Silva was supposedly influenced by the increasing strength of the Brazilian contingent after the arrivals of Dani Alves and Neymar in the summer. Fortunately, this is an area for improvement Tuchel has already pinpointed, promising at his presser that “with someone like Maxwell alongside me, we are going to be able to create a unique team spirit. Pep Guardiola created one at Barcelona, I am going to try to put one into place at PSG.”
Worryingly however, although Tuchel’s appointment may seem like a considered decision with the longer term future of PSG in mind at first glance, the decision to hire him was made by the Amir of Qatar, not Chairman Al-Khelaifi, and was in conflict with Sporting Director Antero Henrique’s choice of Sergio Conceicao who took Nantes from 19th to the top seven in 6 months before winning the Portuguese title with Porto this season despite making no major additions to the squad. It seems that little has truly changed.
While Thomas Tuchel insisted: “We are PSG. We need to be the best that PSG can be.” What ‘PSG’ actually is needs a drastic overhaul and, although QSI may baulk at the idea, Tuchel has the skills be the coach to change the club’s tact and persona but it’ll likely take more than two years for Paris to be ready ‘to stand up and be counted’ as Adrien Rabiot so desperately wants.
by Adam White