Adam White

Like Beginners

Adam White
Like Beginners

This article also featured on Guardian Sport while and expanded
version was featured on the
Onside Inzaghi podcast.

Stade Louis-Dugauguez, Sedan, December 2000. Laurent Robert scores the only Parisian goal as PSG, wearing grey, are roundly beaten thanks to former Cameroon international Pius N’diefi’s hat trick for now fifth tier side Sedan. It finished 5-1. On Sunday night, nearly two decades later, Lille became the next team to put five past Paris in a Ligue 1 fixture. While the scoreline was an unfamiliar one, it was the type of defeat PSG know only too well.

Pressure came from the off. Lille midfielder Xeka’s flicked seventh minute header rebounded off Thomas Meunier for 1-0 and although Juan Bernat swiftly responded, Paris appeared brittle in what was a fraught and open game. After last man Bernat was dismissed for bringing down Nicolas Pepe, the second half was a riot. Pepe rolled home five minutes after the break before winger Jonathan Bamba crashed in a third. Bamba, Pepe and Jonathan Ikone all might have netted again before centre backs Gabriel and Jose Fonte out muscled a lethargic PSG defence minus Thiago Silva and Marquinhos to embellish the scoreline further.

His side routed, Kylian Mbappe told Canal plus that PSG “played like beginners” and that ther “must play with more personality” Although Thomas Tuchel insisted that that explanation wasn’t the whole story, it’s become an almost cliched PSG punchline as mental strength again proved non-existent. Despite winning 26 of 30 league games this season with a modicum of fuss, this was PSG’s second Ligue 1 match point squandered in a week. Thilo Kehrer’s header had rescued a draw against Strasbourg last Sunday, a win would have secured the title, while a draw here would have sufficed. Once again, mirroring a host of limp Champions League exits, PSG imploded when handed a relatively simple task with something tangible at steak.

Particularly guilty of lacking personality was German defender Kehrer who, as he did against United, looked terrified - positionally poor for two goals. Presnel Kimpembe again underlined how he has regressed this season, outmanoeuvred by Gabirel and Jose Fonte to concede twice late on. Meanwhile Leandro Parades again also failed to have an impact, his 47m fee continues to baffle given that Thomas Tuchel doesn’t seem to fancy the Argentine and that he’ll like be demoted to the bench next season.

Mbappe, playing like he has something to prove after a wayward display in the United loss, was the only Parisian

to show resilience or threaten consistently. A sharp turn and looped cross to assist Bernat’s equaliser remained a highlight despite the ‘downright humiliation’ as L’equipe put it. PSG also suffered collateral damage via a (typically) needless Marco Verratti booking for berating the referee late on, meaning the Italian will miss the Coupe de France final.

Although this dismantling will be a huge source of frustration and embarrassment for PSG, there are sizeable caveats. Injuries were cripplingly prohibitive against free-wheeling Lille outfit, their pace and power devastating this term. Galtier’s men had much more to play for; second place meaning no Champions League qualifiers to distract the club in July. Meanwhile Tuchel’s style tends to lend itself to a more fluid game, something that has and will benefit PSG, even if losses like these are possible when their intensity drops. One dimensional possession based football may have worn down Ligue 1 opponents but it meant previous incarnations plateaued in Europe and, despite the disastrous United, there were signs of European progress against Liverpool and Napoli.  

Nevertheless Pepe, taking a rare 9/10 from L’equipe who rightly referred to him as ‘unplayable’, rightly stated that Lille “could have scored more” as Galtier got his pre-match wish for his team to “play without restraint.” After Lyon’s latest catastrophe, losing 2-1 at Nantes on Friday night, Les Douges now enjoy an eight point cushion over OL in third.

Unfathomably, at this point last season Lille were second bottom. A 2-1 loss to Bordeaux was part of an eleven game win-less run that seemed to condemn LOSC to relegation. Despite an ability to squeeze the best from increasingly minimal resources at St Etienne, Chrisptope Galtier was initially bereft of ideas to avert the slide after inheriting a rudderless and painfully inexperienced squad left from the disastrous Marcelo Bielsa reign. Relegation loomed.

Three somewhat miraculous wins in a row rescued Lille however and Galtier has since set about reinventing the team and his own style, moulding a balanced, aggressive, pacey side who have far exceeded expectations this term. Following Sunday night’s win Pepe described Galtier as “a great coach, just like his tactics. On a daily basis, he is there for us, in football or otherwise." Galtier meanwhile praised his team’s “intensity, tactical rigor and especially their desire to win”.

Despite his achievements, the 52 year old Frenchman remains indebted to Sporting Director Luis Campos. Often at odds with Bielsa over signings, Campos’ more considered transfer policy has proved revolutionary. Their transformation all the more impressive given overbearing financial issues that could yet instigate swathes of summer sales. Campos has managed to simultaneously generate transfer revenue, improve overall quality with well scouted additions and help Galtier build a more well rounded squad.

Kevin Malcuit, Fodo Ballo-Toure and Ibrahim Amadou and Yves Bissouma were all sold for eight figure fees while under-performing first teamers such as Yassine Benzia, Junior Alonso and Anwar El Ghazi were replaced astutely by forward Jonathan Ikone (20), full back Zeki Celik (22), striker Rafa Leao (19) and Bamba (23), all of whom have proved crucial of late. The experience clearly lacking as Bielsa ripped everything up and started again was also re-introduced via 30 somethings Jose Fonte and Loic Remy. A feet largely unheralded, Campos has quietly built one of Europe’s best squads in terms of value for money and given Galtier the tools to take them into the Champions League. Meanwhile, although PSG may not conceded five again domestically for another 20 years, this manner of defeat is becoming all too common.

by Adam White