How can PSG win the UCL and be taken seriously across Europe?
Deja vu for Paris
With almost no time of the 90 left, Diogo Dalot raced into the Parisians’ box, realised he didn’t have enough space nor opportunity to get a decent effort at goal and just resigned to do the most sensible thing. Hit it anyway in the direction of the opponent’s box, as far away from their goal as possible. As the shot made its way out of the pitch, over Buffon’s goal, it just happened to have brushed through Presnel Kimpembe’s unsuspecting arm. There was nothing obvious in it and if they had been appeals for a penalty, they would have been half-hearted. But as luck would have it for the hosts, the referee pointed to the spot with the aid of his VAR. Much to the delight of the travelling Manchester United faithful and a free-showing of yet another horror movie franchise for PSG.
Tuchel’s men had started the night, 2 precious away goals ahead of the Manchester club who needed at least 3 to have any hope of progressing into the quarter-finals of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League competition. Even worse, United only had a bulk of second string players and youngsters to do the impossible job. It was like the walls of Jericho stuff, where only trumpets and hail Mary’s would be their greatest hope of achieving the intended result. And they got just that, the Paris miracle as it would later be named.
With ice in his veins, Marcus Rashford had stepped up and buried the ball beyond the reach of the vastly experienced Gigi Buffon who is almost twice his age. It became the third of two other fortuitous goals, which eventually saw the Red Devils through to the next round. For PSG, it was just a replay of that infamous night in Barcelona where they surrendered a 4-0 first leg lead to eventually lose 6-5 on aggregate and of course many other cases of being forced to watch their dreams evaporate before their eyes, as far as the champions league is concerned.
The lit flares gave up their glow, rhythmic drums held back their sound and the shirtless Paris fans were left looking for cover. The stadium had suddenly gotten cold. Neymar’s reaction in the stands said it all and yes, they had failed. Yet again from a winning position. It didn’t feel like Paris anymore, their famous mantra, Ici Ce Paris felt could have felt so misplaced.
That was one night which pretty much sums up their fortunes in the past decade or so. Always dominant domestically with 6 titles in the past 6 seasons but always falling short when they come up against Europe’s finest. It’s their fortunes that have earned the French Ligue 1 the infamous nickname, “the farmers’ league.” Which basically means non-competitive. But why? How can a team be so good and so bad at the same time? What do they need to do to be taken more seriously across Europe?
Well, there’s no short answer, but let’s get it!
Less than the sum of their parts
Their starting eleven on the Paris miracle day pretty much sums up how fierce they have been over the years. With world cup winner Buffon in goal, Brazilian captain and one of the world’s best centre backs in Thiago Silva marshalling their defensive unit, the unplayable Marco Verrati pulling strings in the midfield and boy wonder Kylian Mbappe leading the line; it’s a solid unit who can take on anyone on their day. That is without even mentioning the likes of Di Maria, Julian Draxler or Neymar and Cavani who were out of the contest. Putting that team against, with all due respect, the young and upcoming Tahith Chong, a past-it Ashley Young, Lukaku, Chris Smalling and the rest; it was a pure mismatch. United had no right whatsoever to win that game, especially after being run over at the Old Trafford just two weeks earlier with an even better side.
That has just been Paris St Germain’s reality for some time now, always looking less than the sum of their parts dating back to the days of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier Pastore. What are the reasons for PSG’s systematic failure in Europe you ask?
The “Neymar” problem
Since the ownership of the loaded of Arab investors and leadership Nasser Al-Khelaifi, they must have thought to themselves; we want to win the champions league and become Europe’s best and the world’s most revered, how do we do it? Oh we have money, let’s just buy it. But that’s quite not how the strongest sides are built as history has taught us. Yes, you need a bit of stimulus and funds to get things going, but that’s just one part of building an aggressive, relentless and harmonic unit. Neymar’s switch to Paris from Barcelona for a world record fee of around €200m is a classic example and perhaps the tipping point that has loudly taught them and the rest of the world that you just can’t buy it.
Players like Neymar can get you windfalls of revenues in T-shirts, tickets and TV money, but without the proper infrastructure and fabric that makes a team tick, it will all be in vain. It cannot directly translate to resounding on the pitch successes. They tried it with English legend David Beckham, the outspoken Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and even Ronaldinho and many more but with little to show for it every single time. It’s not only the players; hiring coaches and sacking them with a mercenary-like approach has proven unsustainable. You remember Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery and Carlo Ancelotti?
All this and more robs a team of what makes it a team. Ongoing culture, identity and harmony. As they have learned, those stars and managers can win you games but without time, patience and a culture that condemns individual egos; they could never compete with the world’s best, let alone win the champions league. It all breeds apathy, apathy and even more apathy for the highest level of success.
Where do they go from here? Honestly, they seem to be on their way there. Experience is indeed the best teacher not this heartfelt written sermon of mine.
The next few lines perfectly illustrate what I think they should do and have started to do in order to really have a name amongst Europe’s best. You have to give it to them, they might have learnt their lessons.
Tuchel, a step in the right direction
Drawing from their history with managers who have failed to deliver at the UEFA Champions League level, it wouldn’t have been wayward to suspect the former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel would get the sack after the Manchester United fiasco. He actually got a new contract until June 2021!. Some reward for a club with history of little patience with managers. Amongst many other things, this was no doubt a step in the positive direction for PSG. Or at least a bit more refreshing to notice they are trying out new strategies. The 42-year-old German is still pretty much in the early stages of his career having really arrived on the big scene after the DFB Pokal success with Borussia Dortmund in 2017, his only major silverware upon joining the Parisians
You would guess that such a manager is very much still hungry for further successes and his tactical astuteness and talents to connect with players almost as peers but being firm at the same time, becomes a bonus to anyone looking to build a culture and lasting team identity. He is in many ways similar to the 2018/19 Champions League winner, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp but different in his own way. Unafraid to say his mind, can blend with the players and with a passion for the game that can be contagious. He seems right for them to say the least and tying him down to a longer contract might be a great move provided he gets even more time. Tuchel might not right away achieve the required level of success but will definitely help built a proper team. He is one for the future.
A seemingly new transfer strategy?
PSG have been a bit different in the most recent transfer windows. If that has been the club’s overall new strategy or the Tuchel effect, we are yet to come to a conclusion. One thing is clear, they have not been the first to pounce on the highly rated stars since Neymar and Mbappe. They are seemingly more cognizant of strengthening their weaker areas with just the right personnel, regardless of their name or social following. The acquisition of Idrissa Gana Gueye from Everton in the summer is one such transfer. The Senegalese international has consistently been the Premier League’s best tackler in the past three seasons, has former experience in the Ligue 1 and will definitely add some more steel and personality to their midfield. A solid signing for anyone on any day. Gueye coupled with Leon Paredes’ switch from Zenit Petersburg in January, Pablo Sarabia, Abdou Diallo and Ander Herrera all punctuate that different strategy of going more for substance than just stardom, glitz and glammer.
Even more, Neymar is very much trying to force his way out of Paris and the club seems resigned to that fact. They are just concerned about recouping the money they spent and even the fans as well couldn’t be happier. In their opening 2019/20 Ligue 1 season encounter, a section of the Parisian fans held placards written “Neymar Out.” The wantaway Brazilian has been of good service but came up short in leading the side to some champions league glory. He has been divisive in the past few weeks and the fans have taken notice. Real Madrid’s reported attempt to land the 27-year-old by offering a lump cash sum, Gareth Bale and Modric was unsuccessful by reason of the French’s club disinterest in Bale. They are said to have preferred the teenager Vinicius Junior whom Los Blancos have not been prepared to let go. See, they are not just after big names anymore. They seem to have more purpose and direction.
There is something even more interesting in their apparent new transfer policy.
Xavi Simmons and the new generation
They are building for the future. Just a few weeks ago, PSG snapped up Barcelona’s highly rated youth player, the 16-year-old Dutch, Xavi Simmons. A solid prospect who is yet to make a full professional debut for any club but already in the public eye. They also acquired other youth players that include Mitchel Bakker from Ajax. Even at that start of Tuchel’s PSG managerial career, we noticed the young blood from their academy that include Moussa Diaby, Timothy Weah and Christopher Nkunku getting some first team football. Something which has been quite rare in recent times. Their reluctance to sell USMNT’s international, Timothy Weah but rather sending him on loan also reinforces this strategy.
It’s still unclear whether overachievers such as world cup winner, Kylian Mbappe would stay long term to realise the fruits of their visionary labors and approach to go under the radar, build from within but also periodically strengthen problem areas with substance as opposed to just stars. Especially given the fact that Mbappe has previously spoken about “new challenges.” However, if they be really on the path they seem to be on, they could very much be in a position to do without Mbappe if it comes to that, just as proper teams do. They evolve and quickly adapt.
Most of all this sound good and all but the real evidence of change, new found attitudes and prospects can only be extracted on the field of play. We will be keeping tabs with them as the new Ligue 1 season and champions league campaigns kick-off.
Hopefully, the Parisian fans will be able to properly shout, ‘’Ici Ce Paris’’ again. Perhaps with some silver in their mouth, not silver spoons.