Julian Nagelsmann is a prodigy, of the managerial kind. The 30 year old, whose Hoffenheim side locked horns with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool earlier this week, is widely regarded as the continent’s hottest coaching property, and with much merit. His impact on the Bundesliga club has been nothing short of remarkable; under his stewardship, the club have gone from seven points adrift of safety to Champions League qualification within the space of a season and a half. It is not surprising then that most students of the game have concluded that the German coach is destined for ‘great things’. Yet, as with most German prodigies, ‘great things’ often translates to a move, at some point, to perennial champions Bayern Munich.
Bayern have come to resemble a hoover of elite in the German top flight. Their acquisitions from Borussia Dortmund, who have posted the most pertinent challenges to their dominance in the Bundesliga, set the tone for a pursuance of a transfer policy that both bolsters their arsenal and undermines their rivals. Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze and more recently Mats Hummels are the standout names that have made the switch from North Rhine-Westphalia to Bavaria.
Signing talent from your nearest rivals is a sure fire way to maintain your dominance of a division. Bayern are not alone in this regard; Juventus in Serie A can be accused of adopting a similar approach to the transfer market after they snatched Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli last summer. The Old Lady splashed €90m on the Argentine forward, a deal that seemed excessive, but for the fact that it blunted a growing Neapolitan challenge.
In France, Paris Saint-Germain have yet to pursue such an approach to the transfer market, predominantly due to the standard of opposition not being suffice enough to warrant undermining. Some have sought moves to the capital, such as Hatem Ben Arfa, from Nice, and Layvin Kurzawa, from Monaco. Yet foreign imports had proved suffice in maintaining Parisian supremacy. Until, of course, Monaco’s remarkable exploits last season.
The Principality club thumbed their noses at the talent assembled by the Qatari backed club. Vibrant, attacking football won admirers from across the continent, as not only did they storm to an unexpected Ligue 1 title, but Leonardo Jardim’s young squad powered their way to a Champions League semi-final. But the consequence of their success, it now appears, will be that the Empire will Strike Back. The Parisians are already said to have lined up Monaco’s Fabinho as a replacement for the outgoing Blaise Matuidi. Of more concern to Les Monégasques however, is the prospect that PSG have their brightest talent in their sights, Kylian Mbappé.
Mbappé was the jewel in the Monaco crown last season. The 18 year-old was a sensation. He belied his age with attacking flair that drew comparisons to Monaco icon Thierry Henry, leaving the continent’s elite clubs to scramble for their chequebooks to try and nab this supposedly ‘once in a generation talent’.
Yet, despite the furore, it appeared that Mbappé had learnt the lessons of his predecessor Anthony Martial by refusing to jump ship too soon, advocating a stay at Monaco for at least one more season. Now, it looks ever more likely that PSG, despite breaking the bank to lure the effervescent talent that is Neymar to the Parc des Princes, will snatch the youngster from the clutches of their title rivals.
Should Mbappé join Neymar’s Parisian revolution, and set the precedent of Ligue 1 elite talent who are tipped to go on to achieve ‘great things’ as synonymous with a move to the French capital, it would turn what is currently a momentum shifting transfer window for Ligue 1 into a catastrophic one.
The French top flight has frequently been derided as the runt of the European pack. Dwindling attendances, poor European performances and unexciting football have been the most predominant slanders to be laid at the door of Ligue 1. After Qatar Sports Investments acquired PSG, there was the added bonus of some top talent appearing in Paris, yet the rest lagged way behind, allegedly suffering in what was a one team league, underpinned by PSG’s 31 point title winning margin just over a season ago. This perception was dealt a blow by Monaco’s triumph last season, signalling what was potentially, a renaissance in French football.
Ironically, Neymar’s arrival earlier this month boosted the momentum generated by Monaco’s stunning success. Admittedly, it strengthened the division’s predominant goliath, but his move to Paris represented a potential sea-change in how French football was to be perceived.
Above all, it offered recognition that Ligue 1 was a division worthy to play host to one of the game’s top talents. The Brazilian forward believes he can go on to win the Ballon d’Or playing week in, week out, in France. He also sees the challenge of returning the Champions League to l’hexagon for the first time since Raymond Goethals’ Marseille in 1993 as achievable.
This is a significant step forward. The Neymar deal has already brought renewed attention to the division – viewers from 183 different countries watched a match at the Stade de Roudourou in Guingamp last Sunday. Ligue 1, with Neymar, is more marketable. It will encourage others to join the former Barcelona striker.
The beginnings of this could be seen last week saw, as Wesley Sneijder joined Nice on a free transfer. But beyond that, with Lille and Marseille both set embark on a plan to dethrone PSG in the long term courtesy of new, foreign investment, the scope for improvement has broadened dramatically in the space of twelve months.
If the Parisians were to land Mbappé this summer, much of this progress would be undone, for it would fatally undermine the competitiveness of the division. It renders the prospect of their being a title fight this season obsolete; Monaco’s challenge has already suffered a blow this summer with the departures of Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Tiemoué Bakayoko.
To lose Mbappé to PSG would be to crown the Parisians as champions before September. It would undermine those long term projects seeking to mount a challenge to the capital’s dominance before they have had the chance to get off the ground. The message would be clear; Ligue 1 is PSG’s division, and nobody can compete with them.
Some may argue that this is an inevitable outcome. It is impossible to get away from Paris Saint-Germain’s supremacy, for they are backed more or less by the wealth of an oil-rich state. It could be said that since 2011, the French top flight has only been heading in one direction, towards becoming the feeder of a hegemonic champion, a platform from which they can launch a European challenge.
But as Monaco showed last season, this is not yet the case. PSG can, and have been, undone domestically. Despite their losses this summer, Les Monegasques have once again made a strong to start to the new campaign, with two wins from two, achieved without the talents of Mbappé.
There is no reason why they could not push them all the way again, bolstered with the right acquisitions. Yet if PSG were to follow the likes of Juventus and Bayern in seeking to undermine their rivals domestically in the transfer market, then last season’s breath of fresh air will be treated in the same vein as Leicester’s stunning Premier League triumph, as an anomaly.
For Mbappé to join PSG in a similar vein to Lewandowksi’s switch from BVB to Bayern would have far broader consequences for the division long term. Ligue 1 is not yet on the same level as Serie A or the Bundesliga. This is illustrated by the performances of their sides in European competition in spite of the dominance of Juventus and Bayern Munich.
With the exception of last season, in all of the previous four campaigns, German and Italian representation in the knockout stages of European competition has exceeded five clubs. For France, only last season were there more than three representatives in the knockout stages, with four equalling the output of the Italians.
Last season was clearly a breakthrough year for French football. Not only did France have a new domestic champion for the first time in four years, but it also had two European semi-finalists. Yet, should PSG take on the mantra of Ligue 1’s talent reserve pool, it will inevitably arrest this development, detracting potential suitors away from the country, aware that the competition is fundamentally impaired by the dominance of one club.
Mbappé is undoubtedly destined for ‘great things’. But should that turn of phrase become synonymous with a move to Paris Saint-Germain in French football, it will not only be Monaco who will suffer the consequences. Ligue 1 needs time to develop, and with the arrival of Neymar and new foreign investment, it has the opportunity to do that.
If PSG were to flex their financial muscle by luring the league’s most prodigious talent to the Parc des Princes, Ligue 1’s summer will have swung from revolutionary to ruinous in just a matter of days.