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Ligue 1 Review – Week 10

“I couldn’t tell you a name of a single Marseille player.” Deliberately facetious or not, Dani Alves’ comments to Canal + before Sunday night’s Le Classique were the latest example of a seemingly growing arrogance amongst the PSG squad. The Parisians have long been a cliquey, ego-driven, even smug group but since the summer, their collective cockiness has begun to overflow and as France’s premier domestic fixture approached, the Paris half of Ligue 1’s most famous rivalry seemed non-pulsed. As Thomas Meunier put it, French football’s showpiece was “nothing special”.

After the arrival of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, the belief that PSG would again disappear over the horizon with every domestic honour going has become difficult to disagree with. The only problem, is that Unai Emery’s players believe it too and in recent weeks this has noticeably affected displays and as a smirking Neymar trudged from the Vélodrome pitch, his side 2-1 down with the Marseille fans whistles and his red card behind him, it seemed as if that arrogance had finally taken over.

As the PSG players methodically cycled through their stretches, it was an easy going yet professional start to PSG’s Tuesday training session. But Neymar was laughing. The Brazilian record signing had started the session by trying to surreptitiously nutmeg his team-mates. Firstly failing on Marquinhos but succeeding in slipping the ball between a politely amused Thiago Silva’s legs, wildly celebrating his achievement before jokingly blocking the club captain’s warm-up runs. Neymar proceeded to half-heartedly jog along behind his colleagues, barely following the example of PSG coaches, doing everything at his own, slow pace.

Despite some effervescent early displays, in recent weeks Paris’ free flowing attacking play and intensity has waned and they have become disjointed. Their sheer weight of talent, coupled with Monaco’s current deficiencies means their record remains far from worrying in terms of their pursuit of the Ligue 1 title. However, the blunt 0-0 draw at Montpellier followed by a fortunate injury time win at Dijon before Edinson Cavani’s injury time free kick rescued a scarcely deserved point at the Vélodrome on Sunday night, has amounted to clear regression.

Neymar’s influence in particular has rapidly dissipated. Upon his arrival, although the footballing world put two and two together and got Ballon D’Or, Neymar insisted he simply wanted to ‘help the team’. This he has done with 10 goals in all competitions but he has yet to look as though he is truly part of the team or even want to be. Conversely, their season has become, as was perhaps inevitable, all about him and his selfish streak has started to drag his team down with him.

A puerile on-field spat with Edinson Cavani over penalties and free kicks during the win over Lyon last month reportedly had the Brazilian demanding that his South American counterpart was sold while Silva and Marquinhos had to intervene before punches were thrown between the two men in the dressing room aftermath. Cavani was then supposedly offered a huge bonus to relinquish his penalty duties before Neymar eventually apologised to the team for his childish behaviour. But nevertheless, setting a worrying precedent, it was Neymar who was anointed by Emery to take the next penalty.

His selfish, insolent attitude has since extended to encompass his general play too. Despite the ferocious atmosphere and intense first half at the Velodrome the €222m signing preceded to amble through the game, continually stopping to put his foot on the ball and robbing attacks of momentum, repeatedly looking to beat the OM defence on his own and generally only looking half interested, even as he equalised. The Brazilian’s indifference turned to petulance as Marseille took the lead for a second time in the 78th minute via a Florian Thauvin volley.

After being involved in a number of minor spats and niggly fouls throughout the game, a late challenge on Morgan Sanson led to a first booking. As the Brazilian skipped away from Lucas Ocampos minutes later, the Marseille winger repeatedly kicking out at PSG’s number 10 and eventually tripping him. Neymar reacted by squaring up to Ocampos and shoving his face in the direction on his opponent’s. Although this barely qualifies as a head-butt and Ocampos, of course, greatly accentuated any contact, a second yellow was warranted and duly arrived. A foolhardy and selfish act that should have cost his team the game.

Neymar’s individualistic nature is noticeably spreading, perhaps most worrying to Kylian Mbappé. Mbappé too started his PSG career in scintillating style but this consistency has also evaporated in recent weeks; regularly missing clear chances, frequently trying to take on too many defenders and making poor decisions.

This is arguably down to a youthful naivety, the 18 year old’s attitude being regularly praised previously, but Neymar is a clear influence on the young man as Marquinhos told AFP: “Neymar knows how important he is for Kylian, as Messi was important for him, as Ronaldinho was important for Messi.” An odd comparison to make considering Pep Guardiola famously let Ronaldinho leave Barcelona so not to overly influence a fledgling Messi with his playboy lifestyle.

Mbappé’s fluctuating form aside, the arrogance of new boys Neymar and Alves has perpetuated a feeling of disrespect. Disrespect for Ligue 1, disrespect for Le Classique and even a disrespect for Paris Saint-Germain. PSG will still likely ease to the Ligue 1 title, they are far too good on an individual basis not to, Cavani’s superb injury time free kick the latest example of their quality, an ironic coincidence considering Neymar was not on the pitch to pull rank.

Nevertheless, this result and performance shows their new signings’ arrogance is starting to become toxic. Marseille were dogged, their manager Rudi Garcia was bold and they deserved at least a point but OM’s display was hardly as good as the score-line might suggest. Not for the first time, the Parisian egos took over.

Despite the behaviour of Neymar and Alves, Marquinhos said beforehand that “there is no difference between PSG vs Marseille and Barcelona vs Real Madrid” while after the game Mbappé admitted that PSG might not have taken the game a seriously as they should. These are promising signs. But nevertheless, if Emery is unable to assert his authority, the arrogance and self-centred attitude of a prominent few, Neymar reacting angrily after disagreeing with his coach’s instructions during Thursday training a further example, could yet destabilise what had, finally, promised to be a watershed season.

 

1 | Lyon, with Nabil Fékir nursing a back injury, turned up in a 4-3-3 against Troyes, with Houssem Aouar dropped into midfield. The youngster was impressive again, having played that role with aplomb against Everton, but of greater note was the play of Memphis Depay, who scored a first-ever hat trick in a 5-0 win that took Lyon provisionally fourth. Troyes, who looked disinterested in the second half, were admittedly poor, but the Dutchman’s finishes from his two goals from open play were sublime.

Add in what was nearly a fourth and a panenka penalty for his third, and it’s clear that the former PSV man was enjoying himself in a freer left-wing/#10 role during what was comfortably his best performance since joining Lyon in January. However, Fékir was fit enough for the bench and will be back to reclaim his place soon enough, eager to prove Didier Deschamps wrong in time for November’s matches. With the OL captain’s return, Bruno Génésio will have a real dilemma on his hands, both tactically and personnel-wise. Granted, it is the type of problem most managers would love to have, and surely comes as relief after three wins in three, but it will need to be resolved if Lyon hope to continue their improved form.

2 | This column has been far from shy about extolling the virtues of Ligue 1’s defensively-oriented sides to date, with last week’s long piece on Nantes only the latest this season. One team that hasn’t received as much praise as it deserves, though is Montpellier. Michel der Zakarian was seen as a dull and uninspiring appointment given how stiff and negative his Nantes sides had been, but how he has guided Montpellier through a seemingly troublesome quartet of fixtures has been massively impressive. Friday’s win at Saint-Étienne comes on the heels of a win at home to Nice and draws against Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain.

To have emerged from that run of fixtures with eight points is a real feat, and gives credence to what had looked a dubious decision to play three at the back. 40-year-old captain Hilton has rolled back the years, continuing to be a powerful yet elegant presence in the heart of defence, aided by the mobility of Pedro Mendes and Daniel Congré to either side of him. Benjamin Lecomte is similarly deserving of praise, as is the efficient midfield partnership of Ellyes Skhiri and Paul Lasne, but the team’s work ethic and solidity under their new boss means that Europe, rather than survival, may start to be a realistic aim.

3 | “I don’t want to talk about injustice, but our team has a lot of merit, even if can’t get the better of opponents. Today, our team defended well, but it attacked poorly.” Thus was Marcelo Bielsa’s assessment of Lille’s 1-0 loss to fellow struggler Rennes. The result, which leaves the team second-bottom, was the sixth time in nine matches that Lille have failed to score, and it came on a weekend where three Lille players were instrumental in setting other teams up for victory. Martin Terrier, on loan at Strasbourg, played in attacking midfield in place of Benjamin Corgnet and set up one of Nuno Da Costa’s two goals in a 2-1 victory at Nice, while Xeka did the same for Dijon in their vital win at Metz, with Naim Sliti scoring the winner early in the second half.

All have been superb this season, with Sliti in particular ensuring that Dijon’s attack hasn’t suffered too greatly in the absences of Lois Diony and Pierre Lees-Melou. Coupled with the late sale of Nicolas De Préville (who remains Les Dogues‘ leading scorer two months on from moving to Bordeaux), the strong performances of this trio of loanees have further called into question the wisdom of Bielsa. Not only do the players he has brought in, at no small cost, appear to be struggling, but those which he has let go are succeeding, and even improving elsewhere in the division. As much as his side may be showing positive signs tactically, particularly in defence, Bielsa’s summer personnel decisions continue to rankle, as merit is thus far not proving enough to win matches.

4 | Metz were on the wrong end of a home loss to another side fighting against relegation on Saturday, falling 2-1 to Dijon. With this result coming on the heels of their last home match, a 1-0 loss to Troyes, things are looking grim indeed for Les Grenats, who have dismissed Philippe Hinschberger owing to the team’s placement six points from safety. Hinschberger has been a popular figure for the eastern club, and while it is hard to argue against results, should the manager be shouldering the blame? After all, survival was only achieved by a narrow margin last season, and even then as a result of the goal-scoring prowess of the former Bordeaux striker Cheick Diabaté.

Diabaté, who scored eight goals in only twelve starts on loan, wasn’t retained permanently this summer, despite Metz having money from the sale of the young winger Ismaila Sarr. Instead, Emmanuel Rivière and Nolan Roux were brought in, and the two have combined for just four goals in more than a thousand minutes played. Metz were able to avoid relegation last year on the strength of a half-decent attack, but now, without a reliable goal-scorer, they are not only bottom of the league but have France’s poorest attack. Hinschberger had perhaps run out of rope, as discipline has been an issue as well, but the club’s hierarchy, seemingly well-positioned four months ago with the lucrative sale of Sarr, should be taking more of the blame at present.

A.W. with E.D.

 

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