Ligue 1 Review – Week 17

“The protagonists are the players.” Emery explained. “The job of the staff is to manage the squad and individuals, to put in place tactics that allow them to show their talent.” It’s difficult to disagree with Unai Emery but, as this week has proved, the PSG coach continues to neglect the nuances of club management that extend beyond mere tactical insight and as ego’s take over, PSG’s hopes of European success have started to fade. Emery’s weak grip on the team continues to engender limp performances and after a troubling week amid rumours of Luis Enrique being targeted, Emery’s exit may be inevitable as he is overwhelmed by his players.

Ever since the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in summer 2012 cemented PSG’s place as one Europe’s elite and the ubiquitous force of French football, little has changed. Supreme quality and the regular chasm in class to their opposition has equalled a consistent level of performance domestically with 4 league titles, 4 league cups and 3 French cups claimed in that time. Even with Monaco’s glorious ambush last season, their points total remained fairly static.

European success however is a club obsession and the sole reason Qatari backers QSI bought the capital club originally. However, regardless of the cash hurled at players and coaches since, Parisian Champions League performances have also unerringly followed a now familiar path; that of knockout stage capitulation. Emery’s appointment was largely based on his European success with Sevilla but his arrival has merely proved to be the latest example that QSI and PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi remains oblivious to the underlying cause of cowering Champions League exits and the absence of a winning mentality.

Expensive collections of inflated egos are, of course, common in football but few have surpassed the black hole of self-admiration that exists in Paris. Although Emery’s job description may read as he described, PSG in truth have long needed a coach capable of managing personalities rather than players but Emery’s (and Laurent Blanc’s) shrinking management has led to an ingrained player dominance and this remains the source of the glass ceiling that Paris continually crash their heads against.

The past week has amounted to quintessential PSG and starkly highlighted those failings. Strasbourg were superb in their 2-1 defeat of Paris last weekend but the loss reflected similar defeats at Guingamp and Montpellier last season; Strasbourg’s raucous home support, aggressive and compact defending as well as PSG’s lack of a winning mentality or genuine insatiable hunger as they pressed for an equaliser, that helps their peers overcome such tests, combined to see PSG limply lose.

These Ligue 1 losses tend to sneak largely under the radar as (usually) none of their Ligue 1 rivals are capable of surpassing the 85-point mark that would ensure those dropped points increase the pressure on Paris. It was evident in the players’ displays as injury time ticked away and in the resulting 9-point lead that the defeat, although disappointing, barely mattered, as these kinds of defeats rarely have. A consistent lack of competition to push PSG is a sizable caveat but, nevertheless, a winning mentality does not exist as a result and Emery, just as Blanc before him, has done little, or been unable, to change that.

Struggles with a ruthless edge in Ligue 1 are amplified in Europe, the listless display in the 3-1 loss to Bayern on Tuesday was just as familiar for Paris as the Strasbourg defeat. In close European affairs the Parisien’s underdeveloped mental fortitude and winning attitude often proves the difference. Although PSG were unlikely to surrender top spot given their head to head lead, the club took solidifying top spot very seriously. Marco Verratti, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva were all rested for the trip to Strasbourg and a first choice team was put out at the Allianz Arena while ‘#finishfirst’ was repeatedly tweeted by the club to underline the point.

Nevertheless, an understrength Bayern easily picked Paris apart as Emery’s defence capitulated once more, Kurzawa and Marquinhos were particularly poor, while Adrien Rabiot complained of an ‘individualistic’ attacking display and, despite the lower stakes, the performance was reminiscent of recent exits in Manchester and Barcelona. The week was predictably rounded out with a halfhearted home win; the most common of Ligue 1 sights. PSG’s occasionally sparkled during the 3-1 win over Lille but didn’t need a third gear to stroll past a weak, managerless opponent in the comfortable surroundings of the Parc des Princes.

A haughty over-confidence and lack of ruthlessness, prevalent again this week, is routed in the attitude of the squad that is desperate need of suppressing by their coach. As a result, PSG often have the feel of Avram Grant’s Chelsea with the players seemingly lacking genuine respect for a passive coach. Originally perpetuated by Ibrahimovic and his clique of senior players who became untouchable under Laurent Blanc and it is now true of the relationship between Neymar as well as a closely knit, largely Brazilian, contingent and Emery. The record signing’s influence was underlined by his puerile outburst over Edinson Cavani’s set piece taking against Lyon in October, a spat which resulted in the two men having to be separated by Thiago Silva in the dressing room afterwards. Neymar, however, was still given the following two penalties.

Neymar demanding to be the centre of attention is hardly surprising but Emery’s passivity and his eventual solution to allow the players to sort out the disagreement between themselves only played into the overwhelming Parisian player power rather than stamping his authority on the squad. There is no fear of rebuke for poor displays nor selfishness, as a significant chunk of the first team will seemingly play no matter what and as a result PSG lack any semblance of rigour or discipline which continues to characterise their play. Subsequently an absence of cohesion, continued dallying in possession and an inability to find any intensity have long been issues for PSG, as they were in all three encounters this week, the 4-0 white-hot win over Barcelona last season the only notable recent meaningful departure.

Although Emery has been unable to cut through the runaway player dominance he inherited, affecting it may always be beyond him. Neymar has yet to be subbed or rested since his arrival and it seems Emery may be simply unable to withdraw the €222m man while L’Equipe reported an ‘abyss’ existed between the two. In any confrontation Emery will be the loser as it seems President Al-Khelaifi remains oblivious to the detrimental effect of unchecked egos, stating after the Bayern game that “If we wake up soon, it’s not too late.” Neymar may be the most obvious example but Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Layvin Kurzawa amongst others have long enjoyed similar coddling while some of the Brazilian’s better displays have arguably masked PSG’s insufficiencies for some time when high profile teammates often floundered.

Nevertheless, for Al-Khelaifi, QSI and perhaps even Emery, it is indeed the players who are the sole protagonists in Paris. They are in control, not the coach and until the overwhelming player power is replaced by a ruthless winning mentality their holy grail of Champions League success will likely always be out of reach.

1 | Monaco won at home against Troyes on Saturday, putting the pressure squarely on Marseille and Lyon in what continues to be a hard-fought battle for second place. The result, in which the champions had welcomed back Thomas Lemar after a lengthy absence, was no surprise, but the dramatic circumstances of if certainly were. The hosts had gone down 2-0 through a brace from in-form Hyun-Jun Suk (five goals in six matches), and were forced to counter with a brace of their own courtesy of the substitute Guido Carrillo to win 3-2. Troyes have showed a battling spirit this season, and played well on the evening, but Suk’s goals were both squarely the fault of Danijel Subasic, who has been well off the form that saw him named Ligue 1’s ‘keeper of the year last season.

As Monaco prepare to host Caen in the Coupe de la Ligue mid-week, might Leonardo Jardim make a move to ensure that cup rotation in goal continues beyond Tuesday’s trip to Normandy? Whereas last season Monaco had only the ancient Morgan De Sanctis as an option in reserve, this season the club can call on Diego Benaglio, a highly experienced former Swiss international with a Bundesliga title who is just, at 34, a mere year older than Subasic. If only until the winter break, at which point his options can be reassessed, Jardim, for the sake of a return to the Champions’ League may be better served in effecting what is increasingly looking a needed change in goal.

2 | Lyon also eked out a dramatic victory, on the road to a combative and motivated Amiens. Despite what had a been a taxing trip to Atalanta mid-week, the visitors were able to scrape a 2-1 victory with Houssem Aouar netting twice inside the match’s final fifteen minutes. The match, which had largely been controlled by Amiens, was altered dramatically by the arrival of Tanguy N’Dombélé, who set up Aouar’s first shortly after coming on and continued to display his remarkable range of passing. Now with four assists in the league, his vision and creativity have consistently added to Lyon’s play whenever he has been included.

Memphis Depay’s raw numbers have impressed (eight goals, three assists), but there is no question Lyon’s best eleven would see Aouar played on the left and N’Dombélé in midfield. If Bruno Génésio has the gumption to persist with that set of players, Lyon, even with a small squad, have to be looked upon not only as favourites for second place but also perhaps even as a dark horse for the Europa League, even with the likes of Atletico Madrid and Arsenal as potential opponents in the first knockout stage.

3 | With seventeen weeks now played, the top half of the table is beginning to take on a familiar look following Nice’s win over Nantes on Sunday. Les Canaris still lead their avian brethren by four points, but with Mario Balotelli back among the goals, Nice reeled off a third consecutive win, moving them to eighth, level on points with surprise package Montpellier. After a hugely inspiring two-legged triumph over Ajax to start the season, injuries to Jean-Michel Seri and Allan Saint-Maximin had seen the wheels come off to some extent as the club flirted with the bottom three.

The defence is still a work in progress (see a 5-0 loss to Lyon last month) but Lucien Favre should be able to make what had been a defensively solid side now become an attack-minded challenger to the European places. With Wylan Cyprien also back in the side, Nice have a real chance to move further up the table ahead of the winter break, with rapidly collapsing Bordeaux and callow Lille in their next two matches.

A.W. with E.D.


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