Roberto Firmino wheeled off in celebration having deprived PSG of what would have been a fortunate point, and Europe was left wondering once again as to when Paris will learn. Although Thomas Tuchel’s side has been heavily criticised both on team selection and players’ engagement, the ill goes further back than Tuesday’s late defeat. PSG have lost their four last Champions’ League matches, against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid twice, and now Liverpool. In the only measure that truly matters to them, that of Champions’ League football, the Qatari era has been defined by failure against the big fish, particularly on the road.
Paris, we all know, have the financial means to compete with Europe’s elite. They have attracted some of the finest players and their brand has grown to worldwide recognition. For all this, they have failed to institutionalise and produce the framework with which they can progress as a football club, in the most elementary sense of the term. There are certain structuring principles which PSG have left behind in their glamorous precipitation.
The standout issue is Neymar’s status, his wishes given more importance than the team’s needs. “Un roi a Paris” (A king in Paris) was L’Équipe’s headline when Neymar signed last summer, aptly predicting the power that would be granted to the Brazilian. Zlatan Ibrahimovic found himself in a similar position when he was the Parisian flag-bearer. The difference being, however, that Zlatan’s professionalism and work ethic contributed significantly to the club’s development, insofar that the Swede even had a hand in redesigning the dressing room. Neymar’s desires are more self-centred. So much for no one being bigger than the team.
Not to mention how this could set a bad example for Kylian Mbappé, who in all likelihood will stay longer at Paris then Neymar. At just 19, Mbappé has also seemingly gotten himself exempted from defensive duties, much to the delight of Andy Robertson on Tuesday. His raw talent is undeniable and precious, but recent incidents such as his red card against Nimes have suggested his attitude is shifting towards Neymar’s.
The importance of individualities further obstructs Paris in another of their key challenges. Their European troubles have been characterised by a lack of footballing identity or style. In Ligue 1, Qatari PSG has always played possession and attacking football, which given the quality of players on either side, is really the only option. Many suggest the league’s low level as a reason for Paris not having the habits needed for matches of Champions League calibre. But that is forgetting that even within the high-end frame of continental football, there is a simple lack of consistent plan.
How can good coaches make such strange decisions under pressure as Laurent Blanc’s infamous 3-5-2 at Manchester City or Unai Emery’s exclusion of captain Thiago Silva in Madrid? The insecurity underlying this tinkering is symptomatic of a non-existent identity. Tuchel and Emery have strong football ideals for which they were selected, and yet paradoxically the implementation of these cannot happen if their authority over certain players is reduced due to excessive privileges.
Paris’ faults lie off the pitch as well. Transfer policy has always been a little bit unique in the capital, not least because of the extravagant sums in play. Spending money is not a crime, but the capricious pursuit of stars has at times seemed counter-productive. The sums thrown at Neymar and Mbappé allowed the club to grace itself with two exceptional talents, but in consequence were obliged to sell this summer and limited in their spending.
The consequence is a botched transfer window. Thursday’s L’Équipe reports that Tuchel and several players are disappointed with the lack of recruits. Thiago Motta has not been replaced, and the left-back position seems very weak, with Layvin Kurzawa’s injury problems and Juan Bernat’s uncertain level of quality. Meanwhile, another star was signed in Gianluigi Buffon, at low cost it is true, unless you are one of the four other goalkeeper’s under professional contract at Paris…
Fingers have pointed at Antero Henrique, the Sporting Director. The Portuguese spent a good part of the summer uselessly courting N’Golo Kanté, whose price tag was unattainable given PSG’s constraints. Reports in Germany also slated Henrique, suggesting that Bayern’s leadership preferred to negotiate directly with chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
Henrique is not the first questionable appointment in PSG’s higher management. There have been several peculiar nominations from Patrick Kluivert as Director of Football in 2016 to Luis Fernandez as Head of Youth Development last year. Kluivert provided big-name excitement, but his one-year tenure was ineffective and incomprehensible. Fernandez may be a club legend and former manager, but has also been criticised for mis-management, and notably accused of being behind the decision to prevent the women’s side from training at the Camp des Loges.
PSG need to solidify their internal organisation and redistribute the cards to make it clear what their goal is. A larger emphasis needs to be put on developing and exploiting purely footballistic ideas rather than allowing money or fame to decide. Tuchel has those ideas as far as the pitch is concerned.
Given a blank slate free of individual privileges, he could implement them more successfully, and if the right profiles can be found to harden the club’s upper management they will be able to provide Tuchel with the resources he needs in the long run. For Paris to conquer Europe, they need to adopt the same unwritten rules and behaviours as big European clubs.