FEATURE | PSG academy graduates continue to struggle to break into first team

The route to the first team at PSG has always been littered with pitfalls and barriers to overcome. Although the talent factory at the Camp des Loges has long been a production line of top-class talent from the city and the surrounding banlieues, the road to the top is not so clear-cut. Many have tried to make it at their hometown club over the years, but a select few have managed to successfully navigate that journey. 

Where the club has fallen down over the last decade, or more accurately since the takeover by Qatar Sports Investments, has been in transitioning players from hot academy products to fully-fledged members of the first team. Currently, there are only three who could be classed as squad members. These are stalwart and vice-captain Presnel Kimpembe, Timothée Pembélé (who has recently returned from a serious injury and was playing on loan at Bordeaux last season) and the super-talented Warren Zaïre-Emery, himself only 17 and still eligible to play in the academy structure. The likes of El Chadaille Bitshiabu, Ismaël Gharbi and Ilynes Housni are in and around the first team. Bitshiabu, in particular, has played his part in crucial moments this season and could be given further opportunities between now and the end of the season. 

It was thought, when Luís Campos and Christophe Galtier took charge last summer, that the road from the academy to the Parc des Princes would be resurfaced and the repairs would see an open route into the first team. To their credit, this has happened, to an extent, but it could also be argued that the emergence of Zaïre-Emery has somewhat clouded that judgement. He has excelled in his first season of senior football; he genuinely looks like he has all the skill and potential to become world class in the future.

The others have not seen the footfall of minutes he has. Bitshiabu has played in ten games in all competitions – 448 minutes – which for a 17-year-old is a solid developmental step, especially as a centre back prospect. Attackers Gharbi (18) and Housni (17), meanwhile have seen their time on the field a little more limited and have played 133 minutes and 14 minutes respectively. Both are highly-rated and have been touted to make the step up in the future, with Gharbi especially expected to make a push for first-team minutes with PSG.

The owners have become obsessed in their quest for the Champions League and have lured a number of the best players in the world to the French capital over the last decade, in an attempt to do so. All before having failed, the current crop of Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi and Neymar have again fallen short this season, having lost to Bayern Munich in the round of 16. With the squad being built around these superstars and other world-class talents around the world, any move from academy to PSG first-team member has proven to be a step too far for many during the QSI era. 

The struggle for minutes in the first team has been an issue for the over the last decade. In that time, over 40 academy graduates have attempted to break into the first team. Out of those, only the aforementioned Kimpembe, along with Adrien Rabiot, Alphonse Areola, Christopher Nkunku and Colin Dagba, have made over 50 appearances for the club. Areola and Dagba were bit-part players at best during their time at the club, while Nkunku was used sparingly before deciding to leave for Leipzig. Rabiot had spells where he was a key member of the squad, but again, he felt his best option was to secure a move away from his hometown club. The likes of Kingsley Coman, Moussa Diaby and Yacine Adli left after making a handful of appearances and tried their luck with other clubs as they looked to push on with their development.

Not every academy prospect will graduate into the first team, and the percentage that makes the grade is minimal – usually, around 2% of academy players will make it in the professional game – but the number of players who have come through the Camp des Loges and gone to have very strong careers in the professional game is highly impressive. France’s new number one Mike Maignan was trained by the club and left without making an appearance. Arnaud Kalimuendo swapped Paris for Rennes this past summer in an attempt for more regular minutes, and Hugo Ekitike was brought in to replace him for double the price – and it could be argued they are of a similar ability. There have been stand-outs who were expected to make a splash with PSG and kick on after starting their senior careers; Hervin Ongenda and Jean-Kévin Augustin were seen as top of their class In their respective academy years but flattered to deceive, fizzling out very quickly before leaving Paris, never to return.

Since the inception of the UEFA Youth League in 2013/14, PSG have the most players, who have represented them in the tournament, now playing in one of Europe’s top five leagues. 45 former PSG academy players are making their mark at the highest level in Europe. Out of those, only five are still with the Parisians (Pembélé, Gharbi, Zaïre-Emery, Bitshiabu and Housni), which means 40 players, that have been coached and developed by the club, are now doing battle against them at home and abroad. Not every one of these would be a better option than what Galtier has at his disposal at the moment but some are. Some are World Cup winners, some have lifted that elusive Champions League trophy, and many are worth tens of millions in today’s market. This proves that Paris is the most fertile breeding ground for top talent in European football, if not world football, but at the moment it’s every club other than PSG that is taking advantage of this.

Paris is affectionately known as the City of Light; it illuminates the entire landscape of French football, apart from the Parc des Princes. It seems as though its premier club doesn’t know how to use what they have infront of them. Whether it’s Galtier or the next superstar who’s placed in the hotseat, the pressure to promote from within will remain, and the talent that comes through the system wlll continue. The rumours are that Campos would like to build the core of future PSG sides using Paris- born players. What better place to start than the club’s own academy?

GFFN | Ieuan Beynon

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