Possession and purpose are old footballing foes. The endless suffocating possession of Pep Guardiola’s often unplayable Barcelona made “Tiki-Taka” an aspirational ideal for much of the last 15 years. Guardiola, however, dislikes the term, admonishing his new Bayern Munich team back in 2013 for what he saw as their meaningless short passing in a large U-shape. It wasn’t what he wanted, despite his Barcelona team’s reputation.
PSG have also been guilty of possession without penetration during the Qatari-owned era, particularly under Laurent Blanc and most frustratingly in Europe. Stifling Ligue 1 teams who sat deep was one thing, but playing their way through elite European opponents was another. At least Blanc had perhaps PSG’s most effective, if not most talented, front line (sorry, MNM) of the last decade to break deadlocks.
New Paris coach, Luis Enrique, has always espoused more direct football than Guardiola’s Barca teams, but with Pep and contemporaries like Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann, and Jürgen Klopp pushing the game away from a focus on possession, his teams exude “Tiki-Taka” more than most in 2023. PSG’s 1001 passes broke Ligue 1’s passing record in Enrique’s opener with Lorient this weekend, but they were unable to score at home in a 0-0 draw, despite some promising signs. Of course, it’s early for Enrique, but with PSG in deep transition, turning that possession into sufficient purpose will be tough.
For now, Paris lack both goal threat and creativity. Neymar’s move to Saudi Arabia leaves PSG short a player with a recognised number 10-type skillset, and Marco Verratti’s banishment makes an already workmanlike and defensively minded midfield group, which lacks quality attacking eights, even more uninspiring. Kylian Mbappé’s return will help on both fronts, while Ousmane Dembélé’s signing will bring unpredictability, but options such as Marco Asensio and Kang In-Lee don’t scream goals. Mbappé can’t do it all himself, especially with such weak support.
As a result, there’s perhaps too much pressure on new striker Gonçalo Ramos (22) from Benfica, who may be talented but will face tougher, deeper, more physical, and more organised defences in France. One promising season (19 in 30 league games) for the best side in a far weaker league (outside the top three) doesn’t offer any assurances he’ll be prolific for France any time soon. However, with 20 players effectively transfer-listed by sporting director Luis Campos and the targeting of younger profiles, such as Uruguayan midfield battler Manuel Ugarte (22), it’s clear Paris are building for the future.
Long-term thinking is an alien concept to PSG, however, and deferred rewards aren’t QSI’s style. Although president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is sticking to the Campos line for now, it’s far from sure he’ll do so when PSG are struggling to win Ligue 1 and are nowhere in the Champions League. Both situations seem likely given such a thin squad. Signings before the end of the window are very possible, of course, which could change the tone, but this squad lacks heart and leadership and has been assembled very quickly. Only four of the 11 that started against Lorient were starters last season, with another six being new signings.
Togetherness and cohesion will take time to nurture, especially given last season’s settled squad lacked those attributes anyway. Although a sturdy backline and Mbappé’s return will help effectiveness, Enrique’s task of turning a thrown-together group of average players (by PSG’s standards) that lack decisiveness and harmony into European champions is a long-term and more than difficult project. After the malaise of two underwhelming titles, things may have to get even worse before they get better at PSG.
In isolation, Campos’ post-Bling-Bling processes and goals make sense. But, in 12 years of Qatari ownership, very little has made sense at PSG, and the club may not be prepared for the lows that may await. But unlike some of Enrique’s team’s possession against Lorient, the club should be aware, there is a purpose.
Adam White | GFFN