THE popular opinion across Europe’s football media is that Paris St. Germain have stalled in their bid to become Europe’s top club. Defeat in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, for the second successive season, has cast doubts about the club’s strategy and ability to take on the best. But is it failure, or is it just that PSG are now moving in such exalted circles that they must simply get used to being beaten by teams with greater competition experience?
Of course, most of European football revelled in PSG’s “failure” or rather inability to create successful “tournament management”. If there is one thing that football doesn’t like it is the monied arriviste. People talk of teams on steroids, dig deep into the source of the funds and dismiss any success because it has been “bought”. There will be little sympathy for PSG outside of the environs of the 16th arrondissement, but given the vast resources they have at their disposal, they can easily put right what appears to be wrong.
It’s important to accept that most of the world’s great club teams have been bought and most clubs sitting at the top of their respective leagues are invariably the wealthiest. A team with 75,000 fans will almost always have an advantage over the club with 25,000 followers. Wealth breed wealth, acquires wealth and generates wealth. Wealth is invariably gained by cash being pumped in – it is rarely generated “organically”, whatever that means in football today.
While everyone envies PSG’s financial clout, while at the same time despising them for having it, the majority of clubs – although perhaps not German – would hold their hand out if a wealthy Arab or Russian were to knock on their door. To quote Michael Corleone, “We’re all part of the same hypocrisy”.
However, let’s look at PSG 2018 and where they stand in the scheme of things. They’ve long been circulating in a new peer group – according to Deloitte, they are seventh biggest club in their Football Money League, while Soccerex ranked them third, thanks to their owners’ financial strength. There’s no doubt, PSG are among the world’s richest and most influential clubs.
But they’re not alone, and they’re competing with clubs that have established their position at the forefront of the European game over decades, becoming powerful partly because of accumulation, rather than acquisition, of wealth. In other words, while PSG have secured the services of huge talents, they are competing against equally ambitious and possibly better managed clubs who are also vying for the top position. PSG may be able to sign anyone, but they are not weakening their chief European rivals in following that path, and that’s often overlooked.
Building a world-beating team cannot be easily achieved by buying everything of value like a greedy child in a sweet shop. There has been criticism of PSG’s recruitment strategy which seems to be about ego-boosting signings of world-class individuals rather than a building-block approach of buying the right players they need to complete the jigsaw. Even their current squad is sceptical about the club’s transfer policy.
Certainly, the acquisition of Neymar and Mbappe underlined PSG’s insatiable desire for acceptance and accolades. It flexed Qatar’s financial power and was arguably as much about the muscularity of their influence as it was to build a team of all-stars, although they do have a few of them. Of the 11 that started against Real Madrid in the Champions League tie, seven featured in the top 100 players in the game, as ranked by the UK newspaper, The Guardian in December 2017. Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani are all players that any top European club would love to have, but there are issues in defence and midfield.
There are suggestions the money laid-out for Neymar and Mbappe cleaned out PSG’s fighting fund in the summer of 2017. Having top level strikers gives PSG a big advantage, especially in France, but in the knockout stages of the Champions League, the likelihood is you’ll come up against equally affluent clubs. Real Madrid, for example, had 13 players in the Guardian list and they’ve got the valuable experience of winning three of the last four Champions Leagues.
Indeed, over the past six years, PSG’s record in the Champions League implies they find it hard to get past genuinely top teams. The only premium brand they’ve overcome in the last 16 onwards has been Chelsea, another club who demand the sort of forensic investigation that PSG are going through when things go wrong. When it truly counts – i.e. past the group stage – clubs like Barcelona, Real and Bayern Munich make it count. The dreadful capitulation they experienced in 2016-17 against Barcelona hints at an inability to handle the pressure and the tepid response to Real Madrid is further affirmation of PSG’s apparent lack of character.
But should we be that surprised? After all, their extraordinary wallet gives them such an overwhelming advantage in France that they’re rarely tested. And not many of PSG’s squad have on their CV a Champions League triumph.
PSG’s record over the past six seasons has created such an imbalance that only Monaco, Ligue 1 champions 2016-17, and Guingamp, Coupe de France winners 2014, have lifted silverware since 2013. Aside from Monaco’s success, PSG have won everything since 2014-15, and it could be another treble in 2017-18 with a place in the Coupe de la Ligue final already awaiting and the last four of the Coupe de France to negotiate.
It was the Barcelona debacle and Monaco’s surprise title win that arguably prompted PSG to spend even bigger in the close season of 2017 to regain their superiority. In 2016 they lost the talismanic Ibrahimovic, the symbol of the new PSG, and they finished eight points behind Monaco, versus a 31-point margin between them and second-placed Lyon in 2015-16.
Neymar at PSG isn’t exactly Tommy Lawton at Notts County in the 1940s, but you have to question whether he’s in the right place and whether the money has been spent wisely. Neymar wasn’t fit for the second leg against Real Madrid and, increasingly, there are stories that he’s considering his options for the summer. The move hasn’t been a failure, but the Champions league triumph, with Neymar as its inspirational source, is not going to happen this year.
So when will it happen?, PSG fans will be asking after such a tame departure from the 2017-18 competition. The club’s owner, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, has admitted that, “Winning the Champions League is a slow process. You can’t do it overnight. We’re on the right track.”
Khelaifi also said, after the 2013 defeat by Barcelona in the competition that it was the club’s ambition to win the Champions League within five years. That time period has now expired, so what does that mean for current manager Unai Emery and some of the players who have been involved in the “project” for a few seasons now?
Emery’s time is probably over – for a start, how many clubs give a manager more than two years these days? Furthermore, two years of Emery have seen two last 16 exits against the very clubs PSG are seeking to emulate. Emery cannot be blamed for the transfer policy, the loss of Ibrahimovic or the lack of focus on building a team over a period of time (who gets that luxury in any case?), but he has clearly lost the confidence of his employers.
Emery’s appointment, however, was seen as something bordering on an imaginative choice. He wasn’t in the uber-boss category, but he had an impressive record with Sevilla. But perhaps he arrived too soon?
PSG’s first big-name coach under the current regime was Carlo Ancelotti. They gave him a couple of years but then Laurent Blanc was installed. He had a phenomenal 72.83% win rate, which has been surpassed by Emery who has 79%. It cannot realistically get much better than that, but Emery has not taken them closer to the holy grail and that’s how he will be judged. The PSG project, after all, has not been designed and built for France, it has been implemented for European domination, and they are finding that nobody is going to lay down and let that happen without a struggle. “Winning the Champions League is a slow process,” said Khelaifi after one disappointment on the continental stage. It will not be a surprise if PSG abandon foresight in appointing someone with potential now and write a huge cheque for one of the very top names. But he, too, will soon learn what impatience and frustration from the boardroom looks like, despite Emery’s post-match comment: “We want to win this competition quickly. We’ll continue with patience.”
Chelsea took seven years into their Abramovich era to win the top prize, and arguably with their least effective team, and Manchester City haven’t really come close, although they must fancy their chances in 2017-18. Consider also that Barcelona recorded their first win as recently as 1992 and Juventus did likewise in 1985. PSG might be on the right track, but it is a crowded thoroughfare.
Another Champions League failure is likely to trigger a spending spree in Paris in the coming months. “The summer will be busy,” said Le Parisien, hinting that the Neymar transfer had been less than successful. “Tout ça pour ça,” headlined L’Équipe – “all that for this”, lambasting the lack of spirit among PSG’s players.
PSG have to be careful, however. They spent so much last year they were unable to hire the players needed to complement Neymar. They now need to generate some funds to avoid sanctions under the rules of Financial Fair Play. So, some players, such as Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore may be moved on to make room and raise funds. But who will they sign?
Responding by bussing-in more top names without a sustainable strategy is unlikely to benefit PSG, however. When Chelsea moved into the top bracket in 2003, it didn’t come together until they hired a top managerial name. They signed plenty of players, and they were not necessarily the best in the market, but they built a team and hired someone who could mould that into a winning formula – José Mourinho. Signing the equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters will entertain, but won’t necessarily bring you riches.
Now, however, PSG could find themselves victims of a market they have created. The huge Neymar fee has changed the dynamics of the transfer market and would-be acquisitions will come that bit more expensive than before. Furthermore, selling clubs will now be aware of the angst building-up in Paris and the top names will have a bit more premium attached to their price.
PSG, on the evidence of their two games against Real Madrid, need to acquire a valuable resource lacking in their make-up – street-wise savvy. It is no coincidence that they have come unstuck against Barcelona and Real Madrid, the old guard, if you like. That starts with a club vision to learn from competitors and the signing of players with the experience of pan-European success, allied to younger talent hungry enough to reach for the biggest prizes. And you need the right coach. Some might contest that PSG already have some of that, but there’s clearly something missing. That takes you back to the argument about the absence of competiveness in the French league – a situation that PSG themselves have constructed.
France, arguably the birthplace of the European Cup/Champions League, has longed for a successful “European” team – Reims had an attempt back in the competition’s fledgling years, St. Etienne were full of Gallic charm and Marseille eventually won it for France. PSG, because of their bank balance, are expected to eventually lift the cup, but across Europe, they will always be looked upon as a club audaciously buying its way into an exclusive club. “Real Madrid put PSG in their place,” commented Spain’s Marca was just one example of schadenfreude from the European media, while Arab Weekly asked, “Why is Qatar’s PSG project failing?”.
But it is not really failing, it has been successful to a large degree and the remedy isn’t necessarily about throwing endless pots of cash at the problem. Being top of the pile should not have any satisfaction if it hasn’t been won by endeavour, skill and competition. Otherwise, you’re that wealthy man or woman sitting on a desert island with heaps of gold all around you and nobody to share your success. When PSG are eventually crowned European champions, and you have to assume they will, it will be because they have outsmarted the Real Madrids of this world. And surely, there will be more satisfaction in that than merely winning the battle of the cheque books?