France may conjure up a title race in 2023

IN THE SMALL city of Lens there was rejoicing on New Year’s Day – RC Lens beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 to close the gap at the top of Ligue 1 to four points. It was PSG’s first defeat of the season in the league and underlined the impressive run by Les Sang et Or in 2022-23, whose 40 points is the best performance by a second-placed team at this stage of the season since 1959.

PSG were stunned, but they were without Neymar and Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, PSG’s owners won’t be impressed that their team was swept aside by opponents who have a playing budget that is but a tiny fraction of the Paris wage bill. Coach Christoph Galtier refused to blame the absence of two of his star men for the defeat, admitting that Lens deserved their win. “Athletically, we were dominated,” he said after the game.

PSG may have been suffering from a post-World Cup hangover. Messi was on extended leave, Neymar was suspended after being sent-off against Strasbourg and Kylian Mbappé had reasons for being subdued after losing the World Cup final despite scoring a hat-trick. PSG made hard work of their December 28 game against Strasbourg, relying on a 96th minute penalty to win 2-1. Before meeting PSG, Lens had a 100% home record and had lost just once, a 1-0 Derby du Nord defeat at the hands of Lille.

  PWDLFAPtsg.d.
1PSG171421461344+33
2Lens171241291140+18
3Marseille171133341536+19
4Monaco171034332333+10

Franck Haiser’s side adopted an aggressive style, pressing constantly and placing PSG under constant pressure. It says a lot about the lack of competitiveness in Ligue 1 that PSG have rarely faced such tenacious opponents in domestic football in recent years. Lens took an early lead but within three minutes, it was 1-1, but goals in the 28th and 48th minutes gave them a shock 3-1 victory. It was PSG’s first defeat since March 2022, a run of 38 games.

But there’s still a long way to go, and over the last decade, there have been a few occasions when a French side looks up for a title battle, but inevitably, PSG have been too strong for anyone to keep pace with them. Only Monaco in 2017 and Lille in 2021 have managed to outperform the Parisians. Lens have one of the smallest wage bills in the division, so even mounting a challenge for part of the season would be something of an achievement.

That’s not to say Lens don’t have some interesting talent, notably Florian Sotoca, the experienced former Grenoble striker and Loïs Openda, the 22 year-old Belgian front man. And then there’s Austrian central defender Kevin Danso, who was excellent against PSG. Seko Fofana and Salis Abdul Samed also caught the eye against the Ligue 1 champions.

French football could do with an exciting second half of the campaign, especially after that heartbreaking World Cup final defeat in Qatar. Lens have shown they know how to get to PSG, but if Neymar and Messi had been in the team, it would probably have been a different outcome. It’s difficult to see the clubs immediately behind Lens – Marseille and Monaco – making much of a statement, but the result at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis will act as a form of inspiration. The transfer window is opening and that may be bad news for the rest of Ligue 1. PSG will undoubtedly be busy in the coming weeks. The question is, do Lens have what it takes to remain in contention?

Can Paris Saint-Germain ever find the right man?

PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN start 2022-23 season with a new coach, suggesting it is very much “business as usual” for the French champions. They are bedding-in Christoph Galtier with a trip to Japan before they move on to Tel Aviv to play the French Super Cup game against Nantes. Unlike some of their managerial appointments, Galtier’s hiring seems a little low key, but he won the Ligue 1 title in 2021 with Lille, which deserves respect. A new era for the club? The comment made by PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi hinted at a new direction: “Today we must be realistic; we don’t want flashy, bling-bling any more, it’s the end of glitter.”

An interesting statement from PSG, but they still refuse to see that their problems are of their own making: constantly changing coaches; refusal to build for the longer-term; and a penchant for flashy, big-name players. PSG have had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, three of which are in their current squad, and they still cannot win the trophy they crave – the Champions League. A total of € 1.3 billion has been spent over the past decade, and they still trail Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and even Chelsea. It is the players that are mostly to blame for PSG’s failure to win the Champions League.

They’ve been through Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino, all of whom were considered to be among Europe’s most sought-after coaches. Of those that have not been hired yet, it is difficult to see Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp, or even Antonio Conte, moving to PSG. The only other elite boss who could be considered is a late-career José Mourinho. Being manager of PSG isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of a career, but it will be well-paid, if only on a short-term basis.

Despite the end of bling-bling (we will wait and see), it is hard to take the comments of Al-Khelaifi with little more than a pinch of salt. Galtier may be the most low profile coach at the club for some time, but his brief will be the same – “make us European champions”. Ligue 1 can be won at a canter, as demonstrated in 2021-22 when they were 15 points ahead of second-placed Marseille, but when PSG come up against Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester City, they struggle. That final jump from France to Europe is still eluding them.

And this step is the steepest of all, for every one of PSG’s peers also has the Champions League on their agenda. It is easy to wonder if PSG’s decision-makers really understand the unpredictable nature of football. Success rarely comes instantaneously, coaches need time to build a successful team. Pep Guardiola is still waiting to win the Champions League with Manchester City, but would he get the same amount of time at PSG? Klopp took a few years to win anything with Liverpool, such a timeframe would be seen as unacceptable at PSG. No amount of big names will guarantee success if the team’s blend is not right and it is no use blaming a manager’s style for not getting the best out of iconic figures who have their own approach. A coach is hired because an employer likes his style, so when the very qualities that appealed to a club don’t work with a squad that has been built over several managers, can you really blame him?

PSG’s strategy, from the outside, looks a little cynical and is certainly the epitome of short-termism. A coach comes in, wins the league but goes out of Europe in dramatic fashion and the rumblings start. Within another 12 months, the heir to the hot seat starts to be talked of in the press and by the end of year two, the coach appears to be undermined and on his way out. This has happened frequently, but European failure is not attributable to the coaches so much, but the culture of the club. The latest coach, Pochettino, did no worse than anyone else, with the exception of Tuchel, who took PSG to the Champions League final in 2020, but narrowly lost to Bayern Munich. But, as we are aware, it is easier to offload a manager than a complete squad of players.

PSG have to resist the urge to be seduced by big names, which are costly in terms of finance and also prevent talented young players from coming through. PSG can afford to blood youngsters, can even afford a season of genuine “failure” in favour of a year of development and transition. PSG want to be successful and frankly, their dominance of France has become boring. They also want to be popular and right now, they are far from being the most liked club in Europe, even though their reception in Japan suggests they have a lot of friends in Asia.

Signing Neymar, Messi and Mbappé may demonstrate that PSG have financial muscle, but they also suggest gluttony. How beneficial would it be for PSG to build a squad organically, showing a more considered way for French and indeed European football?

Money can be used to buy the baubles of wealth, but it can also be used to construct something with substance and meaning, and in European football right now, there is a need for a different way, a strategy that can meet the many macro-economic and geo-political problems that exist in the world today. If bling-bling is passe, then show the world that wealth can be used more positively rather than to drive-up wages, escalate transfer fees, hire and fire coaches and continually fuel the star culture of conspicuous consumerism. Ignore the CSR programmes, because they merely make organisations feel better about themselves and their remuneration. The past decade has shown PSG’s model does not really work or guarantee success on a broader scale. PSG can scoop all the domestic prizes they want with a much cheaper and more home-grown team, if they are serious, they will change their ethos and be regarded as trail-blazers rather than frustrated rich kids. As for Galtier, he will probably have the same amount of time as his predecessors, unless PSG’s age of glitter really has ended.