PSG collapse again – time to look at a dysfunctional model

THE HARLEM GLOBESTROTTERS, for many years, have provided entertainment and skill to happy audiences around the world, combining “athleticism, theatre and comedy”. Basketball it may be, but they are not in the same space as the LA Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. In football, the equivalent of the globetrotters is starting to look like Paris Saint-Germain, who combine all the same elements on the football field but are not in the same category as Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Liverpool. PSG have everything except heart and cojones; when they come under pressure, they wilt like the most sensitive vegetation. 

PSG went to Madrid seemingly to wrap up their UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie. They led 1-0 from the first leg and went looking for goals in the first half of their second meeting with the 13-times champions. Kylian Mbappé, who many expect to sign for Real Madrid this summer, was on fire, causing problems for the Real defence, and Neymar was having one of his better evenings. Mbappé scored a typical goal in the 39thminute after having an earlier effort disallowed, and in the first five minutes after the interval, had another effort ruled out. It looked comfortable for the Parisians, but then self-doubt and nerves kicked in.

How fragile can the PSG team be when a mistake by the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, which led to the equaliser from Karim Benzema, completely throws them off course? Benzema, who has become more vital for Real than Ronaldo, according to Marca, gratefully accepted the chance to change the direction of the game and 15 minutes after levelling on the night, he restored parity with his second goal. PSG were in disarray but just 10.5 seconds later, Benzema secured his hat-trick and put Real 3-2 ahead on aggregate. PSG, who were now making mistake after mistake across the pitch, were shot. 

We’ve seen it before, PSG are not good losers and the recriminations started almost immediately after the final whistle. The Spanish press reported that Neymar and Donnarumma almost came to blows in the dressing room and the club’s president stormed the referee’s room, and left making threats to the official. “I’ll kill you.” PSG can buy most things, but seemingly not dignity and grace.

They certainly haven’t been able to acquire the Champions League and this must really grate with the club’s owners. This latest capitulation will have really hurt, the way they went into a 2-0 aggregate lead suggested they had moved from the pretender stage and were now genuine contenders, but it all turned sour. Surely a team with Neymar, Mbappé and Lionel Messi in its ranks should be good enough to win the Champions League?

Signing Messi has not worked – it was done to clinch the one prize they haven’t won and it hasn’t happened. It would seem unlikely that he will be in Paris next season, especially as Barcelona would love to have him back. Messi has looked like a lost child in France at times and has struggled to find his best Camp Nou form. He’s scored just twice in Ligue 1 in 17 games and five in six in the Champions League. 

Did PSG need Messi? It’s no longer a soft (political) power play to sign a 34 year-old Messi and with Neymar and Mbappé already installed, you have to wonder if any coach can work with so many alpha males. Mauricio Pochettino is scarcely the most imposing of figures, so it must be a difficult situation to manage. But it may not be his problem for very much longer. Pochettino is unlikely to be around for 2022-23, indeed he may struggle to get to the end of 2021-22. The problem is not of his making, PSG have a systemic issue to solve, trying to accommodate all the big names with their accompanying egos. The regime wants big names to show their muscle and ambition and in a bid to build credibility. The football world considers there’s something very artificial about the project, even though it is a decade old. 

Firstly, the purchase of star names merely brings PSG into the same ballpark as the Real Madrids, Bayerns and Manchester Citys, it doesn’t give them superiority, it fills a gap.

Secondly, their strategy of grabbing star names is somewhat gaudy and resembles a King Midas approach. 

Thirdly, their hiring of coaches is so short-term and single-minded – Champions League or bust – the job is not particularly attractive for some people. It is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola moving to PSG, for example. At PSG, every coach ends up being a failure, no matter how many French domestic prizes they win. It’s not necessarily losing that maims them, but the manner of their landmark defeats. 

Since 2011, PSG have lost just 69 games. Pochettino, who has a win rate of 65.75% and has lost 13 of his 73 games, saw his “Barca moment” arrive in Madrid and he will be cast aside at the earliest opportunity. The capitulation of March 8, 2017 in Barcelona, when PSG threw away a 4-0 lead to lose 6-5 on aggregate, has left a mark on every PSG coach since.

PSG have to wait in line to become champions of Europe. Of the new money clubs, Chelsea are the only club to have reached the pinaccle, but in both cases (2012 and 2021), they were not the best team around. Manchester City are probably the top side at present, but they have also fallen short when it comes to the big prize. You sense City want to win it playing superb football and being admired all around the world. PSG may be in a similar category. Neither would want to “win ugly”, yet Champions League winners are not always silk purses, they are often moulded from a sow’s ear. For every Barca 2011 or Ajax 1972 there is a Steaua 1986 or PSV 1988. 

PSG’s strategy to hoard top talent is a natural approach to suddenly-rich clubs wanting to elevate their status, but after a decade, player development should have replaced some of the “loadamoney” brashness. The PSG squad that faced Real Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu cost in excess of € 800 million. Perhaps it is time to introduce a longer-term view, one that is built on solid foundations and becomes sustainable. PSG have always given the impression they don’t have time. It has been around 10 years and, as one newspaper said: “PSG still fail to scare us fully.” Instead of hiring and firing when the latest coach fails to deliver the Champions League, perhaps they need to remind themselves that only one team can win the trophy each year and that they are not in a field of one.

Football Media Watch: Why does France seem so unhappy?

FRANCE may be World Champions and UEFA Nations League champions, but all does not seem well in French domestic football. Last weekend, the game between Marseille and Lyon was abandoned after Dimitri Payet, everyone’s favourite punchbag these days, was struck by a flying bottle, the second time this season that he’s been on the end of someone’s anger.

The incident was in the fourth minute of the game and happened as Payet was about to take a corner. L’Equipe reported that Payet has come to the conclusion he doesn’t want to take some set pieces. “I stayed several minutes on the ground, the pain was intense. I am now afraid of taking corners when I play away,” he said.

Daniel Storey of the i newspaper called France “football’s wild west”, such is the level of violence among fans. He added such incidents are becoming commonplace. “It is as if the hooligan element of club support simply bottled up – literally, in the case of poor Payet – their fever over the long period of lockdowns and empty stadia and have sensationally made up for lost time.”

Ligue 1, meanwhile, believes violence is “destroying the image of the league in France and internationally”. Government officials have joined in criticism of clubs and fans. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin, for example, was adamant football should step-up stadium security. The league has reminded clubs that security is the responsibility of host clubs and local authorities.

Sports minister Roxan Maracineau was relatively dramatic in her assessment of the situation, claiming the very survival of football in France was at stake. She added the problem should be solved by the French league and that the game also runs the risk of upsetting broadcasters. “It’s a world where millions of euros are at stake. We cannot afford for broadcasters to fill blanks like the commentators did for an hour when we don’t know if the game is going to continue.” Amazon, who have the rights to Ligue 1, were left waiting for well over an hour for news of what was happening after the players left the field. Given the problems France has had with broadcasters, Maracineau’s warning should be heeded.

This shambolic state of affairs is just the latest in a string of incidents, including pitch invasions, fighting and fan protests. Marseille, who are all too often involved in negative headlines, are not the most popular club, while Paris Saint-Germain are despised because of their enormous wealth. PSG, despite the arrival of Lionel Messi and assorted other high-earners, don’t seem especially happy with themselves, and their coach, the sought-after Mauricio Pochettino, has at least one eye on the vacant Manchester United job. 

The former Tottenham Hotspur coach is possibly the only manager who see the PSG role – a club with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe in their line-up – as a stepping stone towards where he really wants to be. Some claim this team of all-stars has not lived up to expectations, but they have a big lead in the league and are going well in the Champions League, so what do people really expect? The time to assess the success of the current PSG side will be at the business end of the campaign.

And then there’s the financial woes of France’s clubs, who have had an aborted TV deal to deal with and the effects of the pandemic. PSG doesn’t count when it comes to normal clubs, but one of the big guns left trailing by their rebirth under Qatari ownership, Lyon, has been hit hard. In 2020-21, their revenues declined by 35% and their pre-tax loss totalled € 109 million, but their wages still increased slightly to € 134 million. Their wage-to-income ratio was a very disconcerting 113% in 2020-21. The club has net debt of € 260 million. Lyon are not the only club with problems, however.

Monaco coach, Niko Kovač, told L’Equipe that the French league is in the shadows at the moment. “It’s a very physical league with very fast players who are very good technically. This league loses a lot of young talents. But what’s amazing is that you always produce new ones. All these young players that arrive want to prove themselves and play at full speed.” He added that if Ligue 1 could keep its top players, it would be the second best league in Europe. 

French clubs are faring quite well in European competition this season. PSG are unbeaten in the Champions League, as are all three Europa League entrants and Rennes in the Europa Conference. The only team to have lost in the group stages of any of the three competitions are Lille, who have been beaten once and are well placed for further progress.

Of course, these are troubled times and the pandemic has disrupted football in most countries. France has had a decade of almost total domination by Paris Saint-Germain and Ligue 1 is only just hanging onto its status as a top five league. PSG need stronger competition at home to ensure they are well equipped for European action. They have the resources to win almost everything, but how often are they motivated enough to make fantasy football successful on the biggest stage?

Sources: L’Equipe, i, BBC, Goal, Inside World Football, Reuters, Guardian