The assessment is pretty simple to make now. This is arguably Paris Saint-Germain’s most talented squad, both individually and collectively. Never since Qatar Sports Investment took over 10 years ago, and not before them either, have PSG been so strong. Even though they’re cruising domestically, this feels like PSG’s worst season in terms of performance, style, content, entertainment or swagger. It has been despairing to watch at times.
Results-wise — and this is a results business at its core, of course — it’s been satisfying, with only two defeats all season: at Manchester City in the Champions League (2-1) and at Rennes (2-0) in Ligue 1. PSG are already through to the Champions League last 16, though in second place, and are 11 points clear at the top of the league in France. However, if we look closer, their record this season against the other “top five” teams in Ligue 1 is a source of frustration: 0-0 in Marseille, 0-2 away at Rennes, 0-0 vs Nice and 1-1 at Lens this past Saturday. (That Lens draw was nearly a defeat, too, until Georginio Wijnaldum popped up to head home Kylian Mbappe’s cross.)
That’s zero wins, one goal scored across the four matches and, more importantly, no real passages of dominant play against their most immediate challengers. As with Wijnaldum’s late goal against Lens, PSG have been saved several times by their individual talents in the late stages of matches his season: Five of their wins in Ligue 1 came via a game-winner inside the final 10 minutes.
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This doesn’t feel like PSG, certainly not the PSG of the last 10 years. Winning has always been important, but victory without substance is not enough. Mauricio Pochettino said it himself when he was presented to the media as the new PSG manager almost a year ago. He wanted to win with style, doing it with his own philosophy and playing his own way. That has not been the case. There’s been little direction, no fluidity, no patterns of play and more seriously, no plan. On Saturday against Lens, a team that always plays the same way in a 3-4-2-1 formation, Pochettino changed his tactical system five times throughout the 90 minutes. He kept tweaking and changing so much that Marco Verratti played six different positions around midfield.
PSG have become used to winning with flair in the past 10 years. This season, they’re being bailed out by their individual talents at every turn rather than some cohesive vision. It’s not viable because at some point, especially against the top teams, they won’t be able to do it anymore.
If you removed Mbappe’s incredible season so far — seven goals and eight assists in Ligue 1, two goals and three assists in the Champions League — where would the team be? What if you take out those late goals against Lyon, Angers, Lille and Nantes, or at Metz, Saint-Etienne and Lens? (We’re talking about a lot of points.) The picture, and the mood around PSG’s season, would be very different.
The biggest problem is still the superstars’ lack of identity. Pochettino has been at the club for a year, and the team is struggling to cohere. They cannot beat a press or build from the back. They have no circuits of passing. There is not enough movement; no triangles, no overlaps. The consensus within the dressing room is that Pochettino is great at the man-management aspect of the job and the players like him, but many feel like he is too limited tactically or at least that they are not working hard enough on their tactics. It could be a reason why there hasn’t been sufficient improvement as a collective.
It is not all Pochettino’s fault, of course. Lionel Messi is struggling to adapt to his new life, which is understandable considering this is the first time he’s moved to a different place since he was 13. There have been some good moments with the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, but overall he’s performing below expectations so far.
He’s not alone, either. Neymar has been really hit-and-miss too, and now he’s facing another long spell on the sidelines. Summer arrivals Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes started well as PSG’s new full-back pair, but they’re not playing with the same intensity that they began the season. Marco Verratti is indispensable in midfield, but injury-prone. Veteran defender Sergio Ramos had to wait for the end of November to play, while Mauro Icardi has had some off-field issues to address that have clouded his football. The list goes on.
There are some mitigating circumstances for Pochettino. He had not planned for Messi to join in the summer; it was very much a bit of good fortune, albeit one that he’s had to work with. Yet the former Spurs boss clearly wanted, and still wants, to join Manchester United, which raises questions over his desire to be presiding over affairs in the French capital right now. Also, as he explained in some interviews he did a couple of weeks ago, he’s struggling with the overall vibe at the club. The players are not always disciplined enough for his liking and yet, he feels like he lacks the power to sanction them himself. He doesn’t feel he is in control and that’s a problem for him.
The beauty with football is that you never know how the story ends. Pochettino and his players can turn things around and have a wonderful second half of the season to become a real collective force, finally winning that elusive Champions League title. Or they can continue being average like they have been so far this season, being bailed out when possible by a star player, and face a big disappointment in Europe. Right now, there’s more probability for the first ending, though …