PSG football is not Tuchel football; it may not even be football
Placed under pressure again by Liverpool, PSG’s swagger became a whimper
Liverpool’s James Milner in action with Paris St Germain’s Neymar during Liverpool’s 3-2 victory at Anfield in their Champions League group stage match. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
A net €750 million spent in eight years and that’s all you get? Success without money is all but impossible in the modern game, but wealth brings no guarantees. Football still has the capacity to make the richest of men seem very foolish if they pursue glamour at the expense of substance – a heartening moral, so long as you don’t think too closely about the source of the wealth that is paying for Neymar to squander his immense talents in an entitled fug of self-indulgence.
For Paris St-Germain, there has been no development. The lessons of last season have not been learned. All the flaws that undid PSG against Real Madrid in last season’s last 16 were there again at Anfield on Tuesday.
Leaving three forwards high up the pitch to float about and occasionally turn a trick may be enough in Ligue 1 – given PSG have begun the season with five straight wins and have scored at least three goals in every game, it demonstrably is – but it is no way to play against proper opposition. The Air Jordan branding may be intended to add an extra shot of glamour, but in context it appears to say little more than, “please nutmeg me while I appeal half-heartedly for offside.”
There is an irony to this, of course, that PSG’s domination of the French league is precisely what prevents them being truly competitive in Europe. This is the great paradox of the financial structures of the modern game and it is one of the factors that will probably lead, sooner rather than later, to some sort of pan-national super-league. When there is no challenge, it’s only natural complacency sets in. When there are no predators at home, why would you flee the red-faced men with sticks and guns? When there is no peril in your league, why would you bother to track Trent Alexander-Arnold?
Is Thomas Tuchel happy with this? This, after all, is a man who grew up in the hard-pressing world of the Bundesliga. He was regarded as the new Jurgen Klopp, a manager forged at a similar school. He is somebody who dined with Pep Guardiola after his Dortmund side had lost 5-1 to Bayern, whose love of the theory of juego de posicion outweighed the sting of defeat. There can be no version of that conception of the game that features three men standing 50 yards upfield from their midfield, barely raising a jog as a defender surges past them again. PSG football is not Tuchel football; it may not even be football.
Questions were asked as to why Gareth Southgate had opted to go and watch Mason Mount play for Derby against Blackburn in the Championship rather than seeing Alexander-Arnold take on Neymar, or Jordan Henderson look to impose himself against the grandees of France, but he probably made the right choice. This was no more a gauge of their talents than Einstein doing his times tables would have been of his.
In the end, perhaps it was too easy. The second half became a stroll, despite Thomas Meunier halving Liverpool’s lead five minutes before half-time, hooking in a loose ball in the box. Almost 40 minutes of it had passed and PSG not only hadn’t had a shot, they had managed only eight passes in the 30 yards closest to Liverpool’s goal. The game had taken on a weird aspect, as Liverpool, charged for an epic, found it a stroll and found their own focus slipped as a consequence. A lax pass from Mohamed Salah, a quick turnover and Neymar had laid in Kylian Mbappe to equalise. Indulged they may be, but they are still good players. Give them a chance and they will still take it, just as the most decadent of the late Romans would still eat a grape so long as you peeled it first and popped it in their mouths.
But most damning of all was what followed. PSG had been gifted a point. They had got away with one of the most disgracefully negligent performances a club of their resources has ever put on. They could go back to Paris and fuel their self-regard with a useful away point. All they had to do was compete for the final seven minutes plus injury time. But they could not.
Liverpool, to their immense credit, were able to re-engage. And when placed under pressure again, PSG’s swagger became a whimper. Look at Roberto Firmino’s winner and count how many PSG players have turned away rather than attempt a block: these are basics of defending, of professional self-respect, and they cannot do them.
Each season the question seems to become more fundamental: what are PSG? A vanity project for Neymar? A strangely misplaced Nike marketing ploy? A laundromat for Qatar’s international reputation? They’re certainly not a football club in any traditional sense. And if they are supposed to be an agent of Qatari soft power, they really need to start emphasising the power aspect of that phrase rather than the soft.