With PSG losing again in the league and signings failing to make an impact, Simmo looks at what’s gone wrong for the French champions. Has the quest for European success come at a domestic cost? Is Unai Emery already on borrowed time?
PSG have lost two of their opening seven league fixtures. On its own that statement isn’t completely shocking, lots of big teams have already lost games this season. Of the recognised title challengers across Europe’s top leagues, only Bayern Munich and Manchester City still hold a 100% record.
Yet for PSG this start is unacceptable. Last season they lost only two league games all season. Throughout the whole of Laurent Blanc’s three-year tenure, they only lost eight. During the same period Barcelona lost thirteen, Juventus ten, and Bayern Munich nine. In recent years, no club has dominated their own domestic competitions as much as PSG.
Yet there are those who will still maintain that PSG’s achievements have not been all that great. There are those who choose to dismiss Ligue 1 as merely a ‘Mickey Mouse’ league.
That sort of talk is unfair and utterly dismissive of the good work Blanc did whilst at the club. Under his stewardship PSG were lethal. Their supremacy was not accidental, nor was it because the league was exceptionally weak. No, PSG were just a very good team.
They blew teams away, scored goals for fun, and were a solid defensive unit. They accumulated a +191 goal difference during Blanc’s reign. No other team came close to matching them.
The debate will rage on about whether their success was artificial. Yes, it is true that their triumphs were largely built on Qatari oil. However, both Manchester City and Chelsea have all spent vast sums of money after being bought by foreign owners. Neither have come close to matching the complete domestic dominance that PSG has enjoyed.
Despite domestic success, the Qatari owners still craved one elusive trophy; the Champions League. For Roman Abramovich at Chelsea the Champions League had become an almost unhealthy obsession. Whilst he clearly enjoyed league titles and FA Cup victories, they only went so far. The hierarchy at PSG clearly have a similar view. Two successive trebles (Ligue 1, Coupe de France & Coupe de la Ligue) in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons had reaffirmed PSG’s position as the Kings of French football. Yet this success was spoiled by the seeming lack of progress in Europe.
Blanc’s Champions League record was good, just not good enough to save his job. In each of his three seasons in charge PSG reached the quarter-finals but no further. PSG’s inability to make any clear progress in Europe no doubt prompted the powers that be to terminate Blanc’s contract in June. This was despite him signing an extension as early as February. It seemed therefore, that PSG were measuring Blanc solely on his team’s performance in Europe.
Blanc’s replacement was chosen entirely for his record in European competitions. Unai Emery had won the three previous Europa League titles with Sevilla. His La Liga record was solid if not spectacular. Successive fifth placed finishes during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 season was followed up by a disappointing seventh last season.
For Emery the challenge was clear; maintain PSG’s monopoly in Ligue 1 whilst also mounting a serious European challenge. It was perceived by many that PSG’s domestic dominance would continue regardless. Nobody countenanced European success at the expense of continued domestic control.
Emery’s difficult start has shocked many from the outside looking in. Internally though it’s not been completely unexpected.
When Emery arrived his first task would have been to replace talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His four years at the Parc des Princes had yielded a staggering 113 league goals in a mere 122 games. Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano scored more goals over the same period.
The loss of Ibrahimovic was always going to be difficult to deal with, however, nobody suspected it would have such dire consequences. After all, PSG had French footballs record signing, Edinson Cavani, waiting in the wings. The Uruguayan was a much heralded €64 million signing from Napoli back in 2013. In reality though his time in the French capital has been underwhelming. Cavani had to accept that whilst Ibrahimovic was still at the club he would be playing second fiddle. Either shipped out to the wing or having to settle for a place on the bench, Cavani was not often given a chance in his favoured strikers role. When he was he often flattered to deceive.
Emery was quick to identify the strikers position as one that needed to be strengthened. Although he came out in support of Cavani, there was always a suspicion that he did not fully trust the former Napoli man.
Kevin Gameiro, who Emery had managed at Sevilla, was linked with a return to the club he left in 2013. Gonzalo Higuain was spoken of before Juventus paid a whopping €90 million for his services. Others were mentioned, but PSG did eventually sign two attacking players to compete with Cavani.
Jesé Rodriguez, a €25 million signing from Real Madrid, was seen as a surprising choice. Hatem Ben Arfa less so, a free signing after his contract at Nice expired. With both players fairly unproven in a central role, there was a sense, particularly with 23-year-old Jesé, that neither was first choice.
This perception has only been reinforced by Emery’s selections. Having only started one of the opening six league games, it would seem that Jesé has fallen behind young Frenchman Jean-Kévin Augustin in the pecking order. Ben Arfa’s omission is even more puzzling. Despite scoring on debut in the 4-1 Trophée des Champions victory over Lyon, the France international has not played for three weeks and not even been included in the previous four match day squads.
On the pitch, the struggles at one end have been mirrored at the other. Salvatore Sirigu’s place as PSG’s No.1 had always been a bone of contention. A team littered with world class players, Sirigu’s name stood out for being one of the few that wasn’t.
His departure in the summer, oddly to Sevilla, was hardly unexpected. Kevin Trapp had been first choice the previous season and looked destined to remain so for the coming year. However, the German’s unconvincing displays, mixed with the emergence of Alphonse Areola, has seen him be displaced. Areola is a fine prospect, yet his promotion is perhaps indicative of Emery’s inability to find the winning formula.
In midfield there have also been issues. Under Blanc there was an established midfield trio. Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi were Blanc’s favoured options. They were humbly supported by Adrien Rabiot and Javier Pastore on occasion.
To supplement them Emery added Grzegorz Krychowiak for €30 million from (surprise surprise) Sevilla. The Pole’s place in the team seemed likely to be at the expense of the ageing Motta. Yet, like Jesé and Ben Arfa, Krychowiak has failed to make any great impact.
Additionally, problems have occurred where previously none existed. Defensively last season PSG were immense, conceding only 32 goals in 58 games across all competitions. The usually reliable Thiago Silva has made a less than impressive start to the season and there are still reservations about the level of defensive cover.
With David Luiz leaving to re-join Chelsea, Presnel Kimpembe has been thrust into the first team. Whilst the young Frenchmen will be back up to Silva and fellow Brazilian Marquinhos, the lack of depth will no doubt remain a concern.
Add Serge Aurier to the mix and there would seem to be all the ingredients for a defensive crisis. The volatile and often toxic Ivorian felt the wrath of Blanc last season with several ill-advised comments. His sending off against Toulouse on Friday night cost PSG the game, and whilst he no doubt has talent, his temperament does seem to persistently let him down.
Questions remain unanswered. Whilst its still very early into Emery-era his shaky start has certainly failed to live up to expectation. Whether this affects his immediate future remains to be seen.
It would seem that entangled within this obsession with the Champions League there is a stark reality. As Abramovich found out, chasing a Champions League can come at a cost. He went through 8 managers before eventually winning his most treasured prize. The owners at PSG have been less inclined to to wield the axe, yet they showed with Blanc that they can be ruthless.
We can at least be certain about one thing. Anything less than continued domestic dominance and a marked improvement in Europe will constitute a failure in the eyes of the owners. Emery will have to hope that he can halt this mini-crisis.