PSG: What’s gone wrong?

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.

Six European transfers you might have missed

Mike on six European signings he’s excited to see in action

Forget Hummels, Higuain and Pogba. Let’s take a closer look at the European transfer market. Who’s gone where and for how much?

1. Gianluca Lapadula (Pescara to AC Milan, €9million)
Van Basten. Shevchenko. Ibrahimović. And now… Gianluca Lapadula? You could argue that Milan’s signing of Pescara’s Lapadula says everything you need to know about their fall in the pecking order of both European and Italian football. He’s 26, never scored a goal in Serie A, and will be expected to offer something lacking in the game of Carlos Bacca. In other ways it’s a fantastic signing – or at the very least fantastically Italian. Lapadula was the top goalscorer in Serie B last year with 27 goals. It’s a bit like if Arsenal signed Sylvan Ebanks-Blake to ignite their attack back in 2009. Or if Manchester United sought Jordan Rhodes in the summer of 2015. Lapadula has played in many of Italy’s threadbare lower leagues and his story provides an element of intrigue to the new season. Despite his free scoring last campaign he is comfortable coming deeper to collect the ball and is an asset anywhere across the final third. At 26 he should be approaching his peak – but he’s Italian so he’ll probably peak in around six years’ time. The signing is just crazy enough to work out. Pescara has played developmental host to some fine international footballers in the last decade including Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile and Marco Verratti.

2. Ganso (Sao Paolo to Sevilla, €9.1 million)
No, this isn’t our list of Six Football Manager signings who never fulfilled their potential’ Paulo ‘Ganso’ Henrique really has arrived in Europe.  Ganso to some, Paolo Henrique to others, the Brazilian playmaker was the one you plucked from Santos on Football Manager 2011 that wasn’t Neymar. Last month Sevilla completed a €9.1 million signing from Sao Paolo and, in a window of dizzying headlines, this transfer borders on shrewd business. Whilst Neymar quickly became the archetypal Brazilian poster-boy, Ganso struggled with media attention and his form dipped soon after. This lead to a number of mediocre seasons and, ultimately, a far more low-key move to Europe than anybody would have previously expected. It’s not all doom and gloom however; Sevilla could be the perfect club for Ganso to make his mark. The club sit behind Spain’s ‘big three’ in almost every department but are proven winners in European football and have a crisp, balanced style. Ganso may find himself sitting deeper than his previous ‘number 10’ role, asked to dictate play rather than produce his trademark final balls. A new look midfield includes Palermo’s Franco Vazquez and the on loan Luciano Vietto.

3. Denis Suarez (Villarreal to Barcelona, €3.5 million)
In a ‘homecoming’ nowhere near as ridiculous as Paul Pogba’s return to Manchester, Barcelona opted to take advantage of their buy back clause and bring 22-year old Denis Suarez back to the Nou Camp. The Spaniard’s had a solid few years since leaving Manchester City with just a handful of cup appearances. He was an integral part of Villarreal’s Europa League semi-final run last season and possesses all the traits of a typical Barcelona winger. Whilst donning the Catalan red and blue can represent the pinnacle of Spanish football, Suarez will face serious competition to even get a game. Lionel Messi and Neymar are certain starters, as is his namesake Luis Suarez. There’s not much room to breathe beneath that trio’s talent but the new man could end up in the role once filled by Chelsea’s Pedro. He’ll have fewer opportunities to make his mark than at Villarreal but could still fit seamlessly into the hierarchy of the La Liga champions.

4. Nicola Sansone (Sassuolo to Villarreal, €13 million)
Denis Suarez out, Nicola Sansone in. Last season Sassuolo built on their previous campaign by upsetting the Serie A apple cart and taking the final Europa League spot. Their success was built on great performances all through the squad but two men – Sansone and Domenico Berardi – stood out as regular scorers and the providers of spark. Sassuolo are no strangers to losing star players and whilst they fought hard to keep Berardi, Sansone left for Spain for €13 million. The Italian’s 24 years old, capped once, and nets goals from wide positions. He should fit nicely into the La Liga ethos and could be upgrading Europa League football for the Champions League should Villarreal progress through their group stage qualifier.  Villarreal have been busy this window recruiting fellow Italian Roberto Soriano and the enigma that is Alexander Pato.

5. Andre Schurrle (Wolfsburg to Borussia Dortmund, €30 million)
For the first time in a while, Bayern Munich may find Dortmund a serious league threat. They’ve always had handfuls of top talent to go with their excellent set-up and wonderful fans but this year they’ve responded to Munich’s movements by flexing some of their own financial muscle. Mario Gotze returns, Raphael Guerreiro and Marc Bartra have been brought into the defence and teenager Ousmane Dembele chose Signal Iduna Park as his new home. On top of these they’ve brought in Andre Schurrle for 30 million. This almost feels like a luxury signing – but it’s about time Dortmund treated themselves. Schurrle is well known in Germany following spells with Leverkusen and Wolfsburg and offers very few surprises. The flip side is that he guarantees a level of performance and can fit into a number of systems. Describing the World Cup winner as a utility forward doesn’t do him justice. He might not bag you twenty goals but Schurrle will combine a boyish eagerness with years of Bundesliga experience. He strikes me as the perfect guy to have on the pitch when you’re trying to upset the giants of Munich.

6. Jeremy Menez (AC Milan to Bordeaux, undisclosed)
When will Jeremy Menez have that one big season? He got close in 2014-15 when scoring 16 goals in a fruitless Milan campaign – but he reversed any progression with a scrappy and injury hit final season. The skilful Frenchman has a succession of good goals – including this one vs. Parma – but exists awkwardly between a central striker and natural winger and his career has never really taken off. A perpetual frustration in his home country, he now finds himself back there having signed for Bordeaux. His glimpses of class remain too good to dismiss and he’ll once again start the season with a weight of expectation. Finishing 11th last time around, Bordeaux need a nudge up the league and a forward to score more than ten league goals – in an ideal world, Menez provides both. The early signs are not good but in no way Menez’s fault; he lost the top of his ear after being accidentally struck by the boot of Lorient’s Didier Ndong. Bordeaux will have to wait before seeing a return on their undisclosed fee.