Exiting the Allianz Arena last week, as Paris Saint-Germain ended yet another Champions League campaign disappointingly falling short, Lionel Messi’s face said everything.
PSG had lost to Bayern Munich, and the manner of their last 16 exit was particularly damning. Their superstar individuals, of which Messi is the biggest, had been outfought, outthought and outplayed by a better team. The way Bayern dominated showed how their collective team, while perhaps lacking the individual stardust of the French champions, their team ethic was much stronger, as was their identity. That’s what mattered and it showed.
Winning the Champions League is what gives the Qatari Sports Group’s PSG project its purpose. They have been in place since 2011, and but for one final appearance, in the Covid-hit season of 2020, and a semi final a year later, they’ve never really come close to achieving their goal. In fact, with players like Messi and Neymar in their ranks, it could be said that they are presiding over little more than a vanity protect.
Such a suggestion would not tell the full story. Both of those players were signed to get closer to the biggest prize, and their quality is unquestioned. But the problem is the lack of a strong foundation in order to incorporate them. With winning the league barely recognised as success, there is managerial change almost every year. Christophe Galtier is in charge right now, two years after knocking PSG off their domestic perch with Lille, but even if he does survive in his role beyond the summer, there is no depth to his plan or presence to point to the necessary coherence within the club going forward. PSG are a smattering of very talented individuals on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom, but nobody appears to be pulling in the same direction.
The cruellest irony for PSG is that their greatest ambition, which is fast becoming an obsession if it isn’t already, is driving them further away from achieving it. It is too simplistic to think that the best players will result in winning titles; there needs to be balance, order, and structure to allow that quality to thrive.
Messi has had his moments at PSG, and he still has lots more to offer European football. His story is far from over; but moving to France always jarred. He obviously never wanted to leave Barcelona, and was forced out of there by factors beyond his control; but the raw, humble, pure nature of his rise through their La Masía academy, coupled by his unassuming nature, meant he has never quite fit in with the glitz and glamour narrative of the Paris venture.
Neymar always did, but the manner of his move from Barcelona was equally troubling in a different way. PSG became the first team to match a La Liga buyout clause, a fee no player could ever pay back. The Brazilian’s £200m switch in 2017 has had a lasting impact on the transfer market, perhaps permanently, and even winning the Champions League every year since wouldn’t have justified that fee, never mind the fact his spell has been blighted by injuries – he is out for the season with an ankle problem – and various other controversies. His best form has only ever been shown in glimpses and flashes, and rarely when it has mattered.
Having such dominance their domestic league is a hindrance when it comes to raising their level for the big occasion. Knowing they don’t have to exert themselves all the time in the way Manchester City and Liverpool do, and to an even lesser degree than Bayern and Real Madrid, means it is hard to turn things on at will.
That problem is perhaps unavoidable because it is subconscious. But their identity has been taken in a new direction than the one that may serve them best. The French national team is producing a depth of talent not seen in years, and Paris is at the epicentre of that. Players like Moussa Diaby and Kingsley Coman have forged great careers elsewhere after departing the club’s academy, and Paris is a known hotbed for emerging youngsters.
But it doesn’t fit the PSG brand, more about how things look and marketing than football. Real Madrid tried the same policy around 20 years ago and it didn’t work, certainly not to the levels they purported to be aiming for.
Where does Kylian Mbappe fit into all this? It is ironic that for all the talk of big money signings is that their main man is homegrown. If Messi is the past and present, Mbappe is the present and future. But despite signing a three-year contract last year, his future surely lies elsewhere in the long-term because of the perception turned truth that his ambitions aren’t going to be met at the club he grew up supporting.
There is hope. If they can keep Mbappe for as long as possible, with the emergence of prospects like Warren Zaire-Emery, 17, and Timothee Pembele, who both started recently, a sign of possibility.
For too long, PSG’s mantra has been ‘we’ve got the money so we’ll spend it’. But losing to Bayern should be a seminal moment; signing big names alone will never be enough. Giving youth a chance is not an answer by itself, but it could be a step in the right direction. Paris is teeming with footballing quality, so they may as well make the best of it.