“Incomprehensible at all levels.” The statement by the Collectif Ultras Paris, a prominent PSG fangroup, was typically robust. It accused the club of “offering us something that we can no longer support,” while “forgetting its heritage” and “piling up stars like a spoiled child” amid drama “more worthy of a telenovela than a professional football club.” Their extreme forthrightness aside, the fans’ unrest is a symptom of a wider unease at the Parc des Princes. Never have PSG entered the last-16 stage of the Champions League amid such top-down uncertainty.
At first glance, PSG might appear to be in a strong position. Mauricio Pochettino boasts the world’s most talented attacking trident, an experienced and deep pool of players in every position and, for once, minimal injury concerns, with Neymar and Sergio Ramos both close to a return. Their once notoriously cliquey squad appears more relaxed than it has been for some time and, given that the group of teams behind them in Ligue 1 keep beating each other, they seem assured of the French title.
Nevertheless, PSG have rarely approached their annual Champions League denouement facing greater internal conflict. After a decade of Qatari ownership, the Champions League remains the club’s holy grail and 2022 has already seen fan protests, a search for a new manager, another non-event of a transfer window for outgoings, and renewed uncertainty over Kylian Mbappé’s future. All the while, PSG’s performances continue to underwhelm.
Lionel Messi’s form is a big concern. After 38 goals and 18 assists in 48 games for Barcelona last season, the 34-year-old has slumped to just two goals in 14 league games for PSG. Given his previously biblical goalscoring, the criticism has been swift, damning and, in most cases, largely unjust.
Messi has been decisive for PSG in Europe. His five goals in five Champions League group stage games were the difference between qualification and Europa League football, and he has set up a goal in the league every 153 minutes. Messi has also struck the goal frame eight times this season, more than anyone else in Europe, which suggests the goals will come soon.
He has been more effective than the numbers may suggest. Games against struggling Lorient and Saint-Étienne, for example, likely would have ended in defeat were it not for Messi. It is, however, inescapable that Messi remains a long way from his Barcelona peak, or even his form last season. His displays in the Champions League bring some hope, but he has not thrived in the physical and pragmatic Ligue 1 when up against the lowest of blocks, congested penalty areas and some imposing defending.
The malaise has been widespread at PSG this season. Pochettino’s side have only truly convinced for two 40-minute spells – against Nantes and Reims – in Ligue 1 and many of their wins have been fortunate or leant on late individual brilliance. If PSG were an unlucky team, they would not be top of Ligue 1.
Mbappé is seemingly the only player immune to their struggles. With Neymar injured for the last 13 games, Mbappé has nearly always been PSG’s saviour. He has racked up 21 goals and 18 assists in 31 games this season. Unsurprisingly, PSG’s defeat to Nice in the Coupe de France last month came when the World Cup winner was rested.
Although tiredness has been an issue, the 23-year-old has never played with such authority and precision. The main takeaway from PSG’s season has been just how far ahead of the rest Mbappé’s effortless brilliance – which is increasingly reminiscent of the Brazilian Ronaldo – puts him. His rapidly expiring contract, however, hangs over everything.
Unlike the Neymar soap opera of a few summers ago, Mbappé has handled this transfer saga with honesty and dignity, repeatedly and calmly stating that he has yet to make a decision between PSG and long-term suitors Real Madrid, especially with the two teams meeting so soon. Even so, a move to Spain had seemed certain, but the French media have repeatedly reported ongoing talks between PSG and Mbappé over a short contract extension while detailing Mbappé is desperate to perform at his best and oust Madrid. Any thought of divided loyalties has been dismissed.
Mbappé’s professionalism, both on and off the pitch, has been juxtaposed by the usual frenzied disarray above him. That panic is perpetuated by the thought of losing a 23-year-old €180m signing – who may be on the verge of becoming the best player in world football – for free. Sporting director Leonardo’s position is becoming increasingly precarious. His relationship with Mbappé has reportedly soured, meaning club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is leading the talks with the player’s representatives.
PSG went into the January transfer window hoping to reduce the size of their bloated squad but again there were no major departures. All the while, Zinédine Zidane – who the club see as their next coach – is apparently unimpressed with the way the club is run and would prefer to work with Arsène Wenger, who the club have also pursued for some time, should he join.
A Zidane-Wenger ticket at PSG looks increasingly likely, with Pochettino’s exit this summer seemingly assured. Even though he retains the support of most players in the squad – unusually for a PSG coach – Pochettino has often cut a frustrated and downtrodden figure on the touchline and he has reportedly told those around him he plans to leave Paris at the end of the season. The club, according to Le Parisien, even tried to expedite his exit by approaching several coaches in January, including Zidane.
Coincidentally, L’Équipe reported this weekend that Real have considered approaching Pochettino three times in the last five years and could, in theory, move again in the summer – perhaps making the Madrid tie even more of an audition for Pochettino than for Mbappé. If so, rehearsals have not gone well. PSG regularly lack fluidity, impetus and an intelligible gameplan, other than to rely on individual inspiration.
As was often the case at Tottenham, Pochettino has often struggled to consistently and coherently break down defensive teams. He is far better suited to designing stoic defences and explosive counters, as seen in September when PSG beat Manchester City in Paris. That may help PSG against stronger European opponents in a wide-open competition in which PSG are, behind the English teams, still the strongest placed, but Pochettino’s appointment has rarely seemed the right fit.
Frustrated with all the above, the Collectif Ultras Paris left their stand vacant for the first half hour of their league game against Rennes on Friday night – another victory inspired by Mbappé, who scored the only goal in the 93rd minute – before unveiling banners that criticised the players – “We sing with passion for players with no motivation” – and club hierarchy – “Leonardo, time to go?”.
Over the last decade, the goings-on at PSG have often bordered on the “incomprehensible” and this season is no different. As they prepare for another run at their holy grail, confusion reigns and their most reliable asset, a 23-year-old striker, remains their most insecure.