“The protagonists are the players.” explained Unai Emery. “The job of the staff is to manage the squad and individuals, to put in place tactics that allow them to show their talent.” He has a point but, as this week has shown, football managers have to control egos as well as tactics. Emery’s weak grip on his team continues to engender limp performances and, with rumours of Luis Enrique being targeted, Emery’s exit may be inevitable.
Little has changed since PSG signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in 2012 and became the ubiquitous force of French football. They have won four league titles, four league cups and three French cups in that time. Monaco’s glorious ambush upset things last season, but PSG’s points total remained fairly static.
Their performances in the Champions League have also followed a familiar path: knockout stage capitulation. European success is a club obsession and the sole reason their Qatari backers, QSI, bought the club. Emery was appointed largely based on his European success with Sevilla but, while QSI and PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi remains oblivious to the underlying problem at the club, the club will continue to fail in the Champions League.
Expensive collections of inflated egos are common in football but few have surpassed the black hole of self-admiration that exists in Paris. PSG have long needed a coach capable of managing personalities rather than players but the shrinking management style employed by Emery and Laurent Blanc has led to an ingrained culture of player dominance. This remains the source of the glass ceiling that PSG continually crash their heads against.
Their three matches in the past week have starkly highlighted those failings. Strasbourg were superb in their 2-1 win last weekend but for PSG the loss reflected similar defeats at Guingamp and Montpellier last season. Strasbourg relied on their aggressive and compact defending as well as their raucous home support but they were helped by PSG’s lack of a winning mentality or insatiable hunger to push for an equaliser. The players knew that defeat would barely matter as they would still have a nine-point lead in the league, but that lack of fight and determination sets a tone that carries into the bigger games. When it matters most, the team lacks a winning mentality and that is something Emery and Blanc have done little to change.
Their lack of a ruthless edge in Ligue 1 is amplified in Europe, where their listless display in the 3-1 loss to Bayern on Tuesday was just as familiar as the defeat in Strasbourg. In close European affairs, PSG’s underdeveloped mental fortitude often proves the difference. Although PSG were unlikely to surrender top spot in their Champions League group given their head-to-head lead over Bayern, the club took solidifying top spot very seriously. Marco Verratti, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva were all rested for the trip to Strasbourg, a first-choice team was picked at the Allianz Arena and “#finishfirst” was repeatedly tweeted by the club to underline the point.
Nevertheless, an understrength Bayern easily picked PSG apart as Emery’s defence capitulated once more. Layvin Kurzawa and Marquinhos were particularly poor and Adrien Rabiot complained of an “individualistic” attacking display. The performance was reminiscent of recent exits in Manchester and Barcelona. The week was completed with a predictably halfhearted home win, the most common of Ligue 1 sights. PSG’s sparkled occasionally during their 3-1 win over Lille but they didn’t need to reach third gear to stroll past a weak, managerless opponent in the comfortable surroundings of the Parc des Princes.
PSG often have the feel of Avram Grant’s Chelsea, with the players seemingly lacking genuine respect for a passive coach. That attitude was originally perpetuated by Ibrahimovic and his clique of senior players who became untouchable under Laurent Blanc. It is now apparent in the relationship between Neymar and his closely knit, largely Brazilian, contingent and Emery. Neymar’s influence was underlined by his puerile outburst over Edinson Cavani’s set-piece taking against Lyon in October, a spat which resulted in the two men having to be separated by Thiago Silva in the dressing room afterwards. Neymar, however, was still given the next two penalties.
Neymar demanding to be the centre of attention is hardly surprising but Emery’s passivity and his eventual solution of allowing the players to sort out the disagreement between themselves only played into the culture of player power. There is no fear of rebuke for poor displays or selfishness as a significant chunk of the first team will be picked no matter what. As a result PSG lack any semblance of rigour or discipline and players dally in possession and struggle to find any intensity.
Changing the culture may be beyond Emery. Neymar has not been subbed or rested since his arrival and L’Équipe has reported that an “abyss” exists between him and his manager. Emery will be the loser in any confrontation as president Al-Khelaifi seems oblivious to the detrimental effect of unchecked egos. Neymar is the most obvious example but Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Layvin Kurzawa and others have long enjoyed similar coddling. For Al-Khelaifi, QSI and perhaps even Emery, the players are the sole protagonists in Paris. They are in control, not the coach, but until the overwhelming player power is replaced by a ruthless winning mentality their holy grail of Champions League success will likely always be out of reach.
• Monaco won at home against Troyes on Saturday, putting the pressure on Marseille and Lyon in what continues to be a hard-fought battle for second place. The result, in which the champions had welcomed back Thomas Lemar after a lengthy absence, was no surprise, but the dramatic circumstances of it certainly were. The hosts had gone down 2-0 through a brace from in-form Hyun-Jun Suk (five goals in six matches), and were forced to counter with a brace of their own courtesy of substitute Guido Carrillo to win 3-2. Troyes have shown a battling spirit this season, and they played well, but Suk’s goals were both squarely the fault of Danijel Subasic, who has been well off the form that saw him named Ligue 1’s goalkeeper of the year last season. As Monaco prepare to host Caen in the Coupe de la Ligue this week, might Leonardo Jardim make a move to ensure that cup rotation in goal continues beyond Tuesday’s trip to Normandy? Monaco only the ancient Morgan De Sanctis as an option in reserve last season but they can now call on Diego Benaglio, a highly experienced former Switzerland international with a Bundesliga title who is just, at 34, one year older than Subasic. Jardim may be best served in changing his keepers.
• Lyon also eked out a dramatic victory, on the road to a combative and motivated Amiens. Despite what had a been a taxing trip to Atalanta midweek, the visitors were able to scrape a 2-1 victory with Houssem Aouar scoring twice in the last 15 minutes. The match, which had largely been controlled by Amiens, was altered dramatically by the arrival of Tanguy N’Dombélé, who set up Aouar’s first shortly after coming on and continued to display his remarkable range of passing. Now with four assists in the league, his vision and creativity have consistently added to Lyon’s play whenever he has been included. Memphis Depay’s numbers have impressed (eight goals, three assists), but Lyon’s best XI would see Aouar played on the left and N’Dombélé in midfield. If Bruno Génésio has the gumption to persist with that set of players, Lyon, even with a small squad, have to be looked upon not only as favourites for second place but also as dark horse for the Europa League, even with Atlético Madrid and Arsenal as potential opponents in the first knockout stage.
• With 17 weeks now played, the top half of the table is beginning to take on a familiar look following Nice’s win over Nantes on Sunday. With Mario Balotelli back among the goals, Nice reeled off a third consecutive win, moving them to eighth, level on points with surprise package Montpellier. After a hugely inspiring two-legged triumph over Ajax to start the season, injuries to Jean-Michel Seri and Allan Saint-Maximin had seen the wheels come off to an extent as the club flirted with the bottom three. The defence is still a work in progress (see a 5-0 loss to Lyon last month) but Lucien Favre should be able to make what had been a defensively solid side become attack-minded challengers for the European places. With Wylan Cyprien also back in the side, Nice have a real chance to move further up the table before the winter break, with rapidly collapsing Bordeaux and callow Lille in their next two matches.
Bordeaux 0-3 Strasbourg, PSG 3-1 Lille, Angers 1-1 Montpellier, Guingamp 4-0 Dijon, Metz 1-1 Rennes, Monaco 3-2 Troyes, Toulouse 2-0 Caen, Amiens 1-2 Lyon, Nantes 1-2 Nice, Marseille 3-0 St Étienne.