For a match that didn’t affect anything materially, the repercussions of Paris Saint-Germain’s Tuesday night loss at Bayern Munich in the Champions League are shaping up to be long and jarring.
Even a comprehensive defeat didn’t stop Unai Emery’s team winning Group B, which would have been considered significant in terms of pride at least at the beginning of the road (whether it is worth much in material terms, with elite teams including Chelsea and last season’s finalists Real Madrid and Juventus going through in second place, is another discussion).
Yet it is a reverse that has marked Paris, and which will take a while to digest.
“PSG certainly sent a message to European football from Munich yesterday,” wrote L’Equipe‘s Arnaud Hermant on Wednesday morning, “but it wasn’t the one that we were expecting.”
Hermant went on to write that the reverse to Bayern “had something of that pathetic evening in Barcelona about it,” and that’s exactly what it feels like.
Whether PSG will ever truly be able to lay to rest the ghost of last season’s epoch-making collapse at Camp Nou is debatable. It will probably take winning the Champions League in the near future if this current generation of players are to avoid being tarred with an unenviable reputation in the context of history.
Tuesday night’s defeat called this to mind. Dazzling against Celtic—or even against Bayern, in the dying embers of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign back near the beginning of the group campaign—is one thing. The addition of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe makes PSG headline news, but it does not necessarily make them battle-hardened potential winners.
The doubts that Emery and company might fall short against elite opposition in the knockout round cannot be put aside until they prove otherwise in that environment.
The recognition that something needs to change by the time the knockouts arrive isn’t just from the media or the supporters, but from the top. Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi made his feelings abundantly clear after the match at the Allianz Arena.
“We didn’t play,” he told gathered journalists (via L’Equipe). “I’m very disappointed with the result, and with the quality of (our) play, especially in the first half. It’s a real lesson for everybody.”
It was a reminder that demand on Emery is considerable, and alternatives are being constantly explored by the club in case he should fail to cut the mustard. Yet while much of the post-match discourse focused on the mental aspect of PSG’s readiness to go the whole way—and Al-Khelaifi’s words have been widely interpreted in this context—there are plenty of on-pitch issues for Emery to grapple with.
So seductive has the play of Neymar and Mbappe been in tandem with the prolific Edinson Cavani that many of the team’s more obvious faults have been plainly ignored. The obvious one that surfaced again in Munich (having hardly covered itself in glory during the weekend loss at Strasbourg, albeit with slightly dfferent personnel) was the defence.
Dominique Severac of Le Parisien wrote that the full-backs’ vulnerability, with no cover from Neymar and Mbappe, was “nothing new,” which is true, but the poor level of Dani Alves’ performance in particular has surprised many in France.
The Brazilian was arguably responsible for all three of Bayern’s goals, at least in part, and looked like a mortal 34-year-old rather than the force of nature that he so often appears to be.
The case of Alves is a tricky one. He holds significant clout in the dressing room already, not least due to his closeness with Neymar, but it could be argued that he is playing too much.
Even allowing for last season’s injury, the bottom line is that he only started 15 Serie A games, and yet he numbers 10 league starts for Paris already, besides having played every minute in the Champions League. With another able right-back at the club in Thomas Meunier, one wonders how necessary this really is.
On the other side, neither Layvin Kurzawa nor Yuri Berchiche (with the latter having had a particularly poor time in the Strasbourg match) convince on the defensive side.
The problem for the incumbent is that with Blaise Matuidi gone, the natural cover that his left-sided athleticism provided for the left-back spot is sorely missed. Adrien Rabiot is also a left-footer, but for all his attributes, he doesn’t have the now-Juventus midfielder’s lungs to help out in the same way.
The main sense in which Matuidi is missed, however, is in terms of the midfield unit. The holy trinity of Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta was probably coming towards the end of its natural life together, as has been underlined by Motta’s injury difficulties this term, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. The manner in which Paris lost the midfield battle in Bavaria this week should be of great concern.
Emery deserves credit for trying to continue to accommodate Julian Draxler by including him in place of a more defensive-minded midfielder for matches against weaker opposition. This also allows the team, while ostensibly in a 4-3-3, to settle closer to the coach’s preferred 4-2-3-1, with Draxler in the No. 10 spot between Neymar and Mbappe, with Cavani up top alone.
As far as tactical decisions go, using that template away at Bayern wasn’t far off Gian Piero Ventura turning up at the Bernabeu and arranging his Italy side in a 4-2-4 against Spain.
Paris were overrun in the middle, and Corentin Tolisso, used to coming up against the Verratti-Motta-Matuidi triumvirate with Lyon, probably couldn’t believe his luck as he powered through into the penalty box from a deep starting position besides Sebastian Rudy, eventually netting a brace.
So, while doubts continue to surround Alphonse Areola in goal, it was underlined here that a primarily defensive midfielder should be the club’s priority once the winter window arrives.
The problem is how they go about doing this, with one preferred candidate in Porto’s Danilo both cup-tied and subject to a €60 million release clause, as per Portuguese publication O Jogo—which is a plain deterrent given PSG’s current financial fair play status. A genuine difference-maker, at Champions League level, will be hard to find.
Emery, then, has two aspects of improvement to hope for by the time that hostilities resume in February.
First, he could do with a few choice reinforcements, something that will keep sporting director Antero Henrique and his team busy all winter, with a few names being moved on to alleviate FFP-connected pressure probably necessary. Any atmosphere created by the troubles of Angel Di Maria, for one, coping with his diminished status could do with changing, too.
That leads us to the second part, which will be strictly Emery’s remit. The coach has to make his team really believe that they can master Europe’s greatest teams. He shouldn’t be written off; after all, he’s done it before, gloriously, in the first leg of last season’s last-16 tie with Barcelona, as well as in the home match against Bayern. To build his reputation and that of his team, they need to see it through from here on in.