For Paris Saint-Germain, success has become hard to measure. Since a takeover by the Qatari Sports Group in 2011, they have utterly dominated French football, winning the league title in all but two seasons since. Domestic honours are so easily come by now that they barely count as serious progress in the eyes of the ownership. So desperate are they for Champions League glory that, when each campaign passes without it, upheaval and change disrupts their pattern.
It doesn’t just have to be in terms of managerial change; alterations to the tactical approach or the transfer strategy are also part of that process. This summer, though, is a completely clean slate. Mauricio Pochettino, the coach, and Leonardo, the sporting director, have gone, and it means once again, everything is restarted, ready for another charge towards Europe’s biggest prize.
Amassing a squad with enough talent has never been a problem; last summer, they signed Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, and Sergio Ramos, both proven quantities in that competition. It should have been easy, on paper at least, given that those names were joining the likes of Neymar, Marco Verratti and, Messi’s heir as the dominant force in football, Kylian Mbappe.
But the problem is, most teams who win the Champions League do so because of traits that money can’t buy; cohesion, mental strength and a shared desire to put the team above the individual. When you buy based on talent, the challenge is making it work as a team, and Pochettino, best known for working to a certain system that requires everybody to follow his lead, struggled to get his squad to gel. Individual moments, and there were plenty of them, led PSG to silverware. But their weaknesses were laid bare again in the Champions League after a comeback by the competition’s most successful team, and eventual winners last season, Real Madrid in the last 16.
The irony is almost cruel; Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid coach who worked at PSG between 2011 and 2013, would be the perfect man to knit everything together. Despite proving his tactical prowess time and time again, his strength lies in man management; he has always coached the best players and succeeded in getting them to play for him. That is what PSG need now, more than ever.
Another major issue is PSG’s obsession with brand identity. They are far from the only club to suffer from this obsession, but keeping up their image has seriously infringed on their ability to become a coherent football team. This summer, their biggest outlay has been on a new contract for Mbappe, signed against a backdrop of expectation that he would head for Madrid. Maintaining the most marketable figure in the game right now is huge, but the lengths they had to go to just to ward off other advances, both financially and in terms of reported powers for the player, show just how ingrained this individualistic, market-driven philosophy is in Paris.
With that said, perhaps they are set for a new approach, one more focussed on the coaching. Christophe Galtier is one of Frances most highly-rated managers, and he looks set to join Luis Campos in replacing Pochettino and Leonardo. It was they who masterminded Lille’s Ligue 1 title victory in 2021, after all. He will join from Nice.
This should be applauded in one sense; part of the criticism PSG have faced in their pursuit of marketing and footballing greatness is forgetting their routes. With so much talent on their doorsteps going elsewhere to thrive – Christopher Nkunku, Moussa Diaby and Kingsley Coman to name but a few examples – there have been calls to incorporate more locality into their project. Whether that happens now remains to be seen, but putting Mbappe and Galtier front and centre, and being seemingly open to selling Neymar, at least points to a new approach at the very least.
But are they thinking too small? If, as appears the case, they don’t view Ligue 1 as sufficient and are intent on cracking Europe, hiring Galtier seems counterintuitive. There is no serious precedent for him in the Champions League, nor is there any great authority for him to stand on when it comes to gelling Messi, Ramos et al. It feels similar to Laurent Blanc’s reign, which was constantly undermined. It will be a huge test of his personality and character.
Whether there is a grand plan to get somebody in next year (Zinedine Zidane, maybe?) is anybody’s guess. But some very good coaches, with much greater appeal, have struggled at PSG, and gone on to find success elsewhere. They need a change in culture immediately, but Galtier doesn’t strike as the ideal candidate. In fact, he is in direct contrast to their wider aims.