A team’s character is a reflection of its leadership. It’s a simple concept but often it’s forgotten.
In New York where I am from, we have two teams with completely different kinds of men at the helm. The New York Giants of the National Football League have primarily been owned and operated by one family since the 1920s. The current co-owners rarely give interviews and stay out of the day-to-day operations. The New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association have an executive chairman who is paranoid, vindictive and moonlights as the front man of a middle-aged white blues band. Can you guess which owner’s team has won four championships since 1986 and which one hasn’t won a title since 1973? I bet you can. Leadership matters and ownership matters a lot.
Nasser Al-Khelaifi is a Qatari renaissance man in a way. One of Qatar’s all-time great tennis players (it’s not a long list) and educated at Qatar University, he befriended the man who would eventually be the main force behind Qatar Sports Investments. QSI is essentially a private fund that invests government capital into foreign interests to expand Qatar’s global sporting imprint before the 2022 FIFA World Cup and to funnel some of the profits back into developing its own sports culture. Khelaifi became the chairman of QSI in 2011 and later became the chairman and CEO of beIN Media Group in 2013.
This is a man who at 43, has done more than most people his age. He is intelligent, ambitious, and willing to take risks to achieve success. Khelaifi showed these qualities in the early stages of the Qatari takeover of Paris Saint-Germain when he hired Leonardo Araújo as the “football director” in 2011 and gave the Brazilian the purse strings to attract major names around Europe to come to the Parc des Princes. Some of those names included Thiago Silva, Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Javier Pastore, and Maxwell…more on him later. This period laid the groundwork for the the domestic success that PSG continue to enjoy today. However, Leonardo left the club in late 2013 and ever since, the capital club have had a confusing power structure to say the least. All supporters knew for sure was that Khelaifi was running the show behind the scenes. The signings since Leonardo departed have been hit or miss and the club’s transfer strategy seemed to follow the blind darts principle, which is close your eyes, throw the dart, and hope it hits the target.
This brings us to late May of this year. Olivier Létang was the “sporting director” but didn’t have much authority. Former football great Patrick Kluivert was the “football director.” Kluivert was mainly in charge of the football decisions, signing players like Thomas Meunier, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Giovanni Lo Celso, Hatem Ben Arfa, Julian Draxler and Gonçalo Guedes. Some of these players have worked out and other have been spectacular failures. Whatever success the former Netherlands international may have had, it was gained through the “blind darts” principle that has plagued the club for the better part of three years. This doesn’t even take into account the locker room drama, players getting into trouble with the law, and various other petty disagreements. The project had stalled.
The project is not a failure but it is stagnating.
— Jonathan Johnson (@Jon_LeGossip) May 23, 2017
It was at this point that the Qatari business man, who willingness to preen and pose for the media had not gone unnoticed, decided to yield to the definition of insanity and take a different direction. On June 2, he hired Antero Henrique, the former FC Porto executive to take the reigns as the sporting director. In the press release, the first paragraph read:
Under the leadership of Paris Saint-Germain Chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi, Antero Henrique is charged with instilling a new dynamic in the sports strategy of the Club to maximize the first-team’s competitiveness and reinforce the capacity of the Club to detect, recruit and develop the stars of tomorrow.
The key phrases in that release are “new dynamic in the sports strategy,” “maximize the first-team’s competitiveness,” and most importantly, “reinforce the capacity of the club to detect, recruit and develop the stars of tomorrow.” Nowhere in that do you hear the words, “acquire elite world talent in the transfer market,” “UEFA Champions League,” or “win.” Of course they want all of those things but it is telling that in the release those phrases are not explicitly what Henrique nor PSG is promising. A quote from the man himself reads:
My ambition, my motivation, is to work every day to create a winning dynamic able to keep Paris Saint-Germain at the highest level in the long term.
The key words in that are “winning dynamic” and “long term.” Combine those words and you get something that sounds like “a long term winning dynamic.” Henrique is not promising immediate fixes or success. In fact, PSG in the press release are subtly lowering expectations.
As June and July have progressed, PSG supporters have grown increasingly frustrated with the new regime. Instead of firing Unai Emery, Henrique has empowered the former Sevilla FC manager giving him a firm place in the decision-making process. Instead of signing Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (a move I wanted at the time), Henrique permanently scraped the deal. Rather than overpaying for the likes of James Rodríguez, Alexis Sánchez, Sergio Agüero, or Andrea Belotti, Henrique has stood firm. When AS Monaco shut the door on the potential transfers of Kylian Mbappé and Fabinho, Henrique did not panic and buy a player just to appease the fan base.
It very much seems that the new sporting director doesn’t give a damn what the fans think. Henrique does not give into public pressure, player demands (i.e. Pepe), or a fear of idleness. The only deals Henrique has done are some loans, the signing of some key youth prospects (Timothy Weah spefifically), Yuri Berchiche, and Dani Alves. In terms of Yuri and Alves in particular, one was for a relatively small transfer fee and the other was expensive but only for a short period of time. So, as the supporters grow angry about PSG’s lack of action after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign, Henrique consolidates his power. He consults with Emery, brought in his former director of scouting João Luís Afonso, and hired the recently retired Maxwell as his assistant director of football. Maxwell has already proved to be a genius move as he was instrumental in convincing Alves to come to Paris instead of Manchester City.
A key sign of this consolidation of power is the pending sale of professional malcontent Serge Aurier. A highly talented young player who has the potential to be an all-world right-back. However, his infamous Periscope video, arrest for assaulting a police officer, and “change-gate” last season against FC Lorient has soured his position at the club. Despite the controversy, Khelaifi has expressed a desire to hold onto him. However, Henrique, in one month, has found his temporary replacement in Alves and plans to ship the mercurial right-back out of the club. In a way, Aurier seems to have been a perfect litmus test for what you think of the Henrique-era so far. Fans in favor like the potential Aurier departure, while fans who think Henrique is fiddling while Rome burns see the send-away of a potential all-time PSG great. Whether you like it or not, Henrique is performing a major operation on the body of Paris Saint-Germain. An operation meant not only to win games in the long term but change the culture and perception of the club. Aurier is a painful memory of a club being tossed in the water by a storm and needs to go.
What Henrique is performing is a full scale reset of the entire foundation of how PSG do business. Yes, they were willing to spend €150 million on Mbappe, but that would have been just as much a business decision as a football decision. The French start in the French capital would have been a license to print money. But more important than stars and flash, Henrique is bringing stability and calm to Les Parisiens.
This is not a PSG that many of the newer fans fans fell in love with. This is not the PSG of ambition that this writer’s first column for PSG Talk described. PSG has fundamentally changed under Henrique and for the moment, Khelaifi has allowed it to change. He is clearly involved in making decisions but only as a voice in the room rather than the final almighty hammer.
It’s also clear Henrique wants to see if players like Lo Celso, Christopher Nkunku, Areola, Kimpembe, Draxler, and Adrian Rabiot can develop into starters before making major overhauls to the roster. These players will get a chance under Henrique and Emery who will a lot more confident than he was last year amidst the chaos. Swapping Di Maria for Sanchez at Arsenal FC on a whim will likely not happen in Henrique’s PSG. Bringing in Aubameyang for an absurd amount and figuring out what to do with him after will not happen under Henrique’s PSG either. This new era will be all about scouting and player development. There will be no change for the sake of change. This PSG will be disciplined, maybe to a fault, but only time will tell that story. For now, the fascinating and intrigue is squarely focused on the relationship between the new sporting boss and the man who for years has been the face of PSG’s blind ambition–Khelaifi.
The relationship between Henrique and Khelaifi will be the story of 2017-18 and the football in a sense will be secondary. While it is entirely possible for PSG to regain the Ligue 1 crown, it is still unlikely they will win the Champions League. The season will be about the behind the scenes and if Henrique can fully rest the control of all football operations from a previously meddling Khelaifi. Will he allow PSG to go through the natural transitional pains that this process will entail? Will he be patient? Will he allow a quiet Mercato in which Henrique circles the wagon? Will PSG reflect the personality of Henrique or Khelaifi? This question will determine the direction of PSG going into the next decade.