Not much has to be said about Paris Saint-Germain’s performance against Real Madrid in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. For the most part, the performance speaks for itself. The Spanish giants played like a team who has won three out of the last four Champions League titles and PSG played like a team that hasn’t gotten past the quarter-finals since 1995. None of this is particularly surprising, rather more crushing in the predictability of it all. Paris Saint-Germain is the team that dreams but always wakes up.
Pundits and other detractors revel in the misfortune of a club that they feel are attempting to buy success (<sarcasm>you know, because Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luka Modrić, Raphaël Varane are all academy graduates</sarcasm>) but those people are missing the point. Sure, PSG is trying to buy success and in every avenue except the Champions League, they have achieved it. Qatar Sports Investments single-handedly revived French football from its perpetual dormancy. Ligue 1 is as popular as it has ever been, and that is not due to Olympique de Marseille or Olympique Lyonnais. Paris has a chance this season to record the highest point total in the French league and possibly the seemingly impossible century mark. The club is making more money than it ever has in its history, and has a burgeoning fanbase (PSG Talk didn’t exist before QSI for example). This project is by no means a failure.
However, they have been a failure in the one competition ownership, players, and fans hold above all. While club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and QSI heralded the Champions League as the ultimate do-or-die goal, that didn’t mean that their goals were by any means realistic. The Champions League is a ridiculously hard competition to win (no matter how easy Real Madrid make it look) and it was utterly unrealistic to expect PSG to in seven years build a roster from nothing and win the competition. That was a mistake by ownership, and more importantly, the fans for believing such a promise.
That isn’t to say that PSG has no problems and that everything is on schedule. The problems are indeed real, and potentially crippling. There is an old saying from a classic National Football League Films highlight reel that described the early 1960s Dallas Cowboys. It went, “They have the Roman appetite for victory, without the Spartan will to sacrifice for it.” A team wanting something is all fine and good, but what is more important is having the mental fortitude to do what it take to earn that something. PSG are in a perpetual state of want, always lusting and coveting what is not theirs. Buying Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappé was essential to the overall growth of the club as a business, that above all is why they came. However, this season those purchases were not backed up with the substantial changes to the culture that was desperately needed.
What the 6-1 result against FC Barcelona last season showed was that the fundamental ability that all teams must have was absent from PSG. They could not tactically adjust, overcome rough stretches in the flow of the game, and make the small, but important, plays that add up to a championship-level performance. Go back and watch how many PSG crosses/passes/shots were casually deflected by Madrid defenders. PSG played the role of the bull, running recklessly toward the Royal Matador who parried and dodged until the right moment when suddenly and unceremoniously he stuck the dagger right into Parisian hearts. It wasn’t dramatic nor was it anything special. It was clinical and borderline sociopathic.
Meanwhile, PSG players fell to the ground looking for a referee to yell at when things didn’t go their way. Almost like they were looking for a way out of the scenario they had found themselves in. In the case of Marco Verratti, he got his wish and a potential way out of the club as a whole. Quite honestly, the moment was appropriate and symbolic. A player who had been with the club since 2012 and had been through everything finally snapped. Verratti’s performance against Madrid showed that he could no longer handle the struggle. This is the PSG we have grown accustomed to in big games. A frustrated child who can’t understand why things aren’t going their way. Verratti, in a way, was the literal personification of the team as a whole.
This is the PSG we have before us. After seven years of money spent, domestic championships won, stars born, we have a team that still cannot understand how to overcome the struggle. They want something so badly that it pains them, but yet still haven’t the first idea of how to achieve that goal. This is indeed the disease, the primal default in their mechanism. It’s not a lack of effort, or desire, or talent. It certainly is not lack of talent. Rather it is something else, something more abstract. Go back to my quote from earlier, it’s not that PSG chose not to have that “Spartan Will,” it is that they have no idea how to even achieve it in the first place. Without that “Spartan Will,” all that is left is crippling frustration.
So what can be done? For the first place, the new coach will have to be a veteran of the wars, somebody who will not back down to the locker room in the first month like Unai Emery did. A coach that can walk the delicate tight-rope of telling the core group of players that they have been failures in big matches while giving them the formula to not be failures. As a teacher (my actual profession since writing doesn’t exactly pay the bills), I understand that it’s not just enough to tell a person they do not understand, but give them the tools and encouragement/constructive criticism to help them understand. The next manager of Paris Saint-Germain must be the type of teacher that is active and engaged, rather than the one who sits with his feet on the desk while the children run around and throw paper airplanes at each other.
The next thing will be to not overhaul the roster. That has been tried, and once again, I submit that the talent is already here. PSG need two specific pieces. A defensively-minded midfielder who can challenge in front of the 18-yard box and be a facilitator, and a complete left-back. Another thing they must do is reward Alphonse Areola, an academy graduate, for his valiant performance against Real Madrid. He was one of their three best players over both legs, and if PSG go out and sign a keeper, it will be sending the message that effort, performance, and progression will not be rewarded. Areola has earned the right to be the starting keeper at PSG. Full stop.
And about that “Spartan Will.” Teams can’t buy that. It’s earned through collective struggle. It is impossible to tell when this struggle will eventually lead to wisdom and grit, but I can tell you without the right coach and culture, it will never happen. All this will be is a depressing cycle of expectations followed by anxiety topped off with frustration.
While PSG dreams, other teams are working and taking concrete steps to creating a Champions League winner. It’s time for PSG to wake up, and begin the day’s hard work. It’s the only way the dreams can ever become reality.