By almost all measures, Paris Saint-Germain is an enormous club. Forbes values PSG at $841 million, making it the 11th most valuable football club in the world (as of June 2017).
Both the profile and amount spent has increased significantly since Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2011 and it’s located in one of the most famous (and beautiful) cities in the world. The new owners have spent generously in an attempt to catapult the club into the top tier of football, if not in European success than at least in profile and cultural impact. Focusing on the project and attracting some of the best players has certainly helped Les Parisiens ascend from its more modest history as a two-time Ligue 1 champion to a perennial power that just clinched its fifth title since 2012. However, as ambitious and successful as this new PSG might be, recent comments by lame-duck manager Unai Emery revealed that a small club mindset persists in Paris.
Emery sat down with the Tactical Room’s Marti Perarnau for a frank interview about his time in the French capital:
I know when I am the principal person in the group and when I am not. At PSG, the leader is Neymar. – Unai Emery
Although the former Sevilla FC manager tried to backpedal his response, this was a very revealing quote in two ways. The first is that it confirmed that Neymar has been the top dog at PSG this season, which will likely surprise no one. However, he also corrected himself to make it clear that he did not think Neymar had reached the level of an effective leader for the club. Inspiring as his play may be, he has not exactly radiated maturity, professionalism, and a team-first attitude. He has gotten into public spats over taking penalties, went on a birthday sabbatical, and only peripherally focused on watching his teammates clinch the Ligue 1 title while devoting most of his attention to online poker. Emery mentioned other examples of club leaders, specifically mentioning Lionel Messi at FC Barcelona, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and Florentino Pérez at Real Madrid. Club leaders can come from anywhere, but the appointment of a 25-year-old who is new to the club as the leader immediately after his arrival has caused problems for Paris.
To be fair, I’m not sure what PSG could have done differently. When you have the chance to get a player of Neymar’s caliber, you do it 100 times out of 100. Unfortunately, where this process starts to hurt the club is when there is no one or nothing there to hold that play accountable and set a standard of commitment to the badge. Messi had to work his way up from Barcelona’s youth teams and earn respect from greats like Ronaldinho, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, and Thierry Henry before he became the club’s undisputed leader. Clubs of that stature have a sense of history, which comes with the responsibility of leadership, not just the power. When Neymar arrived in Paris, it was both expected and understandable that he would lead the dressing room. He is the best player and (fans hope) the future of the club. However, Neymar’s arrival hasn’t felt like a great player joining a strong organization. It’s felt more like he was simply given the keys and allowed to run the show.
Part of this may have been Emery’s fault. Emery has admitted that making Neymar happy was a priority this season. It could be that Emery didn’t feel he had the support of ownership to maintain leadership of the team, that he was too afraid to upset his new star forward, or that he just doesn’t have the temperament to run such a high-powered dressing room. Whatever the case, PSG did not come across like a top club this season. The locker room divisions and even the body language of the players didn’t project a group that really wanted each other to succeed. I want to make it clear that I do not simply blame Neymar for this. He never gets in trouble off the pitch, he seems to be a hard worker, and many of his teammates apparently really like him. Neymar also really seems to leave it all on the pitch in big matches and has the drive to win. But, that doesn’t mean the process of building an elite club is as simple as signing him. I don’t think he is a perfect personality fit to do that, but I also don’t think that means the club’s missing leadership is his fault. It should never have been his responsibility in the first place. The club was clearly ecstatic to purchase the Brazilian superstar, but the fact that ownership rolled over and backed Neymar over the manager and veteran players shows the club values Neymar more than the club itself. Big teams don’t demolish their power structures the second they sign a great player.
I believe that building a great club takes more than money, ambition, and world-class talent. It takes strong leaders, a cohesive culture, and time. PSG is a team on the rise and the sights of the ambitious owners are set on European glory: a UEFA Champions League trophy and elite club status. This season showed that the team is not there yet. To get there, the focus shouldn’t just be on the players, and definitely not on just one player. As Manchester City has shown, an infusion of money can start you down the right path, but first, you have to build a strong organization, a culture, and find the right people to fun it. As Emery showed, the project needs more time.