Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Kylian Mbappe are football freaks. When the ball is at their feet, few players in the world have the same skill as Paris Saint-Germain’s attacking trio. In theory, putting them all on the same team should result in tremendous success.
Yet, here we are once more, with yet another analysis of one of the richest clubs in the world’s Champions League knockout stages.After Bayern Munich’s 1-0 defeat at Parc des Princes on Tuesday, Christophe Galtier’s team faces a challenge in Germany in three weeks. Right now, a humiliatingly early European exit is highly likely.
PSG’s performance, on the other hand, may have been more concerning than the outcome. They were one of the favorites to win the competition at home, but they were toothless for more than an hour before Mbappe was brought off the bench.
It was a performance that was more akin to a team that was just trying to survive against a huge opponent than a team that thought they could win the game. In Ligue 1, PSG frequently plays the same role as Bayern on Tuesday. The situation was not favorable for anyone associated with the French champions now that the tables had been turned.
Mbappe’s full recovery would be the straightforward solution. The French superstar was supposed to miss the first leg, but he surprised everyone by going back to training on Sunday and was put on the bench two days later. PSG appeared to be a different team during his 36 minutes on the field. After falling behind to Kingsley Coman’s volleyed goal, they played with more desperation, but Mbappe’s presence up front allowed them to play very differently than they had up until that point.
When they gained defensive possession, they suddenly received an out-ball; a player to stretch the field and test a Bayern defense that had largely watched the game unfold in front of them for most of the night. That unexpected improvement with Mbappe on the pitch, however, addresses the issue that supports PSG’s consistent disappointments at the most elevated level: a lack of structure or accountability on the part of those who are supposed to be the leaders.
Let’s begin with the framework. Warren Zaire-Emery and Carlos Soler, the fictitious wide midfielders, moved inside into their more natural central positions as PSG set up to defend deep against Bayern. Soon, PSG was effectively dismantled and simply being played through. They were held back for almost the entire first ten minutes, forcing rash challenges and last-ditch tackles to get the ball back.In the meantime, very little assistance was provided at the opposing end of the pitch.
These days, neither Messi nor Neymar holds positions. As long as he can start with the ball somewhere in the center circle, Neymar prefers to play in the left channel. Even though he still plays from the right wing, Messi prefers to float between the defensive and midfield lines. Neither player will attempt to stretch the opposing defense or run after a ball that is knocked into space.
This is acceptable when there is a system in place to compensate for the duo’s weaknesses, such as one with a player or, ideally, multiple players who can come in behind or chase a lost cause. However, on Tuesday, that player, Mbappe, was absent, and neither of his co-conspirators was willing to step up and perform a different task.
The result was a PSG team that looked lost when they did get the ball. As Sergio Ramos attempted to ping a pass away from pressure, their issues became evident early on. The defender had no other options and Bayern midfielders were approaching him, so he had to try to touch the ball. As the half progressed, PSG was unable to adjust. Danilo Pereira, Marquinhos, and Marco Verratti frequently found themselves gasping for air as a result of Bayern’s press.
Post-match, France legend Thierry Henry told CBS, “I think the individual will win you a game, but structure will make sure you’re not going to lose it.” If you hold that perspective, your so-called “freaks” could win the game for you. “PSG does not currently have structure and has not had a structure for a very long time.” “Can you win me the game, individuals?” is always the question. That’s not how football works. The structure is essential.”
While it is evident that PSG’s setup on Tuesday hindered their ability to get the most out of Messi and Neymar, this does not mean that they should not also be held accountable. Galtier was supposed to be the manager who would overlook the PSG dressing room’s egos and establish a system and accountability that would ultimately enable the team to succeed. Instead, it appears that, like many others before him, he must bow to those at Parc des Princes who hold power.
After Messi scored the game-winning goal against Toulouse ten days ago, Galtier stated, “I ask the team to play for Leo and work for him.” He must be exempt from some responsibilities. For him to find passes, which are so uncommon in modern football, in such small spaces, his teammates must redouble their efforts to recover and move.
The story of Messi walking around the field when he doesn’t have the ball has grown as the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner gets older. It’s okay if he then plays magic when he does have the ball as he did at the World Cup in Qatar.
However, every player on a team with no structure, like PSG, needs to be contributing, both with and without the ball. It is unacceptable to ask others to complete the work of up to three teammates.
PSG’s midfielders ran themselves into the ground on Tuesday. When they didn’t have the ball, they ran frantically and were harassed. They were also met with scowls and gesticulations from an increasingly agitated Neymar whenever they made a mistake. Therefore, increasing expectations for Messi, Neymar, and Mbappe is the obvious solution.
In recent years, every manager at PSG has been required to respond to this question. Most of the time, the superstars win, and it doesn’t matter most of the time. Whether or not they work off the ball, Messi, Mbappe, and Neymar are typically so good going forward that it doesn’t matter. However, when PSG must defend with 10, work with 10, and run with 10, as they did on Tuesday, their front three’s rigidity stands out.
The trio doesn’t need to transform into a lethal pressing machine. Neymar lacks inclination, Messi lacks legs, and Mbappe is currently not fully fit.It is up to Galtier to find a structure and system that works for his team as a whole, not just his “freaks” at the front.