Another convincing win. Another Neymar-led performance. Another day where Patrick Vieira, like most before him, may start to wonder if Ligue 1 is either a stroll in the park or Paris Saint-Germain are just an extremely good team.
After their 3-0 victory against OGC Nice at the Allianz Riviera, Thomas Tuchel’s men now sit eight points clear of second-placed Lille, unblemished after eight matches, with a goal difference of +21.
PSG always seem to coast through their league. They can only play what is put in front of them, but even they must be starting to think that it has become a little embarrassing: show up, play, dominate, outscore, repeat. It all seems too easy, especially when their closest rivals in the past few seasons, AS Monaco, change the composition of their team so often, and are now closer to relegation than having any credible title challenge.
The “PSG Project” has been a domestic success so far. The first stage was to ensure the dominance of their domestic league, which can have a bright, luminous green tick next to it on the to-do list after winning five titles in the last six years, the anomaly coming in that rip-roaring of a season when Monaco dared to dream and toppled the Parisien monopoly. The next stage, naturally, would be to build a team that can challenge on the continental front, tussling with the bigwigs, nudging ever closer to having the famous shot of the team name being engraved into the trophy with the big ears.
Alas, PSG continue to falter when you start to believe that they may have turned the corner. Their underwhelming performances in the Champions League against the top tier sides have been well documented, the loss to Liverpool at Anfield the latest entry to the catalogue. Inept, disastrous, naive – these are some of the words that have been used to describe a team that, by now, should be eating on the same plate as the kings of Europe. Their failings have been attributed to the lack of high-level competition in their league as complacency sets in, the idea that they are a threat to the current European hierarchy being exactly that: just an idea.
The good news, Tuchel would like to tell himself, is that this particular hurdle in their first game came early on. In some way, the hope is that the naivety, the lack of a coherent dynamic, fluid transition from defense to attack and vice versa, will evaporate as they continue to find ways to make everything work in their favour. There were times when Thiago Silva would look perplexed as to why Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson were being given so much space to do what they pleased.
Such space was not afforded to Manchester City in their game with Lyon, once a dominant figure in France, and PSG could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to the application and discipline needed to challenge proper opposition, especially away from home. It is that lack of work ethic and attention to defensive detail that makes it hard to love this team.
The appointment of Tuchel was an interesting one. Never has he had to manage the calibre of egos that are found in this group of players, and with his all-energy, all-demanding managerial approach, how can he entice his more flamboyant players to do the dirty, gritty work? Could you imagine Tuchel instructing Neymar to track his runner and contribute to the defensive side of the team’s structure? “Where is this written in my contract?”, he would ask himself as Tuchel waves his arms in the air, emphasising a point that may have gone over one of Neymar’s signature haircuts.
PSG can be a very exciting team to watch when they are in the mood. When it all comes together, when all the parts are working in a symphony reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, or Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, it looks brilliant. Neymar’s lazy runs and twinkling Nike feet from the left, Thomas Meunier’s overlapping adventures from right back, Kylian Mbappe’s drop of the shoulder, Cavani’s tireless work rate from the front. It can all be very overwhelming sometimes. Bayern Munich felt it last season, but the problem is that they struggle to replicate that rugged, sometimes ugly away performance often needed to topple more elite opponents.
The Champions League has long been dominated by a select few of Europe’s top clubs. To break the chain of command would be a welcome move away from the standard teams that grace the latter stages year in, year out. Think back to FC Porto in 2004, if you can. Or Inter Milan in 2010. Those were the rare occasions where a Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid, or Barcelona were not the talk of the town but, for once, we could celebrate an unfamiliar name on the trophy.
With PSG, it all seems a bit self-centred. Imagine the scenes if PSG were to win the Champions League, the trophy hoisted above Silva’s smiling face, Tuchel on the side quietly clapping while Nasser Al-Khelaifi beams with a sense of relief, Presnel Kimpembe posting update upon update on his Instagram story with the trophy being haphazardly held in one hand, the famous front three posing for the cameras in a “we may not really get along, but we made it work” sort of way, and the Parisien ultras deep in song and intoxicated beyond belief. They may revel in such successes, but the rest of the football fraternity may feel discontent, and to them, justifiably so: PSG come across as an expensively assembled group of individuals that are more concerned about their marketing endeavours than becoming actual Champions League contenders. It is hard to let your emotional guard down: “How can I trust that you will love me the same way?”
As we enter another Champions League week, PSG host Red Star Belgrade in a match that will most likely follow the same script as many of their encounters in Ligue 1. These will not be the tests that they will be judged on, but it will be important to set a tone for the ones that will matter. Under the microscope, under the scrutiny of the cynic that believes the project is more self-indulgent than anything else, PSG need to deliver a continental showing that will cast away the doubts that all the investing and big spending was not just for brand recognition.