PSG’s basic problems manifest again in defeat to Manchester City
Another big night in Europe, and another defeat for Paris Saint-Germain. It apparently didn’t matter much, given that RB Leipzig’s win away from Club Brugge meant that both PSG and Manchester City confirmed their places in the Champions League Last 16 on Wednesday, and PSG could point out that they beat City in September. But having only won two of the five games indicates that there is serious work to be done if the club’s range of summer signings are to translate into a first Champions League title.
In truth, Man City were far more dominant than Wednesday’s 2-1 score would suggest. Given that Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden were missing, it was an extremely impressive performance from Pep Guardiola, the only concern being that, again, he did not take full advantage of his dominance.
There is a feeling that PSG, meanwhile, have yet to start this season, with injuries depriving them of a full-fledged team to choose from. Sergio Ramos, who has yet to play since his free transfer from Real Madrid due to muscle issues, was named to the bench on Wednesday, while Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé’s top three only started together for the seventh time. But the midfielder was weakened by the absence of Marco Verratti, key figure in PSG’s victory over City at the start of the group stage, and Georginio Wijnaldum.
This meant a midfielder three from Idrissa Gana Gueye, Leandro Paredes and Ander Herrera, with their roles of sitting deep and protecting the defense leaving a long gap until the top three (Herrera himself was then forced with hamstring problem, replaced by Danilo). And that, of course, is indicative of PSG’s biggest problem: Welcoming three-star forwards means major compromises elsewhere. It might be an easier trick to pull off against a side happy to dominate possession like City, but the points lost to Club Brugge and RB Leipzig show how difficult it can be when a more proactive approach. is required.
In the return leg in Paris, when City had one of their games flat out, PSG counterattacked extremely effectively and won 2-0. Although he lost comfortably on all expected goal patterns, the feeling of the game was that he was still in control once he took the lead. Stopping other teams against City has become a growing obsession for Guardiola, and this first meeting may have explained his team selection, with Oleksandr Zinchenko included in midfield alongside Rodri and İlkay Gündoğan, and one of three premieres of Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling.
The result was that City dominated possession in the first half, had luck after luck and hit the post by Gündoğan. At half-time, implausibly it was still 0-0, but any sense of danger was suppressed by the news that Club Brugge were 4-0 against RB Leipzig, meaning both teams qualified regardless of the score.
The match seemed to follow the path of the match in Paris, with City’s inability to try their luck being penalized. It was a neat move on Wednesday that culminated when Mbappé shot Messi’s deflected cross through Ederson’s legs.
But City, unlike Paris, rallied. Sterling stretched to score the equalizer after Kyle Walker’s cushioned volley interrupted Gabriel Jesus, then the Brazilian striker struck in one second as Bernardo Silva landed a deep cross from Mahrez. It didn’t matter given the situation in the squad – the victory saw City take first place, while PSG move up to second – but it was another disappointing result for PSG in a top European game.
The paradox that a multitude of great forwards means you have to play defensive football is inevitable at a club like PSG, where celebrity signing has taken priority over team building. But that’s not the kind of football Pochettino played at Espanyol, Southampton or Tottenham, where he created teams greater than the sum of their parts by building a cohesive system.
This may in part explain his apparent frustration with life in Paris and why he is apparently seriously considering the possibility of a transfer to Manchester United, regardless of his pre-match remarks on Tuesday when asked. The dressing room policy and the fact that his wife and children still live in London may also be factors attracting him to a return to the Premier League despite signing a contract extension with PSG until the summer 2023.
Pochettino has acknowledged that he is unlikely to retain his post if PSG do not win the Champions League title this season – already having an 11-point lead in Ligue 1 and returning him to domestic dominance will not have doesn’t make much sense to the club’s hierarchy – and the truth is, PSG don’t seem any closer to doing it now than they have in any previous season. Maybe things will change if the injuries subside, but even a full squad won’t solve the fundamental problem of balance.
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