PSG’s latest Champions League exit lays bare the sorry state of Qatar’s football project

Real Madrid’s farcical first goal changed the game and summed up PSG: Gianluigi Donnarumma was caught out because he was arrogantly lax

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 10 March 2022 14:19
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<p>Lionel Messi looks on as Real Madrid celebrate</p>

Lionel Messi looks on as Real Madrid celebrate

As the Real Madrid players were running around the Bernabeu pitch in delight, a story was swirling around their stadium just as fast. Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was himself charging around in anger, furious at the challenge on Gianluigi Donnarumma that led to Karim Benzema’s tie-transforming first goal for Madrid.

The home club’s delegation didn’t know where to look, and one PSG player privately described the behaviour as “embarrassing”. That’s saying something when their squad had just suffered yet another humiliation in the Champions League.

This one was all the worse because it was supposedly PSG’s best ever squad, after their most lavish ever summer, featuring the best player in the world.

When everything has calmed down, everyone will be watching what Nasser does next. The widespread expectation is now that Mauricio Pochettino will be sacked by the summer.

The arguments will rise over how he is wrong for Manchester United, and it is certainly undeniable that the Argentine has made his own mistakes. It’s just that the biggest was choosing to join PSG in the first place. This simply isn’t a club where he could impose any kind of modern tactical idea, let alone one as defined as his own.

It says it all that Pochettino is now the third successive PSG manager to suffer such a humiliation. Unai Emery had the 6-1 exit against Barcelona in 2017, Thomas Tuchel had the 2019 collapse against Manchester United. With every new failure, it becomes clear that each one is less about the managers. It is about the club.

One previous manager insists it is “not a football club” at all. That runs alongside other descriptions from previous and current club staff that it is “a circus” and a “vanity project”.

It is most of all a Qatari sportswashing project, but that has had the opposite sporting effect than at Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City. Whereas the English champions radiate the most exquisitely expensive competence, PSG’s lavish spending has fostered the most obscene wastefulness.

A state project is, well, just a state.

Pochettino has had to completely compromise his approach with this squad, to the point it isn’t in any way a recognisable Pochettino team, and he could no doubt empathise with the complaints of predecessors.

One of them once came up with a detailed tactical plan for a huge Champions League fixture, that involved a lot of specific pressing. The response he got on the training ground, incredibly, was: “Why do we have to sprint so much?”

A coach, incredulous, exasperatedly gave the following explanation: “Because you’re playing one of the best teams in Europe in one of the biggest games of your careers.”

PSG lost.

Mauricio Pochettino attempts to direct from the touchline

The stars ultimately knew that defeat on the pitch, as damning as this sounds, was the only consequence of them refusing to run. There was no greater obligation on them to push themselves. No coach will ever have enough authority. The players can pretty much do as they please.

That has been the culture of the club for almost a decade, the true price of being able to pay so much to convince stars to come.

When any manager tries to impose some discipline, the players just go complaining to any of the officials who will listen. One highly paid star once responded to the revelation that he’d been dropped by putting his own clothes back on, and zipping up his jacket. The coach was more than willing to leave him sitting there in the dressing room, only to get a call from one of the directors to fix it.

This is one of many problems. It is a club where it is impossible to impose any kind of discipline. The manager can always be undermined. Players can always go over his head.

That applies to something as basic as coming back from summer holidays. The stars just do as they please, all arriving at different times. Little wonder it’s so difficult to coordinate pressing drills.

This naturally lends itself to bigger issues, like huge ego problems in the dressing room. Departed coaches are now able to laugh about situations like one PSG player refusing to talk to another because he wouldn’t pass to him, or others feeling “unmotivated” because of their lower-profile positioning in club publicity.

It’s just no way to run an elite football team in a sphere as exactingly meritocratic as sporting competition. That dysfunction inevitably manifests itself on nights like this at the Bernabeu, with all of that only amplified by the reality that this was one of the club’s few important games in a season.

Only a squad as indulged as PSG could be as casual and feckless as they were when just 1-0 and 2-0 up against Real Madrid, leaving themselves open to a comeback. Donnarumma’s pass for Benzema’s first goal was not just the moment that changed the game, but one that summed it up. He was caught because he was arrogantly lax, like his whole team.

Only a squad as lacking in any kind of discipline as PSG – be that tactical or moral discipline – could then be as supine as they were when Benzema scored. Pochettino’s side collapsed because they had nothing to fall back in, either in terms of structure or character. Even if the first Benzema goal was a foul, as Al Khelaifi and Pochettino so bitterly complained, it doesn't excuse the farce that followed. Pochettino said the moment changed the “emotional state” of the team, but it was quite the opposite. It revealed the emotional state of the team, the fragility that comes from a history of dysfunction and so many humiliations.

It was the same when it went to 3-2. Even though there were still 15 minutes left, and PSG had Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar on the pitch, their single attack was a free kick. It was staggering. Real Madrid produced much more, and looked more likely to get the next goal, if not another two or three. That was because they had long since realised PSG were far too lacking in substance to be respected.

The peerless Luka Modric had long since started just surging through their midfield, a 36-year-old besting so many players in their prime, because he knew he could. He knows what it actually takes. Modric’s pass for Benzema’s equalisers was another one of those moments that sport offers, where so much was symbolised in an instant. While PSG were losing their heads amid the nervous tension of it all, looking as indecisive as they were terrified, Modric exquisitely exploited that by just keeping his cool. He brought all the experience of four Champions League victories to just slip the perfect reverse pass through, offering a moment of clarity amid the bedlam.

That’s what this level is really about. It’s also about more than team culture. It’s about club culture. The Madrid players expected to win. The PSG players feared defeat. There’s more going on there.

Neymar reacts to Real Madrid’s third goal

It’s why it is almost unfair to blame any individual player or manager. It is much bigger than any of them, the lack of culture at the club ultimately having a corrosive effect on anyone that arrives.

It is also why Messi, perhaps the greatest player of all time, may have been the worst possible move for PSG. A signing overwhelmingly motivated by fame, its consequence has been Pochettino has just one more star who has to play but won’t run in the way the manager’s teams really work.

You could extend that further, too. Even Messi has been afflicted by what PSG are, but then he has his own history here. This was at least the fourth humiliating Champions League exit of his career. As with others, you couldn’t say Messi was at fault here, but this time it was because he didn’t do much at all. It was barely Messi at all, a shell of a player. The Argentine was quick enough to leave the pitch after the game, ensuring the media didn’t have another image of him looking ashen-faced, to go with those from Rome, Anfield and Bayern Munich.

While Messi has come to PSG at the end of his career, this was all one showcase as to why Mbappe should leave before his true prime. A player that good is never going to absolutely maximise his talent in an environment like that. Mbappe should go somewhere where his ability is honed, where he is playing in the most modern tactical approaches, where coaches are pushing him to his limits.

That isn’t going to happen at this PSG, and that isn’t down to Pochettino, or any manager.

The entire club should be reassessing much more than the head coach. That, at least, is likely to be the case. “This will be more damaging for Leonardo than Pochettino,” one connected source said. The Brazilian has overseen most of this era, and is consequently seen as most responsible for its failures.

The PSG’s Qatari owners should nevertheless be looking at their entire way of doing business, from recruitment to the routine of the training ground.

This can’t keep happening. If history repeating itself twice is farce, what do you call this?

It is certainly a moral lesson, of the type sport so satisfyingly hands out. Many will fairly say it is also a morality play, given that PSG still amount to nothing more than a sportswashing project.

They are certainly so much less than the sum of their parts. They’re also, once more, eliminated. They still don’t have that Champions League. They just have another crisis. Pack them off, and say goodbye to the circus.

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