With just five minutes to go and the fate of Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League tie all-but sealed, Unai Emery chose to bring on Lassana Diarra in place of the boy wonder Kylian Mbappé.
It was an otherwise unremarkable switch. PSG were wilting; they had lost the wind in their sails, and they appeared to be choking on the expectant smoke of their supporters’ pyrotechnics. On the face of it, it was a substitution to avoid any further embarrassment; to prevent a capitulation.
But the substitution felt more like a statement from the former Sevilla coach. By this point, at 2-1 down, he was resigned to his own destiny; any expectation of a long-term stay at the Parc-des-Princes would end with referee Felix Brych’s whistle. Yet to replace Mbappé, the second astounding transfer of last summer, with a freebie hurried in from Abu Dhabi, spoke of a poignant final death throe from the Parisians’ ailing coach.
The substitution symbolised the fatal flaw in Paris Saint-Germain’s approach to securing European success: their erratic transfer policy. Last summer, PSG needed floorboards, they needed to fix a leak in the ceiling and to buy a lock for the front door. Instead, they bought two plasma TV sets for the same room.
“Today the investment that we did is long-term and I am sure in two years, three years maximum, everyone will say ‘look at Paris Saint-Germain, they did a fantastic job,” al-Khelaifi told the Daily Telegraph in the wake of the former Monaco youngster’s arrival.
“It’s a good deal that they signed now, because players’ transfer costs, salaries as well as clubs’ revenues are increasing rapidly in the world of sports and specifically in football. So we are very confident and satisfied with our decisions.”
Those decisions saw an ageing Dani Alves brought in to eschew an otherwise impressive Thomas Meunier while an untested Yuri Berchiche was shipped in to challenge at left back. Berchiche, for his part, has done okay, but last night Alves was exposed by the superb Marco Asensio. This was not unexpected. He was poor against Anderlecht and Bayern in the Group Stages, while against Max Gradel of Toulouse last month, he found himself exploited time and again for his declining pace.
Most strikingly, though, PSG’s transfer policy saw the two of the club’s most defensive-minded assets shipped out in Blaise Matuidi and Grzegorz Krychowiak, leaving a 35-year-old Thiago Motta to stand along at the base of midfield. By January, with their hands tied by Financial Fair Play and Motta on the treatment table, PSG found themselves grovelling at the feet of a player released after an underwhelming spell at Al Jazira. An unfit Diarra, brought in with this Champions’ League tie in mind, would ultimately make just a fleeting appearance across both legs.
Yet the problems with PSG’s summer outlay go beyond what they ignored to address. In signing Mbappé, they bought a player whose best position is identical to that of the man who would be king. Neymar of course was not going to be shifted from the area of the field which he intends to crown with a Ballon d’Or, so, despite an expected £166m outlay on the horizon, Mbappé was shafted to the right flank, an unnatural position, and one he has struggled to adapt to. PSG were blinded by the headlines, and too focused on the glitz and the glamour to notice they were trying to put two steering wheels in the car.
PSG’s shock and awe approach to the market ultimately has cost them dear in more ways than one. To fork out nearly €400m on two players, to put an emphasis on the individual rather than the club, has created a dynamic that is totally irreconcilable with a team game.
Much has been said of the lack of interaction between Neymar, Mbappé and Edinson Cavani when they played together, and we saw it again last night, when Mbappé raced clear on the inside right channel just moments before half-time. The Frenchman had the chance to reduce the deficit to 3-2, to kick start the improbably fight back, but he chose not to square the ball to the club’s all-time record goal-scorer Cavani, who stood, six yards out, with a gaping net in front of him.
From penalty-gate and a €1m hush fund to the politics of Neymar’s parties, the dressing PSG have created lacks the unity that their supporters sought to foster last night, and Zinedine Zidane’s side so ironically displayed by comparison.
Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. But these discrepancies were not unforeseen. More pertinently, these were issues that should have been anticipated and addressed by the Parisian hierarchy. The approach needed to be holistic, not individualistic.
Lessons can though be learned from hindsight. When al-Khelaifi speaks of reflection, they cannot solely concern an impotent manager, but of a flawed structure.
Yet the signs are the opposite. Talk again is of blind investment, with the courting of Jan Oblak a prime example, even though their academy product, Alphonse Areola, is one of the few Parisians who can hold their high after the disappointment of the Round of 16. With Financial Fair Play set bite, it may already be too late for emergency financial surgery in any case.
One thing that is certain, though, is that Emery will inevitably depart PSG. His remit was to make the last four of the Champions League, and to that end he failed.
But while he falls on his sword, those who bought it must also take their share of the blame.