London – “The return of winter.” “The Parisian wreck.” “Unspeakable.” “A huge mess.” “The height of disillusionment.” The Parisian papers and France’s leading sports dailies were unsparing in their assessment of Paris Saint-Germain’s incredible 6-1 defeat by Barcelona. Conceding three goals in the final 10 minutes was a dismal end to the French side’s Champions League campaign, but to do it having secured a seemingly insurmountable first-leg lead was indeed unspeakable.
Losing by that margin alone was painful, but doubly so after how the visitors had come back into the match, particularly after the introduction of Ángel Di María. The Argentinian’s energy and aggression were key in generating a host of chances for Unai Emery’s side, but aside from perhaps Edinson Cavani, the players delivered almost uniformly poor performances.
To their credit, most of the squad were ready to take the blame, with the right-back Thomas Meunier, one of the more culpable parties, telling L’Équipe: “We can only blame ourselves. We were bad.” Some were quick to point to the officials and what they regarded as incorrect penalty decisions, Thiago Silva telling Canal+: “I think that there was no penalty on Suárez. Two penalties against Barcelona which were not given either.” Marco Verratti was dismissive of the captain’s complaint, though, being quoted in France Football as saying: “We lost 6-1; it’s not because of the referee.”
The post-match dialogue in France has taken a predictably negative slant but have any of these soundbites done anything to identify the underlying issue? Everything had been going well in 2017 for Paris Saint-Germain. They were thrashing all comers and the winter arrival of Julian Draxler seemed to have lit something of a spark under Di María, whose professionalism and commitment had been roundly questioned in the season’s first half. More questions, though, had been asked of Emery. Admittedly, the task of replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s productivity and leadership would be difficult, but the former Sevilla coach’s aborted attempt at changing the formation was seemingly the first of many missteps. Add in his failed summer signings (Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jesé and Hatem Ben Arfa) and his personnel decisions looked as fallible as his tactical ones.
The arrival of Draxler, though, and Meunier’s improving form offered some redemption. Although PSG have failed to gain much ground on Monaco in the league, they were a juggernaut in the domestic cup competitions and much more decisive in general. A 4-0 win over Barcelona at the Parc des Princes looked to be a final validation for Emery’s methods, specifically his faith in youth. Presnel Kimpembe and Rabiot had been little- or ill-used by Emery’s predecessors, and the two were at the heart of all that was right on that momentous evening three weeks ago.
To say things look a bit different now would be a charitable understatement. But is Emery, such a ready punch bag early in the season, really the culprit? The performances of Silva, Marquinhos and Meunier were abysmal and is it fair to ask that Emery legislate for individual mistakes? Ultimately, the blame does lie largely at the feet of the manager, but perhaps for more reasons than were revealed in the course of the match.
There are many avenues to approach his role in the outcome, but the one with the most immediate impact is surely the choices of Silva and Marquinhos at center-back. Silva is the captain and has been a generally reliable servant but he had not played in the first leg, supposedly because of a minor injury, and there were hints he was not mentally ready.
Omitted was Kimpembe, a 21-year-old academy graduate who has impressed this season, earning a France call-up. He was booked in his past two league appearances, so there might have been something nagging Emery about Kimpembe’s discipline. Silva’s passing ability was perhaps viewed as a necessary outlet against Barcelona’s press.
The elephant in the room is Silva’s position as captain. Even if there were tactical reasons for dropping Silva, his outsize influence in the dressing room, evident most prominently in his preference for Brazilian team-mates, has posed enough of a threat to Emery’s predecessors that Silva generally ended up getting his way. This is where Emery really comes in for criticism, Silva’s inclusion being all but indefensible. Yes, he is the captain, but Kimpembe and Marquinhos had kept a clean sheet against Barcelona in the first leg. Kimpembe ought to have played at the Camp Nou, for his performance in the home game and for the message it would have allowed Emery to send.
Emery has struggled to exert his influence on the squad tactically but has transformed the player hierarchy. The sale of David Luiz, Silva’s preferred center-back partner, was the first step but Meunier being given the chance ahead of Serge Aurier, and Rabiot shining in protecting the back four in a role that might have gone to Thiago Motta in the recent past showed how the coach was slowly making his mark. Emery’s dropping of Lucas Moura and Di María on occasion since Draxler’s arrival continued the pattern.
Successful though Emery has been in the past two months, his failure to pick his team not only on merit but with a sense of continuity at this crucial moment, in the competition for which his expertise was supposedly required, was PSG’s undoing.
This team’s growth under Qatari ownership has been intriguing, but rarely have they improved with an eye towards the future. Rarely, that is, until the past two months, when Emery’s trust in players such as Rabiot, Kimpembe and, to a lesser extent, Draxler and the academy product Christopher Nkunku had PSG playing with the ruthlessness that they had at their best with Ibrahimovic.
That promise seems to have evaporated with Emery’s inclusion of Silva. A domestic treble is still achievable but the manager’s situation is tenuous, with the president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, saying: “Everyone is annoyed. Is Emery in trouble? That is not even a question.” With the international break looming and no meaningful matches until the Coupe de la Ligue final on 1 April, Emery’s assessment of the match perhaps ended up being more prophetic than he intended: “What happened on the pitch is a negative experience. Individually, we lost a great opportunity to grow.”
Growth, progress, whatever the catchphrase – once so unlikely at Paris Saint-Germain – seems to have disappeared before it even had its chance, and the manager must take full responsibility.