It turned out to be an interesting summer for Thomas Tuchel but perhaps not in the way he would have wanted. Rather than being able to focus solely on how to improve on a debut season that brought a French league title, a cup final and an infuriating last-16 exit to Manchester United in the Champions League, the Paris Saint-Germain manager was fielding questions about the future of Neymar.
On and on it went. From the moment the first reports of Neymar wanting to leave appeared, to the moment he did not return for the first day of pre-season to finally playing his first club game of the season on 14 September, the story was always about the Brazilian rather than the team.
Not that Tuchel was surprised. He knows what it entails being manager of PSG and is not complaining. The Neymar saga may have overshadowed the start of the season but PSG are top of Ligue 1 by two points and lead their Champions League group after two wins in two games, including a 3-0 victory over Real Madrid. Tuchel can be happy when they are 11 games into the season and there are signs the relationship between Neymar and the fans is slowly healing.
“The supporters have expressed their opinions and I can understand them, absolutely. It’s their right to express themselves,” he says as we sit down for our interview as part of my work for beIN Sports France. “They’re proud of their club and it’s not so nice when you hear your player talking for weeks and weeks saying he wants to leave. As I told Neymar, sometimes it’s like this in life – you have to face the truth and deal with the consequences.”
Once the transfer window closed with Neymar still at PSG, the manager’s job was to reintegrate and remotivate a player for whom he has great affection. “Neymar has a good heart,” Tuchel says. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard to see that he is a nice person when you only watch him play from outside. But he is, he’s a nice guy.
“I told him: ‘You think the hardest part is over but from now on you have to deal with me and I’m going to push you hard. So the hardest thing is still to come for you.’”
Tuchel’s pushing seems to be working. Neymar has scored winning goals for PSG against Strasbourg and Lyon, with further strikes against Bordeaux and Angers, although he was ruled out for four weeks with a hamstring injury on Monday. Bigger tests await for Tuchel, with the Champions League last 16 looming in February as a make-or-break moment once again for a PSG manager. I ask him how he measures success at a club such as his. Is it simply a question of points or is there something more to it?
“I have no clear definition,” he says. “Points count, definitely, titles count if you go to a club like PSG, that’s the way it is. But there’s also the relationships with the players, the connection with the players, sometimes helping a player through a difficult period in his career. That’s also success, no? Hopefully I don’t depend too much on the points and the titles because the possibility that you get sad or that you don’t fulfil your own goals is too high. There’s more to life than points and trophies but we’re all very competitive and we all want to win every game.
“Sometimes you work hard helping players through tough times and you work hard in building a team and creating connections and then you see your team work so well together in a really tight match and you think, ‘Wow, what a great job we did over the past however many weeks.’ But nobody out there knows what you’ve really achieved. All the little things you achieve every day are like little rewards for me. From the outside it’s all much simpler and it’s just about winning.”
The German arrived at PSG in 2018 after two seasons at Borussia Dortmund followed by a year’s sabbatical. In the French capital he has won the league but that is expected at a club who have Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Edinson Cavani in the forward line. Tuchel has a remarkable squad at his disposal but when asked whether he has ever experienced a perfect game, he says: “Never had one, never been close and still on the hunt. Still looking for one and still loving the training and still looking for the perfect training session, too. I like to think we get closer and closer all the time.
“You have these periods where you really think, ‘Yes, this is it’ but the tension is so high in these games that you cannot fully enjoy it. Football is a game where lots of mistakes happen and the ability to deal with the mistakes is also a quality. You have to accept as a coach that there will not be a perfect game. It is sad, of course. It’s a bit like Sisyphus, isn’t it? You never quite get there.
“You have amazing feelings and you love this job because you see so many good things. It can get close to perfection but never quite attain it.”
In the meantime Tuchel, who speaks fluent English and gets by pretty well in French, will continue his quest to become better acquainted with the city of Paris. A family man with two young daughters, Tuchel would like to have more time and freedom for cultural pursuits. He is still coming to terms with a profile that often means he will be recognised, even in Paris museums.
“It’s not the same looking at a painting in a gallery when you can feel other eyes are on you,” he shrugs and admits to toying with the idea of adopting a disguise. “Sometimes I try to sneak out when it’s dark, out in the streets, to get a taste of that freedom, to feel the vibe of the city. Other times I care less about people watching me and just go to a restaurant but that doesn’t happen that often. It’s an all-consuming job, hard to escape from and you don’t know the price you have to pay for your passion when you start out.”
Does a person have to be slightly mad to be a manager? “Yes, you have to be,” he says with a smile. “It was pretty obvious from the start because even when you’re the coach of the under-14s or the under-15s in the academy, although you don’t have to deal with the press or the media you do have to deal with the parents and sometimes I’m not sure which is worse …
“You have to deal with the pressure inside the academies, the parents who want the best for their kids and how you don’t always share the same opinions. But we’re all crazy in love with football so we accept it.”
The Guardian Sport