PSG Is Such A Waste
11:06 AM EDT on April 12, 2022
In some ways it feels like Paris Saint-Germain is just getting started. For the first time all season, the team has been able to consistently field starting lineups that include each of Cerberus's heads in attack. The results haven't been uniformly pretty during this stretch, which is unsurprising; from the campaign's outset it was clear that it was going to take awhile for the team to learn how to play with such a ferocious but also unruly three-headed monster leading the line. Still, judging from PSG's most recent Ligue 1 matches, there is reason to believe that the whole is starting to grow and cohere into something worthy of its individual parts. It's just a shame that all of this is finally happening when it no longer really matters.
On Saturday, PSG's Big Three had its best collective game of the season. You could surmise this from the scoreline (a 6–1 away win over Clermont Foot), the stat sheet (a hat trick and one assist for Kylian Mbappé, a hat trick and one assist for Neymar, and a hat trick of assists for Lionel Messi), or from the highlights:
Even the string of actions leading to each goal speaks to how entwined PSG's superstars' performances were. The first goal goes: Marco Verratti to Messi to Neymar, goal. The second: Neymar to Messi to Mbappé, goal. The third: Mbappé wins penalty, Neymar takes it, goal. The fourth: Verratti to Messi to Neymar to Messi to Mbappé, goal. The fifth: Messi to Neymar to Messi to Mbappé, goal. The sixth: Verratti to Messi to Georginio Wijnaldum to Mbappé to Neymar, goal. The frequency and lethality of combinations like these were what made the prospect of this PSG squad so terrifying and exciting at the start of the season, and matches like Saturday's prove that those expectations weren't unfounded.
The Clermont match wasn't a one-off, either. Just the week before, PSG smashed Lorient in similar fashion. The 5–1 victory was notable for Mbappé's outrageous showing (the Frenchman participated directly in all five goals, scoring two of them and assisting the other three) as well as for being the very first match in which all three of PSG's famous forwards each scored a goal.
Even as someone who has paid fairly close attention to PSG's season, that last fact—that Mbappé, Neymar, and Messi hadn't all scored in the same game until April 3—is stunning to me. But if you look into it more, it's not all that surprising. The trio simply hasn't been able to play together as a trio all that often. To wit: Saturday's match was PSG's 42nd of the season across all competitions. It was also only the 14th time each of the Big Three started a match together. And five of those 14 starts have come in PSG's last seven Ligue 1 matches. So it's no wonder why PSG's attack feels like it's only getting going now, because in a real sense it's true.
Mbappé admitted as much in an interview after the Clermont game, while also lamenting that it took so long to get here. When asked about the growing understanding between himself, Neymar, and Messi as demonstrated in the win, Mbappé had this to say:
“Yes, it’s a shame it’s only happening now, but then there were a fair amount of circumstances and events that meant we were delayed. But we feel that we’re three quality players, and we trying to help the team as much as possible and that’s what happened today.”
“[On regrets over not clicking together earlier] That’s life, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, you have to keep looking forward. It’s in the past now. We had some pain, which is still present but you need to keep positive, we have to show that we’re a big club and a big team and that we’re here to win trophies.”Mbappé to Canal+, via Get French Football News
Those delaying circumstances began right alongside PSG's season, and they haven't let up until recently. The first third of the season saw both Neymar and Messi miss significant time due to their national team commitments. Messi's national team–related absences were especially conspicuous during the period; for about two months it seemed like he was a full-time Argentina player with occasional PSG responsibilities rather than the other way around. Then, right when it looked like PSG could start bedding in its fancy new strike force as the weather started getting cold, Neymar suffered a serious ankle injury that kept him out for almost three months.
In Neymar's absence, Messi and Mbappé were able to develop some chemistry with each other. Between Neymar's injury in late November and his eventual return in February, the Messi–Mbappé team lost only a single match. This stretch culminated with the first leg of PSG's Champions League round of 16 tie with Real Madrid. It will obviously be forgotten because of what happened in the second leg, but the Parisians' 1–0 win in the first match was masterful. In that match, PSG absolutely dominated Madrid, and at the same time was able welcome Neymar back onto the pitch for his first minutes since his ankle injury. By adding Neymar to what had already proven to be a very strong team while he was out, it felt like the team was on the cusp of becoming what everyone thought it could be.
Ultimately that turned out to be a false dawn. Though capable of starting matches again after the Madrid game, Neymar needed time to knock off the rust, so he was far from his sharpest version. Not only that, but the delicate balance that the team had achieved while Neymar was hurt had to be completely reset when he came back.
When PSG signed Messi, it ensured itself not only an impossibly talented team, but also an exceptionally janky one. It was always going to take a lot of time and experimentation to figure out just how to play with three forwards who all prefer to play centrally and all have no interest in working when the team is out of possession. Especially in the modern, press-obsessed game, there is no simple template in which to snap three defensively disinterested, ball-dominant forwards and yet maintain defensive integrity—and that's before worrying about the process of developing synergies and understandings and roles when the team does have the ball. There's no reason why you can't build a great team around a forward line of Mbappé, Neymar, and Messi, but doing so definitely isn't easy. To make it work, what you need most is time, which is what the Big Three is finally getting. Unfortunately, it's probably already too late.
Because of the particularities of PSG and of Ligue 1, the Parisian club's seasons are, in the eyes of the broader soccer world, defined solely by what they do in the Champions League. Globally speaking, few people care about what happens in the French domestic league, and even fewer people watch it. PSG is expected to win the league at a canter each season, but even when they fail, as they did last season, it doesn't really make waves outside of the country. All that matters is what happens on those big Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Europe.
When PSG lost to Madrid in such spectacular fashion, its season was for all intents and purposes finished and, even by its own fans, declared a disaster. Once again PSG had spent big and failed even bigger. What happened after—in this case, Neymar continuing to work his way back into fitness and good form, the Big Three continuing to struggle to find itself, and over just these past couple weeks showing signs that the team is coalescing into something potentially great—doesn't really matter. Nothing that happened after the Madrid loss could rewrite the story, and any potential redemption arc can only arrive next season when the Champions League knockout rounds come back around.
But what will PSG look like when that happens? Mbappé's contract expiration is imminent. New rumors say he might be leaning toward staying in Paris, but those tea leaves look different every time someone consults them. The club has at various times been reported to be fed up with sporting director Leonardo, the architect of PSG's erratic and contradictory approach to team building, fed up with Neymar, fed up with manager Mauricio Pochettino, and maybe even fed up with Messi. But like with Mbappé, it's totally unclear which of those figures will actually wind up leaving or staying.
Will PSG manage to keep hold of all three of its forwards? Will the auspicious end to this lost season go down as the start of a great campaign to come? Or will one, two, or maybe even all three of the forwards leave in the summer, making this season's depressing obituary double as the epitaph for the brief, humiliating MNM era? Does it matter at all how impressive a structure Mbappé, Neymar, and Messi seem to be building now that they've had time to work together, when on the horizon you can already see the big wave that threatens to wash away their sandcastle before anyone gets a chance to see it?
There is little certainty to be found in anything happening in Paris right now, but one can be sure of this: Before the eyes of the soccer world, PSG won't be able to change its status or its fate until it finds itself back in the big Champions League games, regardless of who is or is not wearing the jersey when those games come.