PSG's identity crisis?
It's tied for first in Ligue 1 and flush with talent, but PSG is still a work in progress
PARIS -- Midway through the first half of Paris St-Germain's underwhelming 1-1 draw with Bordeaux on Sunday evening, a pigeon invaded the pitch. Perched inside the PSG half, he had the misfortune of being hit with the ball. For five minutes, he lay on the Parc des Princes pitch, apparently dead.
Bordeaux returned to that end with a quick counter-attack, and won a free-kick. And then, as the majority of the players jostled for position awaiting the set piece, the pigeon promptly got up and flew out of the stadium, greeted with a generous round of applause from the supporters. It is an obvious metaphor for this result in relation to PSG's season -- feathers ruffled, down but not out, ready to spring back into life and please the fans.
PSG played poorly -- their play was too impatient and predictable against a solid Bordeaux side playing an unusual 3-5-2 system that packed the center of the pitch. "We need more confidence, more discipline, and we need to play simpler football," said coach Carlo Ancelotti. "Fatigue wasn't the problem. We have to work harder."
A 1-1 draw is far from a disaster, but it did drop PSG below Montpellier on goal difference and into second place. Ancelotti's side was booed when goalless at halftime, then again as the game ended, yet it wasn't clear whether the booing was solely because of the result, or was more an objection to the standard of play.
There exists a strange relationship between club and fans in Paris. It is not, it must be said, a "real" football city. Whereas London has five top-flight clubs and Madrid has four, Paris has just the one -- tucked away in the southwest, only just creeping onto the edge of city maps.
PSG has a good share of hardcore supporters (who have often been involved in serious violence amongst themselves), but last year's takeover by Qatari Sports Investments has seen a wave of new fans flock to the club. Average attendance is up by around 12,000. The new fans have been attracted not merely by the increased chance of success, but also by more spectacular, technically impressive players like Javier Pastore and Jeremy Menez. Paris is famous for art and fashion rather than football, and the supporters want to be impressed with the style of play, as well as the result.
This contributes to the odd atmosphere around the club. The stadium itself is an impressive venue, particularly under floodlights, and the supporters can generate a great noise. Yet the more you look and listen, the atmosphere doesn't feel like that of a genuinely big club. The booing at halftime was remarkably premature, for example. Before the match, the club distributed thousands of small flags to supporters. In England, the "plastic flag" is fast approaching the "prawn sandwich" as a favorite of "small-time fans," but these were lapped up by the supporters -- indeed, at full-time, some were actively scouring the empty seats to find more flags to hoard. Many walked back to the Metro with four or five under their arms. In front of me at the stadium, two overly dressed sisters sat with their brother -- disinterested in the game, but taking photos of themselves pouting in PSG shirts, posting them on Facebook before the game had even finished.
In the city where postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard died five years ago, there's some kind of hyperrealism at work amongst the new fans. Being seen to be at the football (taking their flags home, posting pictures of them "watching the game" while not actually watching the game) is more important than actually being at the football. Nouveau riche ownership, meet nouveau riche fans.
Furthermore, on the two occasions I've watched PSG in person this season (this weekend, and away at Athletic Bilbao in October), the players have shown no appreciation for the supporters at full-time -- they've walked straight off down the tunnel. Is there no relationship between them? There seems something missing, as if everyone is trying very hard to make PSG a big club, yet mutually agreeing they are not.
Struggling for identity off the pitch, PSG can say the same about their on-field performances under Ancelotti. Granted, they remain joint-top of the league. However, Ancelotti took over when they were already top in January, and previous coach Antoine Kombourare didn't deserve to be fired. It didn't take long for France Football to read between the lines on the managerial switch: "He [Kombourare] is known in France but ignored elsewhere, and you can't blame the owners for wanting a star on the bench."
It is always tricky for a new coach when the club doesn't need a rapid change of ideology, and the players haven't yet bought into Ancelotti's style; his comments about playing "simpler football" were particularly interesting, as if the players are all self-indulgent and expressing themselves personally, rather than playing to a system.
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That problem derives from the use of three extremely attacking and occasionally selfish players -- Pastore, Menez and Nene -- behind one central striker in a 4-2-3-1 system. Usually in such a formation, the wide players drop back and defend the wings when not in possession, but here the front four do almost nothing in that regard. And so, PSG has six players to defend and four to attack with no overlap. Menez and Nene dribble remarkably frequently (often to good effect), while Pastore does the same and has a tendency to look for the killer pass when it isn't available (again, making Ancelotti's comments understandable).
As such, PSG isn't really a "team;" it's a collection of individual parts that looks to succeed through personal brilliance and sheer weight of numbers in attack. Arguably, that's exactly what Ancelotti did at Chelsea and for one season, it worked. But he was exposed in Europe, and left no legacy at the club. For PSG's new owners, European success is key to their long-term ambitions, while this is a long-term project that needs a long-term vision from the coach.
There's a suspicion that Ancelotti doesn't really want to play this way. His favored formation at Milan was the 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree shape, and he briefly played the same way at Chelsea to great effect, dropping one of his two strikers. When Pastore was recently out injured, Ancelotti could play that system with Menez and Nene behind one striker, and when Menez picked up a knock on Sunday, he jumped at the chance to return to it with Nene and Pastore. He's only persisting with the 4-2-3-1 because, politically, he can't drop one of the three when fit. Menez and Pastore were the marquee signings, while Nene has probably been better than both over the course of the season.
Ancelotti is effectively playing a particular way because of the decisions of the owners, which isn't conducive to long-term success. PSG might well win the league this season -- Ligue 1 is low on quality this year, and if you draft in enough superstars with Middle East millions you should be able to brush aside everyone else -- but on and off the pitch, it all seems a little false.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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