The excitement around Paris Saint-Germain ahead of the 2021-22 season was palpable.
In scenes reminiscent of the ‘Galactico’ era at Real Madrid, PSG appeared to be attempting to build their very own version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
The signing of right-back Achraf Hakimi from Inter early in the transfer window not only filled a problem position, but also brought in one of the world’s leading young defenders.
Nuno Mendes, albeit on loan, followed to fill the left-back slot later in the window, but between those signings, PSG made three sensational free transfers.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and, to top it all off, Lionel Messi joined. Their joint presentation at the Parc des Princes was the main event ahead of a match against Strasbourg in August.
Funnily enough, Kylian Mbappe’s name was booed as it was read out ahead of that match, amid speculation he could be joining Real Madrid.
That might well have been the case, but PSG turned down multiple Madrid advances. For all the glitter and glamor of their new signings, Mbappe was still seen as the key to their dream: the Champions League.
But that dream of conquering all in Europe was dashed in March. Ironically enough, by Madrid. It was Mbappe who put PSG up 2-0 in the tie before a Karim Benzema-inspired comeback sent Los Blancos into the quarter-finals.
Since then, PSG’s monotonous stroll to another Ligue 1 title – albeit their first since 2020 – has continued and, inevitably, they claimed it on Saturday when they drew 1-1 with Lens.
Their fearsome front three has produced some special moments, yet last week’s 2-1 Classique victory over Marseille, their nearest rivals – for lack of a better term – for the title, was played in front of a crowd lacking its most vociferous supporters, who had chosen to boycott the match in order to protest against the way the club has been run.
And although an eighth league title in 11 years of Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) ownership cannot be scoffed at, it is the least PSG should expect given the grandiose nature of their expensively assembled squad of superstars.
So, what next?
Mbappe is the first player to score more than 20 goals in the competition in three separate seasons before his 24th birthday since Herve Revelli, who managed it on four occasions between 1967 and 1970.
Before the Lens game, Mbappe’s tally of 33 goals in all competitions was bettered by only Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski among players across Europe’s top five leagues, with the France star having also outperformed his expected goals (29.5).
If this is to be his PSG swansong, then Mbappe is going out in style, if not on the biggest stage. From being jeered by his own supporters back in August, the tables turned when Mbappe was applauded in the wake of PSG’s Champions League exit, with the boos reserved for Messi and Neymar instead.
PSG seem intent on trying to keep their talisman, but it really does appear to be to little avail, and it looks certain Mbappe will be lighting up LaLiga next season.
Messi to move on?
Yes, you did read that right. Messi – arguably the greatest player of all time – was booed by PSG supporters. Such is the fickle nature of football fandom, they were cheering his name by the time the next game came around, but at 34, does the Barcelona great really need to risk any damage to his reputation?
The goals have not come freely for Messi at PSG, managing only nine so far. However, he has contributed creatively with 13 assists, even if his expected assists (xA) of 9.86 suggests he has benefited from some above-standard finishing (which may be expected when you’re supplying Mbappe, and Neymar too).
One has to wonder if he’ll be sticking around to help the bid for an 11th league title in PSG’s history next season.
Time up for Poch?
It is not just the future of star players up for debate. Mauricio Pochettino replaced Thomas Tuchel because the latter had failed to win the Champions League, only for Tuchel to go and win the tournament with Chelsea. Pochettino, meanwhile, saw his team lose in the semi-finals to Manchester City last season and then go down to Madrid in the last 16 this time around.
His record in Ligue 1 shows 39 wins from 55 matches, with the Argentine coach having overseen eight defeats and eight draws to register a win percentage of 70.9. Pochettino’s team has scored 123 goals and conceded way less than half that amount (49).
Pochettino’s 2.27 points per game ranks below his three predecessors, however; Tuchel took 2.37, neither did Unai Emery, and Laurent Blanc recorded 2.35. Carlo Ancelotti (2.14) was the last PSG coach to have taken fewer points per game.
The former Tottenham boss might have been expecting a call from Manchester United, yet they have chosen Ajax’s Erik ten Hag. Given the Champions League is the be-all and end-all for PSG, will Pochettino get another shot?
More, more, more?
Regardless of what happens with Mbappe, Pochettino or Messi, one thing is certain: PSG will be linked with the biggest stars on the market again.
Should Mbappe decide to pledge more of his career to PSG, will they go out and look to further bolster their chances of Champions League glory? If he leaves, how will they replace his goals?
Backing Messi and Neymar to come up with the difference should not be out of the question, yet it seems unlikely QSI would want a star player to leave and not replace him.
Paul Pogba is set to be available on a free, and it is not difficult to imagine the French star strutting his stuff in the blue of PSG. Georginio Wijnaldum’s move has not been a success and the Dutchman’s former club Newcastle United – now cash-rich of course – have been linked.
What of Keylor Navas? Donnarumma, despite some rash mistakes, seems to be the number one pick as goalkeeper now. Surely the Costa Rican will want to be a first choice elsewhere? Ramos has hardly been able to keep fit and PSG will lack a world-class partner for Marquinhos.
PSG may have to take a step back to finally move forward and become a dominant force in Europe, not just France. Perhaps sticking with Pochettino is the correct route, and they should forget about star signings for now and let the coach build something as he did in north London, using younger players and adding in the stardust with the talent that he already has at his disposal.
Based on the last decade, however, that does not seem likely.