Was there a moment, back in August, when Christophe Galtier wondered what the fuss had been? Did he watch his Paris Saint-Germain team smacking in 21 goals in their first four games of the season and think how easy this all was? Take what is probably the starriest forward line in the history of the game, let them play and watch the brilliant goals stack up. Lionel Messi, after a disappointing first season in Paris, was re-energised. Neymar, playing alongside his mate, was thriving. And Kylian Mbappé …
Well, what was Mbappé? He was still impossibly quick. He scored four goals in those first four games of the season, but the signs of discontent were already there. Of course they were, for this is PSG, where discontent is ever-present, a club described by a recent former manager as “a nest of vipers”. Mbappé may have just, thanks in part to the intervention of the president of the republic, Emmanuel Macron, snubbed Real Madrid to sign a three-year contract extension worth around £50m a year and with a £100m signing-on bonus, but he wasn’t happy.
To which the only conceivable reaction can be a weary sigh – even if, since Succession, we’re apparently fine with dramas in which every party is deeply unlikeable. Increasingly frequently in the increasingly tawdry world of modern elite football, you find yourself asking what football is.
The Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, seems to assume that it’s a tool to make him money (and look at the recent Champions League performances of his other Super League loyalists, Juventus and Barcelona; why should they not be entitled to more?). The only owners who seem not to have bought wholesale into the fallacy of perpetual growth are those using the game as an agent of soft power, to massage their images and secure themselves a platform in western Europe. The idea that football may just be a sport, with people striving to be as good at that sport as they can be, and lots of people enjoying watching them, seems impossibly quaint.
Maybe football isn’t a commodity, its value to be determined by its utility in the market: maybe it just is what it is. And that thing, whatever it is, at least in England, has never been so popular; attendance figures now, across the divisions, are higher even than in the post- war boom. Maybe it isn’t broken. Maybe we don’t need to destroy this great pyramid of interlinked communities just because the old elites are making such a mess of it.
The deal Mbappé signed in the summer came with some understanding that, via Luís Campos, one of the two PSG executives who function in effect as sporting directors, he would have some say over the direction of the club. Mbappé apparently wanted PSG to invest in young local talent with a view to adopting a more modern, pressing approach. And it’s entirely realistic to believe that that style would give PSG a better chance of winning the Champions League.
The redevelopment, though, has gone more slowly than anticipated, largely because the other de facto sporting director, Antero Henrique, has struggled to move players on, straining the relationship between Campos and the board.
But the biggest obstacle to implementing an integrated, hard-pressing style is PSG’s reliance on celebrity. Messi is 35 and no longer physically capable of chasing all game, even were he so inclined. Neymar is 30 and has rarely shown the application required to press consistently. Mbappé, meanwhile, has attempted just 58 pressures in the league this season, significantly fewer than Messi or Neymar; even allowing for the fact that wide forwards tend to press more than those in the middle, Mbappé himself is the greatest hindrance to the sort of football he supposedly favours.
Mbappé, in fairness, seems aware of that issue and has suggested three big stars in a team is too many, that it should be just him and one other. But even the idea of a star is contrary to a true hard-pressing style. Why have any stars, if by star you mean extreme talents granted special privileges? Why not have 11 players of varying levels of excellence who all work extremely hard for the team (as is the case with the best Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp sides)?
PSG’s third league game of the season was a 5-2 win over Montpellier. Mbappé missed an early penalty and so, when PSG won a second, Neymar insisted on taking it: Mbappé fumed. He has achieved the extraordinary feat of making Neymar look like the mature one. In the same game, Vitinha led a break and when he opted for a simple pass to Messi rather than a difficult reverse ball to Mbappé, the Frenchman, rather than carrying on his run to support the attack, stopped, in effect sulking because he hadn’t been given the ball. Mbappé is 23 years old.
There have been rumours for months that a froideur had crept into Mbappé’s and Neymar’s Parisian romance. It now seems that Mbappé had wanted Neymar sold in the summer. He does not like playing as the central forward in a front three. He wants a robust central forward to occupy the defence, so he can drop off into space – as he does operating alongside Olivier Giroud for France. After last week’s 0-0 draw at Reims, in which Mbappé and Neymar were both booked for petulant late fouls, Mbappé openly criticised Galtier’s tactics on Instagram.
This is the dysfunctional creche presided over by Nasser al-Khelaifi, the chairman of PSG and the man who, as president of the European Clubs Association, will shape the development of football. The French newspaper Libération recently linked him with the imprisonment of a Qatari businessman who reportedly had “compromising information” about the 2022 World Cup bid.
Lawyers acting for Al-Khelaifi categorically and absolutely denied any connection with the businessman’s imprisonment as well as any accusations about Al-Khelaifi’s role. Then there were claims this week – vigorously denied by the club who stated they have “never contacted an agency in order to damage individuals or institutions” – that PSG employed an external agency to attack Mbappé on social media.
What a club. What a world. What a sport this has become – and what a future it apparently faces: absurdly wealthy owners with little regard for the sport itself placating the tantrums of absurdly remunerated stars, forever.