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Things Are Changing at PSG with or Without Neymar

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 9, 2019

Paris Saint-Germain supporters cheer for their team during the UEFA Champions League Group C football match between Paris Saint-Germain and SSC Napoli at the Parc des Princes stadium, in Paris, on October 24, 2018. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images

There was no champagne deluge this time. There were no giddy, shirtless players. And there was definitely no singing.

After Paris Saint-Germain thrashed Monaco 4-0 in last year's Trophee des Champions, the traditional curtain-raiser to the French season, their players crashed Thomas Tuchel's post-match press conference, sprayed their new head coach with champagne and forced him to sing a song as part of an impromptu initiation ceremony.

He sang "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, and it captured the mood. Tuchel had been quick to form close personal bonds with PSG's players, and with Monaco put to the sword, hopes were high that the club from the French capital would sweep all before them on the domestic front again and finally make a splash in the UEFA Champions League.

Skip forward a year, and the scene that greeted the cameras in the press conference room at Shenzhen's Universiade Sports Centre stadium in China told its own story. Despite PSG having beaten Rennes 2-1 in the Trophee des Champions on Saturday, Tuchel was on the back foot from the first question, batting away suggestions that his team had struggled to break down their well-organised opponents.

Faced with a string of thorny questions from an unimpressed French press pack, the German defended his players as best he could, citing fatigue, the poor quality of the pitch and the cumulative effects of the multiple flights they had been obliged to take during their Chinese tour as mitigating factors for their stodgy performance. A year on from his champagne reception, the honeymoon was well and truly over.

PSG started last season like a train, winning their first 14 Ligue 1 matches to set a new record for Europe's five major leagues, but the wheels came off spectacularly in 2019. Tuchel's men were dumped out of the Coupe de la Ligue by lowly Guingamp in the quarter-finals, stunned by Rennes in the Coupe de France final and flopped over the finish line in the title race, topping the table by 16 points but losing four of their last nine matches.

Most damaging of all was their Champions League elimination at the hands of a Manchester United B team: Gianluigi Buffon's howler; Marcus Rashford's penalty; the injured Neymar, mouth agape in disbelief, watching on dumbly from the touchline in his civvies. It was like Barcelona's famous remontada all over again but worse.

Alongside all this came reports of conflict between Tuchel and sporting director Antero Henrique, tensions between senior players and a dressing-room split between the squad's French and Brazilian factions. The City of Love this was not.

Left to contemplate a worryingly shapeless future, club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi reached back into the club's recent past, bringing Leonardo back to Parc des Princes from AC Milan in an all-powerful sporting director role.

Leonardo is back at PSG.
Leonardo is back at PSG.FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Handsome, charismatic and stylishly dressed, the multilingual Leonardo had been the first face of PSG's Qatar Sports Investment era. Brought in by the club's new owners in the summer of 2011, the former PSG winger laid the foundations for the success that would follow by appointing Carlo Ancelotti as manager and engineering the transformative arrivals of players such as Thiago Silva, Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

For all the glamour he exuded, Leonardo was also renowned for taking no prisoners. An iron fist in a velvet glove, he earned a reputation as a formidable negotiator and ended up leaving PSG—in 2013—after receiving a ban (which was eventually overturned) for barging into a referee. It was these no-nonsense qualities that Al-Khelaifi vaunted upon Leonardo's return, lauding the Brazilian's "natural authority" and telling France Football he had "total confidence" in him. PSG's fans were thrilled to see him back.

"When you look at his past and his history with PSG, we feel that the club has found the person who is capable of managing things on the sporting front," PSG historian Michel Kollar told Bleacher Report.

"He'll give a really positive image. And I don't think there's a single person who isn't happy that Leonardo's there. It's unanimous."

Henrique jumped before he was pushed, his departure announced by the club hours before Leonardo's return was confirmed on June 14. Although both Neymar and Kylian Mbappe had arrived on his watch, former Porto supremo Henrique had presided over a succession of underwhelming transfer windows, bungling a number of potential signings and leaving Tuchel's squad severely stretched in key areas.

In choosing to exclude Adrien Rabiot from the first team for refusing to sign a new contract and allowing players such as Motta, Blaise Matuidi, Javier Pastore and Giovani Lo Celso to leave without being adequately replaced, Henrique was felt to have been chiefly responsible for PSG's problems in midfield last season. With Verratti the only senior holding midfielder at his disposal, Tuchel was obliged to redeploy centre-back Marquinhos as an auxiliary No. 6. Reinforcement finally arrived in January in the shape of Leandro Paredes, but the Argentina international was found wanting.

Idrissa Gueye delivered a scathing assessment of Henrique after his proposed move from Everton to PSG fell through in January, telling L'Equipe: "I didn't speak to him. I never really understood what was happening with him. And nor did Everton."

Gueye belatedly arrived in July as part of a modest recruitment drive clearly designed to fill problem positions in the squad. Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera and Sevilla winger Pablo Sarabia were the first to arrive, both acquisitions having been set in motion by the outgoing Henrique. France Under-21 international Abdou Diallo has also signed from Borussia Dortmund to give Tuchel further competition for places at centre-back.

Ander Herrera is one of the new names brought into the club.
Ander Herrera is one of the new names brought into the club.Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

PSG have streamlined, too, with Buffon, Rabiot, Dani Alves, Moussa Diaby and Christopher Nkunku among those passing through the exit door. Kevin Trapp's return to Eintracht Frankfurt on a permanent basis after a successful loan last season leaves Leonardo needing to recruit a new goalkeeper before the Ligue 1 transfer window closes on September 2, but in the main the squad looks well stocked, with two players for every position.

The one blot on the horizon concerns the future of Neymar, who has made it clear that he wishes to return to Barcelona after two injury-curtailed seasons in France. But in a sign of the shifting priorities at PSG, the club have made it known that if someone can meet his asking price—believed to be around €300 million—they will not stand in his way.

"Neymar can leave PSG if there is an offer that suits everyone," Leonardo told Le Parisien in July. "PSG wants to be able to count on players who want to stay and build something great. We don't need players who [think they] would be doing the club a favour by staying."

Leonardo's remarks on Neymar—which followed on from Al-Khelaifi's stark declaration that "nobody forced him to sign here"—represent a marked change in the club's attitude towards its most famous (and marketable) player.

Where previously Neymar was indulged—allowed to make trips to Brazil in mid-season, for example, or given permission to sit out certain games—now he is called to order. When the 27-year-old failed to report back for pre-season on time in July, the club put out a statement deploring his absence and promising to take "appropriate action." The message, that no player is bigger than the club, was clear. Mbappe's emergence last season as PSG's new go-to man (39 goals in 43 games) has weakened Neymar's hand still further.

When fit, Neymar has delighted PSG's supporters, tearing teams to pieces single-handedly and scoring goals at a faster rate than almost any player to have worn the club's colours. But while there is hope that he may yet end up staying, few tears will be shed if he leaves.

Neymar's future at the club remains to be seen.
Neymar's future at the club remains to be seen.FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

"Technically, he's a really exceptional player," says Kollar. "People tend to forget that he has incredible statistics when it comes to goals and assists. But players like [Safet] Susic, Rai or [Mustapha] Dahleb had long love stories with PSG. If Neymar leaves tomorrow, he won't have marked the history of the club."

With PSG's 50th anniversary looming next year, there is an additional layer of expectation to contend with this season. If Tuchel's men were to lift the Champions League trophy in Istanbul in May, the timing would be perfect. But in light of the club's failure to reach even the semi-finals in the QSI era, Leonardo warned against developing a "fixation" with the competition in his interview with Le Parisien, arguing that it is more important to "no longer be afraid of failure" and suggesting, somewhat cryptically, that this could be the right moment to "take one step backwards in order to take 10 forwards."

"I think the supporters have understood that it's time to stop obsessing about the Champions League," says Kollar. "If we're going to win the Champions League, it'll happen. But there was so much shame and sadness after [the loss to Manchester United]. In the supporters' heads, the important thing is to rediscover a sense of pride."

Pride, humility, focus. And maybe then it will be time to set the champagne corks popping again.

                        

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