There have been a few false dawns at Parc des Princes since Nasser Al-Khelaifi bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, and the recent lavish sponsorship deals have led to accusations that they are more of a lifestyle brand than a football club. But good things are happening under the watch of Thomas Tuchel, and Ryan Hunn believes they have finally found a coach who can add some substance to the style.
It was a beautiful, mild autumn evening in the 16th arrondissement of Paris when something special was happening. In one of the world’s most beautiful cities, shortly after 10.30pm, a young Frenchman fired home his fourth goal in 14 minutes to put Paris Saint Germain 5-0 up against Lyon. After scoring, Kylian Mbappe pointed and ran towards an ecstatic Neymar, who hoisted him aloft. Head coach Thomas Tuchel turned to the crowd waving his arms, fists clenched, a huge smile beaming across his face. He knew what this meant: a ninth league in a row and the best start to a domestic campaign in France. Ever. Fast forward 14 days and another 5-0 win, this time at home to Amiens, and PSG had extended that record to ten games.
There has been a lot of noise around PSG recently, not much of which has positive. The club’s marketing department has been in overdrive, launching a deal with Nike subsidiary Jordan, which saw PSG wear the first football kits to sport the Jumpman logo. An increase in celebrity match day guests and pop stars wearing custom club merchandise have also created headlines. In fact, most coverage of PSG lately has not been about the football, leading to accusations that they aren’t so much a football club, but more of a lifestyle brand.
The headlines have hardly enhanced the reputation of a club vilified due to its backing from Qatar. However, the Hadids, Jenners, Rihannas, Timberlakes and even Lenny Kravitz make it easy to forget that there is a club progressing here under the supervision of a serious footballing mind. Many questioned whether taking the PSG job was right for a coach like Tuchel, returning from a one-year sabbatical after leaving Borussia Dortmund in 2017. Taking over an ego-filled dressing room, with the world’s most expensive player, at a club with sky high pressure seemed a rather unnecessary risk for a coach whose reputation was still on the rise.
Yet PSG have continued to improve under the German since their opening day victory against Caen, already leading second place Lille by eight points having scored 37 goals and conceded just six. Tuchel has shown tactical versatility and rotated key players in this run, without any real issues. Whilst recent challengers, Monaco, replaced Leonardo Jardim with Thierry Henry after a terrible start, and Lyon and Marseille continue to stutter for form, PSG are finding their groove. Considering the difficulties facing Tuchel in the early days of his new job, the ease with which this has occurred is impressive.
The most pressing issue facing Tuchel was how to handle the shifting dynamic between Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani. In a little over a year, Neymar’s fall from grace has been speedy and he returned from the World Cup facing a huge wave of criticism. For Mbappe, the summer was very different. In Russia, he exploded onto the world stage and came back a World Champion, France’s golden boy and one of the most talked about players on the planet. Neymar very publicly left Barcelona to escape Messi’s shadow and become the main man in Paris. After just one season and a turbulent World Cup, he faced the prospect of being in the shadow of a 19-year-old.
It must be said, Tuchel’s management of the situation has been sublime, removing any obvious hierarchy and creating a team which looks like an actual team. Dropping Neymar into a number 10 role has allowed Cavani to be the unquestionable number 9, with Mbappe on the right flank. Even Angel Di Maria has been rejuvenated under Tuchel, locking down a place in the first team in his preferred position on the left. This has brought a balance to the PSG forward line that they have often struggled to find since Neymar and Mbappe arrived last year.
The fact that Tuchel has managed to bring the best out of the PSG front four is hardly a surprise. The German is famous for his man management and attention to detail, going back to his Dortmund days and further back to Mainz. In Dortmund under Tuchel, Pierre-Emerik Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan became a devastating partnership, while Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gündogan returned to their best, after struggling in Jurgen Klopp’s final year at the club. Tuchel has brought this approach with him to Paris, and it is proving popular among key players like Marco Verratti, who recently said, "We train with a smile but we are always serious. Work hard but with a smile, this is the best method.” He went on to suggest that a key difference between Tuchel and former coach, Unai Emery, was how they interacted with the players.
In addition to the superstars, the supporting cast are also shining brighter under Tuchel. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting came off the bench to score on his debut after his surprise free transfer from Stoke. Minutes have been giving to youngsters such as Timothy Weah, Moussa Diaby, Christopher Nkunku and Stanley N’Soki. Although their playing time has been limited, all have impressed.
Integrating youngsters and squad players was imperative for PSG this season due to squad depth concerns caused by a number of summer departures. Thiago Motta retired, Javier Pastore, Gonçalo Guedes and Yuri Berchirche were all sold and Kevin Trapp returned to Eintracht Frankfurt on loan. The club did pay a huge transfer fee for Mbappe, which was agreed when he joined from Monaco on loan last year, but taking players that arrived or left the club only this summer, PSG made a transfer surplus of £36m. The balance between style and substance seems to have finally been addressed.
Whilst still being early into the Tuchel era, the signs are positive for PSG. Many will remain unconvinced unless they go deep in the Champions League and any stumble will be pounced upon (see the defeat away to Liverpool as an example). However, breaking a domestic record that stood for over 80 years is no mean feat, no matter the opposition or the squad a coach possesses. France’s finest dynastic club sides have failed where Tuchel’s PSG have prevailed, so maybe it’s finally time to take them very, very seriously.