Thomas Tuchel has great memories of Manchester, or more precisely, Old Trafford. Two and a half years ago, he planned the perfect game as his Paris Saint-Germain team thrashed Manchester United in their Champions League round-of-16 first leg. The Parisians should have won by more than the 2-0 scoreline, but their performance — so controlled, so impressive — got rave reviews. Of course, this being PSG and Tuchel, they threw it all away a week later in the second leg. But that night at Old Trafford remains one of Tuchel’s best results as PSG manager.
On Wednesday, he and his players are back at the Theatre of Dreams, but the context is totally different. United need a point to qualify for the knockout rounds, but PSG’s progression to that stage is in doubt.
Of more importance, they are going through a rough patch. They had to settle for a 2-2 draw vs. Bordeaux at the Parc des Princes on Saturday despite being 2-1 up. In the aftermath, Tuchel was very critical of his players.
“Usually I always defend them, but tonight I can’t accept our second half,” he told assembled media after the game. “I am very disappointed. We can’t play a Ligue 1 game like this. Without efforts, it is deserved, we can’t win.”
Neymar also said that PSG have to play more collectively as a team. The complacency at times is huge. The Brazil international tries too hard and too much on his own. Kylian Mbappe is the same. The France World Cup winner has also struggled in front of goal, going a year without finding the back of the net in Champions League play.
On Sunday, Tuchel had a long talk with his squad.
“We had to tell each other the truth. It was not good enough. You can’t have this attitude,” he told RMC Sport on Tuesday in Manchester. “The players were really responsive to it. It is not to cover myself, but we had to tell each other the truth. It was necessary.”
He knows all too well that unless his team plays like a team, they won’t get a result at Old Trafford. “We all have to be 100%, individually and collectively,” Marco Verratti said to RMC Sport.
But inside the squad, there is a positive feeling. Verratti stated that in big games, PSG and their big players “always turn it on and turn up.” During the chat with Tuchel and his staff, the players called upon the spirit they showed over the summer in Lisbon, where they reached the Champions League final. They have to have that unity, that willingness to give everything, to put the effort in, to fight and play for each other.
“This is another final, like the RB Leipzig game was one,” Tuchel told RMC Sport. “This one is even harder because it is away.”
The pressure on the PSG manager is huge. Despite reaching the final last season and winning the domestic quadruple, if his team doesn’t reach the Champions League round of 16, he could be sacked. His contract expires in June, and at the moment there is no sign from the club that he will be offered an extension. He would want to stay, even if not everything is perfect at the club — especially his relationship with sporting director Leonardo. Tuchel was appointed by Leonardo’s predecessor, Antero Henrique, and not being the choice of the sporting director has always cast a shadow over the German’s future.
A defeat in Manchester and subsequent elimination from the Champions League would send a very negative message to the players within the team and those the club might hope to recruit in the future. What would happen to the contract negotiations with Neymar and Mbappe? Both will become free agents in June 2022. PSG are optimistic they can sign both to new deals, but for that to happen, the pair will need to see that the club can genuinely challenge to win the Champions League in the near future. An early exit would have the opposite effect.
It’s not just about winning at Old Trafford, though. It’s also about finding their swag again, about rediscovering their identity, to retrieve the spirit of Lisbon 2020, to finally play like a team again.
“I know we are capable of it. We can put on a great performance to come here and get a great result,” Tuchel said. “We will have to do the perfect match, but we can do it. “
What his players will do on the pitch on Wednesday will be a response to his words on Sunday. If they put in a shift, he’ll have been heard. If they don’t, he’ll know that this is the end.