With just four points from four Ligue 1 matches played in 2023, PSG have been getting the results of a team fighting against relegation rather than a side trying to win their ninth league title since 2012. They endured a difficult win against bottom side Angers (2-0) at the Parc des Princes, suffered losses away at Lens (3-1) and at Rennes (1-0), where the Parisians were dominated, and finally last Sunday, they stumbled to a 1-1 draw at home against Reims, who schooled the French champions and deserved more than just a point.
What is going on? It seems as though nothing is working anymore, and all the momentum they had before the World Cup has been lost.
In the first half of the season, PSG relied heavily on the individual exploits of Lionel Messi (8 goals, 10 assists in Ligue 1), Neymar (12 and 10) and Kylian Mbappé (13 and 2) to save a team that was often too imbalanced and too weak collectively against good sides. Against smaller teams, their talent would ultimately come out on top, but in tough games, they would seemingly wait for the genius of the “MNM” to ultimately turn matches in their favour.
One stat that shows PSG’s biggest weakness: Despite only conceding 0.79 goals per game so far (they have the fourth-best defence in Europe’s top 5 leagues, and the best of the 16 sides still left in the Champions League), they allow their opponents to take 10.9 shots against them per game (their highest number of the past 10 seasons) and create too many chances.
In terms of organization and unity, it didn’t matter whether manager Christophe Galtier was using a back-four or back-five: The league leaders are not defending hard enough. The pairing of Marquinhos and Sergio Ramos has been wobbly on a regular basis this season, struggling to cope with waves of attacks from whomever PSG were playing. The lack of protection from midfield and the absence of a real defensive holding player has hurt the team massively and, of course, the lack of defensive efforts from the all-star trio up front (though Neymar has been trying to press) has also been hard for the other eight players on the pitch to cover since the turn of the year.
Reims captain Yunis Abdelhamid explained it well after Sunday’s draw. “It is easy to play from the back against them. Their front three doesn’t defend. We knew that if we got the ball past their front three, which was easy, we could hurt the rest of the team.”
It’s a brutal assessment, but an accurate one. Reims had 17 shots against PSG and found it easy to put them under pressure. They also didn’t struggle to move the ball and retain possession against the champions given PSG’s inefficient counter-press and disorganized defensive shape.
Before the World Cup, the MNM were more involved defensively than they have been so far in 2023. They showed a real desire to recover the ball as quickly as possible, but that energy’s gone and the rest of the team is struggling as a result.
Privately, some people within the club had predicted a big dip in form after the World Cup considering the amount of players involved in Qatar and how far many of PSG’s players went in the competition, especially Messi (who won with Argentina), Mbappe (who lost in the final) and Achraf Hakimi (who was a key part of Morocco’s amazing semifinal run.) Others point out that PSG isn’t the only major club enduring a post-World Cup slump: Milan are also going through a bad patch, with five points from five Serie A matches since the restart, an early exit from the Coppa Italia and a heavy defeat against rivals Inter in the Italian Supercoppa.
Bayern Munich are also experiencing a mini-crisis in the Bundesliga — three straight 1-1 draws to resume league play — and Real Madrid have not played great since the restart either, losing the Spanish Supercopa to Barcelona. Yet PSG’s issues feel deeper than just poor form, and manager Galtier is now under huge pressure.
The latest talking points from Galtier are about “complacency” from his players, who are “too comfortable.” That might be true, but what has he done and what is he doing to change that? In terms of patterns of play, the team has not worked or developed much all season. Again, the individual talent of Messi, Marco Verratti, Neymar or Mbappe means that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Behind them, there is no cohesion with or without the ball, and that’s Galtier’s fault.
On Tuesday, Galtier rejected the possibility of dropping one of the MNM from the starting XI; frankly, he would not have had the courage to do it anyway even if he thought it was the right move. Instead, he might try a new tactical system to minimise imbalance and hopefully reduce their porous defending. After trying various formations — the 3-4-1-2, after the 4-3-3, after the 4-3-1-2 and after the flat 4-4-2 — he is running out of time to find the right formula. In a week, Paris travel to in-form Marseille in the French Cup. In two weeks, they host Bayern Munich in the Champions League last-16, first leg, and in between, they will visit fourth-place Monaco; after that, there is Lille at home and Marseille away in Ligue 1 before the second leg against Bayern in Germany!
This is not the right time to be experimenting or finding solutions to problems that have always been there. Galtier and his players are all to blame as well as Luis Campos, the sporting director, who didn’t get the right players last summer — Renato Sanches and Carlos Soler have been terrible, for example — and failed to make acquisitions in January.
The inability to add to the squad in January is very symbolic here and, in a way, it sums up the whole situation at PSG: The club is not functioning well on every level, including the recruitment side. With the problems highlighted above, it’s flabbergasting to think that no new players have arrived.
PSG tried to arrange a loan for winger Hakim Ziyech and are blaming Chelsea for sending the wrong documents, while Inter didn’t let defender Milan Skriniar join now, five months before the end of his contract. Of course, Paris were against it because they didn’t have much money to spend in January — not more than 20 million euros, according to sources familiar with the situation — but Luis Campos has let the club and the team down by not being able, regardless of where the fault lies, to strengthen the squad at a time when they need it most.
It looks like a crisis and it feels like a crisis, but it has not exploded yet. However, if they don’t find a way to turn things around quickly — like when PSG travel to Montpellier in Ligue 1 this midweek — it could be just a matter of time.