PSG, Man Utd and the footballing death of the individual superstar

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Cristiano Ronaldo Lionel Messi GFXGetty/GOAL

The sound of Paris Saint-Germain supporters booing their star players, Neymar and Lionel Messi, at the Parc des Princes last weekend was shocking.

It was an unprecedented level of vitriol to display towards league leaders who had been knocked out of the Champions League by 13-time winners Real Madrid a few days earlier.

But it was not entitlement that motivated those supporters, nor was it a response to the manner of their collapse at Santiago Bernabeu.

Far more likely, it captured something deeper; a growing sense of the hollowness and meaninglessness of their club.

This is a time of existential crisis for Parisians. They are trapped in a purgatory of their Qatari owners’ making, their obscene wealth creating an uncompetitive Ligue 1 and ensuring only ready-made superstars – overpaid and overindulged – are willing to play for them. 

They cannot build a collective greater than the sum of its parts because, in these conditions, not enough internal motivation can be mustered by these players. To sweat blood, for months on end, just for a marginal gain in a few knockout matches in March and April is an unrealistic ask. 

Player power and individualism has run rampant, and not even a project manager and modern tactician like Mauricio Pochettino can make any impact.

He, like Thomas Tuchel before him, has been forced to let PSG loose domestically and then play a deep-lying counterattacking system – the simplest imaginable – in the Champions League, hoping this could counterbalance the egotism that plagues the system.

It cannot and it will not.

Neymar PSG GFX

PSG is a lesson in how not to run a football club, how to hollow out the very essence of a team sport by pumping unlimited funds into celebrity and glitz, into style over substance.

They are a morality tale for the rest of the super-clubs – most notably for Manchester United, who are at risk of falling into a similar pattern.

United are not there yet, and indeed have shown an eagerness recently to put in place the right structures for organic growth and modernisation.

Ralf Rangnick might be an experiment gone wrong, but the intent – from interim manager to ‘consultant’ – suggests there is a vague plan to create a coherent long-term identity.

Nevertheless, their consistent unravelling and uncertain future draws parallels with PSG. Signing Cristiano Ronaldo is the most obvious example, but he is just one symptom of a dressing room that appears toxic and overly powerful, leaking complaints to broadsheet newspapers. 

Unsurprisingly, what emerges is an absence of tactical structure. A team of disconnected individuals ambling around the pitch and waiting to win the ‘moments’. 

That might have worked as little as a few years ago. But over the last five seasons, European football has undergone a colossal tactical and strategic shift. The age of the individual – defined by the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry, by Zinedine Zidane’s consecutive Champions League wins as coach of Madrid – is over.

The signs of this recalibration are everywhere you look.

Pep Guardiola Jurgen Klopp Man City Liverpool GFX

In England, Manchester City and Liverpool dominate thanks to their extremely complex and demanding tactical systems, the most important aspect being their ‘automatisms’ – attacking structures almost robotically practiced like American Football plays, requiring hard work and self-sacrifice on a whole other level.

In the Champions League, since the end of Zidane’s broad-strokes era, the three winners (Klopp, Hansi Flick, and Tuchel) all reflect contemporary tactics moving towards meticulous detail in positioning, shape, and movement. Each winning team had stars, but their stars were embedded in the wider system.

And in this season’s edition, the pattern is clearer than ever.

The only super-club manager left in the Champions League who does not prescribe to that level of tactical detail is Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, and few give his team much chance of getting any further.

More pertinently, their 4-0 defeat to Barcelona in El Clasico on Sunday was a warning shot.

It was the sort of thrashing that felt epochal; the beginning of a story. Barcelona have recalibrated away from their own individualistic and hands-off management to Xavi, a Guardiola disciple favouring homegrown players he can mould into a team rather than a collection of stars. 

Barcelona’s win is a sign that Spanish football will follow England and Germany in the move away from individuals and towards the collective.

Barcelona celebrate GFX

As for French football, there is nowhere else for PSG to go, and their next move is likely to be another push for the laissez-faire style of picking a formation and handling the egos – this time with, most likely, Zidane in the dugout. 

Being a France legend and having handled a similar situation superbly at Real, it is plausible Zidane will buck the trend and take PSG further than his predecessors were able to. Plausible, but do not bet on it. Football has changed a lot since his last Champions League triumph in 2018.

Look around Europe, from Julien Nagelsmann to Erik ten Hag, and see there are very few top-level managers left still working chiefly on the psychological aspect of management. Ancelotti and Zidane are arguably the last of a dying breed.

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Manchester United have fluttered close to the PSG model over the last few years, bolting on big-name players or managers, and while GOAL understands Pochettino and Ten Hag top their shortlist, that does not necessarily mean they will change direction.

After all, PSG tried Tuchel, but he became deeply frustrated with the politics and celebrity culture. Rangnick appears to be feeling similarly about what is happening at Old Trafford. It is possible they will chew up Pochettino, just as PSG have.

It is a fascinating point of comparison. Hiring Pochettino would be a tangible test of whether United can move decisively towards contemporary ideas and away from their instinct to glorify a past that no longer resonates – or whether they, too, are trapped in a limbo of their own making; unfit to host a modern tactician and unwilling to change their culture of egotism.