Paris Saint-Germain are top of Ligue 1 and 10 points clear of second-placed RC Lens while also maintaining second place in UEFA Champions League Group A, four points clear of Club Brugge in third with just two games left. But, despite that favorable outlook, PSG’s head coach, Mauricio Pochettino, finds himself under increasing scrutiny.
The Argentine tactician is almost one year into his Parc des Princes return after replacing Thomas Tuchel last midseason. This summer he was gifted Lionel Messi, reuniting arguably the best player in the world with Neymar. Throw Kylian Mbappe into the mix and that is three of the best players in the game — if not the three best attackers — but they are struggling to convince so far this season as they headline a ludicrously star-studded squad.
The wins have come, but they have often been ugly, ground out affairs, rather than the virtuoso performances you would be entitled to expect from such headline names. Across Europe’s big five leagues, PSG are only seventh when it comes to goal scored at 2.2 per game, and perhaps of greater concern, they are tenth in expected goals created at 1.9 per match. This attack simply is not creating the kinds of chances you would hope for.
Another part of the issue is that Pochettino’s performances have not matched his dominant defensive days as a player which saw him appointed captain. The team allows a goal per match, only the tenth best mark across Europe’s big five leagues, equal to their xG total which is 14th best. For an ex-player turned head coach who was supposed to foster the same sort of closeness he enjoyed with Tottenham Hotspur, his team remains significantly worse than the pricey sum of its glittering parts.
So why is the 49-year-old finding his big return to Paris so tough then?
PSG had issues before Pochettino returned. Tuchel, who went on to win the Champions League with Chelsea last season, was struggling to get his message across to the players by the end of his time in charge, notably after Champions League heartbreak against Bayern Munich in Portugal.
Losses to Lens, Olympique de Marseille, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, AS Monaco and Olympique Lyonnais all happened on the German’s watch, while further points were dropped against the likes of Girondins de Bordeaux and eventual French champions Lille OSC before his Christmas departure.
Since leaving, Tuchel has made it clear that he felt the atmosphere at PSG was challenging, and he much prefers his new home. “At PSG, I felt I was the Minister for Sport,” Tuchel told Gazzetta dello Sport. “I had to also manage family members and friends of the stars. At Chelsea, I work much more calmly.”
Pochettino’s arrival slowed that negative tide, and he has taken issue with Tuchel’s characterization of what PSG is like, but there were still defeats to FC Lorient, Monaco, FC Nantes, and Lille as well as draws with AS Saint-Etienne and Stade Rennais so whatever funk had set in under Tuchel last campaign never truly went away.
One of the reasons for that perhaps owes to the fact that Pochettino tried nothing new with PSG once he arrived. Instead, he fell back on methods that had served him well at Spurs, rather than looking for innovative new approaches with a different set of players in Paris.
The 4-2-3-1 formation quickly became a staple despite the lack of a natural playmaker to occupy the middle slot in the trio behind the striker. Marco Verratti was shoehorned into that role, when available, despite serving the team better centrally because of workmanlike midfield alternatives.
Verratti’s influence has remained critical even as Pochettino has often moved to a different shape now with a 4-3-3. That is a challenge given the little Italian playmaker’s crippling fragility. Pochettino’s struggle to find alternatives is clear, however, and he has had difficulty in accommodating Angel Di Maria in attack, a possible solution to the lack of chance creation, on top of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe.
Old problems from earlier in his coaching career have also come back to haunt Pochettino. The open defense which PSG are displaying was also a regular issue with Spurs, but more worryingly, there are no longer any clear indications that this is even the South American’s team.
The trademark pressing from the front is non-existent because out of the fantastic four attacking talents, only Di Maria is really prepared to try to help defensively and is finding it increasingly tough to do so at 33 years of age.
Also worth considering is how Pochettino’s tactical approach has not really changed over time, and pressing soccer is nothing new. Therefore, it’s possible many teams are simply equipped to deal with it much better than before.
Influencing Pochettino’s situation in Paris even more is the fact that he is in France with his coaching staff only and has been incessantly linked with a Premier League return since taking up the post, particularly last summer when Spurs’ heavy-handed search for a manager reached desperate levels.
Manchester United links have resurfaced with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer under increased pressure while former Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane is reportedly open to coaching PSG if the chance arises and not even an additional year of contract signed this summer has silenced the rumors of a departure
The possibility has even raised that the man from Murphy might not last a full calendar year in the role and all this without even mentioning the ongoing speculation over whether these are Mbappe’s final few months with the club and the ongoing pursuit from Real Madrid.
Pochettino also inherited a makeshift Parisien squad with players like loan pair Moise Kean and Alessandro Florenzi which has changed beyond recognition after Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Georginio Wijnaldum, Sergio Ramos and Nuno Mendes’ arrivals over the summer.
The legendary Spanish defender Ramos is yet to feature due to injury which underlines how this is an entirely new group of players which must generate its own chemistry and South American international call-ups regularly ruling key men out of Ligue 1 games and creating tension with federations does not help.
Messi, for example, once again went off to Argentina this international break, despite his injury struggles, and started and featured in the Albiceleste’s match against Brazil. Even Leandro Paredes, injured since the previous internationals and unable to feature for PSG, was once again called up by coach Lionel Scaloni to the irritation of PSG sporting director Leonardo.
“Just landed in Paris with immense joy at having achieved our goal of reaching the World Cup in Qatar,” wrote Messi on Instagram. “It is certainly the icing on the cake for a very special year with the national team. Thank you, again, for the love you always show us. God willing, we will meet again in January. Now, it is time to change course as I still really want to keep fighting to achieve the goals we have set here at PSG and stay focused to work to achieve it. We have one month and a half left of 2022 and I would like to end this year in the best possible fashion with more good times in France. Kisses!”
While Messi’s renewed commitment will be welcomed after recent criticism, being in mid-November without Pochettino able to field what he feels to be his strongest XI from a full-strength squad is hardly ideal. It also contributes to the confusion surrounding this team’s identity while the potential is obvious for all to see.
All of this has created an underwhelming homecoming for Pochettino with fans frustrated by the poor quality of soccer on offer and the lack of a strong rapport with the supporters which is only made worse by the fact that the ex-Spurs rarely communicates in French.
Pochettino was expected to tighten the links between the club and the fanbase, particularly those who remember his time as a player, with few elite European clubs able to boast a head coach who played a significant role for their club.
Yet for PSG, it is turning into a case of be careful what you wish for which appears destined to end in dissatisfaction on all sides unless Pochettino and his superstar squad can abruptly arrest this slide once key figures like Verratti and potentially Ramos are fit and available again.