PSG’s pressing problem: Can Mauricio Pochettino integrate his forward stars?
It was a vintage second-half strike from Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi against Manchester City in the Champions League that offered a glimpse of both the Argentine at his potent best and PSG’s unrivaled star power. He had flitted in and out of the match, sometimes looking a touch slow and detached. Yet, this version of Messi doesn’t need to be involved the entire time to demonstrate that his brilliance seems infinite.
He is never truly out of the match. And yet, coach Mauricio Pochettino may see it differently. Messi’s sumptuous strike wrapped up a comfortable 2-0 win against last season’s finalist and a coach he has twice won the Champions League with, but there were too many moments that the number 30 and his famed partners up front - both Neymar and Kylian Mbappe - didn’t do much at all. They behaved like bystanders: the trio didn’t track back, didn’t defend and, with the exception of Neymar, didn’t press.
The result was acres of space between attack and defense when PSG was out of possession. The French defense and midfield toiled in and around its own box. And the front three? They watched on, waiting for their moment - the privileges of superstars. And when the moment arrived, Messi and Mbappe delivered in a way that was hard not to admire.
But can PSG win the Champions League that way? It is the competition that informs and obsesses the Qatari-owned club. Paris should not have a problem to triumph in the domestic league this campaign after last season’s surprise Ligue 1 title for Lille OSC. Thus far, PSG has played economically at home, enough though to claim top spot with a perfect record, 24 points from eight matches. A late goal from one of the team’s many stars came to the rescue against both Olympique Lyon and Metz.
But it’s unlikely that European elite clubs will capitulate just like that in the latter stages of the Champions League. Pochettino has two options. He does nothing, and allows his front three to roam free with the midfield support of Idrissa Gueye, who was one of the chief architects of Tuesday’s victory, filling the gaps. The other option is more demanding: he brings them into the fold and demands they help out the team with defensive duties.
Recent history suggests that individual talent can win you the Champions League. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid is the prime example. Without a defined identity or any overarching philosophy, the team conquered Europe, often relying on the lethal instinct of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, whose role was shifting to one of a conventional striker.
But Pochettino sees his teams differently. He embraces a more modern approach. Based on his eleven playing as a unit, defending and pressing as one, he guided Tottenham to the 2019 Champions League final against Liverpool.
The question is if he can demand at least one of his stars to sacrifice himself for the greater good? At times, the relationship between the three has seemed porous, 'clochardgate' providing an illustration recently. It’s early days yet to assess Pochettino’s progress in Paris, but there is a sense his team's success will depend on the coherence it can achieve. The Argentine coach, then, finds himself in a bind, like many of his predecessors at the Parc des Princes.