After almost 4½ months, football was played again in France on Friday, and in front of fans as well. Yet, instead of celebrating the return of the nation’s favourite sport with the Coupe de France final between Paris Saint-Germain and Saint-Etienne, instead of celebrating being the first major European nation to safely welcome supporters (with French president Emmanuel Macron among the 5,000-strong crowd), instead of celebrating another trophy for PSG to go with this season’s league title after their 1-0 win, what everybody is talking about is the injury to Kylian Mbappe.
The France striker was the victim of a horrendous tackle from Loic Perrin in the 26th minute. The 21-year-old said he heard his ankle “crack” under the force of the challenge, for which Perrin received a red card, and Mbappe went for scans straight after leaving the Stade de France. The first diagnosis is due on Saturday, but it is not looking good at all for Mbappe, even if he did manage a smile in an Instagram post the morning after the game to thank all those who sent him messages of support.
He had been waiting so long to play a competitive game, and when it is finally there, he doesn’t last more than half an hour. He had tears in his eyes when he left the pitch. And although his teammates won the trophy for him and he celebrated afterward on the pitch with them, this a dramatic moment for the Parisian.
Mbappe was all set to for a glorious return to football. He wanted to win the two domestic cup finals (the Coupe de la Ligue showpiece is on Friday against Lyon) and he wanted to take PSG far in the Champions League in August, maybe even winning it. He might not be able to do any of that.
His participation in the Champions League quarterfinal against Atalanta on Aug. 12 in Lisbon is in jeopardy. With Angel Di Maria already suspended for the clash with the Italians, first-choice right-back Thilo Kehrer also picking up an injury against Saint-Etienne, Thomas Meunier joining Borussia Dortmund and Edinson Cavani set to leave too, things have already gone from looking great for PSG to looking gloomy. They have gone from thinking this could be their year to feeling like they are truly cursed when it comes to Europe’s biggest club competition.
There was more cause for concern from the final for the Parisians. They won, most importantly, but the way they performed against an aggressive, high-pressing and intense team was not befitting of potential Champions League winners. They were sloppy, slow, lacking in creativity and ideas, and could not beat the press put on them by their opponents. If you can’t beat Saint-Etienne’s press, then you will suffer even more against Atalanta’s, who have possibly the best and most effective pressing game in Europe along with Liverpool and Manchester City.
Thomas Tuchel’s players could not find any solutions. They played long but were also beaten on first and second balls. They could not play it short, as midfielders Idrissa Gueye and Leandro Paredes were not offering enough options. Collectively, PSG were average.
The 4-2-4 formation with PSG’s own Fantastic Four up front (Mbappe, Neymar, Di Maria and Mauro Icardi) was not balanced and they didn’t defend enough. Saint-Etienne were the better side for most of the game, even after going down to 10 men. They created the best chances, won the ball back higher up the pitch and easily defeated PSG’s press. Neymar’s goal after 14 minutes and then the Perrin red card changed everything. But this game should set alarm bells ringing for Tuchel. Already, against Celtic in a friendly on Tuesday, we saw a Paris side far from their best in terms of ball movement, playing from the back and patterns of play.
“It was tough. It was the first competitive game back, it was hard to get out of their press and we lost confidence,” Tuchel said after the game, also highlighting the numerous chances missed by his players.
However, some questions remain. Why did Marco Verratti start on the bench? If there is one PSG player very comfortable in possession under pressure, it is him. Why did Tuchel wait 75 minutes before making his first tactical substitution (Verratti for Paredes), following the two changes forced on him by injuries? PSG were under pressure and Tuchel watched and did nothing while he had options on the bench. At least the former Dortmund manager has a bit of time to work on things between now and facing Atalanta, with the Lyon contest a judge of their progress. The rustiness and sloppiness will go.
Tuchel has to get his full-backs more involved. Whether it’s Mitchel Bakker or Layvin Kurzawa on the left if Juan Bernat is not fit, and Colin Dagba or Ander Herrera on the right if Kehrer is not ready, they have to offer width and movement. The German coach will have to find his best midfield formula. Paredes and Gueye didn’t convince on Friday. Is the answer Verratti and Gueye? Paredes and Gueye? Do you bring Herrera into the fold? The injury to Mbappe will also give Tuchel the possibility of leaving the 4-2-4 formation aside and choosing instead a more solid and balanced 4-3-3 for example. Regardless of the system, Neymar will have to take control and deliver. He did it against St Etienne with a decisive goal, but he could have done much more throughout the game.
The PSG manager didn’t hide and was honest after the game, when he said: “It was complicated, which is maybe the best thing. We have a lot of things to improve on.” The countdown has started. We will know a bit more after the game against Lyon what this PSG is made of. Especially if they are without Mbappe.