Should Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League group stage campaign be seen as a glass half full or half empty?
From their point of view, they see it half full. They lost 3-1 at Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening but they had already qualified and were pretty much assured to top Group B. Their European campaign before that was exceptional, with 24 goals scored and only one conceded, following a 3-0 win over Bayern in Paris as well as hammering Celtic and Anderlecht home and away.
For Unai Emery’s men, the defeat at the Allianz Arena was not alarming. As the manager put it after the game, the Parisians are “50 percent not happy because we have lost and 50 percent happy because we have been consistent in this group stage.”
Emery added: “This is the kind of game which will be useful to us in three or four months,” also stressing he was not worried by the performance in Germany.
Most of the time, PSG showed breathtaking pace going forward and exceptional technical ability from pretty much every player in the starting line-up. Tactically, they are lethal playing a possession game and their Plan B, on the counter, is even more devastating with the pace of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe up front.
Mbappe has already reached 10 Champions League goals (and three assists) in 15 games and he’s still only 18. (For some perspective, Lionel Messi was 21 when he got to the same tally.)
Neymar has carried the team at times (although he failed to deliver against Bayern on Tuesday) and going forward, PSG are relentless; so dominant and talented they can be unplayable at times.
However, from every other angle, the glass is half empty. PSG have played great football for 90 percent of their group stage campaign but the remaining 10 percent has raised doubts over their capability to win the competition.
Defensively, they struggled away in Anderlecht for example where keeper Alphonse Areola was their best player despite the 4-0 win. They conceded cheap goals in Munich on Tuesday where the two full-backs, Dani Alves and Layvin Kurzawa, had a shocking game. The lack of defensive effort from Neymar and Mbappe is becoming a problem in those big games, especially if Alves and Kurzawa are not having a good day.
The defenders were too exposed in Germany and there are also issues in midfield. In the absence of the injured Thiago Motta, Adrien Rabiot has had to deputise in the holding role which he doesn’t like playing. He is too attack-minded, while Marco Verratti and Julian Draxler are not renowned for their defensive qualities. The team is too unbalanced.
The biggest problem at times is that individuals can overtake the collective. After the 3-1 defeat in Germany on Tuesday, Rabiot summed up very well what went wrong: “We were too individualistic. We didn’t play as a team. When we try to do it on our own, it doesn’t work,” said the French midfielder. He is spot on.
The Parisians conceded an early goal and after that Neymar or Mbappe tried to do everything on their own. Against Anderlecht away, the team was cut in half most of the time, with seven players defending and the “MCN” of Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar attacking on their own.
It was enough to win 4-0 in Belgium, but not in Germany. Against top clubs, the only way to win is to put individual talent at the heart of the team. That was absent against Bayern and it will be a concern for the latter stages of the Champions League.
Of course, Emery and PSG can fix some of those issues before the round-of-16 in February. They are looking to buy a No. 6 in January as they badly need one and, as a unit, they should get stronger with time.
Nevertheless, PSG have lost two games in a row, to Strasbourg and Bayern, in all competitions for the first time in three years. This in itself is worrying enough for now.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.