Pipped at the post by Lille, Paris Saint-Germain’s title defence was undermined by off-field distractions and poor results against their rivals, as the capital club are left to regroup and build ahead of a first full season under Mauricio Pochettino.
Kylian Mbappé summed up the mood at PSG earlier this month when he contemplated the possibility that the reigning champions might lose out to LOSC in the battle for the title. “Lille would make for great champions but with eight defeats if we lose the title we only have ourselves to blame,” the World Cup winner posted on social media.
That was with two games of the season left. On Sunday night Lille did win the title and PSG, after being champions seven times in the previous eight years, were forced to settle for second place. Six wins and a draw in their last seven matches was ultimately not enough.
The disastrous start
It was the feverish, late finish to last season which set the Parisians back coming into this campaign. On the same weekend the 2020-21 campaign was beginning in late August, the capital club were playing in the delayed final of last season’s UEFA Champions League, losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in Lisbon.
There was little time to reflect on that defeat or on the achievement of making the final of Europe’s elite club competition for the first time. Thomas Tuchel’s team had spent the previous month winning the two domestic Cup finals and then preparing for the ‘Final Eight’ in Portugal. They were given more than two weeks respite between leaving Lisbon and playing their first game of the new Ligue 1 season against RC Lens on September 10. But in between PSG allowed their players to go on a short holiday. Several members of their squad decided to go to Ibiza only to return from the Mediterranean island with Covid-19, Neymar Jr. among them.
With a host of players in isolation, PSG started their season at Lens with unfamiliar faces like Marcin Bulka in goal, Kays Ruiz-Atil and Arnaud Kalimuendo up front. They lost 1-0, and a few days later they were beaten 1-0 again, this time at home by Olympique de Marseille. Neymar had returned but was one of three PSG players sent off at the end of the game. They were already seven points behind Lille, albeit with a game in hand.
Home defeats and managerial change
When PSG duly went out and won their next eight games, there was a sense of normal service being resumed. But they finished 2020 badly, a run of eight points in six games featuring defeats at AS Monaco and at home to Olympique Lyonnais and a draw at Lille. They ended the calendar year with a 4-0 home win against RC Strasbourg Alsace but they spent the short winter break in third place, a point off top spot, and without a coach. With six months left on his contract and with reports of his poor relationship with sporting director Leonardo widespread, Tuchel was sacked. In came Pochettino.
The Argentine, a former PSG captain, was charged with overhauling Lille in Ligue 1 and taking the club on another deep run in Europe. It is hard to really argue with his performances in the Champions League, with the Parisians beating Barcelona and Bayern before succumbing to Manchester City in the semi-finals. But domestically he could not get the very best out of such an expensively assembled squad.
PSG took 47 points in 21 games after the turn of the year with Pochettino in charge. That was the same number of points as Lille. There were four defeats, damaging losses away at FC Lorient and at home to FC Nantes but also at home to title rivals Monaco and Lille. They may have by far the biggest budget in the French game, but PSG recorded just a single win in six games against the other members of the top four. They took just four points out of a possible 18 against Lille, Monaco and Lyon. Their best performances have come away from home.
Not enough from Neymar
“We dropped points that we should not have dropped, and not only since January,” said Pochettino after the final game of the season at Brest. “We can look back on the games we have lost, but we need to put things in perspective. We were in contention right to the end in every competition.”
Winning the Coupe de France, Pochettino’s first major trophy as a coach, offers some consolation, but PSG must now look at where they can improve going forward.
Ultimately PSG depend heavily on their two superstars. Mbappé was outstanding all season long, scoring 27 goals to finish as Ligue 1’s leading marksman for the third year running. He netted 42 times in all competitions and was a deserving winner of the Ligue 1 player of the year prize. In contrast Neymar appeared in just 18 of 38 league matches. His season was hampered by Covid-19, by multiple suspensions and by injuries - he featured in just four of 15 league games from mid-December to mid-March. He scored just nine goals, five of which came from the penalty spot.
The news in early May that the Brazilian had signed a long-term contract extension to keep him at PSG until 2025 was warmly welcomed. However, the future of Mbappé remains up in the air. He has just a year to go on his deal and Leonardo is hoping he can persuade the France striker to prolong his stay at the Parc des Princes. Adding quality in other parts of the pitch may be necessary if Mbappé is to be persuaded to stay put, but PSG have more than enough quality to believe they can reclaim the title next season.