Who would have thought when Lionel Messi signed for Paris Saint-Germain in August that six months later he would be sitting on just one domestic goal for the season?
Sure, it has been a campaign disrupted by minor injuries, illness and an unusual intensity of international games, but certainly not to the degree that it should have thrown the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner off his stride to such a remarkable degree.
The little Argentine is on course for his worst full campaign ever, having netted only against Nantes.
Since finding the target that November day, he has chalked up a number of assists, but he has also gone seven appearances without scoring in French football, including Monday’s Coupe de France elimination against Nice.
Messi’s meagre statistics primarily show three things.
Firstly, that the French domestic game is not as weak as it is popularly portrayed; secondly that, yes, he has struggled to adapt to a new club, culture and city; and thirdly, that PSG are a team that has been inadequately built.
Head coach Mauricio Pochettino has been targeted up to now due to PSG’s disappointing performances this season, but while the Argentine has his share of the blame to take, sporting director Leonardo is the common denominator for the club’s underperformance in Europe since returning to the club in 2019.
PSG, after all, are a team that has been patched together out of convenience as much as anything else.
Former player Thomas Meunier, who spent four years at the club between 2016-2020, put it nicely when he told L’Equipe on Saturday: “The PSG project has been about the bling bling since its creation, and it has to stay that way. It must make you dream more than anything else.”
Personalities, then, are as important as footballing ability in Leonardo’s PSG, and thhis has been illustrated this year better than ever.
Sergio Ramos arrived having played only 21 games for Real Madrid last season due to injury and has managed only five appearances in Paris. He is unlikely to be fit to face his former club in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash.
The thinking behind signing Georginio Wijnaldum, meanwhile, seemed to be to deny Barcelona the opportunity of capturing him.
It is not a problem that Neymar has spent much of the past two years underperforming, because he is one of the most marketable stars in the game.
Short-term thinking has left the squad bloated by mediocre players on big wages, as was highlighted during the January transfer window, when PSG tried unsuccessfully to move on any number of fringe players who are on expensive deals.
“PSG have an overstaffed squad,” Jerome Rothen, a former PSG and France star, pointed out on RMC. “If they signed one or two players in January, it would have become unworkable for Mauricio Pochettino.
“PSG have players, but PSG can’t sell. They have to find a way out. Players don’t want to leave.
“Leonardo is PSG’s central problem. To get players to leave, you need to have a network across all clubs and you need to have a relationship with the players who aren’t playing.”
The Brazilian also stands accused of allowing a culture of leaving too much power in the hands of the players.
“This is the unacceptable part of the club,” Rothen bemoaned in January, referring to Neymar’s penchant for the Parisian nightlife.
“I’m once again angry with the sporting director because he is in charge of this. His hands are not tied. We have to stop thinking that the board or the president or the coach prevent him from doing this or that. No, he decides everything!”
It is amidst this disorganised backdrop that Messi has found himself at PSG.
He has gone from Barcelona, a club that has for so long prided itself on its style, philosophy and identity, to one where commercial and sponsorship opportunities appear to be king.
A group of disparate stars have been brought together into the hope that individual excellence can somehow trump a more cohesive and cerebral plan. Unsurprisingly, it does not appear to be working – for Messi as much as anyone else.
Worse still, it now appears certain that they will lose their best player, Kylian Mbappe, on a free transfer this summer.
Should Messi fail to score in Sunday’s trip to defending champions Lille, he will have completed his first six months at PSG with just a single domestic goal to his name, and it is little wonder there are already reports that he is discontent at this quite unique club.
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