During a summer in which transfer records were shattered and eye-watering sums of money spent, no-one made more noise than Paris Saint-Germain. In signing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, they forked out fees that would have smashed the previous record twice over. Unsurprisingly, their new collection of superstars have raced to the top of Ligue 1, boasting a 100 per cent record and +16 goal difference after five games. Now they’re coming for the Champions League.
The moves for Neymar and Mbappe felt almost dangerous at the time, a genuine shifting of the sands. Teams ruled by Russian billionaires and clubs backed by oil-rich states had threatened the elite before, but never in so overt a manner. Previously they rivalled them for potential stars of the future and nabbed other sides’ cast-offs. PSG’s bread and butter was taking the cream of Italian football, though never disturbed Juventus.
But this summer they became more brazen. Neymar is the heir to the throne of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He is one of the three best players in the world, and perhaps the most marketable – prior to his mega-money contract at PSG, he was the only player whose earnings off the pitch exceeded those on it. He’s a nailed-on future Ballon d’Or winner. And now he’s playing for a team who were founded four years after Real Madrid won their sixth European Cup.
It produced a strange feeling in the transfer window just gone, one of restlessness and lawlessness; a sense that anything can happen, no player – or club – is safe, and Financial Fair Play dispensed with. If the football landscape, and balance of power, merely shifted over the past few months, it could be completely unrecognisable in a years’ time.
Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta will both be out of contract at Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo – having been handed a five-game ban for pushing a referee – still feels restless in the Spanish capital, while Robert Lewandowsi has hit out at the Bayern Munich board for their lack of world-class recruits. Suddenly the top table of European football are sitting uneasily on their perch, and those clubs just below feel empowered to break up the monopoly once and for all.
Unsurprisingly, the manner of PSG’s sudden assault has not been well received. The actual logistics of how the club actually got around FFP are still all too vague. President Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s explanation was to invite UEFA to PSG’s offices and to preach of transparency. It all feels a little like a certain other president and the post-truth world he helped forge. Nothing to see here, move along.
Nasser Al-Khelaifi on Financial Fair Play at Mbappe’s unveiling
‘We’ve been very transparent from day one and we will be until our last day,’ says Al-Khelaifi. ‘There’s no problem with Financial Fair Play. We’re within the regulations. Whoever’s thinking about Financial Fair Play, please, go have a coffee, we’re fine.’ The sums don’t appear to add up, but the chances of repercussions are slim to none.
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas did not hold back in his assessment of PSG’s maneuverings. ‘With the signing of Neymar, PSG’s budget is at around €700m (£636m). As the club does not generate revenue to the height of such expenditure, this will unbalance an economy that was already struggling in the first place. I do warn that a bubble has formed that could explode at any moment. This bubble cannot last.’
Despite spending £215m – not including the £166m spent on Mbappe, deferred until next year, and the massive wages they’ve taken on – PSG recouped just £58m. The anticipated exodus of talent to fund their extravagances never happened, Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore and the rest all stayed. Suddenly not only is their starting XI comparable to any other in Europe, their bench and game-changing options might just be the best on the planet. They look especially strong now, with Real’s injury problems, Bayern’s old squad and Barca’s lack of depth.
This PSG side, right now, is a FIFA 18 player’s wet dream. Pace, trickery, cunning and an abundance of goals across the pitch. Neymar has been, frankly, obscene in his four league appearances so far. No player has been directly involved in more goals this season (four goals, four assists) since he made his debut, though in truth it could have been even more. He looks like a man playing against boys, toying with every team he has come up against.
Neymar’s Ligue 1 season so far
Shooting accuracy: 77%
Shot conversion rate: 44%
Chances created: 22
Big chances created: 5
Fouls win: 18
Dribbles attempted: 55
Dribbles completed: 39
Dribbles success rate: 71%
*Stats via Opta
Flanking him is the electric Mbappe, an absolute force of nature. In his debut against Metz, his interplay with Neymar already looked telepathic and his trivela assist left supporters, and the opposition, with their mouths wide open. Up front they have one of Europe’s greatest frontman in Edinson Cavani, even if his profligacy can sometimes obscure his incredible movement and goalscoring potential.
The Uruguayan has seven goals already this season, the joint most in Europe alongside Radamel Falcao, but again it could have been so much more. He has already missed eight of his 15 big chances, according to Opta. No player in Europe’s top five leagues has had more than seven big chances total, with Romelu Lukaku next on the list. They are creating, and scoring, for fun.
Most combined goals + assists in Europe’s top five leagues
In many respects, PSG’s strategy feels very much akin to the approach taken by Real when they have gone through phases of stock-piling Galacticos in the past. But one of the keys to their recent success has been the dialling down of that star power. Ronaldo aside, the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale are unassuming and Karim Benzema a selfless foil up front. There are younger Spanish players filling out the squad, players more in sync with the Madridistas in the stands: Isco, Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and skipper Sergio Ramos.
Of Real’s 24-man squad, 11 are Spanish. For PSG that figure is nine, though only six have made an appearances in Ligue 1 so far this season. It is why Mbappe feels doubly important to the PSG project, someone to keep the club tethered to their roots.
The boy from Bondy, a Parisian suburb, has a connection to the fanbase, to the soul of the club, and to French football in general. Even Aulas, in a leaked letter sent to Al-Khelaifi, begrudgingly applauded the transfer and thanked PSG for keeping one of Les Blues’s favourite sons in his homeland. He stops PSG from becoming the football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, or, worse, a mere group of mercenaries. He makes it easier to root for them.
Of course, PSG’s real test will be in the Champions League, and their successes in Europe will define the careers of the players who snubbed establish giants to join an emerging force.
‘Our dream, our goal, is to win the Champions League,’ says Al-Khelaifi. ‘But there are a lot of great clubs in this competition, clubs with more experience than us. We will do our best to win. If it’s not this year, it will be next year. We are now concentrating on the group stage. It will not be easy – it will even be very difficult. The goal is clear – we want to win every game, we want to focus every day on winning every game. We want to go far.’
The purpose of spending so much money was never to win Ligue 1 and reclaim the title they had won for four straight seasons from Monaco, rather it was an assault on the Champions League. PSG do not merely want to be the best team in France, they want – and need – to be the best team in Europe. And, for the first time since their takeover, they feel like a legitimate threat to the established order, both on and off the pitch.