Last season, PSG won the title with 31 points to spare, their nearest challengers were closer to the relegation zone than they were to mounting a serious title challenge.
The Parisians lost only two Ligue 1 games last season. They won every domestic trophy, became only the second club in Champions League history (after Chelsea) to finish second in their group despite conceding only one goal, and ultimately failed at the quarter-final stage. That failure cost Laurent Blanc his job.
It looks like that’s the bar set for Unai Emery by his predecessor. In fact, the demands look even greater than that: Blanc set the bar that high whilst simultaneously convincing everyone that he is to football tactics what Marseille were to football last season. Disastrous.
Emery’s bar is actually set for European conquest, not domestic consolidation.
The problem is, if PSG do not win everything in France, that won’t just be a disappointment, that will be a shocking humiliation. But after the first month or so of the campaign, the Parisians aren’t the all-conquering force they were last season. Not yet, anyway.
Last week’s draw at home to Arsenal in the Champions League was preceded by a draw at home to St Etienne and a defeat away to Monaco. Normally, a draw at home to Arsenal would be no big deal, perhaps even a good result. After all, it’s the first game of the campaign. Win the rest and PSG will win the group.
But the performance showed an absence of ruthlessness that wasn’t present in PSG last season. Edinson Cavani missed enough chances to win four games, whilst the team lost its way after half-time. Then again he scored enough goals to win four games last weekend away to Caen. Before being taken off at half-time.
Perhaps losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his 113 goals in 122 Ligue 1 games is a hole a can of Polyfilla won’t cover. Perhaps losing their focal point and talisman won’t automatically turn PSG into more of a ‘team’. And perhaps losing Blanc’s simple yet effective principle of telling world-class players to go and play world-class football was more important than first thought.
Whatever the underlying reason, there definitely was a lack of confidence over the first few weeks of the season. Something they weren’t lacking last term.
But is that something that should give Ligue 1 clubs hope? Overconfidence may have been one of the reasons PSG failed so miserably against Manchester City. The confidence to go out and thump every French team standing meekly in their way might also have been a factor: just like the criticisms of Bayern Munich and Juventus in recent seasons, PSG have perhaps been too far ahead in the league to go into the spring section of the Champions League feeling any kind of tension. It’s tension that keeps you going.
It looks like they might have that this year. Monaco may be chasing what was a 31 point gap last season, but despite a heavy defeat to Mario Balotelli’s Nice, they’re already ahead of the little ‘Mario Kart’ ghost this season.
Take last season’s Bundesliga as an example. Bayern Munich won the league by ten points, but it never seemed as comfortable as it did in the other Pep Guardiola years, nor was it as comfortable as PSG’s victory last year.
Post winter-break, Borussia Dortmund matched Bayern’s results – for the most part – week after week. It was only a late mini-collapse that prevented them from pushing Bayern harder. They lost in Europe to Liverpool in emotional circumstances; drew with bitter rivals Schalke and then in the final two weeks of the season; they lost to Frankfurt, and then drew with Cologne.
If it weren’t for that, they’d have ended the season one win away from the title.
That’s the sort of damage Monaco can do this year. It won’t happen, of course: PSG are the sort of dominant force Ligue 1 has never really seen before, not even the seven-in-a-row Lyon team of the early 2000s had this much dominance, certainly not in terms of star quality. But it’s possible that last season made everyone think that PSG are more dominant than they actually are.
They aren’t 31 points better than Monaco. They can’t be. They only play Monaco twice a season. Last season was a perfect storm. PSG’s consistency and stability – they had the same manager and the same team, just with the addition of a world-class player in Angel di Maria – coupled with the instability of the teams around them gave them an unholy margin of victory.
Last summer, Monaco had to sell big players and replace them with young and promising talents. This year, they’ve been able to keep their best players whilst adding Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibe and Kamil Glik to strengthen their defence. That stability could make all the difference. As could hitting form early. They’ve had to hit the ground running this season because they had to peak in August to qualify for the Champions League group stages.
If last season was a perfect storm of brilliance from PSG and disorganisation from the rest of the league, this season might be the perfect storm in the other direction.
If Monaco win the league it really will be because of the stars aligning. They probably don’t have the squad to fight on every front, and they certainly don’t have a squad to match PSG’s. But what they can do, if they have a fabulous season, is dominate the smaller teams in a similar way to PSG. They can be a mini-PSG, built from young players playing with confidence and have the likes of Radamel Falcao chipping in with 15 goals.
In the same way that Borussia Dortmund were the mini-Bayern last year. And amidst their faltering form at the start of the season, and their current transition with a new manager and players, a title fight might just be the best thing that could happen to the champions.
It was a freak storm last year that saw PSG blow everyone away on their march to the title, but the equal and opposite storm could be one reason that Unai Emery succeeds where Laurent Blanc failed. A little bit of Ligue 1 tension could really help PSG’s springtime assault on the Champions League.