The last time Paris Saint-Germain fielded five French players in a UEFA Champions League fixture, Neymar was two months into life as the world’s most expensive player.
This summer has been all about symbolism in Paris and Tuesday night was no different. It was defined by who led the Parisian front line. There was no Lionel Messi, and there was no Neymar. The symbols of a stardust-chasing era were gone and in their stead remained Kylian Mbappe, accompanied by Randal Kolo Muani and Ousmane Dembele.
The attacking trio do not have a catchy moniker or acronym yet but together, they epitomised the gear change in PSG transfer policy. Sure, Dembele was once bought for €105million, and Kolo Muani’s signing from Frankfurt was not far off nine digits either. It would be remiss to treat these new Parisian signings as an attempt to copy Brighton’s USP.
But in profile, they pale in comparison to previous signings and what mattered was what they were seen to represent: Kolo Muani was born just 15 days earlier than his team-mate Mbappe and grew up in the same Parisian suburb of Bondy. Dembele, meanwhile grew up 80 kilometres away to the west in Vernon and his rise to prominence, in mirroring that of Mbappe, forged a friendship that has lasted (Mbappe and Dembele made their national team debuts just six months apart, between 2016 and 2017).
They were PSG’s new era on a teamsheet, helpfully assisted by an academy product and prodigious talent in Warren Zaire-Emery, aged 17. Here was the semblance of the promised French-fused team, with younger blood and a departure from the glamour that had gone before it. They were evidence of change. And crucially, their performances suggested that it might be change for the better.
“I liked almost everything,” said head coach Luis Enrique. “The intensity from the start of the match, the speed and control of the match for 75 minutes. This match reinforces our ideas. We are all happy. It’s an almost perfect evening for me.”
Not every revolution succeeds in Paris, and they have tested a few of those in these parts. They do not always end well, not least for the architects. At PSG, change has so far not meant instant results. Luis Enrique’s side have endured the worst start to a league campaign in the QSI era.
But their victory over Borussia Dortmund suggested their summer rebuild does have shoots of promise. It was a match in which they controlled for the most part, implementing Luis Enrique’s desire to dominate the ball, but also created chances. “It’s like in school,” he said last month. “If there’s a ball, it’s either for you or for your opponent. The ball is for us, and from there we try to dominate. We always try to press so the opponent doesn’t have time, so that he’s watching the clock. So that they’re saying like (in the playground): ‘They’ve taken our ball away’.”
The opening weeks of the season have been defined by possession but with an inability to consistently create those opportunities, while making errors that conceded them to opponents. There was less of that on Tuesday evening. PSG had 11 attempts by half time and while a soft penalty set them on their way, the chances continued in the second half.
The front three were at the heart of it, interchanging positions with ease and creating space for others. Kolo Muani had the quieter evening, his best moment stemming from a turn and drive in the first half that saw his shot from the edge of the area blocked by Nico Schlotterbeck, but Mbappe was sharp and Dembele was creative; he made six chances, the most of anyone on the field, and benefitted from the driving runs of Achraf Hakimi.
“If I were a fan of any team, I would pay to see (Dembele) play,” said Luis Enrique. “He has something special about him. He can miss three times, but he’s a player with magic. He may want to score his first goal, but that’s a normal process. He’s a wonderful player.”
For Didier Deschamps, the France head coach, there could hardly be a better scenario. Kolo Muani was recently favoured as the preferred deputy to France’s all-time top goalscorer, Olivier Giroud, for France’s friendly with Germany earlier this month. He is only likely to enhance his prospects as his understanding with his new team-mates improves. He already has an assist for Mbappe, secured from the bench against Nice on Friday.
“The fact they are rubbing shoulders daily in training and with matches every three, four days, it will allow them to improve their relationship, to have even more important benchmarks and automatic movements,” said Deschamps last week, “There are only positives.”
It was not just because of their attack that optimism emerged from PSG’s Champions League opener. Tactically, it seems their understanding of Luis Enrique’s demands is slowly improving. There are multiple threats; Hakimi’s inverted runs are creating shooting opportunities and that dynamic contributed to his superb goal. There is better balance, mainly brought by Manuel Ugarte with his pressing and high work rate, which has allowed Vitinha to tackle his doubters with artistry and Zaire-Emery to stake a first-team claim.
Small things too are noticeable and reflect a mood change. Even just a simple team dynamic; when Dembele was chopped down by Schlotterbeck in the second half, his team-mates surged over to confront the Dortmund man. Marquinhos ended up bundling him over.
This was by no means a complete performance, however. Dortmund did not fashion high-quality chances and did not hit the target, but they still had 14 attempts. PSG were aided by a soft penalty too, while their league issues of stumbling over low blocks were not so apparent against a team more willing to press.
More broadly, there is evidently still a reliance on Mbappe, who has scored eight of their 12 goals so far this season. Replacing the goals and assists lost from Messi and Neymar’s exits was not going to be easy, and they will need others to step up. Only Marco Asensio and Hakimi have also scored in their first six games.
But the sense of progress is inescapable. PSG look like a football team now, in stark contrast to the nadir of the 2022-23 run-in. The supporters, who were disillusioned with the club just months ago, are cautiously embracing the change too. At full time, the PSG squad went over to celebrate with the ultras in the Virage Auteuil stand — who had applauded them on Friday despite defeat against Nice. This is a far cry from the booing during PSG’s title celebrations.
It is far too early to draw concrete conclusions, particularly with 12 new signings to integrate and adapt to a new philosophy. But victory over Dortmund was a big step forward for PSG’s new project, and a blueprint to build upon.
(Photo: Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)