Mauricio Pochettino looked tired with his hands in his pockets and his brow furrowed for much of Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-1 loss to Manchester City on Wednesday night.
This is not the Pochettino team. They have none of the characteristics of his tactical philosophy, none of the characteristics – neither technical nor psychological – to suggest that players listen to his instructions.
The Argentine demands collectivism and hard work to embrace his Bielsa-inspired football with vertical, pressing lines.
PSG are the exact opposite: three forwards wandering carefree on the pitch, seemingly indifferent to helping their team-mates and, as a result, undermining Pochettino at every turn.
We all know these superstars hold all the power; that Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar have a free license.
But being inside the stadium on Wednesday, keeping an eye on the top three at all times and not just when the camera is pointing their way, gave a whole new perspective on the extraordinary situation at PSG.
Pochettino has given up on trying to convey his usual tactics, instead embracing the kind of conservative counterattack football that he would never have accepted at Tottenham Hotspur or Espanyol.
It is a pragmatic and rational way of dealing with the unprecedented situation of being a manager with the full support of the board of directors but holding less authority than the players.
Where Pochettino wants a high collective press, PSG must fall back into a low bloc and only defend its own third party.
Where he wants precise trades in midfield, he has to accept longer passes to walking forwards – which then slow down the game.
Their Champions League strategy – eight players curled up and doing all the dirty work, while forwards lounging around and trying to do something at the break – is perfectly captured in their urgent stats.
PSG rank fifth in the Champions League for pressure applied in their own third (330) but rank in the bottom three for pressure in the middle and the third striker (255 and 114).
They shouldn’t be such extreme outliers on both ends. Only Malmo and Sheriff are also unbalanced.
It all, every tactical issue that leaves PSG unable to fight for the Champions League this season, comes down to the presence of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe.
The TV camera has to follow the ball, and so when PSG are seated, defending in two lines of four and three, attackers are often not on screen.
It would be fair to assume that they are watching diligently, moving in a specific pattern designed to pin down some of the opposition defenders while waiting for chances of a counterattack.
This is not what is happening.
Nine times out of 10, Messi, Neymar and Mbappe are walking, looking in the wrong direction or standing completely still with their hands on their hips.
Most often, they are grouped together on the same side of the field, a good twenty yards offside and in no position to be available for the pass in case of transition.
Throughout the game at the Etihad, which Man City completely dominated with an impeccably choreographed team performance showing all that PSG was lacking, Pochettino’s forwards failed to do the most basic things.
No matter the defense (and, clearly, neither of them will ever block a passing lane or press the ball), they weren’t even making the right runs.
Ander Herrera would have possession in the left channel, for example, and would need a simple 10-yard sprint over Messi’s line to open the pitch. It would not come.
It happened over and over again, with Messi being the worst offender but not the only one.
Neymar and Mbappe were playing futsal, attempting something fun and frivolous at every opportunity. All three forwards looked visibly frustrated when forced to pass short or back.
This is not how a modern football club should operate. It’s a fable about the influence of money, a consequence of the fact that Qatar Sports Investments brought such wealth to Paris.
The lesson, clearly, is that tactical acumen and collective sacrifice are still the building blocks of sport – which is a great relief for all of us, and explains schadenfreude when it comes to PSG issues.
PSG owners are unlikely to learn this lesson anytime soon. A surprising record of reaching the final and semi-final of the last two Champions Leagues suggests they are doing very well, despite being red herrings and the situation is only getting worse.
In addition, being 11 points ahead at the top of Ligue 1 and social media inundated with images of an iconic trio in PSG shirts show that Qatar’s project is working at a certain level.
But it’s not a serious team and not even an interesting one. This is certainly not a project for someone as talented and demanding as Pochettino, who naturally wants to join Manchester United as soon as possible. At least at Old Trafford, he would be able to make big calls and sculpt the club in his image.
As GOAL have revealed, PSG are set to let Pochettino go at the end of the season and that certainly makes sense for both sides given that Zinedine Zidane is waiting behind the scenes.
Zidane – who won three Champions League titles with Real Madrid controlling his ego, playing safe football and winning the ‘moments’ – is a much better fit.
But Zidane’s Real side had determined and seasoned winners like Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo in their prime.
PSG, on the other hand, are full of aging superstars, many of whom – judging by the 2-1 loss to Man City – just don’t care enough.