The clue was in the number. “A press conference will take place on Wednesday 1 February at 15:30 at Parc des Princes to present Thiago Motta, who will wear the number 28,” read the brief statement released by Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. Motta is a European champion and an Italy international, who cost the not insignificant sum of €10 million, but he was not the star signing that PSG had been hoping to announce on the final day of the transfer window. To paraphrase Garry Cook’s famous remark about Richard Dunne, he doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in Beijing.
There are vacant numbers in the current PSG squad list that could have adorned replica shirts liable to be torn off the rails in the club shop. Alexandre Pato might have chosen the number 11 shirt that he wore at Internacional and has sported at times for Brazil. The number eight that Kaká wears for Real Madrid is also unattributed. With Jérémy Ménez in possession of the number seven shirt and Mohamed Sissoko the number 23, David Beckham had been lined up for the number 32 jersey. After the Englishman’s abrupt volte-face, that shirt was earmarked for Carlos Tevez. But neither he, nor Beckham, nor Kaká, nor Pato will be seen in PSG’s iconic strip this season.
PSG made four signings in January – with Motta following Maxwell, Alex and new fourth-choice goalkeeper Ronan Le Crom through the door – but none of them were the marquee names that had held the local media in a state of permanent breathless excitement since the transfer window loomed onto the horizon in mid-December. Although Motta was relinquished reluctantly by Internazionale, Chelsea were quite happy to cede Alex and Maxwell left Barcelona with little fanfare.
There are few more glamorous locations than Paris and few clubs in the world capable of matching PSG’s huge spending power, but Ligue 1’s low international profile – coupled with the absence of European football at Parc des Princes in the second half of the season – has frustrated the club’s efforts to attract the kind of players who generate global interest.
Missing out on Beckham, Pato and Tevez in such public fashion would have been embarrassing enough without the French press having trumpeted their arrivals with such confidence. Beckham was said to be “95 percent” certain to come to Paris, with L’Équipe picturing him beneath the headline ‘Here he is!’ in their December 21 issue and Le Parisien reporting that he had agreed a contract worth €800,000 a month. Reports that Manchester City had agreed to sell Tevez to PSG were met with an immediate rebuttal from the current Premier League leaders, while it took Pato less than 24 hours to nix reports of his arrival by issuing a statement declaring his commitment to Milan.
PSG have spent close to €105 million on new signings this season but they are still searching for the player capable of taking their merchandising clout to the next level. Javier Pastore’s €42 million switch from Palermo may have shattered the Ligue 1 transfer record but, as former Marseille president Bernard Tapie was only too happy to point out in an interview that appeared prior to Christmas, hardly any of PSG’s signings are regular, first-choice internationals. Not Ménez, not Kévin Gameiro, not Blaise Matuidi. Not even Pastore. Diego Lugano may be the captain of Uruguay but his early performances have been unconvincing to say the least.
Matters have been clouded by the club’s inconsistent transfer strategy. Antoine Kombouaré, sacked in late December, had already signed goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez and centre-back Milan Biševac when incoming sporting director Leonardo decided to assert his authority by bringing in his own men. Salvatore Sirigu arrived from Palermo to snatch the number one jersey from Douchez’s disbelieving fingers, while Lugano’s transfer from Fenerbahçe bumped Biševac down the pecking order in central defence (although he has since re-surfaced at right-back). It was like watching the comings and goings of the Sheikh Mansour era at Manchester City condensed into the space of four weeks.
The result is that Carlo Ancelotti finds himself embarking on the second part of the campaign with a squad containing six centre-backs and five central midfielders but only two senior strikers in Gameiro and Guillaume Hoarau, following the sale of Mevlüt Erding to Rennes. Few expected the new coach to confirm the popular stereotype about the defensive priorities of Italian football so quickly.
Compounding the imbalance in the squad is the fact that PSG have got very little time to get things right. Last summer’s takeover by Qatar Sports Investments gave the club unprecedented muscle in the transfer market but the imminent imposition of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules means that we are in the end game of European football’s great spending boom. The noticeable dip in expenditure during the January transfer window demonstrated that the continent’s top clubs are nervously tightening their belts in view of the uncertain challenges ahead. Against that backdrop, PSG are like the man who sweeps into his neighbourhood to show off a brand new gas-guzzling Lamborghini, only to find that all his neighbours are shrewdly investing in hybrid cars.
On the pitch, things remain on track. The players have responded favourably to Ancelotti’s more varied training sessions and consecutive wins over Toulouse and Brest have preserved their three-point advantage at the Ligue 1 summit. Champions League qualification is on course and Leonardo will find it much easier to assemble a star-studded cast next summer if the stage is set for a tilt at the club game’s biggest prize.
Tactically, Ancelotti was quick to introduce the 4-3-2-1 formation that he deployed with success at Milan and – on occasion – Chelsea. Alex will likely compete with Lugano for the right to partner captain Mamadou Sakho at centre-back, while the elegant Mathieu Bodmer (who has been appointed vice-captain) appears to have been earmarked for the deep-lying midfield role that Andrea Pirlo made his own under Ancelotti’s command at Milan. Injuries to Pastore and Ménez mean Ancelotti has yet to address the problem of how to configure his attack when everybody is fit, but the 3-1 win over Toulouse in the Italian’s first home game provided a clue, with Ménez, Pastore and the irrepressible Nenê fielded in a fluid front three while Gameiro looked on forlornly from the bench.
The “almost” in Leonardo’s assertion that PSG did “almost everything we wanted to” in the transfer market barely disguised a multitude of disappointments, but a first league title in 18 years would make the club a much more palatable proposition for the stars that currently reside just beyond their ever-widening orbit.