PSG: The Absence of Joy

Cavani and Ibra

Watching PSG on TV is an odd experience. The talk is inevitably centred around the Parisians, but you can tell that everyone – unless you’re a PSG fan – is yearning for an underdog victory.

In fact, surely there are times when even PSG fans wish the opposition would put up a bit more of a fight! Surely there are only so many times you can watch your team win 3-0 without having to try? It must be boring. Unless you’re the kind of person who is entertained by the random and incomprehensibly weird hashtags and gimmicks that make up PSG’s Twitter account.

Everyone seems so unanimously unsurprised when PSG score. There’s more excitement for an opposition throw-in than there is for a PSG goal.

Yet this isn’t the case in other leagues that have dominant teams. Clearly PSG are so far ahead of the pack that they’ll have the title won mathematically while players are still taking to the pitch in gloves, but we probably expect something similar in Germany too.

Bayern Munich lost their first league game of the season at the weekend, but the league table looks very much like that of Ligue 1 with one important difference: even though PSG are 15 points clear of Angers in second, Bayern are only five points clear of Dortmund.

This suggests that there are at least two extra meaningful games a year in Germany. But the majority of the games involving Bayern Munich are just as one-sided as the games involving PSG; after all, Bayern did beat Dortmund 5-1 this season. There’s still a clear gulf in class.

However, when Bayern have the game won by the 30th minute, it doesn’t seem to create the same amount of disinterest. The crowd, the TV audience, even the commentators – everyone seems to continue to enjoy watching Lewandowski, Muller and Robben and we don’t seem to feel short-changed when we watch them win: we’re just happy to lap up the wonderful football and the work of genuine artists.

You rarely root for the underdog when you watch these games. The bigger dogs are just so good that you want to watch them play well. You want to see them pull off moments of magic, even if the team they’re doing it against are simply unable to defend themselves.

But PSG is a different story. Rather than hear an excited journalist and an ex-professional bark on about how good Ibrahimovic is and how he’s a joy to watch, when PSG score all we get is a dull acknowledgement of a goal. If you had the game on, but weren’t watching it – say you were doing something more exciting instead, like reading Tolstoy – the commentator’s monotone reaction wouldn’t be enough to make you look up at the screen to see what had happened.

Watching a PSG game in Ligue 1 these days is a lot like tuning into the lottery draw. It’s a dull and hollowing experience. In the end, it’s the hope that kills you. And if you’re hoping to see an underdog victory, just for that small and vanishing dream that some other team can push Ibra and co into an actual title race, then you’re left with the experience most lottery players end up with. Sometimes, as with Angers’ draw versus PSG last week, you win a tenner, but normally you get nothing but broken dreams and disappointment.

After winning that tenner in the midweek draw, we were optimistic for the weekend draw. But that was foolish of us, wasn’t it? Nice have probably been the most impressive team in Ligue 1 this season, at least in terms of entertainment. The way they picked the pockets of the PSG midfield in the first half and launched their counter-attacks showed that they had something about them. But PSG beat them comfortably. Even if Niklas Hult hadn’t been shown a red card for his (minimal) pull on Ibrahimovic, Ibra would have scored and it would have been 2-0 before half time. Still a comfortable victory for the Parisians, then.

The difference between Ligue 1’s dominant side and the other dominant sides around Europe is that the likes of Bayern Munich try to make things interesting. For themselves as much as for anyone else. They score great goals and they come off the pitch laughing and joking. And that inspires a similar reaction in anyone watching them.

PSG aren’t that entertaining – they are a machine. They are built to try to compete on a European level, but at the moment they are programmed to beat the likes of Nice and Bastia with a frighteningly efficient ruthlessness. Even beating teams like Shakhtar Donetsk – who, sadly, are a team brutally affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine – with the same efficiency is just as meaningless. They’re good enough to win Ligue 1 easily, and good enough to get out of their Champions League group. The real problem is, can a machine programmed to beat Ligue 1’s ‘rest’ beat Europe’s ‘best’?

It’s not just PSG’s dominance that makes the latter stages of European competition harder for them; it’s their attitude towards their dominance. Even if Bayern Munich do get to play a hard game twice a year in the league, in their easier games they instill a love of beautiful football in their team and their fans; all the different strands of the club seem to revel in victory, even when it’s over teams where the victory is surely the bare minimum.

By contrast, PSG come off the pitch every week looking like they’ve come out of work. The postman doesn’t celebrate delivering the post, right? But surely it takes inventiveness to beat the bigger teams, and surely if you can’t be inventive against middling Ligue 1 teams you have no chance against Europe’s best sides.

PSG don’t need to win every week in order to win the league, but they do need to play well most weeks in order to progress as a team. When it’s clear that PSG are going to win the league, all anyone can hope for is some entertaining football. But games like we’ve seen over the last few months are bad for everyone. They’re bad for the league, bad for the fans, and bad for PSG. It’s the lack of inventiveness that is killing PSG, because they’re getting so used to blandness. Maybe that explains why they’re so entertained by the Twitter account.

By Chris McMullen. Follow Chris on Twitter and read more on his blog, What Matters is Joy.

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