Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery’s tough stance with his key players is not paying off. His side is struggling to keep up with surprise leader Nice, and if PSG loses at Lille on Friday and Nice beats Nantes, then PSG will slip nine points behind in the title race.
The pressure is mounting on Emery, who needs a convincing win to silence critics following three mediocre performances, the most recent of which exposed tension with some players.
Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Marseille also failed to give any assurances that Emery’s side is ready to stamp its authority on a league it so easily dominated last season.
The two games before that were equally underwhelming.
PSG’s 2-1 win at last-place Nancy was laborious while the 3-0 home win against FC Basel in the Champions League came with a huge slice of luck, as the modest Swiss side hit the post three times and squandered chances before PSG’s first goal. On balance of play, it could easily have ended in a draw or worse.
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It is not what was expected of a new coach hired to replace Laurent Blanc, who was fired despite guiding the club to consecutive domestic trebles.
Emery, who coached Sevilla to three straight Europa League titles, likes to impose a stringent work ethic on his teams.
There are no favorites under Emery. He made that clear as soon as he arrived, saying he considered each player to have the same status, and underlined that point again against Marseille.
First, he took off Marco Verratti after just 59 minutes, prompting a bewildered response from the highly-coveted Italy midfielder.
“I’m bad? Is he saying I’m bad?” a pitch-side camera from Canal Plus television heard Verratti asking teammates as he walked to the PSG bench.
Argentina winger Angel Di Maria, who had been jeered by the crowd, was the next to be hauled off with 15 minutes to go.
Chasing a much-needed win, Emery made the strange and daring move of taking off two of his most creative players.
Another key player, midfield dynamo Blaise Matuidi, was on the bench at the start. He was one of PSG’s best players in the last three seasons under Blanc.
Matuidi tried to leave before the season, but the club blocked his move to Italian champion Juventus with Emery insisting that he counted on him.
Yet Matuidi, who has made more than 50 appearances for France, has started only half the league games so far.
While Emery’s methods gained unanimous approval at Sevilla, he did not work with many big names there.
At star-studded PSG, his long training and video sessions are not to everyone’s liking.
His choices, too, have caused confusion.
When he left out winger Hatem Ben Arfa for several games – despite signing him in the offseason – some players publicly backed Ben Arfa.
Last month, Matuidi, Brazilian left back Maxwell, club captain Thiago Silva and defensive midfielder Thiago Motta reportedly held a meeting with Emery to air their frustrations.
Under Blanc’s stewardship, some exceptions were made for key players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, was occasionally allowed to go back home to his native Sweden on hunting trips, while Silva enjoyed tailor-made modifications to his training program.
“Players listen to you when you have won their respect,” Emery said Saturday in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper. “Right now, we haven’t reached that point. But it comes through hard work and results.”