PSG opt for free winners over lavish transfers to revive trophy-hunting ambitions

French giants have signed a trio of 'winning personalities' on free deals as Pochettino aims to reassert domestic dominance and finally land the Champions League

Having spent the last 10 years learning that heavy spending does not guarantee the most coveted medals, Paris Saint-Germain devoted the last 10 weeks to gathering up serial medallists for free.

The French club, whose transfer outgoings since they came under Qatari ownership in 2011 exceed €1.25 billion ($1.49bn), have had an active but so far relatively austere summer in the marketplace.

It has brought in the man voted the best player at Euro 2021, Gianluigi Donnarumma. It has delivered the footballer with the best sweep of titles of any active player, Sergio Ramos. It has galvanised midfield options with Georginio Wijnaldum, European Cup-winner and Premier League champion with a record-breaking Liverpool.

Each arrived with their previous contracts – at AC Milan, Real Madrid and Liverpool respectively – expired, so with no fee payable. Their vast salaries are of course boosted by that fact, but PSG are also paying them handsomely partly so their trophy-winning knack rubs off on the club.

They begin the new season this weekend in the Trophee des Champions, the traditional French league curtain-raiser, which, unusually, is to be staged in Tel Aviv. It is the showpiece PSG normally qualify for as reigning Ligue 1 title holders. This year Lille have that honour, their wealthier opponents invited only as holders of the French Cup.

That was PSG’s consolation prize from a 2020-21 where they finished second in Ligue 1 and lost to Manchester City in the semi-final of the trophy they really yearn for – the Champions League.

Since that disappointing end to last season, Marco Verratti, the PSG midfielder, has won the European championship, along with Donnarumma and PSG full-back Alessandro Florenzi with Italy. Angel Di Maria, the PSG winger, struck the winning goal for Argentina in the final of the Copa America, celebrating it with club colleague Leandro Paredes.

There’s more glint of fresh medals, too, in the transfer business PSG have done with fees involved. They spent around €60m on Achraf Hakimi, the 22-year-old Moroccan right-back, owner of a Serie A title from his impressive season at Inter Milan. In his teens, Hakimi also won a Champions League winners’ medal with Real Madrid.

“They all have winning personalities,” said PSG head coach Mauricio Pochettino of the new arrivals. “They have shown they know how to win things at other clubs and that they want to take PSG to the top. They will give their utmost to do that.”

Pochettino can testify that lesser prizes come easily to the richest club in France. His own managerial career, trophyless through his time at Espanyol, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, gained its first piece of silverware after only three matches in charge of PSG, when he oversaw victory in last season’s delayed Trophee des Champions.

That was in January, Pochettino having just replaced the sacked Thomas Tuchel. In May, he took charge of the successful defence of the French Cup. Four days later, PSG were pipped to the Ligue 1 title by Lille, and Pochettino inherited the unfortunate distinction of finishing as a runner-up with the club who had won seven of the previous eight French league titles.

Granted, PSG had been third in the table when Tuchel left, so Pochettino inherited a deficit in the title race. He has the club’s faith, still, and a contract until 2023. But he is in no doubt that delivering the biggest prize, the Champions League, is an expectation, that he is in charge of a squad set up to achieve that, and that, dazzling though it is, it contains some dilemmas to test his decision-making.

In goal, for instance. Donnarumma, 23, has not been hired to warm the bench, but Keylor Navas, 34, has been an excellent goalkeeper for PSG. The position may be rotated, with the experienced Navas perhaps reserved for European matches and Donnarumma used in Ligue 1.

Hakimi’s energy up and down the flank opens the possibility of a wing-back system, with Sergio Ramos – who will miss this weekend with injury – in a back three alongside captain Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe. Wijnaldum’s expert pressing should allow Verratti freedom to occupy the advanced midfield role Pochettino likes to see the Italian play in.

As for the sharp end of the pitch, the most expensive pairing of forwards ever put together at a club, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – combined cost: €400m – are still at PSG, although Mbappe has less than a year left on a contract he shows no urgency to renew.

Pochettino’s other big test is to persuade Mbappe his long-term future should be in Paris and convince the striker that the European Cup will be coming there very soon.

Updated: July 30th 2021, 3:54 AM
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