Mbappe v Neymar: PSG penalties suddenly becoming a man-management issue

Christophe Galtier must soothe signs of friction as such tensions have a habit of escalating at the club

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When Christophe Galtier took over as the head coach of Paris Saint-Germain, he made a point of clarifying his robust rules. The emphasis was on teamwork ahead of ego, self-sacrifice ahead of indulgence. He delivered the message with authority. He knew it was what PSG supporters, tired of watching a superstar ensemble underachieve at the highest level, namely Europe, wanted to hear.

Galtier, who last month became the fourth man to take up the job in a little over four years, had good reason to believe some players needed to listen hard. It has been, over the past decade at PSG, to see individual ambition, a desire to be the brightest light in Paris as detrimental to the collective. Neymar has been booed by home fans in phases of his five seasons in Paris for a perceived lack of team discipline. Lionel Messi was jeered once or twice last season when his standards slipped below those he used to set at Barcelona. This time last year, Kylain Mbappe was being whistled from some sections of the Parc des Princes because his ambitions appeared set on a move to Real Madrid.

Galtier arrived with Mbappe freshly committed to a future at PSG, having signed a mould-breaking deal in terms of wages and explicit assurances that he, Mbappe, would be regarded as the figurehead star at a club urgently chasing its first European Cup and then several more. At 23, Mbappe should be part of that plan longer than Messi, 35, or Neymar, 30. But Galtier’s one-for-all, all-for-one message applied to every generation of star. His feedback was that he had been heard and understood.

During pre-season training, with his various international players returned from their summer breaks, Galtier and his staff also drew up their strategy for penalties. There would be an established, set hierarchy of the various expert sharp-shooters from the spot.

There is a strong quartet of them. Messi has converted more than 100 penalties in his career, with a 77 per cent success rate. Sergio Ramos mastered the art in his 30s, and has an overall 85 per cent record of goals-per-attempts. Neymar, with his pitter-patter run up, is entitled to boast of his 82 per cent hit-rate; of his 85 spot-kicks as a professional, 70 have been scored. As a Neymar loyalists posted on social media at the weekend. ‘No club in the world should have Neymar as second-choice penalty-taker rather than first.’

That post was later ‘liked’ by an account attached to Neymar himself. That, and the approval from Neymar-linked accounts of other posts critical of Mbappe following Saturday’s 5-2 victory over Montpellier, on top of incidents during the match now present Galtier with his most serious man-management issue since he took over.

PSG ratings v Montpellier

Two games into the Ligue 1 season, PSG penalties are suddenly an issue. Mbappe (25 career penalties and 20 goals from them: 80% effectiveness) is Galtier’s designated first-choice penalty taker if the French striker is on the pitch, Neymar his deputy. But against Montpellier, Mbappe duly stepped up to take a spot-kick that would have opened the scoring after 23 minutes. Goalkeeper Jonas Omlin saved.

Come the second half, with PSG 1-0 up thanks to a Montpellier own goal, another penalty was awarded to the Ligue 1 champions. A brief conversation between Mbappe and Neymar preceded Neymar taking the spot-kick and doubling the lead.

Neymar scored with a header soon afterwards, continuing his impressive form in the short season so far, a campaign that only really began for Mbappe, who was suspended and short of fitness until last week, against Montpellier. He had spent the previous two games, a 4-0 win over Nantes in the Trophee des Champions, and a 5-0 league victory over Clermont, watching Neymar and Messi shine.

Word is that in training last week, Mbappe seemed a little withdrawn. What was clear to everyone at the Parc on Saturday was that, when Mbappe made a run to make himself available for a through-ball from Vitinha, he vividly, ostentatiously gestured his irritation at teammates when the ball did not come to him.

Galtier sought to soothe these signs of friction. Of the penalty hierarchy, he said it had been respected because it was “logical” that Neymar, “the number two penalty-taker” should take the second kick, Mbappe having been denied from the spot earlier on. If Mbappe seemed edgy, it was because he was returning to action after a break. “When you’re physically catching-up, you get more stressed,” said Galtier.

He hardly needed reminding that at PSG, these sorts of tensions have a habit of escalating. In 2017 there were undisguised disagreements, on the pitch, between Neymar and the club’s then centre-forward Edinson Cavani, over who should have priority with penalties, casting a cloud over internal relationships. PSG’s form may be breezily untroubled - three competitive games, with 14 goals scored - but there are tougher tests to come, notably against Lille at the weekend, and the all-star attack needs to be seen to be acting in unison.

Updated: August 16, 2022, 4:46 AM