Paris: Paris St-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel made a bold move by standing up to big names at a club where player power usually rules.
He dropped 19-year-old France forward Kylian Mbappe, widely tipped as football’s next superstar, and midfielder Adrien Rabiot for the game at Marseille on Sunday night.
Both players are Parisian-born and fully understood the importance of the match for PSG fans against the club’s bitter rivals. Yet both turned up late to a prematch team talk, something Tuchel simply could not excuse and he left them out of the starting line-up.
“(It was) a disciplinary situation. We needed to do that,” Tuchel said unapologetically on Canal Plus television. “It’s like that.”
Mbappe came off the bench in the second half and scored the first goal in a 2-0 win which sent PSG to an 11th straight league win. It was also the World Cup star’s 10th league goal so far, in just seven games for him.
Rabiot, who refused to be on France’s reserves list for the World Cup and has long been negotiating a new PSG contract, came on about 10 minutes from time.
Despite his authoritative decision-making, which was backed by PSG winger Julian Draxler, the coach was surprisingly downbeat and sounded almost despondent after the game.
“I don’t like playing without Kylian,” he said. “I hate it.”
Tuchel was then was then asked if it was a good day for him as a coach.
“For me, personally, no,” he said, his head dropping and his voice trailing off. “For me it was quite tough today.”
It has been a topsy-turvy week for Tuchel, who saw his side fall behind twice and dominated for long spells in a 2-2 home draw with Napoli in the Uefa Champions League on Wednesday. That draw leaves PSG third in their group and in danger of not qualifying for the round of 16.
If so, Tuchel would become the first PSG coach knocked out of the group stage since cash-rich investors took over at the club seven years ago.
On the other hand, his team are coasting in the league with 39 goals in 11 games and the best defence.
Tuchel has earned praise from the French media for his player management skills, often touted as a counterpoint to his predecessor Unai Emery, but the decision to drop Mbappe seemed to weigh heavily on him.
Perhaps with good reason, for it puts him in a potentially difficult position because star players often have their own way at PSG.
Such is the club’s desire to win the Champions League and join Europe’s elite, some players have been seemingly indulged.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, was allowed days off to go hunting in the forests of his native Sweden. Others, such as Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore, returned late from the mid-season winter break — which even led to public criticism from their own captain, Thiago Silva.
Pampering stars has not had the necessary outcome, either, with PSG unable to get beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the past seven years. In the past two years, PSG have failed to reach the quarters, leading to Emery’s departure and Tuchel’s arrival.
Despite his friendly and easy-going appearance, Tuchel is a disciplinarian and firm on principles such as cutting out sugary drinks on the team bus and strict timekeeping. At a club with such lofty ambitions, these should be rudimentary.
Yet the way Mbappe was comforted before Sunday’s game, even by the vastly experienced goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, suggests he got the sympathy vote rather than Tuchel getting the understanding.
Even Tuchel seemed anxiously keen to encourage Mbappe before the teenage forward went on in the 62nd minute, wrapping a consoling arm around him as if to apologise for the sanction.
Still, Tuchel was at least supported by Draxler, who scored the second goal against Marseille.
“It’s something between the coach and the player, but for me it’s clear the club is more important than a single player,” Draxler said. “The coach will decide what he wants and we won, so he’s right.”