Those who don’t watch PSG’s Ligue 1 games would be forgiven for assuming Neymar fulfils the role of Hollywood diva.
Ever since he traded Barcelona for Paris, there have been rumours about the special treatment he is afforded.
From two personal physios and immunity from strong tackles in training to exemption from defensive drills, the Brazilian’s supposed demands are often cited as evidence of his detrimental ego.
Unai Emery claimed Neymar had more power than he did when the Spaniard was coach of the Parisian club.
However, it seems Thomas Tuchel has wrestled control back in favour of the coaching staff since his appointment in 2018.
Under previous management, Neymar showed little interest during the rare phases of play PSG didn’t have the ball.
It was almost as if he thought it was a waste of his energy pressing Strasbourg’s players with a 4-0 cushion as a safety net.
And he was generally forgiven for his lack of enthusiasm, mostly because he averages almost exactly a goal every game in Ligue 1 since his record-breaking transfer.
This season, however, there’s been a notable change in the 27-year-old’s attitude to the dirty side of the game.
Tuchel has implemented a 4-4-2 formation in recent weeks to accommodate the ‘fantastic four’ of Neymar, Angel Di Maria, Mauro Icardi and Kylian Mbappe.
Given the PSG’s superiority in France, this 4-4-2 often morphs into a 4-2-4 with the former pair switching from ‘wingers’ to fully-fledged forwards.
This ambitious tactic requires the superstars to put a shift in when out of possession and Tuchel has been impressed with Neymar’s work rate.
Speaking about the Brazilian and Mbappe, the former Borussia Dortmund coach said: “They defend with a lot of intensity.
“We have to have ten accomplices on the field. We need to have the same spirit and style, the same hunger to win.
“Neymar, after 88 minutes, he defends 20 yards from our goal and closes spaces.
“He ran a lot defensively, it’s really amazing.”
Nobody will be more amazed than Emery, who may not recognise the diligent runner from the prima donna who once feuded with team-mate Edinson Cavani over penalty duties.
In a post-match interview, Mbappe recently joked: “Even Neymar tackles for PSG now.”
The 21-year-old Frenchman has responded to Tuchel’s tutelage in a similar manner after some criticism concerning his adoption of his good friend Neymar’s lethargy at times last season.
Some will now be asking: who cares?
Whether Neymar and Mbappe care about defence or not, PSG will win Ligue 1 by a comfortable margin, right?
While that may be true, PSG have become a club who are defined by the Champions League.
Their owners are obsessed with Europe’s premier club competition and are desperate to shed the tag of ‘flat-track bullies’.
Until the club stop embarrassing themselves in Europe, they will be nothing more than champions of a ‘farmers’ league’ in the eyes of many.
- 2013/14: Eliminated by Chelsea in the quarter-finals after throwing away a 3-1 lead from the first leg
- 2014/15: Humbled by a Neymar-inspired Barcelona in the quarter-finals
- 2015/16: Lost 3-2 on aggregate to Man City in the quarter-finals
- 2016/17: Eliminated by Barcelona in the round of 16 after losing the second leg 6-1, having won the first 4-0
- 2017/18: Given in a lesson mentality by Real Madrid in the round of 16
- 2018/19: Eliminated by Man United in the round of 16 after throwing away a 2-0 lead from the first leg
One possible reason for the repeated failures is that by the time the Champions League knockout stages begin, PSG are so accustomed to playing teams who offer minimal resistance they are unable to adapt when pitted against teams of a higher standard.
In France’s top flight, Neymar can add a Man of the Match award to his collection without shifting into third gear.
When he’s suddenly faced with the competitive environment of a European knockout tie, he is unable to influence games while operating at 50% capacity.
Perhaps Tuchel is demanding his star players work hard for the team in league fixtures in an attempt to minimise the difference between PSG’s base performance and the required effort to progress in Europe.
If Neymar and Mbappe are used to pressing and tracking against Dijon, Metz and Brest, they’ll be ready to give their all from the first minute against Dortmund in February.
That’s the theory, anyway.
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