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PSG's Champions League travails

PSG PSG are yet to get past the quarter-final stage of the Champions League since their Qatari takeover (AFP)

February 16, 2020

More than £1.16 billion. That is the amount of money Paris Saint-Germain have spent on the transfer of players from other clubs to theirs since the start of the 2011/12 season, which was when their Qatari owners took over. It does not even take into account the wages of players so the amount could well exceed far beyond £1.16 billion. Why did they do this?

While president Nasser Al-Khelaifi has not publicly stated this during his tenure, there is little doubt that his ambition for the club is to become Champions League winners, along with their domination of Ligue 1. But since the 2012/13 season, when they qualified for the premier European competition after a gap of seven seasons, they have never got past the quarter-final stage. The last three seasons have seen their journey stopped at only the last-16 stage.

Many a season it has looked as if it is a golden opportunity for the French team to finally break their hoodoo and place their hands on the European Cup. But somehow, the team have never managed to win and at key moments in the most crucial of matches, they end up having to deal with defeat rather than a generation-defining victory.

As they prepare to start another knockout tie next week against Borussia Dortmund, the ultras at Le Parc des Princes will again hope that this can be their year of glory. But have they been unlucky in the past, have they been tested in the group stages often enough, and are they playing the right way to have success?

We all remember that night in 2017 at the Camp Nou. When Sergi Roberto scored that goal in the 95th minute, fans were delirious about how it showed anything is possible and how football is the most popular and best sport in the world. But one aspect of the story that was mentioned in small circles was the fact PSG seem to get a lot of late goals scored against them, and that makes them unlucky. But is that really the case?

Since the start of the 2012/13 season, 155 goals have been scored in the last 15 minutes or in extra time of Champions League knockout stage matches. That is 25.6% of all goals scored in the competition’s knockout matches in that period. But for PSG, that percentage is quite a bit larger. They have conceded 36 goals in their knockout stage matches in the Champions League since 2013, and 15 of them have been in the last quarter of the match or later. That makes for 41.7% of all the goals they conceded in that phase of the competition.

From this statistic, it may look like they have been more unlucky than most and they have been dealt a rough hand at times. Against Manchester United last season, VAR played its part as it judged Diogo Dalot’s shot to have struck Presnel Kimpembe’s arm and gave a penalty to United in the final moments of their last-16 tie. It is still a debate whether that should have been given, so that is why people can see this as unlucky. But is luck all there is to it?

Often in second legs of ties they have lost, PSG’s defence can seem all at sea, while they do not look like making many chances of their own. The first leg of that tie against Barcelona in 2017, which PSG won 4-0 and could have won by more, saw wave upon wave of attack from PSG. There was the odd moment of magic from Barcelona, but the home side thoroughly deserved their lead. But the second leg was much more of a role reversal. They went into their shell and allowed Lionel Messi and co to wreak havoc.

A way to see this in a statistic is the number of passes taken per shot. Of course, Barcelona will make more passes per shot than most teams, but in their other losses, PSG work harder for shots than their opposition. Apart from Barcelona, in their Champions League losses, they have averaged 70.5 passes per shot. Their opposition have averaged 49.3 passes per shot. While this statistic is not completely revelatory, it does show they are working harder than their opponents and it may pay to shoot more often.

Another factor which people think plays a part in PSG’s knockout failures is whether they are being tested enough in the group stage and in their own league. While the competition in Ligue 1 is another discussion, the perception they are not tested enough in the group stage is also another myth. In the last five seasons, they have had to face Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Liverpool respectively in the group stage.

They have also had success against these big teams in the group stage, because they average four wins per group stage in the last seven seasons. This season they were unbeaten in a group with Real Madrid and recorded five wins from their six matches. This type of record is comparable to the winners of the competition in the last seven seasons. But the last three seasons, Madrid and Liverpool have won three, four and three matches in their group respectively.

There is no way you can plan a defeat to happen and teams will always go to win every game they play, but maybe the lack of losses in less important matches explain why they have not been able to get over the line in knockouts. The old adage of you need to lose before you win may still hold here but PSG will hope it is not too many more painful experiences before they can celebrate a victory on the biggest stage.