After the rush of exhilaration, the comedown. Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-2 win away to Bayern Munich on Wednesday was extraordinary, full of high-tempo drama, of brilliant players doing brilliant things – so long as it wasn’t defending. There were great goals, great saves, great crosses, injuries all over the place, and by the time it was over, the eternal nearly men of PSG had ended the European champions’ 19-game unbeaten run in the competition. And yet in the cold light of morning, it’s perhaps impossible not to feel a slight qualm: it was magnificent, but was it football?
It was a superior example of the type, but this was a game typical of the latter stages of today’s Champions League. After the dutiful slog of the group stages, the frenzied bacchanal of the knockouts. This is the upside of the financial structure of modern football. Create a small elite of super-rich clubs so they can concentrate the best players at a handful of franchises and this is the sort of quality that can ensue.
When they are so dominant domestically – and that PSG have been challenged by Lille this season does not change the overall picture – that they have forgotten how to defend, when the only real threats to their supremacy are lethargy and complacency, the result is the end-to-end slugfest of Wednesday.
And this, of course, is what the elite want. They want more games like this, more matches of almost overwhelming quality and fun. And perhaps the proposed new format of the Champions League will still provide that in the knockout stages, the structure of which will not change. But nobody should think Bayern v PSG in the lengthy pre-Christmas league phase of the new competition would be anything like that.
Imagine exactly the same game transplanted to the group in 2024. Even with exactly the same football, the same goals, the same result, it would not have the same feel. Bayern would not be facing the same fear of going out; all that would happen would be that their following game, away to, say, Legia Warsaw or Midtjylland, would become fractionally more stressful. Nor would PSG be gripped by the same sense that destiny was there to be clasped, that, inspired by Mauricio Pochettino’s harnessing of universal energy to fight as they have never fought before, they might finally begin to pay back all the investment from the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar with a meaningful trophy.
For precisely those reasons, the game would not pan out in the same way, because there would be no sense of jeopardy, none of the adrenal rush that comes when elimination is at stake. What is signified is conditioned by the context of the signifier, but so too is the form of the signifier.
Whether the general defensive shambles matters is probably also context-dependent. If everybody has forgotten how to defend, as often seems to be the case in the latter stages of the Champions League, then games will be thrilling spectacles like this. But the more the superclubs play each other, the less they are battering Angers or Dijon, Mainz or Schalke, the better their defending is likely to get. The paradoxical result of a quasi-superleague designed primarily to draw eyeballs is that it may, like Serie A in the 80s, be more attractive to the purist than the casual observer.
But the idea that defensive solidity is where clubs may be able to gain a competitive advantage at this stage of the Champions League is no secret. Jürgen Klopp acknowledged as much after Liverpool had drawn 0-0 at Anfield against Bayern the season before last (before winning 3-1 in Munich, the last time Bayern had lost in Europe before Wednesday).
Bayern’s extremely high line last season always seemed a gamble, but the compactness of their midfield and the discipline of their press meant it was never exposed. This season, with 35 goals conceded in 27 Bundesliga games, has been a different matter. What Mbappé did was the continuation of a trend.
In that, the game recalled another 3-2 home loss for a defending champion in the quarter-final: Manchester United’s second-leg defeat by Real Madrid in 2000. United, like Bayern, had more than enough chances to have won comfortably. That they did not prompted a major rethink. Alex Ferguson had previously worked on the basis that if his side had 20 chances and the opposition five, they would usually win. But that, especially against a high-class opponent ruthless on the counter, meant risk: far safer to have five chances and deny the opposition any.
The game is different now, tactically and structurally. Hansi Flick, Bayern’s head coach, may not feel the need for a similar revolution. But what is intriguing is the attempts by other coaches remaining in this season’s Champions League to present a more balanced approach. The greatest achievement of Pep Guardiola over the past few months may not be his domestic results so much as the overhaul of his midfield to offer additional protection in Europe – although the biggest test of that is probably yet to come.
Thomas Tuchel, similarly, although of the same German school as Flick (and it’s a sign of the dominance of that mode that half the quarter-finalists are managed by Germans), practises a far more cautious variant.
The fun is only part of it. Games like Wednesday’s should be enjoyed, but it’s worth perhaps being aware of the economic structures that make them possible – and worth also being aware that fun does not often win trophies.