A lot of words can be used to describe Paul Merson but he tends to get away with the term ‘pundit’ more than anything else. Well, anything that I could write before the 9pm watershed that is. In fact, the definition of pundit reads: “an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called upon to give their opinions to the public.” So, technically, not really a pundit either. A talking head would be more precise.
Why am I talking about Merson you ask? Well, he’s obviously paid to make ridiculous statements and cause furore on the internet. At first, I believed he was being honest and those idiotic hot takes were unfiltered stupidity coming out at an alarming rate but you sense his employers have realised that being controversial sells, drives people to read his brainless columns and retweet or share his random outbursts to the masses. A sense of he might be a fool but he’s our money-making fool.
“I could win the league with Olympiakos,” was his famous quip about Marco Silva following his appointment at Hull City. The idea it’s easy to manage a big side is incredibly naive but then again, this is Merson we’re talking about here. He famously took a Championship side to the bottom of League One. Now that is something anyone could do, Paul, even me!
There’s a reason so much chopping and changing goes on at the elite clubs and that’s because anything but continued success is considered a failure. We’ve already seen Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have their futures called into question at some point during this league campaign. At times you’re carrying the brand as opposed to realistic aims but even still, there’s huge pressure to deliver week in, week out. A brief stumble and you’re edging towards fraud territory.
Of course, the way to avoid this under-the-microscope pressure cooker is to win every game and every title possible. Easy. Yet, even then, that’s not considered enough by some demanding fan bases. I can’t remember the exact moment it happened but there was a shift in the general, casual supporters from calm and rational to unacceptable and unrealistic ambitions. No longer were bumps in the road tolerable as it was easier to cry ‘conspiracy’ or ‘flops’ instead. One player could be the man of the match but the next time he gave away the ball, off with his head! Or sell him, it varies.
No greater example of this is in the battle between Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona tonight. Both sets of fans act as if they have a divine right to win their domestic leagues and can’t even begin to contemplate finishing second. Domestic cup competitions? Forget those, but don’t you dare fail to win those either. Everything hinges on the Champions League. Failure to achieve European success for a season or two and you’re gone pal, regardless of what trophies you have in your cabinet. Like a spoilt child, nothing is ever enough.
Now I’d like to point out that this isn’t true of every fan. Some can look beyond the dream to win everything, which is understandable when you support a big club, and accept that sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green or another side simply played better than you. No one is to blame, there isn’t an agenda from football’s governing body, but that in a single game any side can win. That’s what makes football so great and popular around the world: the unpredictability of it.
Luis Enrique has won LaLiga in both his seasons in charge of Barcelona, as well as both Copa del Rey titles. In his first season, he won the Champions League and also boasts a UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and a Spanish Super Cup. Yes, in two and a half seasons, he’s amassed eight trophies and is already in another Copa del Rey final this year. So why are fans getting on his back? I have no idea.
An argument levelled at Barcelona last term and their failure to win back-to-back Champions League titles, a feat no team has done, by the way, was their over-reliance on its biggest stars. “How can you expect Lionel Messi to drive you forward when he plays every minute of every game?” “Andres Iniesta needs to be protected as he’s key to how we play. Improve the squad so he can rest!” So Enrique did just that and brought in players so the star men would be allowed to rest. Can you guess what happened next?
“Why isn’t Luis Suarez and Neymar playing, we need to win this game?!” This is why managers should never listen to fans, especially the noisy ones. Much like our beloved Paul Merson, being loudest doesn’t make you right, it just makes you annoying. Paco Alcacer was brought in so Suarez could be rested, Arda Turan has settled at the club so Neymar can take a break while Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez were seen as able replacements for Iniesta in the lesser games.
It didn’t stop there as Samuel Umtiti was brought in to solidify the defence and Lucas Digne to offer more options at left-back as opposed to Jeremy Mathieu being shifted across. All wise, smart, young investments which improved the squad. But don’t you dare play them! Yet at the same time, don’t you dare overplay the first choice starters!
There’s a serious drain, mentally, on everyone in the top jobs. Luis Enrique is likely to walk away from Barcelona at the end of the season because of the demands placed on him. That doesn’t mean he doubts himself or the job he’s done or could do, but that it’s something beyond simply footballing matters and the unhealthy attitude of those in the boardroom and some of those in the stands – or social media.
Pep Guardiola said much of the same when he left Barcelona. “Leading a team requires tonnes of energy. In other words, there are times when you need to recharge your batteries. That’s what I did when I took a year’s sabbatical in New York. It was very important for me, my family, and also my previous team.” To constantly strive to be the best, and have a team that is capable of being the best, takes everything you have and then some. You are only lauded if you win everything but fail in one competition and questions will be asked.
Unai Emery, Luis Enrique’s opposite number for the match this evening, is already under huge pressure to deliver. PSG are considered a shoo-in to win Ligue 1, although they’re currently behind high-flying Monaco in the table, but the real pièce de résistance for the club is achieving European success. You sense that failure to win the Champions League, something no one has managed to do in the club’s history, would signal his exit from the club in the summer. Even if he turns it around in the league and wins the Coupe de France, it probably won’t be enough. How is that fair?
PSG had their superstar team, led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and never got beyond the quarter-finals. Why should they suddenly expect to go any further when they’ve lost Zlatan, Digne and David Luiz? No one’s denying they’ve spent money but you could rightly question whether those brought is are at, or could ever reach, the level of those who left. Are they better than Barcelona now? Were they ever better than Barcelona? It’s unfair to judge PSG managers on the Champions League alone.
So tonight probably represents the last European clash with both Luis Enrique and Unai Emery in charge for their current respective teams. For Unai, it’s the impossible, or near impossible, a task of winning the trophy which will prove to be his downfall. For Enrique, whether he wins the trophy or not, the signs point to him needing a break.
Easy at the top of the footballing pyramid? Not a chance.