Luis Enrique provides Paris Saint-Germain with calm in the eye of a storm


Luis Enrique was well aware that becoming Paris Saint-Germain head coach was going to pose unique challenges. He was given a baptism of fire on that front when Kylian Mbappe was put up for sale and prevented from travelling with the squad on their pre-season tour of Japan and South Korea.

But after the dust had settled on that first taste of a Parisian saga, Luis Enrique’s eyes were wide open when he took the job. There can be unforeseen circumstances, off-field dramas and regurgitated soap operas at this club. They can knock a coach off-balance, derail a season, or bring them down entirely.

He had a solution to this off-field hurricane: windsurfing.

“In life, things happen as they happen,” Luis Enrique said in August when asked about the challenges ahead in his first club interview. “Not all of them are good. Not all of them are positive.

“You have to try to adjust your sail. You know in windsurfing, you have a sail and the wind. The wind comes from here, I adjust the sail. The wind comes from there, I adjust the sail. Well, it’s kind of like the same thing.”

The prevailing winds of trouble are always strongest in March at PSG. When the knockout rounds of the Champions League emerge over the horizon, problems are rarely far behind. This season looked to be no exception. After a 2-0 victory in the first leg of their last-16 tie against Real Sociedad, Luis Enrique had to confront the news that Mbappe had decided to leave the club at the end of the season. The whole world knew about it and yet nothing has been made official. 

As speculation swirled of where next and what next for player and club, Luis Enrique marked his territory. He dropped Mbappe to the bench for the trip to Nantes on February 17 and then substituted him in the 65th minute against Rennes just over a week later with his team losing 1-0. On March 1, he hauled Mbappe off at half-time against Monaco. “Sooner or later, he is not going to play with us. We need to get used to that,” he said.

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Eyebrows were raised and questions were quietly asked. Was there a problem between the coach and his star player? Would this long divorce impact the rest of the season?

This was not the first time that Luis Enrique has tackled Mbappe head on. In November, the France captain scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Reims and then, when asked whether he was the best player in the world, Luis Enrique caught everyone by surprise. “I am not very happy with Kylian today,” he said. “Why? Because managers are so strange. About goals, I don’t have to say anything but I think he can help the team more. In a different way.”

Criticism of Mbappe was a rare thing but there was much to take from his player’s reaction. Mbappe scored and assisted in his next match, an important 5-2 win over high-flying Monaco, and then produced a man-of-the-match performance as PSG salvaged a vital draw against Newcastle at the Parc des Princes — a result that ensured they retained control of their own fate in the Champions League’s group of death.

In San Sebastian, Luis Enrique found the same reaction again. Two outstanding goals by Mbappe killed the tie and ensured qualification. A distraction? Only for those outside of the club. “He’s best player in the world,” said Luis Enrique to Canal Plus, again needling the question of his future. “Apparently he’s leaving soon so we will need to try other players”. 

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Mbappe scores his second goal against Real Sociedad (David Ramos/Getty Images)

There was pressure for Luis Enrique on his return to Spain. A 2-0 win is a good position to be in on paper but this is PSG and there are scars. PSG had led a Champions League tie after the first leg nine times before this season and on five of those occasions, they were eliminated. In five of the past seven seasons, they have gone no further than the last 16.

Throw in the distraction of Mbappe’s future as well as defensive fitness issues, with captain Marquinhos and Danilo Pereira unable to start, and the ingredients were all there for trouble. Real Sociedad had outplayed PSG for almost an hour in the first leg before Mbappe intervened.

With the pressure on, Luis Enrique adjusted his sail again. For much of this season, the former Barcelona coach has stuck with the same tactical set-up, built broadly from a 4-3-3 and designed as the platform for a philosophy that demands control of matches through possession.

PSG have struggled with that, particularly away from home where they had failed to win in the Champions League and even domestically, where they have relied upon the heroics of Gianluigi Donnarumma to bail them out of trouble. This season, they have conceded 15 shots per match in the league and in Europe on average when playing away from home.

But Luis Enrique found control when he needed it most with a tactical adjustment.

He moved Ousmane Dembele, normally influential off the right-hand side, into a false nine position at the top of a diamond midfield, leaving Mbappe and Bradley Barcola as the team’s wide forwards. Dembele rotated with Warren Zaire-Emery, dropping deeper to assist his side’s build up. At times, he was as deep as his centre-backs but that extra man offered another route out from the back.

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Real Sociedad, who had revelled in PSG’s on-the-ball troubles last month under a high press, suddenly found a problem they could not solve. “Our goal was to generate superiority,” said Luis Enrique. “We had options to face the goal. The team was great. Real could not resolve this superiority.”

This was a major tactical alteration at a critical moment and it was one that helped produce PSG’s best away performance of the season. Assisted by Mbappe’s excellence in the final third, PSG quashed any hope of a fightback with an unerring professionalism. That was all the more striking considering that, with an average age of 23 and 361 days, this was the youngest PSG side to have played in the Champions League.

The pressure of these past couple of weeks in Paris, from Mbappe’s future to the risks of the round of 16, had the potential to overwhelm a head coach. But rather than be blown off course, Luis Enrique has emerged with his status enhanced.

That is no small feat. 

(Other contributor: Liam Tharme)

(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)





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