Paris Saint-Germain ultimately couldn’t accelerate Tanguy Nianzou much faster than he did. He was captain of the club’s Under-19 team when he was just 16. He was called up to the first team at 17, training alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and the others, and made his debut quickly. He even started a Champions League match.
And despite all these opportunities, he left. Nianzou had just turned 18 when, on July 1 of last year, he was introduced as a player for Bayern Munich. PSG did not even have the comfort of being able to pocket a bonus for a player they had fed. Nianzou’s contract expired. He walked out of his hometown club for nothing.
His departure stung him. It stung enough that Leonardo, the sporting director of PSG, cited it as a sort of parable as recently as February, long before the teams were drawn to meet in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. this week.
“He played with us in the Champions League, and he spent almost a year at Bayern without playing,” said Leonardo, undeterred by the fact that injuries – not lack of quality – limited Nianzou to 21 minutes of competition at Bayern. “The problem is to think that there is paradise elsewhere. They say that PSG have lost a youngster, but sometimes I think it is not PSG that loses, but the young people who leave.
The sensitivity of Leonardo – and his club – at the departure of Nianzou can only be partially explained by the talent of the teenager. It is also because Nianzou is not the only prodigy that PSG has let pass through its fingers. He’s not even the only one at Bayern.
Kingsley Coman became the youngest player to play for PSG when he made his debut for the club in February 2013. He was the jewel of the team’s youth system, the standard bearer of their future. A year later, he left on a free transfer. Last August, he scored the Champions League winning goal for Bayern, against PSG
There are plenty of others like them. There are 11 players left from this year’s Champions League who grew up in Paris or spent time in the PSG youth academy. Only three play for the reigning French champion: Colin Dagba, Presnel Kimpembe and Mbappé, although of course he had to be reinstated in his hometown at great expense.
Some of the others – N’golo Kanté of Chelsea, Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City and Benjamin Mendy, Raphaël Guerreiro of Borussia Dortmund – grew up in the sprawling suburb surrounding Paris but never caught the club’s attention. A few did: like Coman and Nianzou, Dortmund’s Dan-Axel Zagadou and Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy spent time at the PSG academy before moving on to make themselves known elsewhere.
It would be quite irritating; in fact, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Eleven other players born in the backyard of PSG were eliminated from the Champions League in the round of 16, including Christopher Nkunku, Ibrahima Konaté and Nordi Mukiele at RB Leipzig and Jules Koundé from Seville.
Dozens more can be found in Ligue 1 and across Europe, from Paul Pogba to the downside. PSG sit on what is widely considered to be the richest gold mine of talent in world football, and yet they allow prospectors to hunt their treasure by truck. Most of the time, he only gets the bitter, lingering taste of regret in return.
It is understandable that Leonardo, for his part, tried to blame the speculators. Scouts from rival French clubs have long scoured the Paris suburbs in search of the next big thing. In recent years they have been joined by representatives of German teams and, before Brexit, Premier League clubs hoping to cut the middleman.
“German clubs, mainly Bayern, Leipzig and Dortmund, attack young people and threaten French development,” Leonardo told Le Parisien this year. “They call parents, friends, family, the player himself, even with players under the age of 16. They turn their heads. Maybe the rules should be changed to protect the French teams.
The problem, however, is not a problem that can be eliminated by law. Considering the number of players emerging from Paris, it is inevitable that PSG will miss some, as it did with Kanté and Mahrez. What should concern Leonardo more is that – as Dortmund technical director Michael Zorc has said – so many young players “see better permeability and greater development potential” away from PSG.
Ten years ago, when Qatar Sports Investments first invested in the flagship club in the French capital, it vowed not only to be successful; Nasser al-Khelaifi, the club’s president, has spoken of wanting to find the next Lionel Messi, rather than buying the original. The owners put their money where it was, investing tens of millions of dollars in the club’s youth system.
But as PSG discovered in their quest for the Champions League trophy, the formula for success is rarely so simple. The club’s academy is regularly evaluated as one of the best in France. In many ways, the number of players he has produced for other teams is proof of his sense of talent and the quality of his coaching.
It doesn’t matter, however, if the academy jump alongside Neymar and Mbappé is too big. This is where PSG failed.
What the stories of Coman and Nianzou and so many others have in common is that they traveled to PSG, and throughout the academy, only to find themselves stranded at the final stage: by a coach whose job it was to focus on today; by a dearly acquired superstar led to win trophies; by a club moving too fast to wait for young people to learn their trade.
On one level, the loss of all this talent has only given PSG a glance. He still established, with one exception so far, an effective monopoly on the Ligue 1 title. He reached a Champions League final. It can appeal to some of the best players in the world. Ferland Mendy, Guerreiro or Koundé would they have made a big difference? Maybe not.
But at another, more fundamental level, the impact has been considerable. Qatar have devoted significant time and resources not only to PSG but to French football as a whole, funding the club’s transformation through Qatar Sports Investments while effectively securing the league through broadcast deals with Qatari channel beIN. Sports.
He has always had a clear idea in mind of what he wanted PSG to be – Champions League winners, mainly – but, 10 years after his arrival, it is not yet clear that he knows how to get there. . Coaches have come and gone, all different: the coaching superstar, the cunning tactician, the pressing fanatic, the former captain.
The team has a quilting quality that suggests muddled thinking. Is it built around Neymar or Mbappé? Where are Moise Kean and Mauro Icardi located? Can any of these players do what current manager Mauricio Pochettino is likely to want him to do? Did Thomas Tuchel really like them last season? PSG is today, as for ten years, a team in search of identity.
However, the simplest and most authentic identity has always been close at hand: that of a team built around a Parisian core, young and dynamic and anchored in its location. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has already spoken about his ideal side who could compete for top honors while being drawn exclusively from their own city. The talent pool there, like almost everywhere else, makes this idea utopian. Everywhere, that is to say, except Paris.
PSG did not claim this birthright. As recently as 2018, suburban team coaches expressed surprise at how disconnected the city’s biggest club was from the young players on its doorstep. Perhaps this can be attributed to vanity, to the feeling that Parisian prospects would still want to play for a Parisian team.
Or perhaps it is representative of a larger failure of the club, which places more weight on what Paris is perceived than what the city actually is. In 2016, when PSG reorganized their stadium, they commissioned architect Tom Sheehan to “infuse the identity of Paris into the Park itself”. He draws a parallel between the new VIP entrance to the stadium and the foyer of the Palais Garnier, the opera house.
It was this tourist perception of Paris that QSI hoped would become the identity of the team: the celebrities in the stands, a football team like a glamorous boutique nightclub. But this is only one side of Paris. He did not engage so readily with the other side of Paris, the one you find in the suburbs, the one that is not so easy to sell.
Yet the talent continues to emerge. The club have high hopes, in particular, for a 15-year-old center-back named el Chadaille Bitshiabu. French law forbids him to sign a professional contract until he is 16, on May 16, but all the coaches who have worked with him are convinced that he can do it. They can only hope it’s with PSG