By Rory Smith
Ultimately, a single wrong answer cost Rafael Benítez his job, the one he had coveted for most of his working life. The slight downturn in results, the disaffection of the players, the sudden loss of trust from those who had chosen to employ him — all of it, he believed, could be traced back to that single, relatively harmless, misstep.
Not long into his ill-fated reign as coach of Real Madrid, in 2015, Benítez had been asked what seemed, on the surface, a simple question: Did he regard the team’s star, Cristiano Ronaldo, as the best player in the world? Perhaps Benítez was trying to be clever. Perhaps he was trying to challenge his star. Perhaps he was, unadvisedly, being honest.
Either way, he did not really see the big deal. Ronaldo was certainly one of the best players in the world, he responded. But then so was Lionel Messi. Benítez said he did not want to have to choose between them. “It would be like asking my daughter if she prefers my wife or me,” he said, by way of explanation.
Barely four months later, Benítez was out at Real Madrid. The contemporaneous reports suggested he had struggled to build a bond with the players.
The reality, as far as Benítez was concerned, was more straightforward. His answer, all those weeks earlier, had displeased Ronaldo, and the coterie of advisers and power brokers and hangers-on who surrounded him. They would not forget the slight. From that day, Benítez was toast.
In that context is a lesson. Even the simplest question — the one that sounds and looks and feels so much like a softball, so basic and brief that it could not possibly do any harm — is at best a test. At worst, it is a trap.
You are a coach in charge of one of the world’s most prestigious clubs. In your care is one of the game’s brightest stars. What you believe, what you feel, what the objective truth might happen to be is irrelevant.
Do you think your player is the best in the world? For the purposes of harmony and unity and your own continued viability as an employee: Yes, you do.
That Luis Enrique, the Paris St.-Germain coach, chose a different path when asked precisely that question last month, then, constituted something of a risk. He had just watched Kylian Mbappé, not only his team’s unquestioned star but also its most valuable asset, its cornerstone and its unofficial sporting director, score a hat-trick in a 3-0 victory over Reims.
Mbappé had spent most of the previous two summers threatening to leave his hometown. The club had, at various points, mobilized every single one of its resources — up to and including Emmanuel Macron, the French president — to persuade him to stay. The team’s hierarchy was reported to have afforded him powers so extensive and unorthodox that it is safe to say the leaders are operating on the assumption he very much is the best player in the world.
Luis Enrique, though, took even more of a risk than Benítez. “I’m not really happy with Kylian today,” he said after the win over Reims. “Why? Because managers are strange. About goals, I don’t have to say anything, but I think he can help the team more in a different way. I told that to him first. We think Kylian is one of the best players in the world. No doubt. But we need more, and we want him doing more things.”
It is to Mbappé’s credit that, just as the storm was gathering, he did his best to quell it. Luis Enrique had said precisely the same thing to him privately, he confirmed. He had, even if he said so himself, taken the criticism “well.” “He is a great coach,” Mbappé said. “He has a lot to teach me. From Day 1, I told him he would have no problem with me.”
Whether that will hold — and for how long — is impossible to gauge today, but it is another reminder of the inherent, inexorable tension between soccer’s two overriding urges — one that is far from unique to the modern Paris St.-Germain, but is perhaps drawn more clearly there than anywhere else.
There is one, the one that plays out on the field, that holds that this is now resolutely a coach’s game, one in which strategy conquers all and players are cogs in a finely tuned wheel, each following intricate and comprehensive instructions about where to be and what to do. In this vision, everything is subordinate to the grand vision being concocted on the sidelines and in the data analyst’s office.
And there is another one — the one that is rooted to some extent in the traditional economics of sports but has been exaggerated by the devotional nature of fandom in the digital age — that places individual stars at the front and center of a club. This theory has given these stars a heft and pull greater than the institutions that make and pay them.
None of that is new, of course — managers have always been compelled to balance the needs of the team with the wants of the individual — but it has never felt so pronounced as it is now, the twin forces never quite so repellent. The system may be the center of the universe, but the stars exert a gravity of their own.
PSG has been struggling with that equation for some time. It is not so long, after all, since it named a team that included Neymar, Messi and Mbappé, none of whom was especially keen to submit himself to the sort of defensive duties that are the preserve of lesser mortals.
Things have improved — Messi and Neymar have moved on, of course — but Mbappé remains: a wondrous, uplifting, irreplaceable talent, but still an entity that somehow remains distinct from the team itself.
Luis Enrique’s ethos is, like those of all modern coaches, based on collectivism, the complex interplay of 11 individual components. At times, particularly in the Champions League — where it has now failed to beat Newcastle United twice, been dismantled by AC Milan, and may not reach the round of 16 — PSG has the air of a machine spluttering to find a gear.
It is caught, in essence, in a trap. Luis Enrique’s vision cannot take hold if Mbappé is an exception. Mbappé cannot be exceptional if he has to spend all of his time dutifully tracking his opponents. The star cannot shine without the system, but the system cannot hold in the shadow of the star.
Luis Enrique will do well to find a solution to that riddle. Sometimes, as those who have been in his shoes can attest, there are no simple answers.