PARIS — Leonardo’s return as Paris Saint-Germain’s sporting director could be welcome news for coach Thomas Tuchel after a difficult first season.
PSG announced Leonardo’s appointment on Friday as a direct replacement for Antero Henrique, who leaves after two years despite helping secure two marquee signings in forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
Tuchel’s working relationship with Henrique had become increasingly strained because of the need to strengthen an injury-hit squad and an awkward situation concerning homegrown midfielder Adrien Rabiot .
Henrique said in a December interview that Rabiot would remain out of the side after refusing to sign a new deal, despite months of negotiations. He did not play again and is now out of contract, meaning PSG will get nothing for him as he reportedly negotiates terms for a move to Italian champion Juventus.
But Tuchel is a fan of Rabiot’s style of play and wanted him available, especially with injuries in midfield during a fraught Champions League campaign .
The club’s disciplinary stance remained firm. At the time, Henrique appeared to have the backing of club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, with the signings of Neymar and Mbappe doubtless contributing to his standing.
An exasperated Tuchel also lamented a lack of signings in the winter transfer window and had to wait until January 29 — right at the end — before the club bought Argentina midfielder Leandro Paredes from Zenit St. Petersburg. But Tuchel was reportedly not overly keen on signing Paredes, who made little impression.
If their relationship was indeed a power struggle, it now seems like a victory for Tuchel over Henrique.
Tuchel recently signed a one-year extension to his initial two-year deal.
Leonardo’s return offers the possibility of a more harmonious working relationship, one which the club hopes will end years of frustration in the Champions League.
PSG has never been beyond the quarterfinals since Qatari backers QSI started bank-rolling the club with huge investment eight years ago.
In the past three seasons PSG has gone out in the Round of 16 — twice blowing strong first-leg leads — and last season Tuchel’s side failed to retain its domestic cups.
While Henrique was unfamiliar with the club when he took the job, that’s certainly not the case for Leonardo.
He played for PSG in 1996-97 and was hugely popular. As an attack-minded defender or midfielder, he helped PSG reach the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in ’97. He won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994 and the Copa America in ’97. He had spells as coach of AC Milan and Inter Milan, where he was also sporting director.
Leonardo became PSG’s sporting director for the first time in July 2011 and helped persuade Carlo Ancelotti to become coach in December 2011. It was a considerable coup considering Ancelotti’s long-standing reputation in the game.
"I’m extremely enthusiastic at the idea of coming back," the 49-year-old Leonardo said. "I’ve experienced some big emotions here."
Leonardo held his role until May 2013, when he was suspended for nine months by the French league for barging into a referee just outside the tunnel. Television images appeared to show Leonardo deliberately shoulder-barging Alexandre Castro after a home draw.
Leonardo had been heavily critical of French referees that season, in particular launching one angry rant live on television after a draw at defending champion Montpellier.
Following Leonardo’s suspension, Ancelotti left to take charge of Real Madrid despite having one year left on his PSG contract.
Leonardo must quickly establish a strong and trusting relationship with Tuchel.
The club is expected to be busy in the transfer market this summer, whilst fending off reported interest from Real Madrid for the prolific France forward Mbappe.
PSG must also raise funds, and Leonardo’s return coincided with the sale of 19-year-old forward Moussa Diaby to Bayer Leverkusen for a reported 15 million euros ($16.8 million).
Fans want success but they also want to see local talents shine, and Diaby was one of the best players to have come through PSG’s youth academy in recent years.
If Leonardo persuades Rabiot to change his mind and sign a new deal, it would certainly please Tuchel.