Paris Saint-Germain Profiting from the Stewardship of Laurent Blanc
By Ross Mackiewicz
Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari project is coming up to three years this June and in that space of time there have been three head coaches in total. Antoine Kombouare’s tenure under the new regime was a brief one before the world renown Carlo Ancelotti preceded him which was seen as a coup not just for the football club but Ligue 1 as a whole.
Now Laurent Blanc is continuing the sterling work Ancelotti and his backroom staff did during their 18-month tenure. But, is Blanc taking the club to new prosperous heights and even bettering his predecessor? At the moment he certainly is.
The club will not admit it but they made a monumental mistake by not preparing a contingency plan for the departure of Ancelotti. His move to Real Madrid was always on the cards. Les Parisiens, to their credit, dug their heels in to try and make sure that the Italian would remain in charge for the foreseeable future. I believe there was an assumption with the hierarchy that the coach, having guided the club to a first league title in 19 years, would continue. But that just was not the case. As soon as Los Blancos earmarked him as their man to succeed Jose Mourinho, it was inevitable. The club desired for that, as did Ancelotti. Nevertheless, the fact that PSG were so adamant to play hardball with Real proves just how far the club has come.
The Parisien project is still a young one and Ancelotti played a massive part in that. His first five months in charge were not plain sailing by any means but his name evokes respect and that played a part in luring the likes of Maxwell and Thiago Motta to the club in January 2012. If you look at those two players now, they are just as fundamental to the team as any other. Motta for instance has put his injury woes behind him and has arguably been PSG’s player of the season thus far with exception to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The lure of big wages is a big one, it would be naïve to think otherwise but the chance to play under one of Europe’s greatest coaches is enticing enough. His predecessor Kombouare did an incredible job. He took the capital club from mid-table mediocrity to the cusp of Champions League qualification. Something the club lacked in years gone by. But would the Frenchman have been able to attract the likes of Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva? Possibly not. Ancelotti’s persona could and that alone boosted Paris Saint-Germain’s ability to attract talent to an all-time high.
Replacing a coach like that, at the time, seemed impossible. Chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi became embroiled in somewhat of a public spat with the man who had just won the club’s first league title under his and QSI’s ownership. Ancelotti claimed there were matters at the club he was not happy with just as he left. The main reason for that was possibly the influence of former director of football Leonardo. He was too heavily involved in team matters, there is no denying it. That led to a few silly remarks in the media such as “the team are motivated to play in the Champions League” and that did not go down too well with Carlo.
But as soon as Ancelotti was leaving France, Leonardo would soon follow. But not before a successor was appointed. This turned out to be a mini farce during the course of last summer. It was apparent that names were just being plucked out of the air. The likes of Fabio Capello, Guus Hiddink, Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Mancini, Rafael Benitez and so many more were apparently earmarked as potential successors. It was PR disaster for the club but little did they know they had a standout candidate staring right at them in Laurent Blanc.
He was out of work, home-grown, endured success as a player and as a coach, highly thought of in Europe and chomping at the bit to get back into management. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but had one of those other marquee names wanted the job, Blanc most probably would not have set foot through the Parc des Princes. It is the harsh reality but the club must be thanking their lucky stars. The Frenchman has not only built on his predecessor’s stellar work, he has taken it to a whole new level.
He is currently in the first year of a two year contract (an initial year with the option of a second). At the time it did not seem as if QSI had an abundance of faith in their new man, especially with this obsession they seemed to have at luring Arsene Wenger when his Arsenal contract expires in the summer of 2014. That has all changed now, Blanc has proved without a doubt he is the man to take the club forward and beyond. There are plans afoot to tie him down to a longer deal and sooner the better.
Al-Khelaifi told L’Equipe: “Laurent Blanc is a great coach and he deserves a longer contract…he is one of the best coaches in the world”.
Why? Well for a start the brand of football played at the Parc des Princes is as good as it’s been since the heady days of the mid-90s. Ancelotti last season would use either a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. In truth, his best football came in a standard 4-4-2 formation. Blanc this season however had to really consider what to do, especially with the arrival of Edinson Cavani. How would he accommodate him and Ibrahimovic?
Well, thankfully the Uruguayan is an outstanding professional and has sacrificed his preferred role down the middle in order to play out wide in a 4-3-3. It has not deterred his ability either, netting 18 goals in all competitions and linking up with Ibrahimovic superbly. The two of them have 44 goals between them. It is the main reason why the team are at the top of Ligue 1 and still in all four competitions.
PSG were guilty of starting games likes a chess match in years gone by. Under Blanc however there is greater intensity and desire to take the initiative from the get go and hence why his team has the best attack in France with 46 goals scored in 20 games. Ancelotti was more astute at making his teams better at the back but nevertheless, PSG still has the second best defensive record out of all 20 Ligue 1 clubs.
Possibly the most notable trait he has is his squad management. Blanc has been able to rotate his players and manage them accordingly. You notice it predominately in a league game just before a midweek Champions League fixture. He will make around four or five changes by bringing in some of the younger talent such as Lucas Digne, Adrien Rabiot and Hervin Ongenda. One thing Ancelotti did not do was utilise the youth which Blanc is doing.
Rabiot is blossoming into a terrific central midfielder after his loan to Toulouse at the back end of last season. Ongenda may not have got a look in under Carlo, but Blanc is offering him chances and has excelled. Brownie points are definitely at a premium for the coach in that sense and the French contingent will always get chances under him. That is the plus of having a home-grown coach.
Tactically, he has made changes that have won games. At the Stade Velodrome against Marseille last October, Thiago Motta was sent off in the first-half. To compensate for the depleted midfield, Blanc brought off Ezequiel Lavezzi in place of Rabiot to play with Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi. The change was a masterstroke. With 10-men his side got back into the game and despite being a goal down, ended up winning 2-1. That one little change swung the game in PSG’s favour and to beat Marseille at the Velodrome with 10-men is no easy feat whatsoever.
Even in the Champions League against Olympiakos, Marquinhos (a centre-half by trade) was brought on late in the second-half as a centre midfielder and played a killer pass for Cavani to toe poke home the winner.
The owners of the club have made shrewd moves in their last two appointments. Ancelotti’s job cannot be forgotten. He brought so much to Paris in terms of stardom, efficiency, counter-attacking football and an identity. His successor has come in and made the odd tweak here and there which has continued that success. Blanc will of course be judged on silverware but at this moment in time. They cannot be discounted in the Champions League either. Netting 14 goals in six games they even had the best defensive record out of all 32 teams, conceding just three.
It is a prosperous time for the club that will continue for foreseeable future under the stewardship of a bright young coach that is capable of leading a dynasty.
This article was written by French football writer Ross Mackiewicz, who’s making his AFR debut. He’s also the founder and editor of 1970 PSG. Comments below please.