The French Revolution
A new force in Europe emerged last summer in Paris. With the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, they gained momentum. Ogo Sylla investigates why all is still not well
“PSG version Ancelotti”, as the French media affectionately (even if a bit patronisingly now, given recent form) refers to it, has been an interesting new step in the project funded by a Qatari group.
It all started in the summer of 2011, at that time under the stewardship of Antoine Kombouaré, when the club splashed a Ligue 1 record-breaking €43mn on Javier Pastore. The Argentine starlet made a blistering start to his Paris Saint-Germain career with 5 goals and two assists in his first 10 games, which accounted for nine wins and a single draw. A considerable dip in form, however, – linked to his lack of pre-season preparation and adaptation to a new league – has directed a lot of the PSG fans’ ire towards the ex-Palermo playmaker.
Some other players brought along on this project, like Jeremy Menez and Diego Lugano, also failed to impress and were heavily criticised, especially the Uruguayan defender. Only the talented Salvatore Sirigu was irreproachable as his consistency and decisiveness in the goal endeared him to the Parc des Princes faithful. An embarrassing elimination in the group stages of the Europa League in the last home stretch before the winter transfer season, and a sentiment that Antoine Kombouaré could not survive at the helm of such an ambitious project (in terms of coaching in the Champions League and handling the dressing room), all led to the sacking of the PSG idol and so entered Carlo Ancelotti.
Ancelotti arrived at PSG with a biodata unrivalled by anyone except, probably, by PSG’s eternal rival – Marseille’s coach, Didier Deschamps. In his suitcase, the Italian brought Alex from Chelsea, Maxwell from Barcelona, and Thiago Motta from Internazionale. The nature of these purchases and structure of the PSG squad have many of the French press succumbing to old catenaccio stereotypes and thus labelling Ancelotti as a defensive coach. The fact is Ancelotti reinforced critically weak positions in the PSG squad, which were the left-back and the defensive midfield spots. Alex is an extra centre-back he possibly could have done without but this remains logical when we consider that Ancelotti deemed Milan Bisevac more apt to play as a (right-sided) fullback. The only weak position PSG and its Qatari millions were not able to reinforce was the striker position where the club only counts on Kevin Gameiro, Guillaume Hoarau, and Peguy Luyindula (who was brought back by Ancelotti after a judicial row with the club under the previous Kombouaré regime). Despite all this, Ancelotti went undefeated for the first 10 league games until his first loss as PSG coach in the Coupe de France against Lyon and then in the league against Nancy.
In recent weeks, PSG’s game has been deteriorating. Ancelotti seems to be struggling to get the best out of his team. The team, as a whole, is not playing well and is labouring through games. PSG have often managed to salvage draws from losing positions in the final five minutes of games, something the French press came to rather cleverly and humorously refer to as “Ancelot-time”. The issue is that Ancelot-time has masked many of the team’s failings; one in particular, which was an inordinate amount of goals conceded on set pieces.
Beyond that, Pastore was still below his best level – despite it being his statistically best season yet, sometimes looking leaden-footed in games, almost as though he was going through the motions. Even his technique failed him as the Argentine’s first-touch evaded him and he missed easy passes that he used to complete blindfolded.
Menez was also a constant target of the Parc des Princes faithful for his unique running style, always keeping the ball too long and looking to beat his man rather than make a pass. Nene, the talismanic Brazilian, too, experienced his customary seasonal dip in form, barely ever scoring a goal or making an assist. Gameiro is not proving to be the clinical striker he was at Lorient, despite his constant complaints that he does not receive enough of the ball from his teammates.
As for the club’s young captain, Mahmadou Sakho, he struggled hard since Ancelotti’s arrival. Some said the Italian’s presence on the sidelines inhibited his game and thus caused a string of rather dilettantish errors.
In fact, the offensive line is the real issue for Ancelotti. Those who know the Italian well can vouch that he often goes for a tridente (trident) to spearhead his attack. The lack of variety and depth in quality behind the likes of Menez, Nene, and Pastore, however, prevents him from truly influencing and changing things when the game is not going his way.
Ancelotti has attempted to change the formation, starting with his famous ‘Christmas Tree’ formation (4-3-2-1) which has been the most successful so far. However, he attempted switching to a 4-4-2 or even a 4-1-2-1-2 but the team looked lost and failed to adapt to the change. This lack of flexibility in his players frustrates the Italian.
The fact remains that PSG were at the top of the table when Ancelotti took over from Kombouaré. But have now slipped to second spot and on even points with the league’s surprise package, Montpellier. Four points behind them are defending champions Lille, headed by an inspired Eden Hazard. Ancelotti has managed 5 wins, five draws and a single defeat in his first 11 games at the helm. PSG are heading into le Classique as well, and after having been left licking their wounds following a 3-0 hammering at the Vélodrome, they will certainly be looking for revenge.
The question is how will PSG version Ancelotti fare against Marseille this time round? The situation is identical, with Deschamps’ men on a terrible run of form and coming into this always highly charged derby atmosphere with the bit between the teeth. PSG are fighting for the title and Marseille would love nothing more than to derail their archrivals from their objective.
With players not in their best form and usually suffering from an inferiority complex vis–à–vis Marseille and also considering that even Ancelot-time has turned against the Italian in last month’s shock defeat against a vibrant Nancy ending his invincibility streak, it may not be too tough a task for PSG’s fiercest rivals.
It is a new project, a new team. The team is not only different from the one Kombouaré coached last season but has also seen a marked improvement in six months since the signing in of new players. It will be very disappointing if PSG does not secure the title given the poor competition around them with Marseille nowhere near the podium, Lyon in transition, and Lille looking a bit inconsistent. However, it is equally important to allow this end of the season to be a test-driving period for Ancelotti and judge the next season, despite that the Italian has added some key players to the squad already this season.
Ancelotti is left with little margin for error in a project that seems even less indulgent of failure.