The genius of Laurent Blanc: An unspoken truth
It is no secret that Paris Saint-Germain are in a league which doesn’t offer the same competition as the Barclays Premier League, La Liga or a Bundesliga will offer. At the same time, however, uncompetitive a league could be, it is also important to understand how a team inside France hasn’t been able to defeat Les Parisiens for the entire season thus far. The only loss for PSG in the on-going campaign had come against Real Madrid, which again was an even contest although Madrid managed to edge PSG out 1-0.
Every department of PSG seems to have undergone a revelation and they look nothing less than a formidable side in Europe today. The myth which has always clasped PSG ever since Nasser Al-Khelaifi has taken over is that financial resource is the one and only driver of the team’s emergence. Well, in that case, we need to refresh our memories yet again that it was one of the best managers in the world, Carlo Ancelotti, who had taken over at Paris in the 2012-13 season and could manage only one trophy in the very same league. While Laurent Blanc has not only managed to bag eight trophies to his kitty, the Frenchman is on his way to yet another domestic quadruple in the on-going campaign.
As we speak today, it is of no doubt that PSG have absolutely conquered French football and their next milestone would only be the UEFA Champions League. What has gone unnoticed under Laurent Blanc is everything but the financial strength that the French Capital possesses. In modern day football, there are a handful of teams that have proven that mere financial power isn’t going to get you trophies year on year. The most recent stories being Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Leicester City; that have given us enough evidence that a coach has a role to play irrespective of the team’s financial power.
So firstly let us begin by looking at the planning that has gone behind this transformation project:
Transformation since taking over:
- With the way things have shaped up for Les Parisians, there is no doubt that a lot of planning has gone into the project and the team has been built gradually with a long-term objective which is to become a European superpower. In contrary to the view that PSG equates to excessive spending, they have actually made sure that the spending has always been need-based and in sync with the long-term plan rather than merely bringing in star players
The 2013-14 season being the first one under Laurent Blanc, these were some of the transfers that took taken place:
Players in: Cavani (Striker), Marquinhos (Centre-back), Cabaye (Central midfield) and Digne (Left-back)
Players out: Gameiro (Striker), Sakho (Centre-back), Chantome (Central midfield) and Sylvian Armand (Left-back)
Players who had come in were direct replacements for players who had left in terms of position and were also younger, better quality and thus were of a much-needed rejuvenation to the squad.
While the 2013-14 season turned out to be a much successful one winning 3 trophies out of the 5 they competed, let us look at some the transfers for the 2014-15 season:
Players in: David Luiz(Centre-back) and Serge Aurier (Right-back) loaned in and eventually made permanent in 2015-16
Players out: Alex (Centre-back) and Jallet (Right-back). Menez too was allowed to leave as they had enough options up front in Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Lavezzi, Lucas and Pastore (occasionally played up front)
The 2014-15 season bettered the previous season as Blanc’s men had won the domestic quadruple or in simple words, they had won all trophies within France. Their UEFA Champions League campaign too was forgivable as they had overcome Chelsea in the Round-of-16 and bowed out to an unstoppable Barcelona in the quarterfinals wherein they had missed key players like Thiago Silva, Marco Verratti in each of the legs.
Moving on to the 2015-16 season:
Players in: Angel Di Maria (Winger), Kevin Trapp (Goalkeeper), Stambouli (Central midfielder)
Players out: Ezequiel Lavezzi (Winger), Mory Diaw (Goalkeeper), Mike Maignan (Goalkeeper) Yohan Cabaye (Central midfielder)
Angel Di Maria was the marquee signing for the summer and it has already proven to be one of the best signings for PSG in the last 4 years. An aging Ezequiel Lavezzi and the lack of creativity in the final third were probably the reasons behind this signing and there is no doubt that the Argentine has arguably been the best player of the season thus far for PSG. On the other hand, Lavezzi has also been sold to Hebei China Fortune of the Chinese Super League.
Cabaye was sold as he couldn’t break through into the starting 11 and with an aging Thiago Motta who may have only a handful of years left in him for top-flight football, Stambouli has been brought in as cover with youth product Rabiot also competing for a midfield spot. Areola remained out on loan while the 2 other goalkeepers (Diaw and Maignan) were sold. Kevin Trapp has been a superb signing thus far and in truth, Sirigu has been ousted out of the starting eleven.
While Digne has been sent out on loan and they have brought in Kurzawa as the cover for Maxwell at left back.
So to summarise, Blanc has not just addressed reinforcements to build a star-studded lineup but the signings have made the squad much stronger, younger and motivated. The below picture allows us to compare how the team has transformed over the course of the 2 seasons:
Having played alongside the likes of Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola, there seems to be an evident influence of the two in the Frenchman. Blanc has deployed the traditional 4-3-3 formation which is very similar to that of Barcelona under Pep as well as Enrique. The football philosophy has also been the same; which is a possession-based game with technically superior players, gradual build-up play from the back, sharp passing combined with quick movements and complete freedom to the attackers in the final third.
Thiago Silva and David Luiz stay back along with Motta tucking in between them to form a back three. The fullbacks push high up the pitch to combine with front three as both wingers tuck into the centre (mentioned above). Providing width while on the attack, totally depends on the fullbacks and they always remain an outlet for crosses from the wings into the danger area to connect with Ibrahimovic and Cavani, being the serious aerial threats they are.
The midfield trio of Verratti, Motta and Matuidi tend to sit deep and dictate play than creating chances (due to the nature of the central midfielders in the team, system demands making plays from front three who are more diligent in that). They are responsible for ball distribution/switching the play, screening the defence on the counter and playing out from the back along with the center backs while under pressure.
The three combine with the center backs in order to play out from the back and all of the three are exquisite passers. Thiago Silva, David Luiz and the midfield three, all have maintained a pass accuracy of over 90% in all competitions this season (some statistical evidence to how efficient they are at playing out from the back). Motta positions himself in between the centre-backs to form a back three (similar to Busquets in Barcelona). While Verratti stays ahead of the final third, provides occasional long balls to runs made by front three and acts as the ball holder of the team, the role Matuidi is box-to-box. (He enters final third- combination play with Cavani, Kurzawa/Maxwell and also storms back to help the defense; left flank).
The front three comprises of Di Maria, Ibrahimovic and Cavani. It has been long due since the French champions have had an out and out playmaker in their eleven, who can share the onus of unlocking defenses in the final third along with Ibrahimovic as the Swedish captain has thus far carried the weight by himself with limited help from the fullbacks and central midfielders.
Javier Pastore has been there to serve this purpose but unfortunately for him, timely injuries, competition in central midfield, adapting to wing play have hampered shades of a potential world class playmaker in him. Thus, the addition of Di Maria seems justifiable and he has undoubtedly become the man of the hour for PSG. The move seems to have worked wonders for Blanc’s men as the Argentine has been the creator, racking up almost 65 chances in 20 appearances in the league competition.
He also leads the assists chart in the 2015-16 Ligue 1 with 11 to his tally while Ibrahimovic is at far second in the chart with 8 assists. Blanc has unleashed Di Maria’s creative masterclass by allowing him to tuck in from the right wing into pockets of space in the central area of the final third. This role is also known as a ‘false 10’, meaning that the player wouldn’t start at a number 10 position but would make himself available there when it is of utmost necessity.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s role as a centre-forward has undergone a revolution this season with the Swede not only leading the frontline as a number 9 but also dropping deep into midfield to help retain possession, provide a passing option to the midfield trio and also to create chances. It is no secret that Ibrahimovic is one of the best finishers in the game but Blanc has been able to deploy him as the referral point in the attack by utilizing his strong physical presence, ability to hold the ball under pressure, spreading the play in midfield and even create chances.
The above picture is from the game against Monaco where the Parisians triumphed 0-3 and this shows how Ibrahimovic drops deep to help the central midfielders as the Swede completed a staggering 65 passes at a pass completion rate of 89%. Note that these are figures similar to that of players like Sergio Busquets, Toni Kroos or say, Xabi Alonso.
Akin to Di Maria, Cavani also is allowed to drift towards the centre and he plays to his strengths by trying to run in behind the defence and being available in dangerous areas inside the box. You would hardly find Cavani hugging the touchline like a typical winger does like the Neymars or the Douglas Costas of the modern era. However, Cavani’s high defensive work rate and his enduring engine have come in handy while he starts on the left flank as he is able to track the opposition’s full back/winger and offer defensive support.
The match winner scored by Cavani against Chelsea in the first leg of the Round-of-16 tie in the UEFA Champions League is arguably the best example that showed how the front three combine to destroy the opposition defense.
Les Parisians have really strengthened their defensive system in the current campaign, conceding merely 12 goals in 26 games in the league and just 2 goals in the UEFA Champions League thus far. Blanc’s men have a 4-5-1 defending shape with Ibrahimovic being the lone forward up front and the midfield trio generally staying deep to protect the back four. The wingers also offer defensive support to the full backs but do not go deep into their own halves and rather remain in slightly advanced positions to be able to break away on the counter quickly.
The fullbacks are assisted more by the central midfielders on their corresponding side. In other words, Verratti provides defensive support on the right to Serge Aurier/Van der Wiel while Matuidi provides defensive support on the left to Maxwell/Kurzawa. Both of these central midfielders are hard workers and defensively diligent. Thus it makes complete sense to utilise their defensive prowess, which in turn would reduce the defensive duties of the wingers, making them more effective on the attack.
While the attack is through the centre, the midfield trio stays compact and denies any space for the opposition to be able to penetrate through the middle. As the trio becomes more compact, the wingers then go a bit wider than their original positions for minimum protection. This forces the opposition to go out wide to try unlocking PSG’s defense while once the ball goes out wide, the full backs are again supported by their corresponding central midfielders.
All said and done, PSG’s season is likely to be judged only based on their performance in Europe as they have already achieved a quadruple last season and on course to achieve yet another one this campaign. While an invincible season in Ligue 1 is also on the cards, the UEFA Champions league tie is still absolutely open despite the 2-1 victory at home against Chelsea. Irrespective of the outcome, the genius of Blanc is something that football fans ought to know about and his contract extension only goes to say that the baton to take PSG to the next level has officially been given to him.