May, 1991 was a pivotal month in the respective histories of both Carlo Ancelotti and Paris-Saint Germain (PSG).
PSG, who were only founded in 1970, were bought by television giants Canal+ and went on to become French football’s most glamorous and exciting team of the 1990s with the signings of Raí, David Ginola and George Weah. For Ancelotti, his muse and the man he enjoyed a footballing renaissance under, Arrigo Sacchi, departed Milan and the end of the Ancelotti’s playing career was effectively established with the appointment of Fabio Capello – who rarely utilised the then 33 year old in his final playing season in 1991/1992. Some twenty years later, the parallels were stark: Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), whose president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, is also general manager of Al Jazeera Sport, bought a 70% stake in PSG and the seemingly backward and conservative Ancelotti was unwanted, yet again, but this time as a manager at Chelsea. Now, the two have turned to each other in world football’s most exciting project.
Even in considering the obvious attraction of PSG being the only club in one of the most beautiful, innovative, productive, diverse and well-populated cities in the world, the Qataris’ investment in Les Parisiens came as something of a shock. After all, despite PSG being France’s most popular club alongside Marseille, being a more viable option than the Premier League hotbed of debt-ridden clubs, acquiring talents like Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka and Pauleta in recent years and winning an admirable six Coupe de Frances since 1991, PSG have won just one Ligue 1 title (1994), three Coupe de la Ligues (1995, 1998 and 2008), one Cup Winners’ Cup (1997) and reached only one UEFA Cup semi-final (1993) and one Champions League semi-final (1994) since Canal +’s multi-million investment.
Incredibly, this was nothing, without even looking at Marseille or Lyon’s recent success, compared to the illustrious histories of other sleeping giants like Saint-Etienne or Rimes. PSG, too, are a team that may boast a national fanbase, but who have had a difficulty in forging an identity with Parisians and this is reflected in the fact that the decrepit Parc des Princes is not readily accessible by the Boulevard Périphérique. However, silverware was not an issue when it came to Colony Capital’s ownership of PSG from 2006. Colony paid €26 million for a majority percentage (Butler Capital and Morgan Stanley invested in separate minority shares) of Canal +’s share and their central reasons for doing so were the property development opportunities at Parc des Princes and the resale value of PSG’s training centre at Camp des Loges. From this, the performances and transfer dealings of Paul Le Guen and Antoine Kombouaré in this period must be applauded – without even addressing the astonishing fact that PSG had four different presidents in four seasons and previous presidents, Laurent Perpère and Francis Graille, were convicted of corruption in June, 2010.
Le Guen saved PSG from a relegation that would have left them in financial ruination, following the appalling reign of Guy Lacombe that was finally severed in January, 2007 with PSG flagging in 17th place. Le Guen then led PSG to both the 2008 Coupe de France and the 2009 Coupe de la Ligue finals, with PSG winning the latter 2-1 against Lens, and 6th place in 2009. Even though Kombouaré was inevitably sacked by QSI, with his attractive football and 2010 Coupe de Monde not enough and echoing Roman Abramovich’s and Sheikh Mansour’s disposals of the unfancied Claudio Ranieri and Mark Hughes in 2004 and 2009 respectively, he has left Ancelotti a talented and youthful squad that was cleverly put together alongside technical director, Leonardo.
With their interest in David Beckham, a flagging 36 year old footballer but a bearer of the greatest commercial opportunities in world football, and the €6 million per year Ancelotti, a world-class coach who has worked with the biggest names in football and the winner of, amongst others, two Champions Leagues, a Premier League and two Serie A titles, the Qataris and Leonardo clearly believed that the humble Kombouaré, who failed to lead PSG out of the Europa League group stages, was out of his depth. It was inevitable that he would be dispensed with, even with PSG going into the winter break with a three-point lead over Montpellier. After all, QSI are by no means commercial or celebrity novices, having publicly met with Nicolas Sarkozy and Michel Platini in the run-up to making their offer, and that is without even addressing the unprecedented €34 million per year deal they have with the Qatar Foundation being printed on Barcelona’s shirts or the television deal they masterminded with al-Jazeera, who will pay €510 million per year for Ligue 1’s television rights from 2012-2016.
So, what will change under Ancelotti? Kombouaré stuck to the 4-2-3-1 throughout the first half of the 2011/2012 season, which was the most significant shift tactically with the takeover. In previous seasons, Kombouaré employed the 4-3-3, which may not seem dramatically different but the signing of Javier Pastore meant that Kombouaré had to sacrifice his signature use of a carrier, be it Clément Chantôme or Mathieu Bodmer, for, essentially, a luxury player. So, the pressure on the delicate trequartista was enormous and, remarkably, that is without even addressing Pastore’s league record €39.8 million transfer fee. The 22 year old Pastore is clearly suffering from burnout, following over-reliance at Palermo in 2010/2011 (44 appearances) and, somewhat surprising, utilisation by Sergio Batista at the 2011 Copa América.
This has appeared all the more profound given Pastore’s brilliant performances for PSG in August and September, but a lack of squad depth, pressure on Kombouaré in all competitions and a clear disjointedness in a misfiring and individualistic front line (Jérémy Ménez and Nenê) has seen Pastore’s form and pass completion rate drop dramatically (just 48% in the 3-0 defeat to Marseille on 29 November). This will more than likely see Ancelotti dip into the January market for a number ten, with a loan move for Kaká, rather than the needless circus and cynical of signing the deep-lying Beckham, a distinct possibility. The 4-2-3-1 was Ancelotti’s hallmark in his Champions League win of 2006 and it seems likely that he will continue with Kombouaré’s recent use of the formation, but with some minor tweaks. Beyond the next five months, however, Ancelotti may make a more obvious tactical change. After all, he has been inhibited due to the only viable option up front being Kévin Gameiro, who has scored nine goals in seventeen matches, and the likes of Mevlüt Erdinç and Guillaume Hoarau have been frustratingly inconsistent.
Therefore, he may not be able to resist eventually returning to his favoured, rigid and archaic 4-4-2 diamond, which was only ever tweaked at Chelsea when Ancelotti adapted to the loss of Didier Drogba to the African Nations Cup in January, 2010 but then redeployed the formation with the signing of Fernando Torres in January, 2011. This has often led to accusations of tactical ineptitude and spinelessness, which goes hand in hand with Ancelotti often favouring personnel rather than a system and failing to drop underperforming stars over the years (Andriy Shevchenko in 2003, Filippo Inzaghi in 2004, Dida in 2008, Ronaldinho in 2009, Michael Ballack in 2010 and Torres in 2011).
PSG presents Ancelotti with a new project. Mauricio Isla, Maxwell, Florent Malouda, Alexandre Pato, Olivier Giroud, Demba Ba and even Kaká are realistic targets, but Ancelotti has never had to marshal and strengthen such a young team (average age of Salvatore Sirigu ((24)), Zoumana Camara ((32)), Milan Biševac ((28)), Mamadou Sakho ((21)), Christophe Jallet ((28)), Mohamed Sissoko ((26)), Blaise Matuidi ((24)), Ménez ((24)), Nenê ((30)), Pastore ((22)) and Gameiro ((24)) is just 25 years and 72 days) to this extent before.
However, with Leonardo in tow, following their successful working relationship at Milan from 2003-2006, and Leonardo’s preference for talented, determined and upcoming footballers, with the odd marquee signing, PSG are sure to shake-up Europe’s pantheon within the next decade. From this, the European Cup duck that the capital metropolises of London, Berlin, Athens, Moscow, Istanbul, St. Petersburg and Paris have failed to break may soon be ended by what was only months ago an unimaginable source: Carlo Ancelotti’s Paris Saint-Germain.