The jigsaw nears completion: PSG’s summer exploits

Perhaps, his unveiling said it all:

I don’t know the Ligue 1 players but, for sure, they know who I am.

The usual rubber, tapered curtain used for the arrivals of the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Leonardo, Javier Pastore, Alex and Thiago Motta was abandoned: signalling that this was, arguably, the most earth-shattering day in PSG’s history since the club-defining takeover by Canal + in May, 1991. Instead, for the first time in French footballing history, a player unveiling took place in front of the Eiffel Tower, which was the perfect structure to reflect the towering Zlatan Ibrahimović’s standing as Ligue 1’s undisputed superstar. With, incidentally, three thousand fans present, it also sent a clear message: European football is soon to welcome a new member to its elite pantheon, with Nasser Al-Khelaifi and Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) hell-bent on eventually joining Chelsea in finally giving the capital metropolises of London, Berlin, Athens, Moscow, Istanbul, St. Petersburg and Paris a Champions League winner.

The unveiling encapsulated the grandiose that has always been associated with PSG, who have suffered a semi-ironic (based in the centre of France) inferiority complex of sorts in only existing as a club for forty-two years. Sure, this may be a club who have a national following and have housed illustrious talents like David Ginola, Rai, George Weah, Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka and Pauleta in the past, but they have seriously struggled to forge a definitive local Parisian identity – encapsulated in the decrepit (admittedly, currently being modernised for Euro 2016) Parc des Princes not being readily accessible by the Boulevard Peripherique. So, while on the very same day that the Socialist François Hollande, France’s newly-elected President, announced that Jean-Pierre Jouyet would become the new chief executive officer of Caisse des Depots et Consignations – an organisation that will tender aid to small companies and aim to bridge the gap left by the collapse of the Franco-Belgian bank, Dexia SA – Ibrahimović became the most well-paid footballer in French footballing history.

The Swede, on a three-year deal, will be on between £194,500 (€250.000) and £227,000 (€292,000) per week – which will undoubtedly lead to QSI, rather than Ibrahimovic, himself, picking up the annual €21 million bill as part of Hollande’s new 75% tax-rate on those earning more than €1 million a year. Thus, the seeming paradox is abated: Ibrahimovic will light up Paris, boost merchandising and marketing prospects, attract a continental following and send a message across the footballing world with his pedigree and talent, while QSI are seen to, inadvertently, show that they care about their adopted country in boosting French inland revenues. From this, the greed and resentment is partly eased, and, indeed, justified. This reflects the way the seemingly honourable (the nature of Antoine Kombouaré’s inevitable departure apart, possibly) QSI – who met Nicolas Sarkozy and Michel Platini in the run up to their 2011 takeover and whose president, Al-Khelaifi, brought a fair and equal €150 million annual television deal to Ligue 1 on behalf of Al-Jazeera from 2012-2016 – have, generally, gone about their business.

On the pitch, it seems a lot more straightforward: PSG are about to begin the most exciting era in their history. Even if Les Parisians take time to achieve their continental ambitions, it seems implausible that they will not go on to dominate Ligue 1 like Lyon did from 2002 – 2008. Reaching only one UEFA Cup semi-final (1993) and one Champions League semi-final (1994) since Canal +’s multi-million investment in 1991 – admittedly Colony Capital’s ownership from 2006 very nearly ran the club into the ground –  PSG have never consistently made their mark at the highest level. This has even been the case in France, where PSG have won just two league titles (1983/1984 and 1993/1994) since the professional era began in 1933. From this, PSG have yet to have a tangible and successful dynasty to rival the likes of Saint-Étienne (1967-1970), Marseille (1989-1992) and Lyon (2002-2008), and this reflects the fact that Ligue 1 is one of the most unpredictable leagues in Europe, with a whooping twenty-one different winners since 1933.

As Montpellier proved in 2010/2011, Ligue 1 still retains this age-old intrigue, with four different winners in the four years since Lyon’s stagnation post-2008. With less heralded names like Hilton and Henri Bedimo, as well as legacy-cementers like Mapou Yanga-MbiwaYounès Belhanda and Olivier Giroud, Montpellier had that “little something” that Ancelotti believed PSG lacked in failing to achieve Ligue 1’s second-highest ever points total of eighty-two points. Clearly, in comparing both teams’ squads, it was not budgets and illustrious names; rather, it was spirit, shrewdness, a tangible identity (their flamboyant, but Academy-focused, president, Louis Nicollon) and hard work. With Ancelotti now having a pre-season and entire campaign to shape his squad, he is aiming to replicate a blueprint that, at times, worked effortlessly at Milan (2003/2004) and Chelsea (2009/2010) in the league: moulding a team of league-starring individuals.

This is, ultimately, why Leonardo was brought in as technical director in 2009: to deliver a squad worthy of PSG’s status as one of the richest clubs in the world. The desperate pursuits and failures to bring in David Beckham and Alexandre Pato in January, 2012 seemed to indicate that PSG needed something much more than just money: was there a viable project and long-term plan to their framework, structure and targets? It left Leonardo under-fire, with out of favour, over-thirty aged players at Chelsea (Alex), Barcelona (Maxwell) and Internazionale (Thiago Motta) all arriving instead. There was no blockbuster name and even if Pastore’s €39.8 million arrival in the summer of 2011 was a coup of sorts, the Argentine badly suffered with over-dependence and fatigue in 2011/2012. Playing in the role of trequartista, as well as being PSG’s undoubted poster boy, Pastore suffered from clear burnout and, somewhat ironically, in taking the place of Kombouaré’s trademark mediano – be it Clément Chantôme or Mathieu Bodmer – his cause was not aided.

Having played forty-four times for Palermo in 2010/2011 and being utilised – fairly surprisingly – to a great extent by Sergio Batista during the 2011 Copa América for Argentina, it was inevitable that Pastore’s form would eventually suffer. This 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 an initial disjointedness in a misfiring and individualistic front line (Jérémy Ménez and Nenê) saw Pastore’s form and pass completion rate drop dramatically (just 48% in the 3-0 defeat to Marseille on 29 November). The pressure on Pastore was not just related to creativity (partly why the immensely-talented Marco Verratti arrived in the summer of 2012 and why Lucas Moura is being chased), though, as Kombouaré and Ancelotti were inhibited due to the only viable option up front being Kévin Gameiro, who scored just twelve goals in thirty-seven matches in 2011/2012. Remarkably, though, this was much more consistent than the likes of Mevlüt Erdinç (departed for Rennes in January) and Guillaume Hoarau, who netted a combined seven goals in thirty-six appearances for PSG in 2011/2012.

As well as the pressure being eased on Pastore in being deployed in a deeper position in 2012/2013, this is where Ibrahimović will come in. An undoubted domestic goalscorer, who has netted a brilliant 189 goals in 362 league games in four different countries – winning nine titles (technically seven due to Calicopoli) in the process – Ibrahimović, in ways, has matured as a footballer. Coinciding with the growing influence of his elder wife, Helena Seger, and his embracement of fatherhood with his two sons, Maximilian (five) and Vincent (four), leadership, responsibility and tactical ingenuity have become hallmarks that were not always associated with Ibrahimović before last season. After all, in 2011/2012, he stepped up to the mark to enjoy, arguably, the most impressive season of his career. Playing as a deep-lying striker, while not technically as a number ten, the Swede’s hold-up play, vision, technique, composure and ball-playing ability have all been harnessed to arm him with one of the most unique forward arsenals in world football. From this, Ibrahimović is enjoying his football again (claimed in October, 2011 that “football no longer burns inside me”) – netting a personal career best of thirty-five goals and fourteen assists in forty-four games for Milan in 2011/2012 – and he had the best international tournament of his career with Sweden at Euro 2012.

So, while it seems inevitable that his near-unrivalled league records will continue, a question mark remains: Ibrahimović’s form in Europe. Sure, the Swede has scored pivotal goals – be it against Feyenoord and Utrecht for Ajax, Internazionale and Roma for Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina for Internazionale, Real Madrid and Arsenal for Barcelona, and Internazionale and Napoli for Milan – but a blot on his career will remain until he inspires a club to continental glory. Given how Ibrahimović thrived in Europe when Milan’s play was so clearly built around him in 2011/2012, with five goals and five assists in just eight Champions League matches, PSG may be the perfect platform to finally banish the myth that he cannot handle big European nights. In Ancelotti, too, he has a man who rarely loses faith in his star players, having persevered with Andriy Shevchenko in 2003, Filippo Inzaghi in 2004, Dida in 2008, Ronaldinho in 2009, Michael Ballack in 2010 and Fernando Torres in 2011.

Ancelotti’s other arrivals, Thiago Silva, Verratti and Ezequiel Lavezzi, also have major roles to play. Silva – one of the greatest defenders in the world – was a coup at sorts at €42 million, given that Milan demanded €50 million just weeks previously and had tied Silva down until 2017 in the intervening period. Possessing brilliant ball playing ability and composure, and being a key phased outlet from the back, the onus will be on Silva, alongside the talented goalkeeper, Salvatore Sirigu, to marshal PSG’s near-decade long weaklink: their backline. With the former captain and Academy graduate, Mahamadou Sakho, falling out of favour due to his fluctuating weight and being made a scapegoat of sorts after disappointing performances in draws with Lyon, Caen and Bordeaux in March, 2012, Ancelotti is clearly putting his faith in experience. Silva, like Lúcio was at his peak, offers this as much as his classy composure with the ball and this will be key in tandem with Alex, as both are armed with a strong aerial arsenal and title-winning nous. Even with links with the signing of Maicon, doubts will continue to remain about Maxwell and, in particular, Christophe Jallet, and this will be accentuated by the fact that Lavezzi and Ménez are incredibly unlikely to track back.

Motta and Mohamed Sissoko will offer some welcomed protection to the backline as medianos, but in games where possession retention and guile is needed – either from the bench or from the beginning of play – the nineteen year old Verratti is an intriguing option. While still lacking maturity in his still-evolving ability to tackle, Verratti is PSG’s only other creative outlet outside of Pastore. Therefore, given Ancelotti’s prominent use of talented visionaries like Stefano Fiore, Zinedine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo and, to a slightly lesser extent, Frank Lampard, Verratti – even at such a tender age – has picked the perfect environment to hone his regista talents. Having never played in a top division, it may seem a risk of sorts by Ancelotti but in pairing the youngster with a coverer like Motta, Verratti’s slightness will be shielded and cutting off his crucial metronome instincts will be that much more (can operate remarkably in tight spaces, regardless) difficult for opponents.

Replacing the fans’ favourite and 2011/2012 Ligue 1 top scorer, thirty-one year old Nenê, with Lavezzi shows just how cut-throat the new regime is, but the Argentine will be a key addition. A creator as much as a goalscorer, Lavezzi’s link-up play with Pastore, Ibrahimović and Ménez  could even eclipse that of which he brilliantly established with Marek Hamšík and Edinson Cavani at Napoli. While it may be tempting to suggest that money was, again, the key factor, Lavezzi is adamant that he is “here to win titles.” Also, in Naples in November, 2011, Lavezzi’s girlfriend, Yanina Screpente, had her Rolex stripped off her wrist in a mugging, leading to Napoli’s owner, the charismatic Aurelio De Laurentiis, callously claiming:

Naples is no more violent that Milan or Rome, which I would call the real crime capital of Italy. I would like to tell her [Yanina Screpente] that during a recession, she shouldn’t go around with a Rolex on his wrist.

Incidents like this are less of an occurrence in Paris, but while it is tempting to see Lavezzi as the unsung hero yet again – following the Argentine’s time at Napoli often being eclipsed by the more instantly recognisable Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamšik, a la with Ibrahimović  at PSG – he offers much-needed forward unpredictability. Take the 3-1 victory over Chelsea on 21 February, 2012, where Lavezzi was the undisputed man of the match. Constantly probing from deep, scoring a well-struck long ranger (even if, criminally, Raul Meireles did not close him down) on 38’ and ghosting into the box to slot home Cavani’s smart backpass on 65’, Lavezzi certainly outshone Cavani and Hamšik – even if, in the second-leg at Stamford Bridge, on 27 February, all three were fairly disjointed and anonymous. Given Ménez’s near-chronic inconsistency, Lavezzi’s signing will be much-welcomed and, again, the creative and dynamic burden placed on Pastore has been eased.

So, in spending a further €105 million this summer, PSG have assembled a squad near-certain – under Ancelotti’s near-unrivalled, contrasting experience of title run-ins (final day anguish in 1999/2000 and 2000/2001, but ecstasy in 2009/2010) – to aim to wrap up proceedings with a couple of games to spare, like Milan did in 2003/2004 under his stewardship. While a continental run may seem a difficult task, given that PSG will be fourth seeds and because Manchester City struggled in similar circumstances last season, a quarter-final finish would be an admirable showing as defensively and squad depth-wise, PSG still look light. Still, while many will talk of Silva, Verratti, Pastore, Ménez, Lavezzi and Ibrahimović in the coming years, the real key figure will be Ancelotti.

Having handled, to an extent, similar pressures at times under Silvio Berlusconi and Roman Abramovich, there is no doubting that Ancelottti will have to continue to meet minimum requirements to stay in the job. This season, that, of course, means claiming PSG’s first Ligue 1 title for nineteen years but, alongside Leonardo, in gradually piecing together of the greatest XI’s French football has produced for well over a decade, the jigsaw, certainly, nears completion

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

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