At least Laurent Blanc won’t have to worry about quotas anymore. Having spent a wee time on the sidelines, Larry White has his new gig at Paris Saint-Germain. Some people get revived by smelling salts, but Blanc has had his career revived by oil fumes. That means, of course, that while there can be loads of excitement about France this season, we can evaluate the work that Carlo Ancelotti has done in his season and a half in France. There won’t be time to include the work we can assume he has done in the city’s restaurants, even if food is obviously more interesting than football. Food!
One would have reasonably assumed that when Ancelotti took over, as 2011 was on the verge of becoming 2012 and PSG were three points clear of Montpellier, that a manager of his experience and a team with such financial advantage would have easily won the league for the first time in over 500 years. It wasn’t to be. Despite that in the summer of 2011, PSG had bought Salvatore Sirigu, Jeremy Menez, Blaise Matuidi, Kevin Gameiro and Javier Pastore, they could only finish second. Montpellier played such thrilling and consistent football, lead by Younes Belhanda and Olivier Giroud’s partnership in attack, that their victory was well deserved. They truly played like a team, while PSG played like they were on their first date. There had been moments of excellence, particularly if intermittently from Pastore, but the sense was that Montpellier’s form for that season carried them to the title, partly because PSG were incapable of pulling their fingers out.
And they didn’t pull their fingers out (this is a metaphor, not a genuinely revolting scoop being put out there) in Ancelotti’s first transfer window. They bought Maxwell from Barcelona and Alex from Chelsea. This was not so much a statement of intent as it was a statement of just looking forward to the end of the season. Work was being done to lay the foundations for success and to sensibly attempt walking before they would consider running. There were plenty of boos from the club, as there were at the start of the 2012/13 season, but that said more about the type of fans PSG have. Paris’s fans were already known for their arrogance, and the city is widely loathed for the same. The takeover attracted the fairweather, flashy fan – the type Chelsea have started to attract – with a sense of entitlement expressed first and foremost in willingness to express dissatisfaction. If there was one thing Ancelotti failed to improve, it was the new fans’ attitudes. What he did do, though, was to weather the fans’ displeasure and commit himself to steady progress that would leave PSG able to focus almost exclusively on the future, rather than mistakes of the past.
Ancelotti did not transform the team in this season, nor did he appear to try to. The owners and Leonardo had said Champions League football was the aim for that season, and so it proved. PSG finished second, and Ancelotti had begun to build his team. He had identified those players capable of performing in the Champions League, he identified the players who would improve the squad, and more importantly, began the process of removing the players who were no longer needed. Improvement was gradual but can be seen more clearly in retrospect than simply in each transfer window.
Without Carlo Ancelotti at Paris Saint-Germain, it would have taken more effort, and more z-e-r-ohs on the cheques to attract the players necessary to really compete in Europe. Obviously that is not to say PSG were ready for the Champions League last year, but they were a team who looked far more at home in that competition than they did in Ligue Un. That summer, the side added Zlatan Ibrahimovic, bringing an ego and swagger that would normally take years to develop. Ibrahimovic is an utterly staggering arsehole of truly ridiculous proportions, but a man with the standing of Carlo Ancelotti is one of the few capable of keeping him – more or less – onside for a season. Ibrahimovic delivered crucial goals, and his self-regard in turn demanded that his teammates raised their game to meet his expectations. Without Ibrahimovic, the title wouldn’t have been Paris’, and his arrogance was one of the building blocks for the team to get used to being in Europe. Ibrahimovic would have had no concerns about whether or not he really deserved to be there, and his side increasingly started to believe that was the case. When Barcelona eventually defeated them in the quarters, it was PSG who surprised everyone with their competence, not the other side.
As for the others, Ezequiel Lavezzi may not have had an incredible season, but he scored the decisive goal in the last leg against Valencia, and has undeniable class. Thiago Silva had problems with injuries, but displayed often enough that he is potentially the greatest centre back of his era, with a calmness and adroit sense of positioning not seen since Rio Ferdinand at his peak. Marco Verratti, the next Pirlo, was bought from Pescara and could well—no understatement—be the best midfielder of his generation and define PSG if he and his side are successful. Ancelotti needs praise for working with Leonardo to not waste the opportunity of the transfer window – there were no obviously idiotic signings, and all the players added were part of a plan to solve deficiencies, whether or not they were overwhelming successful in doing so. Ibrahimovic added stardust and genuine class, Thiago Silva would improve the defence immeasurably, Verratti was a player to build a side around.
Lucas Moura was bought in the summer and introduced in the winter. Like Verratti, he could certainly achieve great things. PSG have seen great Brazilians already, with players like Rai, Leonardo and Ronaldinho, and the tradition seems set to continue. Ancelotti introduced the player after he moved from Sao Paolo. The player had seemed likely to join Manchester United, and though his move may have also have been due to money, Ancelotti’s history with another Brazilian, Kaka, might have had some influence on securing the player. It was Ancelotti who introduced him to European football, and gave the team a player with a preposterous mix of control, speed and flair comparable to a young Cristiano Ronaldo, with a similar sense of excitement each time he had the ball. Just as Kaka became great (for a couple of seasons, at least) under Ancelotti, so has he set Lucas Moura on a similar path.
It wasn’t just the players that he bought that he successfully integrated. While Javier Pastore has ultimately disappointed, Blaise Matuidi has been transformed. In 2011/12, he was something of a clogger, as likely to give away a foul as contribute something constructive. In 2012/13, though, he was the side’s best and most consistent player. Able to break up play, he could be trusted to make instructive passes, and began to contribute important goals, and made his club form a reason to include him in France’s national side. Jeremy Menez, basically a self-important tit for most of his career, started to understand that life was a lot easier when he knuckled down and played for the side. He was not perfect, but he was worth having around for the first time in his life. Ancelotti deserves credit for allowing these two midfielders to mature, albeit in different ways.
That is what Ancelotti has given PSG. He hasn’t made a great team. He hasn’t achieved anything truly remarkable. The legacy he oversaw was one of transition, but it is one that has come with little friction. Ancelotti has left a team with a future that doesn’t speak of disarray, discontentment or infighting. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly impressive. With the the cash to make yet more improvements, it is vital the money can be invested in further quality, rather than to correct the mistakes of the past. The Italian has already resolved the greatest obstacles.
Nene has been booted out, with his sense of importance not commensurate to his ability. Guillaume Hoarau has left for China, betraying that reaching his potential was not really top of his priorities. Mamadou Sakho’s attitude problems looked like they would not be overcome, and was largely frozen out, no longer needed as the talisman in a side with ever more stars. Ancelotti has demonstrated that unless you deliver like Ibrahimovic has, there is no reason for a player to be indulged to such a degree.
He has left the club with two young players, Marco Verratti and Lucas Moura, ready to become icons for the team and develop an emotional bond with the fans, just as the club might start to lose some of its identity in the midst of becoming a global rather than national concern. In addition, he has left PSG with a spine that could last for years to come. In defence, Salvatore Sirigu and Thiago Silva can be relied upon. Verratti and Matuidi could be the best base for a midfield for the next five years. In attack, Ibrahimovic and Moura offer established brilliance and the promise of more to come, respectively. All this can be added to, rather than replaced, and that is down to Ancelotti.
Ancelotti also assisted in making PSG a brand closer to their new European rivals. They are nowhere near the stature of Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid, but they have outgrown Ligue Un in two seasons (unless Monaco’s admission is completed). Without Ancelotti, Ibrahimovic might not have been willing to join. Signing David Beckham would perhaps never have happened without the relationship he had with him at AC Milan. Ambitions on this scale would have looked faintly ridiculous without a manger of his credibility. Wayne Rooney would not be a reasonable target for the summer had Ancelotti not been able to demonstrate there was a place for them in the Champions League, reaching the quarter-finals in the first season of their return to the competition. Obviously the endless millions and new executive team at PSG are also responsible, but Ancelotti was part of that set-up.
That is not to say that Ancelotti has done a Jesus job on the club. There are unresolved problems. There is a lot of tat left to be replaced, and careers that could end up hampered if they are not continued away from PSG. Any and all of Kevin Gameiro, Diego Lugano, Mathieu Bodmer, Sakho, Zoumana Camara and Sylvain Armand should consider leaving. Leonardo has been banned for nine months for shoving a referee, though this is hardly Ancelotti’s fault. The defence, realistically, needs three new players, and the midfield at least a couple. The team might be more assured, but there is no question that it is still guilty of immaturity on the pitch. This is reflected by the number of red cards and idiotic goals the club were capable of conceding throughout the season.
And just because they won the league, it doesn’t mean that he deserves the credit that, say, Jose Mourinho got at Chelsea, or Roberto Mancini did at Manchester City. The competition last season was close to execrable. Marseille may have finished second, but their quality can be summed up by the fact they are genuinely considering buying Joey Barton for next season. Lyon could have maintained a challenge, but sold Hugo Lloris to Tottenham, and then loaned out Michel Bastos at the halfway point. Montpellier lost Olivier Giroud to Arsenal and generally fell apart, unable to keep their form up from the previous season. Ancelotti didn’t exactly have to fall back on some great genius to take a team with such financial advantage to the top.
So that is where Ancelotti leaves Paris Saint-Germain. At the top of the league, but not cemented in such a way that Monaco can’t challenge them. In Europe, but by no means a credible challenger—yet. Ultimately, he’s allowed them a relatively painless transformation. The have a basis for the future. It is not an embarrassment when they are linked with the best talent available. They now, crucially, make sense in Europe and the rumour mills. Without Ancelotti, it probably would have happened anyway, but without Ancelotti, it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened in a year and a half.