James Eastham: The revolution of Laurent Blanc

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Being a French manager of PSG in the QSI era comes at a premium. Just ask Antoine Kombouare. Now in charge at Lens, the ex-PSG centre-back was sacked as PSG manager in December 2011 when the club sat 3pts clear at the top of the Ligue 1 table.

At the time PSG’s Qatar-based owners wanted a manager with an international reputation to take the team forward. So out went Kombouare and in came Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian eventually led PSG to the Ligue 1 title – but only after finishing second behind unexpected champions Montpellier in 2011-12.

This was the backdrop when Laurent Blanc took over from Ancelotti two years ago. From the outset Blanc’s appointment was questioned – and in this case, not just because he was French.

Depending which report you believe, Blanc ranked somewhere between fifth and ‘who?’ on PSG’s shortlist. Jose Mourinho, Rafael Benitez, Pep Guardiola and Fabio Capello were all linked with the post but fell by the wayside. So Blanc stepped into the breach by default in June 2013.

Blanc was appointed manager of Paris Saint-Germain on 25 June 2013 shortly after Carlo Ancelotti left for Real Madrid
Blanc was appointed manager of Paris Saint-Germain on 25 June 2013 shortly after Carlo Ancelotti left for Real Madrid

And he’s been subject to criticism and catcalls ever since. When PSG won the Ligue 1 title last season – with more points, more wins and goals scored than under Ancelotti the previous season – the players, and specifically Zlatan Ibrahimovic, took the credit. When Chelsea knocked PSG out of the Champions League, the blame was laid firmly at Blanc’s feet.

This dichotomy sums up how Blanc was largely treated during his first 18 months in the job.

But since the start of 2015 the narrative has changed. Over the past 100 days Blanc has altered perceptions of him so dramatically that the idea that PSG may get rid of him at the end of the season is no longer even discussed.

CHELSEA THE TURNING POINT

The game-changer for Blanc was PSG’s Champions League last 16 win over Chelsea in February and March. When PSG overcame the odds to eliminate Mourinho’s side on away goals it was as though Blanc had finally graduated to the upper table of European football management.

At the quarter-final stage last season Blanc was blamed – with some justification – for PSG’s exit against the same opponents. Leading 3-1 from the first leg at home, PSG’s fearful second-leg display played into Chelsea’s hands. Chelsea won 2-0, PSG were out on away goals and Blanc had to accept he had not done enough to keep PSG in the competition.

Demba Ba's scrambled late goal sent Chelsea into the Champions League semi-finals at Paris St-Germain's expense
8th April 2014 -Demba Ba’s scrambled late goal sent Chelsea into the Champions League semi-finals at Paris St-Germain’s expens

This year the mood was totally different. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg PSG travelled to Stamford Bridge and produced a heroic performance to go through. Smartly set-up and thoughtfully courageous from the minute Zlatan Ibrahimovic was controversially sent off in the first-half, PSG equalised to force extra-time and then equalised again after Chelsea had regained the lead to clinch a fully deserved away-goals victory.

Having been the scapegoat 12 months earlier, this time Blanc received the plaudits for designing his side’s victory – and rightly so, as his one big tactical decision of the tie, playing David Luiz in midfield, paid off handsomely. He looked more at home in a big arena and more at ease “in his own skin”, as the French say, going toe-to-toe with all-time great Mourinho.

There have been some smaller yet equally significant developments along the way. The most obvious is that Blanc is now taking a harder line with his players. In January Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi were fined and dropped after returning late from their festive break in South America. In February Blanc publicly rebuked midfielder Marco Verratti for picking up too many bookings.

Blanc’s tougher approach may not register as an example of mould-breaking discipline for many managers, but given that accusations of avoiding conflict and affording the players too much wriggle room regularly arose during his two years (2010 to 2012) as France manager, what we’ve seen is a clear change in his manner of dealing with disciplinary issues.

Luiz Silva
Thiago Silva and David Luiz scored those crucial goals to knock Chelsea out of Champions League on away goals

Blanc’s loyalty has also been rewarded. He stood by Thiago Silva when the player’s form wavered during the autumn. Now the Brazil defender is back to his best, repaying his manager’s faith will be uppermost in his mind. Critics mocked Blanc for persuading his paymasters to meet Chelsea’s €50m asking price for David Luiz. So how sweet it must have felt when Thiago Silva and David Luiz scored those crucial goals at Stamford Bridge.

SHAPING HIS OWN DESTINY

The shades of grey apparent in Blanc’s man-management this season confirm he has broadened his managerial palette. At times in the past, rather than interfering in events, he seemed happy to allow them to take their own course. There was more than a hint of the wonderfully mellow player he used to be in the manager he became.

As he would play with his socks rolled down to his ankles, so he sometimes appeared too laid-back on the touchline. Last season Blanc was regularly accused – again, with some justification – of making substitutions too late in games and sticking too rigidly to PSG’s regular 4-3-3 rather than being bold enough to change their formation and strategy. There was also a feeling that PSG’s highly-paid players lacked direction and guidance off the field between matches.

But fining and dropping the South American duo, pulling Verratti into line and making that big call on David Luiz against Chelsea have made people sit up and take notice. Rather than passively accepting events, Blanc is shaping them more actively now. In doing so he has earned the respect of his players and other figures within and outside the club.

FBL-FRA-LIGUE1-PSG-GUINGAMP

In many ways Blanc is still a novice. This is only his fifth season as a club manager. As with players, there is a tendency to expect too much, too soon from managers. They need time to learn their craft, to add the tools of the job that don’t come naturally to them.

And for all he may be a relative newcomer, Blanc has compiled an impressive CV. On Saturday night he oversaw PSG’s 4 nil victory against Bastia in the League Cup final. He now has two Ligue 1 titles (one with Bordeaux, one with PSG), three League Cups and four Champions Trophies to his name.

And it could get even better. PSG sit 1pt clear at the top of Ligue 1 with seven games to go. They face Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final in a few hours. On May 30 they meet St Etienne in the French Cup final at Stade de France.

In two months’ time we may wonder why we ever doubted him in the first place.