Up until early April, things were going swimmingly for Laurent Blanc and Paris Saint-Germain. Beaten only once in Ligue 1 all season, the French champions were 13 points clear of second-place AS Monaco, eagerly anticipating a first appearance in a domestic cup final under Qatar Sports Investments’ ownership in the Coupe de la Ligue and rightly confident ahead of a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal return clash against English Premier League side Chelsea with a 3-1 first-leg lead.
Fast-forward less than four weeks and PSG are now only eight points clear of Monaco after wasting a great opportunity to seal a second consecutive Championnat title with a 1-1 draw away at FC Sochaux-Montbeliard on Sunday. They may have won the Coupe de la Ligue at the expense of Olympique Lyonnais, but the fallen giants of French football beat them six days before at Stade Gerland. The cup triumph’s gloss was also considerably lessened by a 2-0 second-leg defeat to Chelsea in Europe, a result that saw the Parisians exit the competition on away goals for the second consecutive season.
Where is the shame in that for a club that returned to the top continental table last season after an eight-year absence?
Indeed all is not completely lost, and confirmation of the title is expected when PSG host Stade Rennais on May 7. Victory would secure a first-ever league and domestic cup double in the capital club’s relatively short history -- not to mention the champions’ first successful title defence -- but the events of the past few weeks have attracted criticism and prompted some serious questions.
Central to this interrogation is coach Blanc. Accused of tactical ineptitude in the face of seasoned European campaigner Jose Mourinho, le President has had the blame for the team’s European exit laid firmly at his door. Those criticisms, although not completely unwarranted, have not been thoroughly deserved. What is most concerning, though, are the realities the defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League have revealed.
The first reality is that Blanc is not experienced enough to take PSG all the way in Europe yet. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and he will almost certainly master the art of continental competition in the coming years considering how impressive his early coaching performances have been.
Is that enough for the capital club’s ambitious Qatari owners, though?
Following the Champions League exit to Chelsea, the treatment of Blanc by the French press was harsh. Despite publicly stating his delight with his coach’s performance and desire to tie the 48-year-old down to a new contract just days before the return leg, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was slow to react to the scathing attacks from his Doha base post-Stamford Bridge. Since that moment, doubt has been cast on the club hierarchy’s true feelings toward Blanc. Although the Frenchman is still thought to be in line for his promised contract renewal, QSI’s public lauding of the coach has cooled considerably, and this once again emphasises the importance for any PSG coach to get immediate results with the team that has been assembled at high cost. Blanc's targets next term should be clear: he will be expected to better this season’s quarterfinal display and arguably claim both domestic cups as well as another successful French title defence.
The second reality -- and arguably the most concerning one for now -- is that Blanc’s tactical limits have been exposed. It was always going to require a European clash, not a domestic one, to genuinely test PSG’s credentials, and although the team passed one part of that test, they still ultimately failed it.
But Blanc’s strategic inflexibility has not only been shown up there.
In the weeks after the Chelsea defeat, the Parisian boss has been exposed by innovative Lyon counterpart Remi Garde -- with a massively understrength side, it must be added -- Evian Thonon Gaillard’s Pascal Dupraz and Sochaux’s Herve Renard. PSG did beat Lyon in the second of their encounters and the one that mattered -- the Coupe de la Ligue final -- but that does not mean that Blanc won the tactical battle.
Since that 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, Blanc has looked like a deer in headlights, frozen stiff and unable to react to his players’ lack of penetration at times and PSG’s opponents managing to breach their generally watertight defence. He makes the same like-for-like substitutions during games and refuses to consider any other formation outside of the 4-3-3 that was implemented at the start of the season to get the best out of the now-injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The concern is that if he is now getting found out in Ligue 1 -- and by teams at the wrong end of the table -- can he really take PSG any further than he already has in the Champions League?
This brings us to the third and final reality that has been exposed, which is that Blanc is unable to keep all of his key players happy. Edinson Cavani’s dissatisfaction is well documented of late -- although highly hypocritical considering his largely abject performances since taking over his preferred central striking role in the absence of Ibrahimovic -- but there have also been suggestions in the French media that recently out-of-form captain Thiago Silva has been less than impressed by his coach this season. Added to the fact that in a squad of PSG’s size and quality there are always going to be players unhappy with their lack of opportunities, Blanc finds himself in a vulnerable position.
The reaction to the French champions’ European exit was of the knee-jerk variety, there is no doubt about that, but the recent criticism of the Frenchman for the team’s domestic shortcomings is justified. Based on this season’s overall performance, Blanc deserves to be given the chance to coach this PSG side next campaign and merits a more respectable second year than the derisory current terms he is on.
However, QSI’s reservations are understandable, even if sacking Blanc would be extremely harsh. The threat of appearing unstable to any top potential coach should be enough to prevent that from happening.
Getting rid of a tactician who is almost certainly about to complete a league and domestic cup double would be a suicidal move from the PSG hierarchy, but Blanc needs to heed his lessons from this season. Le President must become more flexible tactically, while he also needs to learn how to control the bigger egos in his squad better.
If he does not adapt accordingly, then QSI will not hesitate to pull the trigger at the first sign of danger next term.