A true change of era
"Antoine who?" French football magazine So Foot asked when it became apparent that the former Paris Saint-Germain manager Antoine Kombouare would be replaced by the former Chelsea and AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti. While there was some mock indignation - along the lines of the press reaction in England when Claudio Ranieri was discarded for Jose Mourinho at Chelsea - on balance there has been an acceptance of the decision.
The realisation is that Paris Saint-Germain really are right to bring in a new manager to meet ever increasing ambition. Stagnation is not enough to succeed in European football. This is because, though PSG are the autumn champions, the key question is, as the same magazine puts it, of whether they are to "stay good or become better". Given Kombouare's weaknesses, and Ancelotti's strengths, it seems that sporting director Leonardo has decided that merely being good, instead of excellent, is Kombouare's limit. The French press' reaction is one of reluctant accord rather than wailing at the former manager's removal.
Antoine Kombouare leaves with "neither a fabulous nor terrible record" (So Foot again). While he may have won 12 of his 19 games this year - twice the win ratio of his two predecessors, who won 27 matches in 76 games - Kombouare convinced nobody of his ability to lead PSG in the Champions League or manage Champions League players. It is possible to compare Chelsea's self-destruction away at Monaco in 2004 with PSG's failure to advance from the group stages of the Europa League. Both were not total disasters, but both were an indication of the coaches' limits. Chelsea, ceding advantage to the home side when they were on top, lacked the necessary ruthlessness. For all the opprobrium at the time, Ranieri's subsequent record has backed up Abramovich's judgment that he was not the manager to give limitless resources. There is no need for PSG and Leonardo to take the same risk.
Carlo Ancelotti, on the other hand, has a track record not of doing just enough but of winning the ultimate prize in European football. He has won the Champions League twice, and would have made it a five-year hat-trick were he not shocked by a freakish Liverpool comeback in Istanbul. Ancelotti also picked up two Scudetti, and won the league with Chelsea in his first Premier League campaign in 2010. Given the various financial constraints put on him as Silvio Berlusconi became less willing to spend at AC Milan, and given the immediate success required to keep a job at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich, Ancelotti's approach will appeal to the hugely ambitious owners at PSG. As he is quoted in Liberation, "I would like to find tactical solutions as brilliant as Arrigo Sacchi's, but there's less and less margin of error. I rely on the genius of the players." While Kombouare struggled to make a team play to its strengths, Ancelotti made the most of his Milan and Chelsea veterans. Remember, too, that Ancelotti can work under extreme pressure. Though QSI expects the utmost success, the Italian manager would have to field regular phone calls from Silvio Berlusconi - then not just his boss, but his Prime Minister.
It's this philosophy that could be the key to success, and the biggest initial problem, for PSG's new man in charge. To rely on the genius of Javier Pastore would have looked reasonable at the start of the season, with some deeply erotic volleyed goals and his Danone-smooth passes, but since then he's faded in his first French season. This is a minor obstacle, though. Pastore's talent is undoubted and with youth on his side you can expect he will come good once he settles in. However, the larger problem is that elsewhere in the side genius is not merely faltering but barely exists. The defence is shonky, often saved by its goalkeeper Sirigu, who has proved little more than his competence. In midfield, there is no player who can destroy, intercept or pass impressively. Their other maverick, Jeremy Menez, has the self belief of Nicklas Bendtner and, sadly for him and Paris Saint-Germain, about the same level of ability.
It's not just his track record as a coach - rewarded by a 'Ligue 1 record' monthly wage of €500,000 (L'Equipe) - that has secured Ancelotti the job. His relationship with Leonardo, a former player of his at AC Milan, secures a strong relationship at the top, pulling in the same direction. Le Monde points out: "Paris Saint-Germain have a chequebook without limit. It's a sign that PSG and French football is now in another dimension."
The new money had for Antoine Kombouare afforded them the chance to sign the best of the second-tier talent, but with Ancelotti new signings seem more reasonable. Alexandre Pato, unsettled in Milan, Florent Malouda, happy to leave Chelsea, and David Beckham, free to do what he likes, are all suggested as potential signings now. Along with another possibility, Kaka, they are all more likely to join PSG not just for money but because they have all experienced success under Carlo Ancelotti at one time or another. Pato's agent put it best when asked of the proposed move to PSG: "Ancelotti is a champion, Leonardo is a hyper competitive director ...and PSG are becoming a huge club."
PSG might now be in a new dimension, but the consensus in the press is that they won't be able to stay in it without Ancelotti. His appointment is, as Le Monde states today, "a true change of era" for PSG.
Alexander Netherton is editor of surrealfootball.com