The method in Le Guen's madness
Paris Saint Germain are a football club far too chic to have that old office adage, 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' emblazoned across the one of the walls in the manager's private den in the Parc des Princes. However, a clutch of ten different managers in the last decade and a rash of four in the last two years suggest a splash of insanity may well be a prior requisite for taking the job.
The current incumbent, the soberly lucid Paul Le Guen, is hardly a man who likes to spend the best part of his waking hours in a strait jacket, though recent developments at PSG have had people thinking that, like a Greek up-in-arms about some sculptures which once belonged to the Earl of Elgin and now reside in the British Museum, the former Rangers boss may have lost his marbles.
A shocking start to the season, on the back of a previous campaign spent fending off 'the drop', plumbed the depths of early October's 3-1 home defeat by Rennes, which left PSG 14th in the Ligue One table and saw the man least likely to get a Christmas card from Barry Ferguson decide a dose of shock therapy was exactly what his squad needed.
Le Guen promptly planted four youthful saplings from the club's junior ranks in the firing line against Valenciennes late last month, and just for good measure made 17-year-old debutant Mamadou Sakho captain of a side that included current France number one Mickäel Landreau and experienced Colombian international stopper Mario Yepes.
'What is Le Guen playing at?' ranted an outraged France Football, while their colleagues at L'Equipe opted for 'Le Guen playing with fire,' echoing in printable form the sentiments of the more mature figures in the dressing-room, and those in the country not caught up in the soap opera of President Nicolas Sarkozy's impending divorce.
How does the defence for Le Guen plead? Temporary insanity?
'It's anything but an off-the-cuff decision, though he did it for more reasons than that of simply motivating his more experienced players,' believes Louis Laffitte, a freelance football journalist and PSG season-ticket holder.
'The more experienced players in the squad weren't meeting expectations, but it is also a long-term plan of the club to give young players their chance. They've just had to bring forward the moment to put that strategy into action.'
Jean-Claude Perrin agrees. A former head of the French athletics team and double Davis Cup-winning coach, Perrin was tasked with forcing Le Guen the player to sweat up his training kit on a daily basis in his role as PSG's fitness coach, and says the man he got to know over three seasons simply does not do flights of fancy.
'It was a risk on a technical level and also on a psychological level, because Paul knows only too well the environment around the club. So, if he did it, it was for very specific reasons,' said Perrin, whose reign as torturer-in-chief came to an end in 1998, the year Le Guen ended his playing career.
'I think, essentially, it's not about motivation - the players are motivated. It's more about explaining that when you come to training, your place is not certain, unlike those who turn up at an office.'
Le Guen's managerial history - which has taken him from Rennes to Paris via Lyon and Glasgow - shows that in terms of the odd confrontation or six with the established order, he has got 'previous.'
At Lyon in 2002, the Breton wielded a rather large axe in the direction of World Cup winner Edmilson after the Brazilian performed one Cruyff turn too many on the edge of his own box, and slotted in the then-unknown Mahamadou Diarra, who would go on to form one of the most explosive midfield partnerships in European football with Michael Essien.
Le Guen's premature departure from Scotland was down to the failure of Rangers chairman, David Murray, to back his manager, who took the captain's armband away from Ibrox icon Ferguson and demanded he be transferred; while ex-Portugal striker Pauleta - who looks set to become PSG's all-time leading scorer before retiring at the end of the season - is to reportedly pen a lucrative deal as consultant to an armchair manufacturer after developing an intimate relationship with the Parc des Princes bench.
However, while the form of Le Guen's latest actions may be no surprise, the substance certainly is. Unlike humbler rivals, such as Auxerre and Nantes, PSG have never been a club known for its formation, the 'forming' of young players from spying their budding potential to giving them their first-team debut.
|“||While the quartet he introduced against Valenciennes may not quite be of the same standard as 'Fergie's Fledglings,' they could well become part of a generation of 'Le Guen's Goslings.' ”|
A lengthy list of players from their massive 'catchment area' who made their breakthroughs elsewhere, which includes Didier Drogba, Jerome Rothen and, notably, Thierry Henry, is testament to the fact that - with the notable exception of Nicolas Anelka - the club's scouts of yesteryear would not have earned their spotters' badges.
That is now changing given that the franc-fuelled years of Canal+ - France's equivalent of Sky - came to an end with the satellite TV channel selling its stake in the club last year, and the current crop of shareholders are unwilling to dip deeper into their considerably less cavernous pockets.
However, though Le Guen's hand has been forced by both economic and sporting circumstances, while the quartet he introduced against Valenciennes may not quite be of the same standard as 'Fergie's Fledglings,' they could well become part of a generation of 'Le Guen's Goslings.'
In addition to defender Sakho and 18-year-old Younousse Sankharé in midfield, forward Loris Arnaud, also 18, single-handedly saved PSG's reserve side from relegation last season and recently scored his first senior goal in the win over Strasbourg; athletic midfielder Granddi NGoyi, 19, was part of a PSG under-18 side which won their championship in 2006, as was fellow French under-19 international David N'Gog, an 18-year-old who made his debut late last season, and has been keeping Pauleta out of the side.
The results, if hardly spectacular, have been promising with Saturday's goalless draw against second-placed Nancy - in which all five youngsters played a part - was PSG's fifth point in four games, and as Laffitte points out, 'Would the older players have done any better? Probably not.' Le Guen's four line-ups prior to the Valenciennes match on October 20 had taken four points from their matches.
It also seems Le Guen will be given time to put his plans into place, given the continued and very public backing of club president Alain Cayzac. Perhaps more importantly, Le Guen enjoys a privileged place in the hearts of PSG's notoriously fickle fans for his part in the club's golden era in the mid-1990s which saw a championship, a brace of French Cups and League Cups and a Cup Winners' Cup come their way. The fact that he also coached Lyon to three consecutive Ligue One titles earlier this century and saved the club from relegation last season has given his aura added allure.
A telling comparison can be made with the man Le Guen replaced, Guy Lacombe. Not a former PSG player, Lacombe actually had more points from his first 11 games last season than Le Guen had this. However, while Lacombe found himself under the sort of fire usually reserved for Baghdad or Kabul, an eerie serenity reigns around the Parc.
Le Guen's situation is eased by the fact arch-rivals Marseille currently sit second-from-bottom. However, with PSG only 13th in the table, Laffitte sounds a note of caution.
'To build in the long term, you have to have some results in the short term,' he said. 'The club has just come out of a hellish season. Le Guen is very well-protected, with some fans even saying they're ready to suffer relegation if need be. But he's got to get something to show for his work, otherwise it will come to a dead end.
'If the club finishes outside the top ten this season, it's going to be very difficult for him and the president.'
Another factor which could make Le Guen's life tricky is France's powerful football press, who the PSG boss snubs and to whom he recently declared, 'I will never talk to you,' an unhelpful stance when you are in charge of one of the country's most popular clubs.
This lack of communication, which was another major factor in his failure in Scotland and is all the more surprising given his incisive analysis as a expert summariser on TV during his sabattical season after leaving Lyon, means the pressure can quickly be piled on Le Guen's shoulders.
But Perrin says the phlegmatic Le Guen's PSG pedigree means he is unlikely to be ruffled.
'It's normal that he's under pressure, but who better than he to put everything into perspective?' said Perrin. 'When you're at Lyon for three years, you get used to pressure. The pressure is more for journalists than coaches. A coach needs pressure and adrenalin to do his work. Pressure is not always negative.
'Paul knows exactly what people are saying and writing about him. He reads the papers. But he knows that he's in a profession where people expect you to deliver titles. His ideas are good. He's not too stubborn not to think about it and change it if things don't work out. But he's the pilot of a plane around which there is lots of turbulence, but his hands on the controls don't tremble.'