By, Kris Carpenter @AFCfreddie8
It’s the night Paris Saint Germain travel to London to face Premier League side Arsenal in the penultimate fixture of Group A in the Champions League, Unai Emery now enjoying arguably his best run with the side since taking over the Parisians from Laurent Blanc in the summer.
So why do so many remain unconvinced by the Spanish coach’s blueprint and more importantly how are PSG set in their quest for Europe’s biggest prize.
Let’s start with the man at the helm, Unai Emery was brought to the club by President Nasser Al- Khelaifi, on June 28th 2016 replacing Laurent Blanc in the process. Blanc had enjoyed a successful spell having taking over in 2013 but ultimately winning a hat-trick of Ligue1 titles as well as the Coupe De Le Ligue back to back was not enough to convince those above him that he could take ‘Project PSG’ to the next level, IE, The Champions league. Losing on aggregate last season to Manchester City all but sealed his fate, after an ill-fated attempt to change formation in the 2nd leg saw their exit from the competition at the ¼ final stage.
So, enter Emery, A Spanish coach held in high regard in his native land despite having a somewhat questionable away record in particular at his last club Sevilla, but that record aside his ability to win a treble of Europa League’s in a row clearly turned heads in Paris as he was appointed to essentially make France’s top club side the force in Europe the owners crave, extending the reach of ‘Brand PSG’ something he began with the Pre-Season tour of the USA in the summer, which was a huge success commercially.
Emery’s first job was to rebuild areas of the PSG squad that were seemingly lacking in the previously mentioned ‘failed’ season, the midfield area was strengthened with the addition of Gregorz Krychowiak from his former club Sevilla, along with Jese Rodriguez from Real Madrid and one of the top performers in Ligue1 the previous season Hatem Ben Arfa who arrived from Nice. Belgian right full back Thomas Meunier was also brought in to bolster the backline options, but it was up front the surprise came, Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced he would be cutting ties after a hugely successful spell to join Jose Mourinho’s Manchester Utd, this left a huge gap not only in the team but also in the squad and dressing room. The experience, winning mentality and ability to link the whole offensive line in attack made Zlatan a key component in everything PSG did well during his time there, yes his powers could be classed as declining as he reaches the twilight years of a prolific career but what he is often given little credit for was his motivational work behind the scenes, putting an arm around younger players in training, assisting Blanc during times of squad unrest, especially during the Serge Aurier outbursts on social media and of course his huge self-confidence, which would often put all the attention on him allowing his team mates to quietly go about their business with little distractions from the media or other prying eyes.
So what about the rest of this PSG side? Why is it so many are remaining less than convinced by them this season from when Blanc was in charge? My opinion on this is summed up in one simple word, transition. It is a word that so many clubs all around the world fear the most, knowing that for a period of time things can’t just click freely in to place and new ideas having to take some time to bed in before success is forthcoming, this is the challenge facing coach Emery. When in charge at Sevilla Emery quickly adopted a pressing game with a fully flexible midfield, the wingers tucking in to be narrow, the forwards pressing the opposition centre backs into deep areas and often two deeper holding players (New signing Krychowiak being one) sitting as a shield to track the movements of the opposition attacking players, this was often described as the ‘H System’ this was easily adapted into a 4-4-2 system if the opposition arrived looking to play a high line against them. Having pressed and won the ball back it was all about pace, speed and incisiveness in the final third, counter attacking at a quick tempo to catch out the opponents who had been robbed the ball, in truth the way most modern teams now play the game, so why is this taking time to work at PSG?
Laurent Blanc was all about possession, lots of possession, employing a 4-3-3 system which differs hugely to Emery’s 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, building a platform on a strong, industrious central three, often including the likes of Thiago Motta or Blaise Matuidi playing deep along with a slightly more creative option with them such as Verratti or Pastore, this essentially placed all the attacking responsibility on Zlatan to create from the 10 role feeding the wingers then racing on to finish a move he would often start himself. The other hugely noticeable difference under Emery this season is tactical flexibility, you would think this would be a good thing and over time I believe it will, but you have to remember under Blanc the word tactics simply didn’t exist! Time and again the plan would remain the same, keep the ball, move through the zones, rely on Zlatan, it sounds harsh given Blanc is the most successful Manager in history of the club to date, but as much as I love French Football the calibre of players at his disposal at PSG even I might have won a trophy or two!
With Emery’s acute attention to every detail of every game against every opposition the modern PSG side are slowly learning his methods, his ways of finding a weakness in the opposition during a game and exploiting it with adjustments during the 90mins, this of course has led to teething problems, changing patterns of play, players being heavily rotated and a mixture of formations, the opening weeks of the season where anything but convincing, a 3-1 defeat away at Monaco followed by a 1-1 home draw with St Etienne suggested all was not well, players openly letting information slip to the press that they were struggling to adjust to a new way of working. A defeat to Toulouse a few weeks later seemed to be the turning point, players were called in to discuss the defeat and tactics were explained to a deeper level in training in a bid to get the team firing again, Emery himself taking the blame publically for some areas of the defeat, a risky strategy but one that appears to have worked. Five wins in the next six Ligue1 games followed, conceding just 1 goal, two wins against Swiss side Basel in between means qualification from Champions League Group A is assured, all that’s left to determine is whether that be as group winners or runners up…
There is little doubt in my mind that given the riches and resources at their disposal PSG could and should be competing for Europe’s richest prize season in season out, just a simple glance down their squad list picking of names like the previously mentioned Cavani and Verratti, Brazilian defenders of past and future in Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, established stars like Angel Di Maria not to mention some of the cream of French Footballs younger talent, such as Kimpembe, Augustin and Rabiot. Emery’s job however could depend on making these immense talents gel and more importantly believe they can indeed go all the way at the elite level. Adapting and settling on a formation and pattern of play is crucial for this current crop to challenge for the 2016-17 Champions League trophy. When looking at the great sides of days gone by in Europe’s oldest club competition they all had a style, a trademark method of Football if you will, when you think of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich of recent years, or look back to the great Ajax, Juventus, AC Milan or Manchester Utd sides of the past you see the appeal and statement it could make to see PSG join Marseille as a French European great. There will always be those who say they are buying their way to success and essentially financially doping the market of competition to do so, but I choose to see it differently, the ideas and style Emery is looking to build at the club suggests a real step towards doing things the right way, the Footballing way, for that the clubs owners deserve praise and respect for their vision.
Playing in a league that, until the emergence of Monaco and Nice this season or a brief Lyon challenge in season previously has largely represented a stroll for PSG remains the hardest test for Emery to overcome, that ability to keep players motivated and be able to flip the switch for the biggest games when a Champions League fixture come around.
Ahead of their trip to Arsenal on Wednesday the 23rd of November 2016 the feeling is things are beginning to click and a stand out performance in North London could see them installed as one of the front runners for the competition, however a defeat or performance reminiscent of that against Manchester City last season will only serve to add more fuel to the fire of those who state simply, French Football is not and never will compete again at the very top.
Is ‘Project PSG’ a success? Not yet, do they need another marque name to achieve that? Maybe and do I believe they can achieve the title of Champions of Europe, absolutely!