My piece for the Boot Room and Unai Emery at Paris Saint-Germain
Paris Saint-Germain have been one of the surprises of the season so far, and not in a good way. The French champions sit third in the Ligue 1 table and second in their Champions League group. It may just be October but there has been cause for concern already this season.
When a team goes through as summer of changes as PSG did then a bedding in period can be expected. Except, when you are PSG, winners of four straight Ligue 1 titles and spenders of countless Euros, that bedding in period is almost nil.
Laurent Blanc departed after his failure to progress in the Champions League and Unai Emery took his place. Add to that the departure of talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and his winning mentality, as well as David Luiz’s regular presence in defense and Emery has had a lot to contend with early on.
Still, a squad with this quality, and without much turnover in key departments, would expect to be humming along business as usual in a league they’ve dominated in the last few seasons. That hasn’t been the case.
Losses to Monaco and Toulouse as well as a draw with St. Etienne has already seen PSG lose some of its invincible aura domestically. Things aren’t much different on the continent either as Les Parisiens failed to finish off Arsenal and had to come from behind against Ludogorets in the Champions League amid some up and down performances. Of the key arrivals, only Thomas Meunier and Gregorz Krychowiak have contributed positively while Jese and Hatem Ben Arfa have yet to make an impact.
Those in charge at PSG wanted to head in a different direction and after Blanc’s tenure and Emery was certainly a good choice for that. The Spaniard has shown himself to be a very capable manager during stints with two of Spain’s storied clubs, Valencia and Sevilla. His three consecutive Europa League titles while at Sevilla would have played a major role in his appointment given PSG’s focus on European success. Yet, unlike Blanc, who won a title with Bordeaux before his stint at PSG, Emery has found silverware hard to come by domestically. While Blanc was perfectly fine continuing his predecessor’s work with some minor fine-tuning, with much success it must be added, Emery was to represent a significant change in style and mentality.
The Spaniard started the season trying to implement the 4-2-3-1 system he used at Sevilla but in recent games he has reverted to the 4-3-3 the side used under Blanc. Emery places less focus on possession and more on pressure of the ball than Blanc, and it seemed this was the way forward. According to Bleacher Report, several key players took issue with some of Emery’s tactical ideas which then led to the return to Blanc’s system.
While the formation may not have been the main issue Emery has put himself in a tough position. His acquiescence to the player’s preference weakens his position with a group of players used to winning a certain way. Conversely, a manager of his capabilities should see that a possession-based approach matched with his pressing would make PSG a more formidable prospect regardless of formation. If he can get the players to buy into both approaches then success should follow.
One positive for the Spaniard is the recent form of Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan has started to knock in the goals in a fashion similar to his Napoli days but, as shown by his display against Arsenal, there’s still a case of the yips in big moments and games. He has dealt with one of his major arrivals, Ben Arfa, quite strictly, something that may not have occurred under Blanc judging by his handling of Serge Aurier’s actions earlier this year.
The former Sevilla manager must be mindful that he’s in a different situation altogether, where increased expectations and egos mean much more will be demanded of him on and off the pitch. His three consecutive Europa League titles represent both a gift and a curse in that respect. While Sevilla dominated that competition, Emery has never done particularly well in the Champions League, PSG’s holy grail, while at Sevilla or Valencia. In fact, he’s failed to get past the Round of 16 with either side and was knocked out in the group stage last season with an abysmal record of two wins and four losses.
It may seem harsh to judge a manager so quickly into his reign but that is the status quo in football these days. Those in charge at PSG have spent millions to ensure their club becomes on of the biggest in the world. With that comes massive, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations. Emery has proved his capabilities with two of Spain’s well-known clubs but he faces a different beast here. His appointment, much like the transfers brought in after him, generated more curiosity than excitement.
Now it’s time for him to show that he’s up to the job.