Feelings of bitter disappointment after Wednesday’s draw verse Real Madrid surely exemplify this new era of Parisian football.
It’s not long ago that a nascent, cash-splashing Paris Saint-Germain would have chomped at the bit for a point and a clean sheet versus the ten-time Champions League winners. After last season’s domestic quadruple, though, and iconic victories against Chelsea and Barcelona, one gets the feeling that dominance in France will no longer cut it in the capital. The pressure is on Laurent Blanc to grab the one trophy that has eluded him. Unfortunately for the manager, his first big result of the season fell well short of expectations.
Kevin Trapp and the back four were easily the highlight of the game. Thiago Silva continued his fine form, cutting out several killer balls from Toni Kroos, and Marquinhos marshaled well alongside him. Maxwell put in a fine performance, despite being relatively unthreatened by Madrid’s right wing. Serge Aurier continued to be a creative force on the right-hand side, but while he was named in the UEFA team of the week alongside O Monstro, I will echo Jose’s somewhat controversial opinion: Aurier didn’t show his quality defensively. If anything, Marcelo stole the show, frequently creating problems overlapping past the Ivorian and feeding Cristiano Ronaldo virtually all his chances. Silva and Marquinhos were dragged out of position to compensate, leaving Madrid the opportunity to get unmarked men into the box. It’s here that Trapp shined again, dealing masterfully with Ronaldo’s aerial prowess and coming off his line quickly to smother a couple of point-blank chances.
Most of Madrid’s chances came from Kroos, who was given much more license to create in Madrid’s packed midfield compared to his old responsibility as a holding man under Carlo Ancelotti. Rafael Benitez has returned to a defensive, counterattacking focus at Real, packing the midfield with five men and allowing Ronaldo and Jesé to be released. This quickly became anathema to Blanc’s preferred three-man midfield. It was very much a tactical battle lost, almost a carbon copy of Diego Simeone maneuvering Atletico Madrid to a 4-0 victory over Ancelotti’s Madrid. Thiago Motta was the target—despite ironically creating the most out of any of the starting 3 midfielders—of the opposition press, and from there Blanc’s entire game plan unraveled. With Motta too closed down to create anything, Marco Verratti would be called out of position often (including to win the ball back). Blaise Matuidi’s role is by definition non-static, meaning Zlatan Ibrahimovic would drop back even further when the Frenchman got forward. Then Edinson Cavani is called upon to make a defensive contribution, and that leaves…no one up the pitch. Even when Zlatan made a token effort to go forward, it almost inevitably resulted in a counter.
As much as it might hurt to say it, Blanc simply didn’t adapt to the opposition nearly enough. This was an injury-depleted Madrid side at home, and would have been a massive step towards winning the group, yet at times the game plan seemed nonexistent. Angel Di Maria could pick up the ball and ping a cross towards the far post, but with no other natural wingers, Cavani would frequently end up watching a loose ball trickle out for a goal kick. Zlatan’s partnership with the Uruguayan has stagnated ever since the game against Monaco, and the big Swede had another utterly wasteful night as the alleged crux of the Parisian attack. Here we come to our second headline of the night: why in the world did Zlatan Ibrahimovic start? As much as the new record scorer has given PSG, two goals against Bastia only served to mask another middling performance. He’s emblematic of Blanc’s possession philosophy, but when the rest of the team surged forward to attempt a counter of their own, he would play a harmless pass or try to dribble himself when already man-marked. He clearly did the plan more harm than good, and by the 60th minute the Parc des Princes was (literally) crying out for Javier Pastore.
The Argentine did come on for Cavani, of all people. Flaco‘s introduction, along with that of Lucas Moura in his preferred wide-right role, rejuvenated an attack that had been almost nonexistent for an hour. Zlatan made a token effort to transition further up, yet even the late introduction of Ezequiel Lavezzi was for Verratti instead, allowing Ibrahimovic to play deeper. Even in the dying moments of the game, when Madrid were forced to endure the best sustained Parisian attack all game, Zlatan slowed things down and tried too much in the box. There is a blatant malaise about the Parisian no.10, and the fans see it. When asked about his refusal to the Swede, Blanc (perhaps with a wink and mouthing ‘help me’) replied “I don’t have a choice.” Probably not a coincidental choice of words either. Imagining an attack incorporating Cavani in the box, Di Maria or Lucas for pace on the wings, and Pastore to create in the middle of the pitch makes one really wonder what could have been.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's untouchable status at PSG, despite his poor form, is reportedly frustrating players & staff. https://t.co/y1B9J2dfQJ
— Jonathan Johnson (@Jon_LeGossip) October 23, 2015
Blanc will be under more scrunity than ever with this result, as it seems the battle for group leader will be settled at the Bernabeu against a rejuvenated Madrid side. If the team plays like they did on Wednesday, and if they’re deployed in the same way, defeat is almost a certainty. I and many others will certainly be hoping that Blanc will come to his senses—Dare to Zlatan might work in Ligue 1, but when it comes to the biggest games, it’s time to man up and drop him. That 3-2 over Barcelona was with Pastore behind Lucas and Cavani; there’s no reason that genius, counterattack football can’t be recreated. Otherwise, Zlatan’s undroppable status may well be the end of Le Président.