There was something telling about the football world’s collective shrug when Paris Saint-Germain coach Laurent Blanc was sacked in the summer. Whereas a managerial change at most of Europe’s elite clubs would’ve been headline news, Blanc’s exit after three years and three Ligue 1 titles registered as little more than background noise amidst the general transfer window hubbub.
His replacement, Unai Emery, will take charge of his first Champions League game as PSG coach when they host Arsenal on Tuesday, at the start of a journey to try and do what Blanc never could: turn the Parisian giants into genuine continental contenders.
After all, it was consistent Champions League knockout stage exits that put paid to Blanc’s hopes of staying at the Parc des Princes for the long haul, and he left having achieved scarcely anything more than the bare minimum. With Ligue 1 so woefully noncompetitive, PSG’s domestic domination is taken as read. Only European encounters offer a true barometer by which their performances may be judged, and though Blanc’s were initially satisfactory, they eventually proved insufficient.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that the hiring of Emery was greeted with approving nods. Here was a man who’d achieved the quite remarkable feat of leading Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League titles. He was a specialist in competition football, and a man who mixed pragmatism with a broadly progressive tactical outlook. PSG needed a shakeup: they’d gotten one.
But though we’re only a couple of months into Emery’s tenure, there are already signs that history will smile upon his predecessor. It’s not necessarily that they were wrong to pull the trigger — that, only time will tell — but that the whole business of turning an undeniably elite club into Europe’s best is one much easier said than done. PSG have followed up two consecutive league victories with a defeat away at Monaco and a draw at home to Saint-Étienne, and it’s clear their new boss has got much work to do.
Of course, it’s bound to take a while for the players to become accustomed to Emery’s methods. His success at Sevilla strongly suggests that given time, he’ll be able to extract the best from the players at his disposal. But the point instead is that PSG’s failure to establish themselves as serious Champions League contenders is one that transcends the man on the bench. It’s a more deep-rooted problem, with underwhelming player recruitment both a cause and effect.
In short, despite PSG’s ability to pay big wages, they remain less attractive than Europe’s very biggest clubs. It’s probably a mixture of Ligue 1’s relative lack of prestige and their continued failure to make a serious dent in the Champions League — the latter being a vicious cycle that it’s going to be exceptionally hard to break.
As an example, let’s take a look at their summer business. The most expensive acquisition, Grzegorz Krychowiak, is undoubtedly a solid defensive midfielder, but he's unlikely to make a decisive difference. Attacker Jesé, meanwhile, clearly has potential, but that Real Madrid were willing to let him join a fellow Champions League rival might tell us a bit about his ceiling as a player. And while Hatem Ben Arfa showed enough at Nice last season to suggest he’s going to be thoroughly entertaining at PSG, at 29, his acquisition can’t help but feel like a flight of fancy.
It’s possible to be even more harsh about their existing players. Arguably their biggest star, Ángel Di María, only moved to Paris after failing at Manchester United. Edinson Cavani looked capable of playing for any team on the planet in his prime, but hasn’t delivered consistently enough in the biggest games to suggest he’ll be remembered as one of his generation's truly world class players. The elegant Marco Verratti is still only 23, but PSG have never quite managed to find his best midfield role.
The upshot is that since the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimović a few months ago, PSG have lacked genuine world class talent. A Champions League win now looks less likely than it has at any point over the last few seasons. They should have little difficulty getting through the group stages, having been drawn alongside minnows Basel and Ludogorets — as well as Arsenal — but it’s hard to see them holding a candle to the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in the latter stages.
It may well prove that Blanc was part of the problem, and PSG supporters still certainly have reason to be optimistic about Emery’s hiring. Even after they take on the Gunners on Tuesday, it will still be premature to return critical verdicts. But the simple fact is that the new man has a massive job on his hands in living up to expectations. Bettering Laurent Blanc’s achievements could prove much more difficult than previously thought.