Last Tuesday, in the unlikely surrounds of the chilly austere northern French town of Valenciennes, Carlo Ancelotti finally found some relief from his recent worries.
His Paris Saint-Germain side brushed aside the home team, fifth in Ligue 1, with a swagger that, for the most part of his spell in France, has been conspicuous by it absence. At one point in the second half, a smile even inched across the Italian’s inscrutable face.
It was a rare sighting in a so-far testing season of a happy Ancelotti on the touchline. Going into tomorrow night’s top-of-the-table clash against Lyons, PSG trail Rémi Garde’s side by three points, even after the leaders conceded a home draw to lowly Nancy this week. It is a situation made even more jarring by Garde overseeing a brutal economy drive at the seven-time French champions, in stark contrast to the ostentatious spending in the capital since the Qatari takeover of summer 2011.
In terms of bare results, Ancelotti’s tenure so far must be deemed a failure. Having arrived at the helm of a team three points clear at the top of Ligue 1, the 53-year-old saw his side pipped to last season’s title by modest Montpellier. Yet in another sense he has already fulfilled his mission at the Parc des Princes, by making PSG a credible global player. It is fantasy to believe that the likes of Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and the already fundamental Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have even considered a move to France without Ancelotti’s presence.
But if the coach ever needed to add style and substance to the stardust, it is now. In recent weeks, Ancelotti’s position has come under public doubt for the first time. At the start of last week, France’s main sports daily, the well-connected L’Equipe, ran a story headlined “Qatar wants a big clean-up”, claiming the club owners were preparing for a future without Ancelotti and the high-profile sporting director Leonardo.
The names listed as possible replacements were ones that few clubs can even dream of. L’Equipe suggested PSG’s board had already opened informal talks with the representatives of Pep Guardiola while Arsène Wenger (a man with long-standing links to the club) was put back into the mix. José Mourinho, as The Independent’s Pete Jenson recently reported, already has a relationship with PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi, having worked as a pundit for his Al-Jazeera Sport channel.
The day after the story broke, PSG beat Porto in front of a full house at the Parc in their final Champions League group match, securing top spot in their group with more points – 15 – than any other club in the competition. Still, Al-Khelaifi gave his man threadbare backing. “Today, Carlo is here,” he said to journalists after the match, before making a sharp exit.
Having endured 11 months of generally turgid football since Ancelotti arrived, without the desired results, many fans share the frustrations of their president. Following the brutal nature of his dismissal by Chelsea last year, the coach himself is not naïve, and has shown signs of strain in recent weeks as the pressure has mounted.
After defeat at Nice on 1 December left PSG five points off the pace, the normally sanguine Ancelotti gave his players a blast. “We lacked aggression and intensity,” he chided, “but also players who wanted to take responsibility. I get the impression that the players aren’t yet focused on the club’s project …. We lacked solidarity on the pitch. At the moment, it’s the whole team that’s annoying me.”
Ancelotti’s exasperation has sometimes been expressed less voluntarily. Flabbergasted after a pale performance at Nancy in late October, when a late Ibrahimovic goal sealed victory, he visibly struggled for a line with which to open his press conference. “Merci Ibra,” he eventually blurted out.
He is not normally lost for words. Despite having been at the club for less than a year, Ancelotti already speaks very good French, but it is sometimes unclear whether the message is getting through in the dressing room. The fact that he has had to repeat himself prompts the question – have his home truths been falling on deaf ears?
The main focus of attention has been on the large sums spent on assembling his squad, including £34m on Silva, £24m on Lavezzi and another £80m before Ancelotti arrived, including £32m on midfielder Javier Pastore. However, the most cursory analysis reveals a squad not as rich in mature performers as one might expect for the outlay.
Ancelotti has publicly fretted over who might make the best captain, perhaps pointing to a lack of natural leaders in a talented group. The erratic Jérémy Menez was identified as a candidate in pre-season “if he stops getting so many yellow cards” (Menez picked up a dozen last season).
Mamadou Sakho, a 22-year-old youth academy product, has often worn the armband this season after recovering from a difficult beginning to his relationship with the coach.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is the notoriously volatile Ibrahimovic who has emerged as Ancelotti’s real leader. His 17 league goals in 14 starts so far are only a fraction of the story. Having just turned 31, England’s chief tormentor from the recent friendly in Stockholm has taken to his role as senior pro, giving his time generously for media engagements and talking calmly of his need to help players lacking big-game experience.
Three successive wins, and 10 goals scored, suggest that Ancelotti might just have uncovered a winning formula with a recent switch to 4-4-2 – which may also diminish the dependence on Sweden striker Ibrahimovic. Yet this most decorated of managers still has plenty to prove in Paris.