Friday, August 17, 2012

Ancelotti needs to sort out defence to establish Paris Saint Germain as major force

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Jeremy Menez, Ezequel Lavezzi, Kevin Gameiro, Nene and Javier Pastore. All names that have been attracted to the great football revolution happening at Paris St Germain. In turn, PSG fans are now dreaming of success attained through a swashbuckling brand of attacking football. Turning this dream into reality might turn out to be a lot more difficult.

A trip down the brief history lane of billionaire backed football revolutions suggests that making a splash for big name attacking players doesn't automatically equate to instant success. When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the first signings he sanctioned for Claudio Ranieri included Juan Sebastian Veron, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele. The result was Chelsea finishing 11 points behind the Invincible's of Arsenal, and losing in the Champions League semi-finals against underdogs Monaco after defensive catastrophes in both, the home and away legs of the tie.

Makelele's prowess as a defensive shield and his excellent ability to read games, meant that when Jose Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2004, he knew he had a crucial building block to start from. He allied John Terry's strengths in the air and physicality with the ball-playing and game reading abilities of Ricardo Carvalho to form one of the best centre-back pairings in Premier League history. He also added Paulo Ferreira (a great addition at the time), and goalkeeper Petr Cech. Thus started Chelsea's most successful period in their history.

Sheikh Mansour also launched his reign at Manchester City by signing some marquee forwards and attacking midfielders. It was only until Roberto Mancini instilled a good defensive foundation, that City started to reap the rewards of their owner's windfall. Playing Yaya Toure, Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry allowed City to develop the consistency to qualify for the Champions League in 2011. Having a solid pair of centre-backs in Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, with Joe Hart behind them completed the picture in defence for Mancini. It was this defensive solidity that enabled the attacking talents of David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero to flourish in winning the premier league for City.

Carlo Ancelotti will have to think along similar lines if he is to make PSG the global force that the owners so clearly want the club to become. While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was clearly the star on the opening game of the Ligue 1 season against Lorient with a brace of goals, and some truly remarkable flair and delightful touches, the glaring empty spaces at the back will surely be punished against better opponents.

Establishing a good defence does not simply rely on having good defenders and throwing them together. As the emphasis on ball retention and pressing of opponents gains traction all across Europe, the role of midfielders and forwards helping the defence has become more prominent.

When fit and available, it is a certainty that both Ibrahimovic and Pastore will feature in the starting eleven. Both players cannot be relied upon to do too many defensive duties, although Ibrahimovic could definitely be an asset defending corners. That puts the onus on the other four in the front six, to help the defence when PSG don't have the ball.

This is where Ancelotti will have to prove his mettle by making some difficult decisions. For all of Jeremy Menez's talent, he simply hasn't displayed the right mental attitude and tactical discipline to take his game to the next level. In the game against Lorient, Menez refused to track back, and often left right-back Christophe Jallet exposed on the break. Menez's best role might be just that of an impact substitute against tiring defences during the last third of games.

Amongst their plethora of forwards, the one player who has the tactical attributes and hard working attitude necessary to help defend from the front, is Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi. Often compared with compatriot Carlos Tevez, Lavezzi tracked back and chased the ball with fervour throughout the 75 minutes he was on the pitch against Lorient. With a decent goalscoring record to boost his credentials, Lavezzi's selection ahead of the mercurial yet inconsistent Kevin Gameiro is justified.

Ancelotti's hands may be tied due to some injuries in midfield. However, when fit he has the perfect middle three in a 4-3-3 that can both help out the defence and maintain possession to enable the talented attackers to wreak havoc up front.

A midfield trio featuring Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Matthew Bodmer is unparalleled in quality and experience amongst all the teams in Ligue 1. Motta's role when he returns from injury will be absolutely crucial. The former Barcelona and Inter midfield general possesses the leadership and experience that many of his colleagues will rely upon in tough games, especially during the home stretch of the domestic season, and depending on how PSG fare, possibly during the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

Bodmer has always been a willing runner who also has the ability to pick out smart passes to release players in spaces and catch opposing defences flat-footed. For Matuidi, it could be a breakthrough year. Matuidi has improved the defensive side of his game, and they are many in France who believe Matuidi is actually a better player than Yann M'Villa. If Matuidi continues to display his improved maturity and mix his brilliant tackles with his under-rated playmaking ability, he could become the focal point for the France national team, helping the Les Blues midfield to dictate the flow of play from midfield.

It's no exaggeration to suggest that PSG signed one of the best 3 centre-backs in the world in Thiago Silva. The classy Brazilian was a big absence in the first game of the season, as he was rested after a gruelling Olympics for the national team. His partnership with under-rated compatriot Alex will probably the most crucial factor if PSG are to start a successful reign.

The full-backs are an area of weakness for PSG. Maxwell isn't the most defensive of left-backs, and in even in a team as dominant as Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, he was often identified as a weak link by the opposition. French international Christophe Jallet is the right-back, and while he is steady for the most part, one fears that he might be exposed against the best wingers the continent has to offer.

Faced with the full-backs conundrum, a bit of tactical imagination could help Ancelotti. With established Uruguay national team centre-back Diego Lugano also in the squad, PSG could easily prosper with a flat back-three. While it may be hard to implement such a tactical shift straightaway, Ligue 1 is the ideal platform for Ancelotti to try out the formation and fine-tune it in time for continental competition.

The benefits of this possible shift are three-fold. First of all, Lugano, Alex and Thiago are three splendid centre-backs who all deserve to start, and the selection of all them would ensure there are no unhappy egos on the bench.

Second, the trio are all extremely comfortable on the ball, and will allow PSG to build from the back with an emphasis placed on possession of the ball across all areas of the pitch. The final advantage is that it allows PSG the flexibility to add variety and flexibility in the final third. Amongst the many options, the best one could be to use the precocious Nene in a free role in the hole between the midfielders and forwards.

Irrespective of which tactical plans Ancelotti chooses, the whole club has to realize that the building blocks of long-term success are based on a solid defensive ethos. While the likes of Ibrahimovic and Pastore will always grab the headlines, the success of Paris Saint Germain will largely come from being impregnable at the back. With some excellent centre-backs and good defensive midfielders, the foundations are already in place. It is now up to Carlo Ancelotti to ensure the whole team buys into the importance of defending as a team, and ultimately lead PSG into an era of domestic and international domination.