Back in November, when Laurent Blanc signed a new two-year extension at Paris Saint-Germain, keeping him at the club until 2018, it made perfect business sense for everyone involved.
The French champions were dominating in the league once again, this time to a whole new level, and there was definite progression shown in Europe’s elite club competition, the UEFA Champions League.
Last season’s two-leg victory over Chelsea to reach the quarter-finals represented PSG’s arrival at Europe’s top table. That was just a step on the ladder for the Parisian club, with further dominance expected this season.
If it wasn’t for a huge mistake from Kevin Trapp at the Santiago Bernabeu, PSG may not have lost 1-0 to Real Madrid and perhaps would have secured top spot in the group—making their last-16 draw a little easier. That didn't matter in the end, as Blanc’s team dispatched Chelsea over both legs.
Regardless of the group stage and the last-16 draw, once you reach the quarter-finals, anything can happen, and the previous games mean very little. Going into Tuesday night’s fixture, both PSG and Manchester City found themselves in very similar situations.
Both clubs are huge projects, with their owners investing a vast amount of money to try to conquer the Champions League. Mistakes littered the first leg in Paris, and in the end, regardless of missing players and suspensions, PSG just were not good enough to reach the semi-finals.
As Blanc himself said in the post-game press conference, the buck stops at him, with the former France coach accepting full responsibility—but will that, or should that be enough to keep his job next season?
“We are very disappointed with the result. But that’s football and we have to accept it,” president Nasser Al-Khelaifi told the club’s official website after the game. “It’s the fourth time we reach the quarter-finals and are eliminated. Now we have to take a step back and analyse what has happened.”
When the ambitious president sits back and looks at what transpired on Tuesday, Blanc’s future will be determined on how Al-Khelaifi interprets his coach's pre-match decisions.
Missing Blaise Matuidi and David Luiz, with Marco Verratti also injured, Blanc decided to change his formation to 3-5-2. It’s not a system they have played before, they might not play it again, but the former Bordeaux boss felt it was the best way to neutralise the City attack.
“The formation? We analysed the first leg and we decided to solidify our centre of defence to prevent their attackers getting the better of us. But got ourselves in trouble,” admitted Blanc. “Then there was the injury to Thiago Motta, that meant we had to change again. We had big ambitions, but we fell just short.”
When you don't go through to the next round you regret absolutely everything. Of course when you win no one asks any questions. We had certain tactics and strategies in mind but we couldn't always implement them as efficiently as we wanted over the two games. We have shown our limitations over the two games, both tactically and technically. What we did over the course of the tie wasn't enough and we very much regret that.
Tuesday night was reminiscent of Blanc’s failed tactical gamble when France took on Spain at UEFA Euro 2012, when he played two right-backs to try to stop the world champions. It failed, and Blanc’s time as Les Bleus boss was over.
On paper, the decision Blanc took made sense. The players can play those positions, and the three players at the back, helped by the midfield duo of Adrien Rabiot and Thiago Motta, gave protection to Maxwell and Gregory van der Wiel.
However, the players never looked at ease. Serge Aurier made mistakes—he's still not back to match sharpness after his lay-off—plus Marquinhos didn’t look comfortable playing at left centre-back.
Beyond that, there was no attacking impetus: They may have defended well, undone by a superb goal from Kevin De Bruyne, but there was little in the way of a threat in the final third. Blanc was too busy trying to limit the home side rather than pushing his own team forward.
When you have to score in the Champions League, you don’t want to go in too strong from the start, but PSG lacked an attacking game plan.
This comes down to Blanc initially, but the players have to take responsibility, too. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria failed to turn up.
There will be changes this summer, but the biggest question remains: Is Blanc the right man to orchestrate those changes? The jury is out, with Al-Khelaifi the man who will ultimately decide the future of the club.