When, in 2011, Paris Saint-Germain became another club to win the lottery, there were a few examples to use as an indicator of its future. Manchester City, bought in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group, has won two English Premier League titles, while Málaga, purchased by Abdulla Al Thani in 2010, had its ascent tempered by a near implosion.
But it’s Chelsea, the first to undergo a similar overhaul, that has become the most powerful of them. One of the first clubs since the turn of the millennium to be bought by natural resources, Chelsea’s won Champions League, Europa, and England (three times) since Roman Abramovich became the club’s avatar. Chelsea and PSG might go into Wednesday’s Champions League tie with the scores level, but in other respects, Chelsea lead the French side by some distance.
Photo: Ben Radford/Getty Images.
From its early, decisive moments after Abramovich’s 2003 takeover, Chelsea has always led the way. The club poached Peter Kenyon from Manchester United, a move which enabled it to take over the deal for Arjen Robben. It might have been slightly underhand, but it’s not as if other businesses or clubs don’t operate just as ruthlessly. Chelsea just happened to be able to afford to be more ruthless than anyone else.
The club also benefitted from two consecutive seasons of successful transfers, adding to its luck of the draw when it came to youngsters. Already possessing young versions of John Terry and Frank Lampard, Chelsea quickly added the 14 new players, though only Claude Makelèlè and Damien Duff would prove crucial to the success under future manager José Mourinho. Once Mourinho replaced Claudio Ranieri, the purchases were even better: Petr Cech, Didier Drogba, Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho and Robben all arrived. With the exception of Robben, each had lengthy Chelsea careers, with Cech and Drogba still enduring at the club. Spending about 200 million pounds, Mourinho, Abramovich, the stolen goods of the Russian state and Pini Zahavi had engineered Chelsea took is great leap forward.
PSG is obviously in the early stages of this process, but there are key differences. The manager when the club came into its riches, Antoine Kombouaré, was a middling talent for a middling club, however dignified and decent he was. He was swiftly replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, but not before an initial wave of spending. The first summer’s best purchase was Blaise Matuidi while the winter’s was Maxwell, yet both were overshadowed by the far more expensive Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta. None of these players come close to the best players Mourinho’s predecessor bought at Chelsea, an indication of PSG’s wider struggles.
Firstly, Ligue 1 is far less appealing to the majority of players than the Premier League. It’s not just a matter of perception – the standard of play is generally lower, whatever you might think of recent Champions League results. It’s by no means poor, but there’s more than excellent PR that makes the Premier League’s television rights so valuable. Secondly, PSG was struggling before it was purchased, meaning the equivalents of Lampard and Terry were elsewhere in France. The closest it had to a homegrown star was Mamadou Sakho, who was erratic, unreliable and in need of replacing. It would take more than two windows for the club to catch up.
PSG’s second summer — the one where Chelsea brought in the players that would drive them to the title — brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Marco Verratti, Lucas Moura and Gregory van der Wiel to the club, with David Beckham arriving in the winter. With Ancelotti having settled in, PSG was a heavy favorite for the league, and duly won it. But instead of consolidating around its coach as Chelsea did with Mourinho, PSG saw Ancelotti depart for Real Madrid that summer.
Photo: Claudio Villa/Getty Images.
This is the moment the trouble started. As Financial Fair Play began to play in clubs’ minds, PSG made its final transfer market hurrah. Needing improvement in defense, midfield and attack, the club brought in Edinson Cavani, Lucas Digne and Marquinhos during the summer, with Yohan Cabaye arriving in January. It all made perfect sense. The only problem was that the new manager, Laurent Blanc, could not get the most out of his players.
French journalist Igor Mladenovic described Blanc’s failures last season as “indecision and a lack of guts to confront the various egos in the team. Indecision is best seen in his risk-averse tactical choices, from the defensive 4-3-3 with three defensive midfielders to the negative substitutions that led to PSG losing to Chelsea last season.” When Mladenovic cites egos, he thinks of Blanc’s inability to marshal Thiago Silva, Cavani, Ibrahimovic and Lavezzi. With the exception of Ibrahimovic, and Cavani only relatively recently, these expensive players have not played as well as they have elsewhere.
The defensive tactics have continued this season. PSG has lost only twice in the league, the fewest of any team, but it’s drawn 11, the most. Mladenovic puts that down to arrogance: “Mentally the side switches off in Ligue 1 which they see as sub-par competition. This lack of drive to get wins is a consequence of complacency and also Laurent Blanc’s general negativity.”
This management of egos is not just Blanc’s problem. It’s ownership that sanctioned the purchase of David Luiz ahead of Ángel Di María, who the club then could not afford. It is rumored Luiz joined at the behest of Silva, the club captain – clearly this is no way to run a club. As Mladenovic says, “The club’s top executives need to take more risks in hiring new blood, both in terms of players, coaching staff and technical staff. Many people at the club do not deserve to be where they are.” PSG fan Aurélie Nadal talks of some like Ibrahimovic receiving “special treatment,” with players “behaving badly … talking back to [Blanc] even in front of the cameras.”
While some Chelsea players have received special treatment (see John Terry’s renewed contracts and continued captaincy), managerial failure is never tolerated for long. Similarly, when players do not contribute to the side, they are generally shown the exit promptly; just ask Adrian Mutu or Mohamed Salah. The culture of indecision and arrogance and a lack of killer instinct is one that is rarely allowed to fester at Chelsea.
Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images.
This summer will be one of an overhaul at PSG, with players and the manager likely to leave. The best managers, like Mourinho and Ancelotti, have the tactical nous and personal charisma to motivate the best and also get the most from their boards. Blanc and André Villas-Boas showed what happens in other instances, but while Villas-Boas was fired after just months at Chelsea, Blanc remains at PSG. And compare Chelsea’s gaming of the FFP system, buying youngsters to sell at a profit a couple of years later, with PSG’s failure to buy Di María, and the gap between the two is evident.
Still, Chelsea has had a simple advantage: it was the first newly minted club, getting the jump on the competition. PSG is unlucky in that it came later, when simply having a billion quid isn’t enough. Now you need a billion quid and be better than not just one or two sides but the five or six financial giants who dominate every year.
Chelsea has shown them how to do that, not just with the manager and first-team players but its youth team, sponsorship deals, buying of youth, “charming” agents and keeping control of superstars. PSG hasn’t mastered those areas yet, even if it has the raw talent to progress to the Champions League quarterfinals regardless.