27th July 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
In four years with Paris Saint Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimovi? helped Les Parisiens win Ligue 1 four times, the Coupe de France twice and the Coupe de la Ligue three times. The charismatic Swede netted 156 goals in 180 appearances for PSG to become the club's all-time highest scorer. And last season, despite turning 34 in October, Ibrahimovi? broke the 50 goal barrier for the first season in his career.
Ibrahimovi?'s arrival in Paris in 2012 was the first major signifier that the club's Qatari owners were deadly serious about their ambition of turning PSG into a global force, one comparable to Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Granted, the previous season they had signed Argentinian playmaker Javier Pastore for €39.8 million from Palermo, and they were already major players in the Ligue 1 title race. But the arrival of Ibrahimovi? for €20 million from AC Milan marked the first occasion that Les Rouge et Bleu's new owners had been able to attract an established world star to the Parc des Princes.
And, considering the era of success his purchase ushered in, coupled with his outstanding individual achievements in France, it could be reasonably argued that Ibrahimovi? is the greatest player in PSG's history; high praise considering that, despite only being founded in 1970, the club has been home to the likes of George Weah, RaÃ, David Ginola and Ronaldinho.
But this summer, Ibrahimovi?'s contract at PSG expired, and the veteran marksman has joined Manchester United. PSG are aiming to move forward without their marquee man, while maintaining and even improving upon the level of success they have become accustomed to.
And key to PSG's post-Zlatan new direction, is new manager Unai Emery.
Emery has been brought in from Sevilla to replace Laurent Blanc. Despite Blanc having secured back-to-back domestic trebles, the former Bordeaux boss has been axed for his failure to help PSG become genuine Champions League contenders. So in comes Emery from Sevilla, where he won the Europa League in each of his three full seasons in Andalusia.
The Spanish tactician has evidently been hired because of his credentials in European competition, but his arrival, and Blanc's departure, is more than merely a change of coach. It signifies a whole new direction for the club: in choosing Emery over Blanc, PSG are choosing pragmatism over idealism; substance over style.
Blanc's Paris Saint Germain side was built in the image of Pep Guadiola's BarÃ§a: a possession-based 4-3-3 with a ball-playing pivot sitting deep in midfield, inverted wingers and a positionally unrestricted centre-forward as its focal point. Irrespective of the opponent, Blanc's PSG sought to dominate the ball and pass their way to victory.
And for the most part it worked. But when they came up against a team in the Champions League knockout stages who were savvy enough to cede possession, sit deep and counter-attack, or a side who were simply better at the possession game, they came unstuck.
With Emery, things will be different. The former Valencia and Spartak Moscow coach is meticulous in his preparation; every opponent will be scouted in depth and specifically planned for. The 4-3-3 of Blanc will become a 4-2-3-1 with an emphasis on pressing high and hard whenever possession is lost.
Brazilian forward Lucas Moura has noticed a stark difference between the new manager and Blanc: "Our team is a bit different this season," He told L'Equipe after a recent friendly victory over Internazionale. "We're tougher."
"Everyone is going to see a good PSG this season," He continued. "We're working a lot tactically and on our positioning it's very intense.
"That's what we saw against Inter. As soon as we lose the ball, we try to get it back straight away. That wasn't the case before and it was a problem."
And if further evidence is needed of PSG's switch in priorities, it can be found in their transfer dealings this summer.
With Ibrahimovi? gone, speculation soon turned to which of the Continent's biggest name's PSG would be chasing to replace the superstar name-power lost with the Swede's move to the Premier League. The European press suggested sizable bids for the likes of Antione Griezmann, James RodrÃguez and Paul Pogba could be in the offing, but no such swoop materialised. Griezmann signed a new contract with AtlÃ©tico Madrid, RodrÃguez has committed himself to Real Madrid, and Pogba seems destined to join Ibrahimovi? at Manchester United.
Instead, PSG have gone about their transfer business quietly and efficiently, with their highest-profile additions being the arrival of hard-working Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak from Emery's old club Sevilla, and 29-year-old attacking midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa who has joined on a free transfer after his contract with Nice expired.
Furthermore, the number 10 shirt previously worn by Ibrahimovi?, which would surely have been given to any potential superstar arrival, has been handed to Pastore.
Now, there is still more than a month of the transfer window left to run, so PSG could yet go and spend €80 million on a world-class star, but all indicators are pointing to the Les Parisiens keeping the purse strings drawn relatively tight.
And that is something that won't faze Emery one bit. At Sevilla, he was used to working with a restricted budget, with the club's entire business plan centred around buying players cheaply and selling them on for a huge profit.
We might even get to see more of some of PSG's talented young players next season too. Adrien Rabiot, the gifted 21-year-old midfielder who was once on the books of Manchester City, has already made more than 100 appearances for the club, but the coming campaign could see him finally lay claim to a regular starting berth under Emery particularly if rumours of Blaise Matuidi's potential departure are to be believed.
And, fresh off the back of steering France to under-19 European Championship success, 19-year-old striker Jean-KÃ©vin Augustin can expect to be given the chance to build on the 13 Ligue 1 appearances he made last season. Having caught the eye by becoming the tournament's top scorer as France won the under-19 Euros in which he scored a breath-taking goal against Italy in the final Augustin has marked himself out as one of the most promising young players in France, and with his pace and power, he is ready to contribute at first-team level.
So even though Ibrahimovi? has gone, PSG fans can feel confident about their team's prospects for the 2016-17 season. Their new style could not really be described as minimalist or even conservative, but it is certainly a move to reconcile the aesthetic ideal with a newfound efficiency and practicality; a small but necessary step back, in order to move forward.
Paris Saint-Germain's Post-Zlatan Future Under Unai Emery
27th July 2016. By Ryan Baldi.