Why Laurent Blanc is underrated – and should be Man United’s next manager
The constant speculation about Louis van Gaal's future at Manchester United has mainly led to suggestions of either Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino or Ryan Giggs taking his place.
Yet that trio differ wildly in approach, personality and experience, which gives the impression that the Old Trafford board aren't completely sure what they desire in their next coach.
On the radio recently, Robbie Savage (yes, we know) was singing the praises of his former Wales and Blackburn manager Mark Hughes for one of the biggest managerial jobs in club football. When Savage asked the caller for his suggestion, he replied with Blanc’s name. “What’s he ever won?” crowed the former midfielder, who belittled the suggestion and cited the Frenchman’s lack of Premier League experience.
Yet the same could be said of Mourinho when he first took over at Chelsea in 2004, or even Pep Guardiola at Manchester City next season. Blanc gets little credit in comparison to many of his managerial counterparts, but it's hard to see why when looking at his record.
Criticisms that PSG are so much better than everyone else in France is partly thanks to Blanc for keeping them so far ahead
The former centre-back is now in his third season at Paris Saint-Germain and braced to complete a Ligue 1 hat-trick with his team 23 points clear and the finishing line in sight.
In his first campaign, Blanc won the double and then last season claimed a domestic treble. PSG currently need just four more points to win this season’s title, and could repeat last season’s triple feat with the semi-finals of the Coupe de France and final of the Coupe de la Ligue still to come.
Criticisms that PSG are so much better than everyone else in France is partly thanks to Blanc for keeping them so far ahead of the competition. The lack of depth within Ligue 1 is certainly a concern, although this accusation is often used to detract from the success of other top European clubs including Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
In the Champions League, PSG have reached the quarter-finals for the last two seasons, and take a slender lead to Stamford Bridge this week in order to make it a hat-trick of last-eight appearances. Benfica, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only teams to have beaten Blanc's men in the tournament, while he has masterminded wins over both Mourinho and Guus Hiddink's Chelsea, and last season's champions Barcelona.
The argument that their seemingly unlimited wealth has given them a huge advantage could be aimed at a number of clubs across Europe including Manchester City and Manchester United, but neither has reached the same level of accomplishment as PSG in the last couple of years. United have arguably regressed with investment.
Money isn't a guarantee of prosperity, and Blanc should arguably receive credit for maintaining stability within a dressing room with so many huge personalities.
Egos in check
The recent episode with right-back Serge Aurier shows how challenging it is to balance the group ethos
Not that it’s all been plain sailing. The recent episode with right-back Serge Aurier shows how challenging it is to balance the group ethos. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has perhaps had special treatment at times, although Blanc isn't the first manager to bend slightly to a special talent for the benefit of the team: Sir Alex Ferguson knew it was necessary when dealing with the mercurial Eric Cantona.
With so many quality players at his disposal, Blanc prefers to concentrate on his own team's strengths rather than adapting too much to the opposition – unlike Van Gaal's reactive tactics.
Blanc signed a contract extension last month through to 2018, although that shouldn't necessarily put off potential suitors if he's the right man for the job. Prising him away, though, is now admittedly much more difficult.
Blanc's teams like to dominate possession, and his time at Barcelona as a player has clearly impacted his coaching style. The defender only lasted a season at the Camp Nou and signed on the day that Johan Cruyff was sacked, but the influence of the Dutchman's philosophy can be seen in Blanc's work.
Both PSG and former club Bordeaux have recorded the highest possession in France with Blanc at the helm, while only Barcelona and Bayern Munich have a higher ball-retention rate in the Champions League this term.
Big in Bordeaux
Blanc won Bordeaux's first league title in 10 years, and they haven’t finished in the top four since his departure
In his first assignment at Bordeaux, he not only won the league and cup in his second season at the club, but took les Girondins to the quarter-finals of Europe's premier competition. It was Bordeaux's first league title in 10 years, and they haven’t finished in the top four since his departure.
Blanc is used to big clubs, and playing for Manchester United will have done him no harm when it comes to handling the media and supporters.
The 50-year-old appreciates the standards expected, and his relationship with former boss Alex Ferguson has had a positive effect on his man-management. "Laurent liked Ferguson a lot, and Ferguson liked him," said former France and Red Devils goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. “They had talks, they share the same vision of football based on trust, and also a lot of love and protection towards the players.”
Van Gaal has admitted that he was given the United job because of his track record when it comes to youth development, but the progress wouldn't be lost with Blanc in the dugout.
Despite the riches available at PSG, the Frenchman has promoted youngsters Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, Hervin Ongenda, Presnel Kimpembe and Jean-Kevin Augustin to the first team, while also recruiting youngsters Marquinhos and Lucas Digne.
The World Cup winner has also managed to get the best from Angel Di Maria once again, after the Argentine's ill-fated time in Manchester with Van Gaal. “We have to put his individual qualities at the service of the team, and not the other way round,” Blanc explained.
Manchester United's directors appear to want Mourinho for his instant rewards and ability to spend large sums of money wisely. Pochettino would offer an attractive brand of football and the successful promotion of youth; Giggs a link to the glory years and someone who appeals to the supporters.
But Blanc combines the above attributes and more to make him arguably the strongest candidate around to replace Van Gaal this summer.