Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s is already making his mark in the French capital after his eye catching move from AC Milan this summer. The Swede, who became the world’s most expensive player in accumulated transfer fees when he moved to Paris St Germain this summer, struck twice in his first game for his new club.
It was just as well, too. Last year, following their takeover by Qatari Sports Investments, Paris St Germain spent big, including buying Lorient’s best player, Kevin Gameiro. They subsequently lost their opening match of the season, at home to Lorient, Gameiro missing a hatful.
Christian Gourcuff’s Lorient almost repeated the feat last weekend, after an even more lavish spree which also brought Ezequiel Lavezzi and Thiago Silva to Paris (oh, and Lucas Moura). A late penalty from Ibrahimovic at least preserved the Parisians’ dignity.
PSG spending – a wider perspective
It is not so much the on-field performances of Ibrahimovic that he was brought in for, though. If it was all about the football for the club’s Qatari owners, Antoine Kombouaré would not have been fired half way through last season with the club sitting top of the league for the first time in a decade and a half.
For Carlo Ancelotti, the manager, he seemed to have finally worked out a system at the end of last season. Jérémy Menez, Nené and Javier Pastore were working well as a front three without a recognised forward, Ancelotti’s take on the ‘false nine’ system. With Ibrahimovic and Lavezzi’s arrivals, he has to reconfigure again. Particularly given that he has tended to play three defensively minded midfielders during his half year in Paris.
And so Ibrahimovic now fills a dual function. Not only is he supposed to actually score some goals, but he also serves as the iconic figure to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower for promotional shots demonstrating the vision of the club and their owners. They failed to get David Beckham or Alexandre Pato to fill that function, but now they have a man of the right profile to do just that. It is easily ignored that the owners of Paris St Germain are the same people in charge of Al-Jazeera, who own Ligue 1 television rights. They therefore have a significant interest in making the league more attractive to the global television audience, and not just ensuring the Parisians are successful.
Another way they can do that, is by prompting what is known as the trickle down effect. An economic term which also applies to politics, can be demonstrated in the signing by Lille of Marvin Martin. Martin is one of the most technically accomplished young midfielders in the country, whom the Parisians have been interested in. However, when faced with the choice of who to join after leaving Sochaux, Martin chose Lille, because he probably noted that he was unlikely to get anywhere near Ancelotti’s first team. And so the effect of Paris St Germain’s millions is to enable other teams to snap up the best young French talent, and improve their own prospects both in France and abroad.
This feeds into the wider Qatari strategy. Through these investments in French football, Qatar is making itself increasingly important to the country. This spending cannot be seen therefore in a narrow way – it fits into the wider script that includes Qatar being given the right to stage the 2022 World Cup. Michel Platini, the French UEFA President, has admitted voting for Qatar to host the competition. Although FIFA comes in for a notoriously bad press at the best of times, Platini is one of its members known as “incorruptible”. When someone like him votes for Qatar, you know they have to be taken seriously in world football circles. And now, from their investment in Paris St Germain to sponsoring Barcelona, the Qataris are increasing their global profile and making themselves increasingly important in the countries where the game matters the most. And this is the wider Qatari vision, served only in part by the spending on the Parisian giants.
Back to the football
Oh yes, and the Parisians are after all a football club, trying to win things. Back to matters on the pitch, the thing with Ibrahimovic, this headline signing, is that he works best when the play is revolved around his undoubted talents. A player with basically everything, technique, flair, shooting accuracy, the ability to create and be involved in build up play, if you are going to build your team around one man, the Swede is one of the best you will find.
But he can negate the highly talented attacking midfielders that Paris St Germain now have, because his height and ability to act as an attack’s pivot can lead to team mates firing the ball straight up to him rather than passing through midfield. Ibrahimovic is good enough to thrive on such service, but it is hardly the best use of the millions spent to bring in Menez, Pastore and Lavezzi.
Ibrahimovic therefore represents something of a conundrum for Ancelotti. The indication from the Lorient match is that he will go with two attacking midfielders behind the Swede, and a more defensively minded trio further back.
What should concern the clubs’ supporters is that the Italian’s tendency to tinker does not seem to have been abated by pre-season. Last year his constant meddling with what people should not forget was a winning system really cost them the title. As Montpellier surged on as the season reached its closing stages, Ancelotti was still chopping and changing, wondering which plugs to put into which holes.
Against Lorient, Ancelotti started with Marco Verratti, brought in from Pescara, as well as Lavezzi and Ibrahimovic. That is three new players, in addition to another change to the system. It will take a while to get used to the new Paris St Germain, and even longer if they keep signing players for Ancelotti to search for new solutions to fit in.
But Ibrahimovic at least is the kind of player who can drag a team along with him. The 30 year old has been maligned often, particularly in England, for his performances in the big games, as well as his work rate, but some of this criticism is unfair. Many a tall, languid player, be it Andy Carroll or Dimitar Berbatov, tends to get labelled with the ‘lazy’ tag. Perhaps it is simply that bigger players look lazier because they are taller, and therefore appear less mobile. But as Usain Bolt has shown in the last fortnight, a languid style does not necessarily mean mobility is an issue.
And the Swede showed that against Lorient, in a new league on his first appearance in France, that he is able to be the type of player who his team can look to for rescue in a difficult position. That is something they lacked last season, and the former Barcelona and Inter Milan forward will be invaluable for that alone, as new players and systems bed in.
Ligue 1 is a competition which has had five different champions in the last five seasons. Sure, 2011-12 was the first time in a decade that Ibrahimovic had not got his hands on a league winners’ medal. And for all the question marks in Paris, it would take extraordinary imagination to conceive of him not holding yet another championship trophy at the end of this campaign.
David Gold is a football journalist writing about the global game, in particular French football.