Vive Le Président? Laurent Blanc: The Compromise Candidate
Not a day passes without some form of speculation about the Old Trafford managerial position. When will José arrive? Will Louis see out his contract? Is Giggs being lined up for the top job this summer? It’s almost as if someone wants the fans’ attention to be focused anywhere other than the pitch.
Galloping into this minefield is former United defender, Laurent Blanc, who has recently been mentioned in dispatches. Given the machinations behind the scenes José Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford, Le Président’s possible availability could provide United’s powers-that-be the compromise candidate needed to avert an ugly boardroom schism growing ever deeper.
Blanc ticks the boxes that the United board is looking for on any quick checklist. Former player – check! Trophy laden CV – check! International pedigree – check! Big club experience – check! Managing superstars – check! Big name – check! European track record – check! Stature to become United manager – check?
The last criteria is open to interpretation. One of the key reasons that José’s candidacy is up for discussion is his behaviour and whether it meets the standards required by the club. It’s worth remembering that Ferguson wasn’t exactly a prim and proper gentleman on the touchline or in interviews.
Blanc certainly has the air of a man who could slip comfortably into the Old Trafford hot seat, but what of his managerial CV? The Frenchman’s success at Paris Saint-Germain is understandably tempered by Ligue 1’s lack of competitiveness.
This season the Parisians romped home, clinching the title in the middle of March by hammering Troyes 9-0. Meanwhile, the club retained the Coupe de la Ligue and PSG will compete in the final of the Coupe de France next month. Should PSG defeat a struggling Marseille then Blanc will have overseen back-to-back domestic trebles. In fact the Frenchman has delivered the Ligue 1 crown in each season since he joined PSG in 2013.
Despite his domestic success Blanc’s failure to take PSG beyond the Champions League quarter-final could lead to his departure from the Parc des Princes. PSG was beaten by Manchester City this season, putting into jeopardy the two year contract Blanc signed in February. It is a weird quirk of fate that City might somehow complicate the managerial situation at United by inadvertently throwing Blanc into the mix.
"Blanc is a coach with flaws, but he is no lightweight either. Would he bring a certain je ne sais quoi to the club or subject it to another year in the merde?"
It may be more instructive to review Blanc’s effect at Bordeaux, where he managed for three seasons starting in June 2007. In Blanc’s first season he steered the his side to second place in the league, before going onto win Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue in the following campaign. It broke Olympique Lyonnais’ stranglehold, before Blanc masterminded a run to the quarter-final of the Champions League, topping a group that contained Juventus and Bayern Munich, then coached by Louis van Gaal.
At Bordeaux Blanc demonstrated his ability to get the best out of mercurial talents. The supremely gifted, but frustratingly inconsistent Yoann Gourcuff produced his best football under Blanc, never again coming close to replicating that kind of form since Blanc left for the French national team.
On the international scene Blanc was precisely what Les Bleus needed after Raymond Domenech’s calamitous regime. Blanc’s presence restored dignity to the post and two years on from France’s 2010 World Cup fiasco, Le Président steered his troops to the quarter-final of Euro 2012, losing to eventual champions Spain.
Blanc’s tenure was clouded by a racism row that threatened his position as French manager after he was secretly recorded discussing potential caps on the number of Black and Arab players at regional youth academies in France. Blanc initially denied the allegation before making a more qualified statement once a transcript was released. Although officially cleared of any wrongdoing, the episode demonstrates that the Frenchman isn’t as squeaky clean as the Old Trafford power brokers may think.
After his stint as national coach Blanc was appointed as PSG boss, succeeding Carlo Ancelotti. It’s interesting to note that he was far from first choice – perhaps eighth in line, taking the notion of ‘compromise candidate’ to a ridiculous degree.
The main concern is that while Blanc has trophies under his belt they’ve only ever been won in France – and most at PSG, where the budget is in a different league to the club’s domestic competitors. Blanc hasn’t won a European trophy, although that is no reason to overlook his credentials outright. After all, United’s incumbent manger last won the European Cup in 1995. The Dutchman’s predecessor, David Moyes, won no major trophies at all.
The other open question is if Blanc will be encouraged to retain Ryan Giggs as an assistant coach. The rumour is that Blanc is happy to keep the Welshman as part of his mooted backroom staff, although he will most likely insist on bringing in Jean-Louis Gasset, who also worked at Bordeaux, France and currently at PSG. Blanc trusts Gasset’s tactical input and they have forged a strong working relationship. Where that leaves Giggs is an interesting conundrum – will Blanc defer to the Welshman on tactical issues instead of his trusted lieutenant, Gasset?
By all rights the answer should be ‘no’ given the fruitful relationship Le Président enjoys with Gasset. If that’s the case then retaining Giggs as part of the backroom staff could do more harm than good.
Blanc would certainly be less divisive than Mourinho, which would sit comfortably at board level. The Frenchman also shares a genuinely warm relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, which stands the former in good stead.
“Laurent liked Ferguson a lot, and Ferguson liked him,” revealed former United 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.”
Moreover, the former centre-back’s vision of the game is arguably more suited to United’s traditions than the negative brand associated with Mourinho. Blanc likes his teams to keep possession, but is not so rigid that players must adhere strictly to any philosophy at the expense of creative expression.
Ángel Di María is a case in point. The Argentine international had more than his fair share of issues at United, but on a playing front he was restricted by Van Gaal’s tactical set-up. Under Blanc, Di María has flourished, albeit in an inferior league. It is telling how the PSG boss has opted to utilize the Argentinean’s skills and not stifle his more idiosyncratic qualities.
“We have to put his individual qualities at the service of the team, and not the other way round,” Blanc surmised.
That’s not to say that Blanc isn’t capable of oddball decisions too. Blanc sanctioned Serge Aurier after the right-back made ill advised comments on social media. Yet, against City, Blanc opted to restore a rusty Aurier for the two-legged tie and lined-up with a three-man defence in the crucial match at the Etihad. It was quite a gamble even factoring in suspensions and injuries. It failed – and directly fuelled speculation about Blanc’s future at PSG.
Still, whatever United’s options on a managerial level each represents a risk. Stick with Van Gaal? Offer Mourinho the keys to Old Trafford? Gamble on Giggs? In the end the path of least resistance might be Blanc, the compromise candidate.
He’s a coach with flaws, but is no lightweight either. Whether Blanc would bring a certain je ne sais quoi to the club or subject it to another year in the merde is another question. Either way, he would be few pundit’s first choice – a position that Blanc is used to.