Laurent Blanc to Barcelona has been a circling rumour for some time.
Gareth Bale could find that he has competition for the title of Spanish football’s top golfer next season is Blanc replaces Quique Setien at Camp Nou.
Since leaving Parc des Princes, where he won 11 out of a possible 12 domestic titles in a three-year reign, Blanc has spent more time in the clubhouse than around training grounds, turning down opportunities to work with the likes of Sevilla and the US men’s national team in the interim.
After a hiatus dating back to 2016, the 56-year-old wants back into football and has appointed super-agent Jorge Mendes as the man to make it happen. Barca represent an ideal opportunity for a man who has high standards when selecting his jobs.
While it has been widely acknowledged that the Catalans are in need of an overhaul after a pitiful defence of their Spanish crown, a combination of the coronavirus pandemic, which has plunged the world into economic uncertainty, and the looming 2021 presidential elections may mean that has to be postponed by a year.
Given the volatility of the situation, a stop-gap solution is being sought for the dugout, with technical director Eric Abidal having earmarked his former France mentor for a 12-month role before Xavi takes over after another year with Al-Sadd.
Other options include Mauricio Pochettino, who retains close ties with city-rivals Espanyol, and Ronald Koeman, who may feel his reputation merits more than a 12-month stint at his former side.
With 236 wins from 359 matches, Blanc’s record in the dugout is a formidable one, having cut his teeth in Ligue 1 with Bordeaux, who he led to the 2009 title and subsequently to the quarter-finals of the Champions League before moving to PSG.
A candidate for the role following Luis Enrique’s 2017 departure, he is a known admirer of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but while he employed a possession-based game in the French capital, it lacked the vivacity and quality to match that of the Catalans at their pomp.
Furthermore, he has often been found wanting in crucial matches, with a tendency to deploy timid sides on big occasions. In arguably the two biggest fixtures of his coaching career, he watched France lose 2-0 to Spain and PSG go down by a similar scoreline at Manchester City with barely a whimper, let alone the swashbuckling attitude expected by the Cules.
The suggestion that Blanc is lacking in that great intangible, ‘Barcelona DNA’, could also be justifiably grounded in comments he made regarding midfielder Marco Verratti, a player so suited to the Camp Nou club he was regularly cited as a potential replacement for Xavi.
“Sometimes he needs to be slowed down… he’s constantly taking risks, even in his own box because he is sure of his technique,” Blanc told Le Parisien of the Italian last year.
Furthermore, his work ethic, which has been scrutinised in France and has not been aided by his lengthy absence from the game, is questionable at best.
When he was the figurehead of Bordeaux’s push to win Le Championnat – an achievement unthinkable barely a decade later – evidence suggests that he was more interested in his performance on the golf course than in the dugout.
As soon as we had a few days off, he would go and play golf. He spoke to us about it often, very often. And even to me when I didn’t know the rules!Wendel
“As soon as we had a few days off, he would go and play golf,” former Bordeaux winger Wendel said. “He spoke to us about it often, very often. And even to me when I didn’t know the rules!”
Furthermore, one unnamed agent told 20 Minutes that Blanc once interrupted a pre-season training camp to take a three-day jaunt to play golf in Montpellier, leaving long-time right-hand man Jean-Louis Gasset in charge of preparations.
Indeed, there is a nagging suspicion that Gasset was the man pulling the strings of Blanc’s success. An impressive two-year tenure as Saint-Etienne head coach between 2017 and 2019, which ended due to family reasons, has only lent credence to these claims, which remain unproven as the coach has never worked without him.
“If he accompanied Blanc, that would give more credibility to Laurent’s candidacy,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas explained last autumn before ultimately appointing Rudi Garcia as head coach at Parc OL when it became clear Gasset would not be part of the package, having apparently grown weary of doing his boss’ legwork for him.
Instead, Franck Passi is the man who will be at the coach’s side if a deal with Barca is successfully brokered. Like Blanc, Passi is a fluent Spanish speaker, having played close to 150 Primera Division matches with Compostella in the mid-90s, but he does not possess the same reputation as Gasset.
Any concerns would be overlooked if the 1998 World Cup winner was able to win over the dressing room, and in particular six-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, whose criticism of the club from top to bottom in recent days has been stinging.
Blanc’s background at the very top of the game aids his credibility, though he has a patchy history in terms of man management, having seen France’s Euro 2012 campaign disintegrate amid dressing room unrest, while he was also involved in a verbal skirmish with Zlatan Ibrahimovic after PSG were limply dumped out of the 2016 Champions League at the hands of Manchester City.
His largely hands-off approach, only really taking interest when there is a problem to be solved, could play into his favour in this most crucial of elements at Camp Nou, however.
And what of the cantera?
PSG have certainly had their problems when it has come to bringing through young players, but under Blanc, Adrien Rabiot established himself as a first-team regular while Presnel Kimpembe also made significant strides to becoming a player to feature in 30+ matches a season.
The likes of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati, Barca's outstanding young talents, should have few concerns that the former playmaker-turned-centre-back would be unwilling to place his faith in them.
I know everyone thinks I play golf all day from morning until night, but that’s not true. Football remains my passion.Laurent Blanc
Blanc’s strange mix of insouciance and self-assurance suggest that he has the personality for an enormous task, but after a long period away from the game, he has as many questions as answers hanging over his capabilities.
"I know everyone thinks I play golf all day from morning until night, but that’s not true. Football remains my passion," he told TF1 last year.
But just how much is he willing to sacrifice his handicap for the good of Barcelona may become evident in the weeks ahead.