Finally, last night, we got our first clues and the start of an answer. With 15 minutes remaining, Beckham was brought on by Ancelotti in place of Javier Pastore, with the Parisians leading Marseille 1-0 at the Parc des Princes in France’s most bitter match – Le Classique.
With both sides competing for the title together for the first time since the mid 1990s, bringing on Beckham was a risk, as this was a game in which Ancelotti needed three points to keep the distance between the sides, as well as to move away from Olympique Lyonnais, who had edged closer to them earlier in the day.
It was even more of a risk given the context of the match itself. The home team had started strongly, and after 10 minutes the other January signing, Lucas Moura, cut in from the right, and hit a shot which took a double deflection past Steve Mandanda. The Parisians were rampant, and Marseille floundered. But as the half wore on, the visitors came into the game and started to carve out chances. Mathieu Valbuena, the best player on the pitch, started finding space and drifted in between the lines, whilst Andre Ayew and Foued Kadir were industrious on the flanks.
In the second half Marseille were much the better side, pressing high up the pitch and dominating possession. For all their star quality, Paris St Germain lacked cohesiveness and any distinguishable style, other than getting Marco Verratti to use his wonderful array of passing to find Ibrahimovic wherever and whenever possible. But most of their best play came from Moura or Ezequiel Lavezzi embarking on surging runs, taking out defenders and causing havoc in the Marseille half.
So when Beckham came on, the home team were living on their nerves. Valbuena was running the show, Andre Pierre Gignac looked dangerous and even Joey Barton was an impressive figure, the Englishman displaying an unusual blend of calm and intelligence with his passing and tactical discipline. If the controversial Liverpudlian is in France to re-invent himself, then he is doing an excellent job.
Beckham’s first involvement was a sublime pass, but then he gave away a cheap free kick. He produced a few more good balls before the end, with his final one a lovely flick into the path of Jérémy Menez, who got to the byline before firing the ball across goal, where it hit the knee of Ibrahimovic and went past Mandanda.
So Beckham showed that he does still have the quality and nous to contribute something to the European game. Ancelotti will have been pleased and the crowd delighted by their star, but there were tactical issues that accompanied the former Manchester United and Real Madrid man. When Beckham came on for Pastore, Verratti went off for Clément Chantôme. What that effectively meant was that Ancelotti completely reconfigured his system. Pastore and Moura had been the wide men in a 4-4-2, with Lavezzi and Ibrahimovic up front. Blaise Matuidi sat alongside Verratti. Now Chantôme arrived to join Matuidi alongside Beckham in central midfield, in a kind of 4-3-2-1, with Moura and Lavezzi now operating on the flanks.
It is worth recounting Ancelotti’s problems since arriving in Paris to explain this significance. Since last January, when he was appointed, the Italian has constantly tinkered, adjusted his team, and for a time, played with three defensively minded midfielders in a 4-3-2-1. As his team failed to establish control of Ligue 1, as was expected earlier in the season, he changed to the 4-4-2 and found that it suddenly got the best out of his star studded squad. They began to show some cohesion and looked for the first time like a real team. Before a 3-2 loss at Sochaux last week Paris St Germain had conceded one goal in nine games. So to accommodate Beckham, Ancelotti abandoned what had been a winning formula. Time will tell whether this is the way he will go in future – using the Englishman’s experience when leading to hold onto the advantage by deploying another central midfielder to ensure his age doesn’t show in the middle of the pitch. But it seems as though Ancelotti now has a new tactical problem and dilemma to mull over as he works out how to best utilise Beckham’s talents in his team.