Watching Saint-Étienne against Amiens on Saturday, one would hardly have thought the hosts, playing a promoted side at home, were up to much, to say nothing of having entered the match with an unblemished record. In the match’s early stages, the defence and the midfield were playing a copious amount of long passes, trying to release the full-backs or the wingers into space, a task that was without much reward against the Picardy side’s massed back five. The hosts took the lead through a penalty, converted by youngster Jonathan Bamba, but the overall impression might easily have been one of a side lacking in ambition, a continuation of the dull, grinding style of former manager Christophe Galtier. Such a lack of imagination was hardly what one would have expected when the club announced the signing of former Barcelona player Óscar Garcia to replace Galtier this summer.
Barcelona’s ethos, especially during and after the reign of the late Johan Cruyff, has notably been one of patient passing, blending the sublime brilliance of individual players with a methodical approach, to great success. Garcia has not shied away from his tactical heritage in the past, notably at Brighton during his time with the English side. Success with it, though, has proven rather elusive, as his failure to win promotion illustrated. There have been championships and cup titles in Israel and Austria, but the Spaniard was clearly managing with a stacked deck, as the financial resources of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Red Bull Salzburg far outstripped many, if not most of their domestic competitors.
His appointment at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was even seen by many as a consolation prize, as Patrick Vieira had rejected the club’s advances ahead of Garcia’s appointment. Even though Garcia wasn’t the club’s first choice, he has taken it in stride, adapting the lessons of Cruyff to the more physically intense Ligue 1 with aplomb, as Saint-Étienne presently sit level on points with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, with a perfect record after three matches. That could end quickly, and decisively, with Friday’s trip to the Parc des Princes, but even with a loss against the leaders, Garcia still has a real chance to improve his team’s standing after a disappointing eighth-place finish under Galtier.
It wasn’t only the team’s placement that had engendered frustration in the Rhône Valley, but rather Galtier’s methods, which had been stodgy in the extreme. This dour state of play, coupled with his fallouts with the likes of Bryan Dabo and Oussama Tannane meant that, despite his impressive achievements, the writing was on the wall for Galtier. Given Garcia’s pedigree, what many had expected from a revamped Sainté side was more of that same, patient possession-based approach, not what was offered up against Amiens on Saturday. One would be remiss, though in imagining that this new Saint-Étienne don’t owe something to the lessons of Cruyff.
It’s not Total Football, to be fair, but the possession and passing statistics recorded by Saint-Étienne are somewhat misleading, as they mask the importance of one of the basic tenets of Cruyff’s system, that of ball recovery. Time and again on Saturday, the hosts would lose possession, only to nick the ball off an Amiens player moments later. The difference in quality between, say, Saidy Janko and Dani Alves means that the ball was lost more frequently, but the hosts’ eagerness and fluidity in midfield meant that even without possession, they were never far from having it back in control, and often in dangerous positions.
Time and again, the three midfielders, Dabo, Ole Selnaes and Assane Dioussé, would range forward, allowing the attacking trio to move wide and stretch play as they sought to win the ball off Amiens’ defence. Even as Sainté managed the match a little more in the second half, they still relied on this energy, perhaps riding their luck to some extent; Kévin Théophile-Catherine had already cleared a shot off the line from a corner in the first half, and Tanguy N’Dombélé hit the woodwork as well. The final margin, even, would seem to flatter the hosts, who scored again from the spot through Dabo and also benefitted from Amiens ‘keeper Regis Gurtner failing to hold onto the ball midway through the second half, allowing Dabo to pounce.
Skeptics might also point to the calibre of the opponents that Saint-Étienne had faced in their two previous wins. Caen and Nice certainly aren’t favourites for relegation, but neither has either side distinguished themselves in attack this season. Indeed, the Norman side might have considered themselves unlucky last weekend, having also, like Amiens, hit the woodwork in their loss.
Still, though, Garcia deserves credit for how he has shaped this team, not only in their approach but also in terms of personnel. He has skilfully blended new acquisitions and youngsters into the team’s experienced core, and a sense of unity and belief in the squad is already patent. Loic Perrin, Stéphane Ruffier and Théophile-Catherine remain as solid as ever, while Romain Hamouma’s inventiveness remains key to the attack, but other, less familiar players have also caught the eye.
Chief among these is young full-back Ronael Pierre-Gabriel, who has played chiefly at left-back this season after impressing as Kévin Malcuit’s deputy on the opposite side last season. Full of energy in attack but also disciplined defensively, RPG, as the youngster is called, has also been joined by the academy product Jonathan Bamba in attack and teenage midfielder Dioussé. Bamba impressed on loan at Angers last season, and looks to have continued his upward trajectory, reveling in the freedom and directness of Garcia’s approach, while Dioussé, playing in central midfield in place of the injured Vincent Pajot, has been a similarly energetic presence.
In Saturday’s post-match press conference, Garcia enthused about his team’s faith in youth (Selnaes, Janko and Tannane are all also 23 or younger), saying: “For me, everybody is at the same level. I don’t notice if a player is a veteran presence in the dressing room, if he’s a new arrival, an academy product. I like working with young players, but I’m not concerned with the age of my players. What’s important for me is that the players are training well and progressing, and that’s currently the case.”
While making what had been a veteran team younger has certainly helped Garcia, he has also been buoyed by the returns of Dabo and Tannane. Frozen out of the side by Galtier, the pair scarcely featured last season, and Dabo in particular, having come with a €4m price tag, a significant investment for a club of Les Verts‘ means, was seen as one of the season’s poorest transfers. This season, however, he is back to his Montpellier best, his long stride allowing him to cover huge amounts of ground in midfield, both breaking up play and aiding the attack. Tannane, who didn’t feature on Saturday, has also impressed, starting and notching an assist against Nice in the opener, although he may eventually find himself on the bench with record signing Loïs Diony, Hamouma and Bamba expected to be first choice in attack.
Thus, while Saint-Étienne arguably have rode their luck against middling opposition to date, three from three is an impressive start nonetheless, and speaks volumes of the manager’s influence. In allowing his players a longer leash than Galtier, Garcia has markedly improved both the team’s spirit and their performances. If he hasn’t brought Barcelona’s aesthetics to the Rhône Valley, he has at least brought a joie de vivre that has long been lacking. Again, a trip to Paris will be much more telling than their opening fixtures, but Garcia and Saint-Étienne, playing free from expectations, are Ligue 1’s early surprise, and that is certainly something to be savoured after the general austerity of the recent past.
Ligue 1 Talking Points:
1 | With as few as four guaranteed European spots for Ligue 1 and at least seven sides setting continental competition as a minimum expectation, achieving that aim is going to be a competitive business. As a result, an enthralling encounter between two such clubs on Saturday afternoon took on extra significance as Bordeaux and Lyon shared 6 goals, the first of which was a potential goal of the season winner. Since Lyon’s electric but unsuccessful title charge in 2015, Nabil Fékir’s form, accentuated by a disastrous knee injury, has been fluctuating at best but with Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso sold, the stocky forward has been installed as captain and, hopefully, talisman. With an unassuming Benoît Costil hanging around this penalty spot as Lyon broke into Les Girondins’ half, Fékir arrowed a glorious 50 yard shot past Costil and into his top corner. The sheer power of Fékir’s strike bamboozled Bordeaux’s new number one, leaving him without time to react. Despite Sergi Darder’s sending off, Lyon retained control and were 3-1 up with two minutes to play after a stunning Bertrand Traoré free kick capped his promising individual display. However, Lukas Lerager’s composed finish left 20-year-old Brazilian forward Malcom to unleash his own long distance pile-driver to rescue a point for the away side in stoppage time. Signed from Corinthians 18 months previously, the direct, tricky Malcom has grown in stature over the last year and is now Jocelyn Gourvennec’s standout performer, Wolfsburg the latest to be tempted. His continued development this season will be crucial to Bordeaux’s bid to return to Europe after a humiliating exit from the early stages of this year’s Europa League.
2 | Despite the reduction of the automatic relegation spots from three to two, 18th now faces a relegation play-off with Ligue 2’s third placed side, the battle at the foot of the table remained as undulating during the final weeks of last season as it had been for some years. The current season seems likely to continue in this trend with little to separate Metz, Montpellier, Caen and Dijon as well as promoted clubs Strasbourg and Troyes in the lower third of Ligue 1. Amiens however, also promoted, a last minute goal securing their arrival in Ligue 1 after a six-way final day scramble, already look to be out of their depth. Yet to score, a pair of two goal defeats to PSG and Angers was followed on Saturday night by a comfortable 3-0 win for Saint-Étienne.
Just two years ago Amiens were a third tier club and six of their starting 11 at Le Chaudron this weekend were a part of the side that finished second to Strasbourg in National (3rd division) during the 2015/16 campaign. The lack of Ligue 1 quality is now alarmingly clear. Granted, none of these results are utterly disastrous, Saint-Étienne and PSG are obviously difficult away trips but the loss to Angers at home exposed their limitations in a blunt and porous display, summer addition Gaël Kakuta the only man who looked like he truly belonged in Ligue 1. Christophe Pelissier’s stunning achievement in leading Amiens to successive promotions and their first top flight campaign should not be overlooked but reinforcements other than Kakuta and the incoming Moussa Konate from Sion, who rose to prominence at the 2012 Olympics with Senegal, will be needed if they are to even remain competitive.
3 | For the second successive game, Kylian Mbappé sat and watched. Having remained on the bench last week as a lethal Falcao hat-trick saw off Dijon, the teenager was absent from the squad entirely as Monaco, again thanks to Falcao, edged past Metz on Friday night. Not injured but being punished for a training ground altercation with team-mate Andrea Raggi, Mbappé is, according to his manager, also being protected from transfer speculation that continues to affect him with PSG now very confident of securing a second, nine-figure transfer inside a month. Paramount amongst the issues raised by Mbappé’s potential move is whether the burgeoning competition in Ligue 1 is already at an end. With Lyon, Nice and now Monaco also likely to be significantly weakened, PSG showed in thumping Toulouse 6-2 that should Mbappé arrive the gap may become too wide to bridge.
Aside from Neymar’s supreme ability, he’s brought with him the swagger that Paris have recently lost. Toulouse did strike first, via Max Gradel’s volleyed opener, but Neymar reacting quickest to a loose ball and Adrien Rabiot firing home from the edge of the area had PSG up at the break. A harsh second yellow for Marco Verratti and a Christopher Julien header did twice briefly put Toulouse back within sight of Unai Emery’s men either side of an equally questionable Edinson Cavani penalty won by Neymar but as Toulouse looked for their third in the final 13 minutes, a ten-man PSG were able to pick Pascal Dupraz’s side apart.
First a wonderfully shaped effort from Javier Pastore restored the two-goal Parisien cushion before two moments of footballing showmanship rounded off the evening. A quickly taken corner fired in like a shot at goal from Neymar found left back Layvin Kurzawa who’s spectacular scissor kick gave Alban Lafont little chance, then Neymar bookended the goalscoring with an impossibly intricate dribble through the Toulouse defence, the ball ricocheting off several Toulouse ankles, before turning and slotting home. If PSG continue in this vein and they add Mbappé to their arsenal, the league title may already be Paris bound, a Mbappé-less Monaco powerless to halt their advance.