Ever since their return to Ligue 1 in 2013, it has been apparent that Guingamp have punched well above their weight. Under coach Jocelyn Gourvennec, the club had fought for every scrap of success as they found their way back to the top flight via a season in the third tier, two Coupe de France wins, including one as a Ligue 2 side and an adventure in the Europa League. However, with Gourvennec having moved on two seasons ago, his replacement, Antoine Kombouaré faces perhaps the club’s toughest task as he tries to keep the perennial underdogs in amongst the big names.
Having gone six games without a point, the pressure was reaching breaking point for Kombouaré. Guingamp’s largest fan group, the influential “Kop Rouge” unfurled a banner during the loss at home to Bordeaux declaring “Antoine, as with golf, when things aren’t working you must change club”. A draw away at Nimes last week was followed up by a first win, again on the road, this time at Angers. Getting off the mark may prove some relief for Kombouaré, but worries on the pitch and in the stands will continue for some time yet.
So where has it gone wrong for Guingamp? Well, the immediate area for concern would be the summer’s transfer activities. Kombouaré was forced to watch on as a group of hugely important players departed the Stade de Roudourou. Midfielders Moustapha Diallo and Clément Grenier along with forwards Yannis Salibur and Jimmy Briand all departed. The four of them contributed 24 of the 48 goals Guingamp scored last season, which combined with the creativity Grenier brought, the steel Diallo gave in midfield and the attacking threat Salibur and Briand offered, meant that the club were always going to face problems unless they brought in adequate replacements.
Sadly for Kombouaré, those adequate replacements struggled to materialise. Guessouma Fofana was brought in from Amiens but having struggled to establish himself in last season’s surprise package outfit, it was not necessarily a name to inspire significant hope. Nolan Roux and Ronny Rodelin ensured the club brought in some more recognisable names, with both having considerable top-flight experience. Roux and Rodelin have struggled for consistency throughout their careers and whilst Roux joined off the back of a strong goalscoring season with Metz, neither are guaranteed to cover the goals lost via the summer departures.
Many of course will point to Guingamp’s status as a club consistently operating with one of the smallest revenues in the division. Even that though has its limitations as a plausible excuse. The likes of Dijon, Amiens, Strasbourg, Angers and Caen together with Nimes this season, have shown that you can operate on a small budget and lose key players but still look to invest wisely. As perhaps the original version of the ultimate modern Ligue 1 underdog club, Guingamp have to show they can evolve and adapt if they are to survive longer in the top division.
Amidst the gloom though, there are plus points for Kombouaré and his side. If you examine their performances this season beyond just the scorelines, you would see that they out played Marseille at the Vélodrome in the first half, before succumbing to tiredness and a rejuvenated OM in the second half. It took goals in the final 10 minutes before PSG, Saint-Étienne and Bordeaux finally secured their wins, despite Guingamp having spells where they dominated. The recent win over Angers will have been sweet relief for Kombouaré, as there was a danger that players’ heads could have terminally dropped having lost game after game, despite not performing badly.
There is still a very clear issue of a lack of creativity in midfield. Fofana, Lucas Deaux and Etienne Didot are all capable players, but none possess the inherent capacity to inspire an attack or create something from nothing. Nicolas Benezet will produce very brief moments of brightness, but the real source of creativeness should probably come from Marcus Coco and Ludovic Blas. Both players have long been touted as highly promising youngsters but there is a growing feeling both are struggling to kick on in their development.
If Kombouaré is willing to give both or either a sustained run in the side, game time and confidence could combine to get both back on track. On their day they are both capable of playing some excellent footballers and perhaps a regular occurrence of that combined with Roux finding last season’s shooting boots could see Guingamp have enough to avoid the drop.
With such passionate and loyal supporters, Kombouaré will be acutely aware of the pressure he is under. It is up to him to now use all his experience to get every ounce of effort and quality from this group of players. If they can avoid languishing in too much trouble near the foot of the table until at least January, then maybe they can pull off an inspired move as they did last winter when Grenier joined and helped the team to ease any relegation fears.
For a club that has long revelled in the status as a plucky underdog, it feels that the time is now right for Guingamp to move on from that. With so many other teams in Ligue 1 now fighting for a similar label, there is a danger Guingamp could let that lack of ambition and an inferiority complex be their ultimate downfall.