A particular phrase has repeatedly rung from Reims manager David Guion as well as other personnel in the last few weeks: “Maintain the dynamic from last season.”
Two matches into the season and exactly that is happening: Reims have pulled off two prestigious 1-0 wins against Patrick Vieira’s Nice and Olympique Lyonnais. The Ligue 2 champions have entered a new world but life so far feels very much the same, as they temporarily sit high up the table as was the custom last season, albeit in a different division.
A testament to the transformation that Reims have undergone is a comparison with their last encounter with OL, on the last day of the the French top flight season in 2016. Reims won 4-1 but were still relegated, in a game during which only the managers Bruno Génesio and Guion (then caretaker) were still present on Friday. Reims have undergone wholesale changes since, but the solidity of their defence and ruthlessness of their attack has carried over well from last season.
With the city already buzzing after the win at Nice, Reims reproduced their feat in a packed Auguste Delaune stadium. Local favourite Pablo Chavarria headed home one of Ghislain Konan’s several dangerous crosses from the left to give the promoted side an early advantage over their Champions League-playing opponent.
“We showed a lot of maturity,” said centre-back Younes Abdelhamid after the game, aptly qualifying les Champenois’ ability to alternate possession spells and patient defending, particularly during the first half. As OL’s urgency increased in the second half, and with the substitution of captain Marvin Martin, Reims found themselves increasingly on the defensive foot. But Lyon’s disorganised and limp attacks could find no way through the defence.
The last man, Édouard Mendy, was impressive once again, reassuringly coming off his line to catch crosses and making a couple of big saves. Reims did well to fend off the offers from Championship clubs in England over the summer for the goalkeeper.
The departures of Jeanvier and Youssouf Koné have visibly not hurt the best defence in Ligue 2 last season (24 goals conceded). Newcomers Konan and Thomas Fontaine (an illustrious surname in Reims) fit seamlessly in alongside Abdelhamid and Romain Métanire. Both of the latter truly led by example, making spectacular tackles in their own box, an illustration of the commitment and concentration that defines this back line.
In fact, each of Reims’ principal recruits, all of them internationals, made a positive contribution. Moussa Doumbia, the goalscorer against Nice, already has a fantastic partnership with left-back Konan. Together they ran Les Gones ragged down the left-hand side through the first half, and Léo Dubois found no help from his winger Bertrand Traoré to stop them.
Former Marseille man Alaixys Romao had a less glorious role to play as defensive midfielder, but his experience was welcome in regulating the tempo. And Hyun-Jun Suk, signed from rivals Troyes, was subbed on to use his physicality to put stress Lyon’s hasty play from the back.
We can expect more novelty yet at Reims, as their likely recruits were in attendance at Delaune: Dimitri Foulquier (Watford), Amr Warda (PAOK), and Björn Engels (Olympiacos). They would offer depth and completion in positions where there was little turnover last season, notably in defence. Métanire, for example, played 37 league matches last season and has no alternative at right-back.
But despite the important changes in personnel over the summer, Reims have stayed true to their values, as Abdelhamid insisted on after the game. How long can Reims keep this form going? Next week’s trip to nearby Amiens should be winnable based on what we have seen so far, but the week after that they will receive Montpellier, whose renowned solidity in defence will pose a challenge. After just two games played, regardless of the calibre of their opponents, it would be foolish to suggest anything more than a relegation scrap for Reims, but by the end of the month, SDR fans might begin to hope that one of France’s most illustrious clubs is back in the big time for the foreseeable future.