Speaking exclusively to Football News, Ligue 2 side Paris FC’s Assistant Manager Stéphane Gilli discussed the secrets to this season’s unlikely success, Silas Wamangituka, his time at Fulham under Jean Tigana, his experience with the Bosnian national team and much more.
What do you think have been the reasons for Paris FC’s impressive season so far?
I don’t know if I would call it “impressive” just yet, we’ll only know that for sure at the end of the season. We still have six games to go, but if we do make it into the top two or into a playoff spot, then it will have been a successful season. We know that things can change very quickly, but it is true that up until now it has been great. It is all thanks to the players though. I’ve coached many teams in my career, and I can say that this is a group with a great mentality when it comes to commitment and responsibility.
These are guys who for the most part have not experienced Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. For example, one of our players is 29, and three years ago he was working at a Pôle Emploi (the French equivalent of JobCentre Plus). Many of them have had unusual career paths, but it is something that really gives them this sense of team spirit. They also have the quality, of course, but it is also the fact that they never give up. Always happy to help one another out on the pitch and put in a shift.
Is this the reason that you have the best defence in the league?
We are solid defensively and we have a goalkeeper who has been making a fair amount of saves. It is a statistic that can be misleading though, because we are not a purely defensive team. Even if in first few months of the season we were struggling against fast counters, in the last 4-5 months, we have been having most of the possession in matches. So it is not as if we are always defending.
It all goes back to the team spirit in the squad, though. When we lose the ball, everyone works to get it back. We have a system in place for attacking and defensive phases, and everyone knows these aspects well. Before games, we work in groups to focus on specifics. It might not always come off, but the intention is there. As a coach, the ideal situation is seeing what you’ve worked on in the week come to fruition during the match.
Many observers have said that Paris FC’s success this season has been unexpected, what would you make of this?
I would say it is unexpected with regards to the club’s budget and what has happened in the last three years. When I arrived with Méchra [Bazdanovic] and the rest of the staff this summer, we honestly had not expected to be this high up in the table. If you look the resources the other teams have – Lens, Reims, Troyes, Nancy, Metz – they are better equipped than us. That said, I would not change the team we have here for any other. The satisfaction I have after training with them, I have rarely had that feeling before.
Thomas Touré is a player who is impressing for you this season. He was thought highly of by the likes of Zinedine Zidane when he was starting out at Bordeaux a few years ago, do you think he can still reach the top level?
It is clear that he has the quality and at Bordeaux he was doing great things. That said, in football we know very well that you should not project too far into the future. The aim for him now is to get some playing time, which is something we have been able to give to him.
At this club, you really have to be a part of the team, and not think of yourself as above it, for things to work. Coming in on loan from Angers, Thomas has understood that and has put the work in, and he has understood our tactics on and off the ball. Now what he needs to do, before we can talk about reaching higher levels, is to put in consistent performances.
We know he has the talent; he can finish well and is dynamic. But talent is not everything. There have been many talented players who have not worked for it and unfortunately dropped off, whereas many less talented players have worked hard and have had great careers. We will assess Thomas at the end of the season, but he does have the ability to play in the top division – he just has to make it happen for himself.
So the fact that he’s come into a group of players like yours has helped him find form again?
Everyone works hard here, no one cheats their way through it. When you come down to Ligue 2, you have to adapt to that mentality, to work with and without the ball. That is what is going to help us, even if we have the talent as well. For example, Jonathan Pitroipa is a player who has been at big clubs like Hamburg and Rennes, but when he arrived here he quickly got his head down and started working and things are coming together for him now.
Another player who’s had a successful season is the 19-year-old forward Silas Wamangituka. How do you explain his sudden breakthrough?
This is a player who only two years ago was still playing in Congo, and last year in National 3 (French 5th tier) at Alès. He was not playing on a regular basis because his manager wanted him to track back more. We had originally taken him on trial so he could play for the reserves, but after 10 days we went to the club president and told him we had to sign him, because he has a lot of talent and the potential go very far.
He has worked hard and made the most of his chances when we had problems offensively and our other options were not performing well. There are areas to improve, notably how he plays without the ball and his positioning, so there is still a lot to learn. But in terms of intrinsic attributes, he is a player who pretty much has it all – he is quick and is good technically.
He arrived in a team where there was not anyone naturally above him in the pecking order, so that made things easier for him seeing as there was less pressure, and he slotted in easily. We know that forwards thrive on confidence, and after scoring a few goals this season he has got a lot of it.
Some outlets are linking him to the likes of Barcelona or Liverpool, how do you manage that sort of rumour with a young player?
Obviously it is the Director of Football who will be managing that situation, but clearly we would like to keep hold of him. It is true that there are a lot of scouts at the stadium every week, those clubs included, and many others. It is up to the club, the player and his agent to make the right choices. We want him to stay, but there is always that financial aspect, and he is a player who has a massive potential. He is a great lad who works hard though, and all this interest around him has not changed him. His mindset and behaviour have been very good.
The coaching staff all live together in an apartment in Paris, is that something which brings an added sense of cohesion to the team?
I have been working with Méchra Bazdanovic for 15 years – when we were in Qatar we lived in the same hotel, likewise in Tunisia, so we are used to that. We also know Armand (Sène) well, so before anything we are all friends in life, which I think helps. We complement each other well, in terms of our personalities and our skill-sets. We are all on the same wavelength and that is something the players can see as well and has particularly helped.
I would not say that we are one big group of friends, because there is always some sort of barrier between the coaching staff and the players, but you can feel that they enjoy coming in to training and we enjoy coaching them. When we get home in the evenings, there is always some football on in the living room. It is an unusual situation, but either way we are friends outside of football. We are all away from our families here, and we still maintain some independence within the flat. And in a city as expensive as Paris, it does help!
How did your time at Fulham as a coach in Jean Tigana’s set-up help you in your career?
English football is something that I enjoyed: I would love to go back there. I learned a lot from the place and from Jean Tigana. Despite the fact that Fulham was not that big of a club back then, the facilities there were still impressive. For me, the Premier League is the best league out there.
I have always appreciated the mentality you have in English clubs in terms of working at high intensity. In a way, it is something that I have rediscovered here at Paris FC. I was working with young players at Fulham, and you could see that they were teaching them to have that intensity from a very young age. They would be having fun, putting music on in the dressing room; but as soon as a match came, they completely change, as if they were getting ready to go to war.
Is it a culture that French football could learn from?
Each country has its own football culture, I would say ours is more of a Mediterranean one. What impressed me over there was that the Fulham fans would always be there, whether the club played in the Premier League or in the fourth division. They really identify with the club, it is something that is passed down, for example when you see parents taking their children to the games. I have rarely heard fans boo their own team when they have lost a match either, unlike in France or elsewhere in Europe. It is a different kind of atmosphere, there is really a sense of belonging.
How was your working relationship with Tigana?
It was great, he is very competent and demanding in terms of work – but that is how you get things done. In one year I learnt a lot from him, Christian Damiano and Roger Propos. I think he did well with Fulham even if things did not go as planned towards the end. He took the club from the Championship and got them to the Europa League. The results might have been varied, but I think he contributed a lot to the development of Fulham. I have been following their results this season, unfortunately things have not gone their way. It is a shame, because they had done well to go up and getting out of the Championship is no easy task. Either way, I will remain a Fulham supporter, just as I am of all the clubs I have been at.
Later on in your career you were assistant manager of the Bosnian national team, what did you make of that experience?
First of all, we are very lucky to be able to live off our passion and to discover new people and new cultures. I met some amazing people in Bosnia, they had suffered a war twenty years before, so I learnt a lot about them. There are people there who have little but give a lot, they are very welcoming and open.
I also got to work with some big players like Miralem Pjanić, Edin Dzeko or Senad Lulić. But they don’t act like they are stars, they have respect for the shirt because Bosnia is important to them, because they had been affected by the war, some of them had even lost family members during the conflict. For them, being called up to play for Bosnia and wear the country’s colours is really an honour.
What are some of the differences between coaching at club and international levels?
It is completely different. When you are at a club, you are there everyday and you can, in a way, shape the team in your image, similarly to what we have done at Paris FC. The club had lost five starting players last year so we were able to recruit the guys we wanted and after sometime change the system, both in attacking and defensive phases.
When you are managing a national team, you can select the players that you want, but it takes more time to put things into place. The work is more to do with keeping an eye on the players, watching videos of opponents and preparation. They would come to us in the international break having played three games just before, what with the Champions’ League and Europa League, and there would first of all be some physical preparation to do. We would do some tactical work, but less than what is possible at a club, where you can really put your ideas into place.
Even if we had players who quickly caught on to what we were doing, it still took some time. They all played in different formations, some in 3-5-2 and others in 4-3-3; while some were used to ideas you find in Italian football whereas others were more used to Spanish systems. It can be hard to bring all of that together. You can only really build your team when you qualify for a major competition and you have the month of preparation that comes beforehand. When results are on the line, you do not have time to prepare for anything else. There was a lot of work involving following the players in their clubs, so I was travelling a lot to go watch potential players to call up.
After your time with Bosnia, what were the reasons behind going back to France? Were there other options on the table?
There were other offers, but I wanted to continue working with Méchra. We saw the Paris FC project was ambitious, because the club is putting a lot of effort in – they are building a new training ground, new changing rooms, and a new youth academy. It is early doors now, but training conditions are improving for us and we will see where the project is at the end of the season.
The club’s Sporting Director Pierre Dréossi has said that he hopes to tap more into the potential that Paris offers as a catchment area. Do you think that the club can properly do this, with PSG at your doorstep?
Of course. We always see teams with players who have been here first. I think if we had a team with all the players who have once been at this club, we would be able to play in the top half of the table in Ligue 1. That was a problem the club had previously, because we did not have a proper youth excellent centre, so all the young players would quickly move on.
That is one of the ways that the club is building itself intelligently – now that we have one, we can give these players contracts and hold on to them. Another thing is that Paris is so big that there’s enough talent for us, for PSG, and for many others. It is the second biggest area for scouts in the world, so there is enough talent to go round.
How do you see the potential for a Parisian derby next year, should you win promotion?
I’m not one to for superstition, I do not want to get ahead of myself. For now we are just going to concentrate on the next match going forward.