Eric Devin returns this week with his much anticipated Talking Points column to assess SM Caen’s fantastic start to the 2015/16 Ligue 1 campaign.
Bottom of the table at the beginning of the calendar year, with Ligue 1’s second-poorest defence, Patrice Garande’s Caen were looking as if their return to the top flight would be a short one.
An incandescent run of form in January and February saw the club capture nineteen points in the span of seven matches, defeating Marseille and Saint-Etienne, the solitary draw in that run a pulse-quickening draw at the Parc des Princes.
While safety was never really an issue after those seven matches, the club’s uneven performances in last year’s run-in made the current season the source of some trepidation.
The sales of N’Golo Kante, Thomas Lemar, Lenny Nangis, Mathieu Duhamel and Bengali-Fode Koita, as well as the expiring loans of Emiliano Sala, Sloan Privat and Nicolas Benezet were key to that. Their departures meant that a bevy of not only players but goals would be on the move.
Replacements were brought in, but Andy Delort, despite being Ligue 2’s leading scorer two seasons ago, was untested in Ligue 1, and the likes of Vincent Bessat and Ronny Rodelin, despite being decent Ligue 1 players, were hardly threatening to fill the net based on past evidence. As Caen had the league’s fourth-best attack last season, but still only just avoided the relegation places, those goals would definitely be needed should the club hope to retain their top-flight status.
This season, things have started somewhat less brightly scoring wise, with eight goals in six matches, but for as free-scoring as Caen might have been last season, the other hallmark of their play was an abysmal defence; only Reims and Toulouse had poorer records among non-relegated teams.
Things seem to have marginally improved in that regard, as aside from Nabil Fekir’s hat trick, in a 4-0 loss to Lyon, the club have generally been solid, keeping clean sheets against Marseille and Toulouse and conceding only a penalty in their victory over Montpellier this past weekend. Damien Da Silva and Alaeddine Yahia seem to be forming a capable partnership in central defence, and Dennis Appiah and Emmanuel Imorou are once again fairly dependable presences on the flanks.
Even with slight improvement defensively, and a fine start from Delort, few if any expected the club to be in fourth place, even after only six matches. So, just how good is this team?
After an unexpected and opportunistic victory at the Velodrome on Matchday One, the club won an ugly encounter with Toulouse, 1-0 before being thumped by Lyon and losing to Nice. Two more victories have followed, but those two opponents currently occupy the relegation zone in the form of Montpellier and Troyes, clubs that offer nothing in attack and nothing in defence.
Still despite a fortunate early schedule, fourth place is fourth place, but can the club sustain, if not this ranking, a least finish in the top half of the table?
Based on current evidence (and their upcoming matches), yes. While no longer the wide-open menace of last year, Caen do still like to counter-attack, but with Da Silva and company looking more consistent and confident playing as a unit, the club will continue to be less sieve-like at the back. Obviously, Fekir had showed how the club can be undone, but few, if any, clubs outside of Paris Saint-Germain are in possession of any players even approaching his level of individual talent.
A trip to an uneven Lorient and a visit from bottom feeders Gazelec Ajaccio are the club’s next two matches, before hosting Saint Etienne. Despite the good form of Galtier’s charges, their trip to a dangerous Lazio side that mid-week will potentially leave Les Verts a bit stretched.
The fixture list then continues with Reims, Nantes, Bastia, Guingamp and Angers. With no other real potential heavy hitters to come, and the likes of Monaco, Lille and Montpellier still struggling, the time is right for Caen to continue their good form and, if not challenge for Europe, stack up enough points so that relegation will no longer be a threat.
In a Ligue 1 so often dominated by defensively minded sides, it is refreshing to see the club progress up the table this season, and the hope here is that they can continue to do so, showing how a bit of attacking verve can survive in style.