Eric Devin examines St Étienne’s understated but impressive start to the 2015/16 campaign.
Saint Étienne finished last season on a tear, riding the goals of Max-Alain Gradel to a fifth-place finish and remaining in the running for the Champions’ League until the final day of the season.
With the season underway as Les Verts faced off against Romanian side Targu Mures with a resounding 3-0 away victory in their Europa League qualification, the optimism of the previous season had returned, and the club were riding high.
Sure, Mevlut Erding, Landry N’Guemo and Franck Tabanou had moved on, but Vincent Pajot, Nolan Roux and Benoit Assou-Ekotto were like-for-like replacements at their positions, and Kevin Theophile-Catherine, so impressive on loan, had also been made a permanent arrival.
For once under Galtier, Saint Étienne had experienced a successful season and had not been eviscerated by the following window, as they had in the summer of 2013.
The losses of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Joshua Guilavogui and Kurt Zouma (despite the returns of the latter two on loan) stung that summer, as the club had run rampant against all comers. So, it was many a jaw that dropped, disappointingly as first Allan Saint-Maximin and then, crucially, Gradel made their way to the exit door in late July and early August.
Saint-Maximin was a talented but raw prospect, and the argument could easily be made that his sale was good business, owing to his youth. But Gradel had been the team’s beating heart, especially after his return from the Africa Cup of Nations.
Buoyed by his success there, the winger became a goal-scoring machine, including seven goals in the last six matches, to keep the pressure for Europe on Monaco and Marseille to the death. Despite the club falling short, with the form that he and the club had showed, many were looking forward to a new season with the Ivorian leading the line, as he had proved such an effective focal point when finally given the chance.
Now, with the season due to start in less than a week, Saint Étienne were shorn of their three leading goalscorers from 2014-15, (Ricky van Wolfswinkel being the other) a dire situation for a team so often bereft of goals, their placement in the table often determined by a dogged defensive effort.
After picking themselves up off the proverbial mat, Saint Étienne slowly but surely began to draft in replacements. Neal Maupay and Jean-Christophe Bahebeck, both accomplished French youth internationals arrived in mid-August, if unproven at the highest level, were brought in to bolster the squad in wide areas.
Youngster Jonathan Bamba was made a full first-team member, Valentin Eysseric arrived from Nice on loan, and, in a deal that slipped under most pundits’ radar, Slovakian international Robert Beric arrived from Austrian runners-up Rapid Wien.
Given the mixed results of players who have moved to bigger stages from the Austrian Bundesliga in recent years, (Philipp Hosiner, Kevin Kampl) the move seemed inconsequential.
Despite this raft of arrivals, the mood around the club was still generally one of trepidation, as, despite qualifying for the group stages of the Europa League, the club had looked poor domestically. Only one point from the first two matches, with all three goals conceded coming from free kicks, was a frankly embarrassing start to the season.
While their third match did bring a victory, it was only under the most favourable of circumstances, as Lorient goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte was sent off inside a minute, but even then Les Verts struggled to find a goal until Romain Hamouma netted three minutes from time.
As inauspicious as that result was, it just may have been the beginning of a renaissance for Saint Étienne. Hamouma delivered a fine finish, but the fact that he found the net at all was down to the superb ball control of Maupay, who had come on for Roux midway through the half.
Often disappointing during his time at Nice, a combination of injury and inexperience had soured the southern club on the youngster, who had nevertheless demonstrated considerable ability during his various stints with the youth national teams.
Maupay has failed to make much of an impact in the time since, but his effort on the afternoon was emblematic of something that had rarely, if ever, been an option for Galtier, squad depth.
Despite being collectively unheralded, the summer’s arrivals (add in promoted youngster Pierre-Yves Polomat and former Niort fullback Kevin Malcuit to those already mentioned) have given the manager multiple options in literally every single position. And while it is one thing to have options, it is quite another to have these options make consistently meaningful contributions.
From Eysseric’s sublime winner against Bastia, to Roux’s composed finish against Montpellier, from Beric’s vital equalizer against Rosenborg to Bamba’s electric opener against Nantes, the goals and assists are starting to pile up from the new arrivals.
With so many matches in quick succession, and Galtier (finally) taking the Europa League seriously, those goals have been vital, not only for the team’s progression, but for the general confidence of the side.
With so many matches to be played, and few players (Perrin, Pogba, Hamouma, Clement?) automatic first choices in the biggest encounters, there seems to be fomenting collective identity, with each player willing to push themselves when called upon for the greater success of the side.
Witness Vincent Pajot, always far from an attacking juggernaut during his days at Rennes, getting forward to link with Hamouma against Nantes, or the likes of the unsung Malcuit (a former Monaco youth product) shuttling up and down the flank, consistently pulling Ermir Lenjani out of position.
Even with these players never likely to be picked if all hands are on deck, they still go about their business with a truly remarkable determination, knowing that even if their performance doesn’t necessarily result in an extended run in the team, there will continue to be many more opportunities, owing to the crowded fixture list.
With the team resilient after a sloppy start to the season, having won four on the bounce, with a trip to underwhelming Troyes tomorrow on the cards, Saint Étienne are now in third place, and if Galtier can continue to foster this ethos, there is really no good reason why they can’t retain this lofty ranking.
Despite this spate of success, one would be foolish indeed to say that all is well in the Loire valley, of course. Loic Perrin is still the club’s leading scorer in the league with two goals, and the fixture list has been more than kind to the club, and will continue to be, with no real domestic tests until Paris Saint-Germain visit the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in late October.
Their Europa League group will likewise be a test/distraction, with effervescent Ukranian side Dnipro and Lazio providing strong challenges. But, come what may for Galtier and his charges, this summer is, on current evidence, thus far a positive one, as the management at the club appear to have drafted players not on reputation, but on work ethic.
Even if the club slide as the likes of Monaco, Marseille and Lyon finally find form, they will still be the same opportunistic grafters of seasons past, and will always be hard to break down. The difference this time is that with their newfound depth and versatility, the chances of that slide happening, even with a busier fixture list, are that much smaller.