Remi Garde & Aston Villa: A match made in heaven?

Eric Devin analyses the potential for Aston Villa if Remi Garde was to take over, including an in-depth look at his past, his favoured tactical set-ups and how he would likely approach Aston Villa’s current squad.

With the news arriving on Sunday that Aston Villa would be sacking Tim Sherwood, hero of last season’s relegation fight but ultimately doomed by a poor start to this campaign, talk has rapidly turned to his potential successors. To the surprise of some, the favourite has emerged as ex-Lyon manager Remi Garde.

Once tipped for the Arsenal job in the wake of that club’s unrest over Arsene Wenger’s lack of trophies, the former France international has been a pundit with Canal + since resigning from the Lyon job following the 2013-14 season.

The idea that he would subject himself to a relegation scrap in a country where he still lacks a full grasp of the English language at a club the owner is desperate to sell, especially after the Arsenal links (even if they were farfetched), made this news yesterday slightly surprising when it broke yesterday.

However, both Tom Fox, Villa’s chief executive and Henrik Almstadt, the club’s sporting director, were previously employed at Arsenal and would have a keen understanding of his potential vis-a-vis their conversations with Wenger. Furthermore, Villa’s acquisition of several French-speaking players over the summer window (Jordan Veretout, Jordan Amavi, Jordan Ayew, Idrissa Gueye) has not immediately paid dividends, despite the quartet’s obvious talents.

The thinking, then in some quarters is that the arrival of a French-speaking manager may do much to ease what has been an uneven transition for the four, who, given their fees and experience, have been somewhat disappointing, particularly Ayew and Veretout.

While Gueye and Amavi have done fairly well, the club is under pressure to win, and win now. With owner Randy Lerner having finally opened his wallet, he must surely have been expecting more than to be rooted to the bottom of the Premier League after ten matches.

With that in mind, an introduction to Garde as a manager, coupled with a potential for how he could operate at Villa is presented is laid out for you below, with the hope being that some light might be shed on a manager whose time at Lyon was one of mitigating circumstances owing to the club’s financial situation.

Who is Remi Garde?  

A Lyon local who came up the club’s academy before breaking through to the first team, Garde has rarely been far from the club in his heart. A stalwart at the dawn of Jean-Michel Aulas’ presidency, Garde was an ever-present as the club earned promotion and then qualified for Europe under their ambitious new leader. His head was momentarily turned in 1993, when he joined Strasbourg, winning the UEFA Cup with the team before heading to Arsenal in 1996.

This move was a bit of a surprise, as Garde, an assured defensive midfielder, was not the type of foreigner that the Premier League generally sought at the time. Too, at 30, there was some questioning over such a big move at a relatively old age.

While never a fixture in Wenger’s first eleven, Garde was an adept backup for the likes of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, adding necessary depth to a squad that won the double in his second year at the club. Hobbled by a chronic knee injury, Garde retired as a player at just 33 in 1999, going to work as a pundit on French television.

However, merely providing insight on the game which had done so well by him wasn’t enough, and he soon returned to the club of his youth, as a coach under Paul Le Guen. Garde remained at the club when Gerard Houllier replaced Le Guen, being promoted to assistant manager.

When Houllier left and was eventually replaced by Claude Puel, Garde moved to head of academy development, overseeing the schooling of the likes of Maxime Gonalons, Anthony Lopes, Samuel Umtiti and Loic Remy. When Puel was dismissed following a tumultuous 2010-11 season, Garde was tapped to replace him, taking charge of what had been France’s most successful club over the previous decade.

However, what had made the club so successful was an aggressive policy of selling on young players and bringing in a raft of foreign players for low transfer fees. Failure to make any real progress in the Champions’ League had seen the club, in desperation, overreach in their transfer spending, bringing in such players as Lisandro Lopez, Yoann Gourcuff and Michel Bastos at eye-watering fees. When 2011 saw the team crash out to Real Madrid in the Round of 16 in the Champions’ League and scrape third in the league, changes were afoot.

That summer, rather than continuing to bring in big-name players, the club instituted a new, increasingly severe policy of austerity. Jeremy Toulalan and Miralem Pjanic, important pieces of the squad the previous season, departed and their replacements were, to be charitable, uninspiring.

Nevertheless, Garde made his start with what was still a formidable collection of international-level players: Kim Kallstrom, Anthony Reveillere and Hugo Lloris were regulars for club and country, and the club were generally healthy, only Yoann Gourcuff missing any extended time. The club saw a return to the knockout stages of the Champions’ League and reached both domestic finals, but only finished fourth in the league, a dismal ten points off the top three.

While Aulas had generally been quick on the trigger in terms of dismissing managers in the recent past, given Garde’s history with the club, he was allowed to continue, and once again another sell-off occurred. Hugo Lloris was the biggest miss, but Aly Cissokho, Cris and Kallstrom had been key to Lyon’s recent success, and the club continued to struggle the following season, flaming out of Europe and enduring a difficult start to the season. While the team did eventually pip Nice and Saint-Etienne to third, ensuring themselves of a place in the Champions’ League the following season, there remained a sense of malaise about the team.

In many ways, though, Garde’s second season was seen as a bit of a turning point. With so many veteran players having departed, he was forced to rely on his academy products both on and off the pitch. While still unsteady at times, Samuel Umtiti, Alexandre Lacazette, Clement Grenier all truly began to blossom during that campaign, while fellow academy product Maxime Gonalons took on more of a leadership role in the absence of the likes of Toulalan, Cris and Kallstrom.

The team came together for some inspired performances down the stretch, and there was at last some degree of optimism surrounding the club, driven by what was fast becoming an impressive crop of young talent.

That summer, though, saw more veteran talent on the move, as Bastos, Lopez and young centre back Dejan Lovren all made their way to pastures greener. Lyon promptly capitulated in almost embarrassing fashion to unfancied Real Sociedad in the  Champions’ League, but even in righting the ship in Europe thanks to a decent run in the Europa League, the ascent of Monaco proved to difficult to overcome, and Lyon finished off the podium for the second time in three seasons under Garde. Despite the new success of youngsters such as Anthony Lopes, Nabil Fekir and Jordan Ferri, another season out of Europe’s top competition simply wasn’t sustainable for a club of Lyon’s ambitions, and Garde resigned at season’s end.

In the period since, he has worked as a pundit and has been linked with any number of jobs, including Newcastle and Arsenal. While he failed to reach the heights of his successors at Lyon, particularly in the domestic league, the general understanding is that there was simply too much working against him as regards player departure.

He did demonstrate a tremendous record for bringing through youth, as, with the exception of Corentin Tolisso, all of Lyon’s vaunted academy graduates of the recent past were given their first team debut by Garde, who also oversaw the development of Anthony Martial, whose departure in 2013 barely registered at the time.

While all of this is fine and good, how well could Garde do with Aston Villa? While he still maintained a relatively high level of success at Lyon, he was, after all, operating from a position of considerable power. While the arrivals of Dimitry Ryblovlev at Monaco and QSI at Paris Saint-Germain did much to disrupt that, Lyon were, along with Marseille, still undoubtedly one of the biggest clubs in France in terms of financial infrastructure. Too, while Garde did see his best players sold out from under him, it was a somewhat attritional process, and he did benefit from, for example, two full seasons of the underrated Lisandro Lopez.

Garde as Tactician 

In examining Garde’s potential for success should he indeed land at Villa, tactics should be of paramount importance. Sherwood had gained the name “Tactics Tim” over the course of his tenures in Birmingham and at Aston Villa, and it was not a flattering one. While less naive in terms of tactics than generally believed, Sherwood did struggle to get the best out of a decently talented squad, his results being generally uneven. Poorly conceived starting formations and equally bizarre starting formations saw the team playing a range of line-ups this season, even experimenting with three at the back.

What one would hope is that Garde’s arrival would bring some sort of tactical stability, but, to be fair, he also was somewhat of change artist. In his first season, he used a fairly consistent 4-2-3-1, with Maxime Gonalons and Kim Kallstrom anchoring the midfield. One of Yoann Gourcuff or Clement Grenier, depending on fitness, provided the creative spark. That was the idea in practice, anyway.

The three players furthest forward often had other ideas, as the trio of, Bafetimbi Gomis, Jimmy Briand and Lisandro Lopez all saw themselves as central strikers, despite the latter two often being used on the wing. Adding Michel Bastos and Alexandre Lacazette to the equation failed to assuage the situation, and Lyon were often left with a fairly static attack, as the injuries of Gourcuff and Bastos hampered any potential for chemistry.

It would seem easy at this point to damn Garde as being tactically naïve, trying to shoehorn strikers and fullbacks into wide roles, simply hoping that their talent would overwhelm the opposition regardless of how they were set up to play. However, the undercurrent of this season was one of uncertainty surrounding Gourcuff, who had been the club’s record acquisition the season before and needed the benefit of a lineup which brought the best out of him.

Garde persisted with this formation because the return of the former Bordeaux man from injury was a hoped-for eventuality, and he hoped to foster continuity even in his absence. The results, as previously mentioned, were predictable, and the club’s finish duly reflected that.

In his second season in charge, Garde persisted with this formation, playing Lacazette on the right and Lopez on the left, Gomis again the target man. Steed Malbranque also supplanted the now-departed Kallstrom in midfield, but the results were similar, as the attack, beset by injuries to its playmakers, (Gourcuff and Grenier both missed large chunks of the season) still generally failed to find any rhythm.

Gourcuff by this point was no longer considered the key to Lyon’s continued success, but Grenier’s emergence in the latter half of the season was key to the club capturing third, so once again the system was put in place to privilege a dynamic playmaker but was beset by injury.

Things finally changed in 2013-14; with the club eliminated early doors from the Champions’ League, Garde was seen as something of the walking wounded, and he seized on the opportunity to enact a shift. With Lisandro departed in the off-season, the team began to play the same diamond 4-4-2 that has brought Hubert Fournier so much praise.

Necessitated by the presence of two out-and-out centre forwards, (Lacazette finally being recognized as such) the scheme saw Grenier tuck in behind the pair, with Gonalons at the base of midfield. Two of Gueida Fofana, Steed Malbranque and Jordan Ferri took up the other midfield positions, and Garde not only had a formation that fit the personnel but also allowed for rotation.

A lengthy European campaign had taxed the squad, but using the Europa League as a sandbox, the likes of Arnold Mvuemba, Briand and Gourcuff when fit allowed the side the chance to rotate fairly well, the scheme allowed youth their chance. Nabil Fekir became a regular toward the back end of the season, as did Ferri, the former admittedly benefiting from an injury to Grenier.

Nevertheless, after two iffy campaigns under a presumed mandate to play the club’s record signing, (or at least keep the kettle warm in his absence) Garde was finally given the freedom to operate freely, and if the placement in the table wasn’t of the level expected, the potential demonstrated by the club’s young players proved to be somewhat of a palliative.

Villa are in a bit of a different situation; while there is a nominal star player in Jack Grealish, the parts around him were this campaign fairly interchangeable. That isn’t meant as an indication of the sameness of the players and their respective talents, just that Sherwood developed an almost obsessive predilection for changing his lineups.

Thus far, aside from Grealish, the players that have stood out are Jordan Amavi, Idrissa Gueye and Micah Richards. Ashley Westwood and Grealish have had their moments as well, which would seem to indicate a 4-2-3-1 similar to what Garde employed at Lyon during his first two seasons.

Would seem, however is the key phrase. Across the back, besides Amavi at left back, questions remain, as Ciaran Clark has struggled for fitness, forcing Richards, a right back of some distinction during his days at Manchester City, inside to partner Joleon Lescott. Alan Hutton is probably the best option at right back, but with a paucity of centre backs available, playing four at the back is a given.

In midfield, a holding pair of Gueye and Westwood also picks itself fairly easily. The former Lille man is quick, powerful and a decent dribbler and shooter, while Westwood is unafraid to do the dirty work in front of the back four.

Carlos Sanchez is a serviceable option as well, but pairing him with Gueye allows things to be a bit too open, both players on occasion being a bit too enamored of their offensive abilities. Westwood and Sanchez work decently, but without Gueye, there isn’t as much going forward, and Villa’s scoring record of eight goals in ten matches makes it clear that any attacking options available to the team need to be on the table.

The attacking quartet is where things get tricky, however. Grealish probably just shades it centrally, even as his inconsistency can frustrate at times. In wide areas, things get slightly more complicated. Jordan Ayew was signed from Lorient on the back of his goal-scoring record, but is better suited as a wide player, especially as he lacks the physical attributes to function as a lone striker in the Premier League.

Scott Sinclair and Carles Gil on the left and right are more natural wide players than Ayew though, and the creativity of the former Valencia man adds an extra dimension to the team’s play. Sinclair has had a rather poor start to his campaign, but offers more than an aging Gaby Agbonlahor. Rudy Gestede unfortunately makes too much sense as a striker, completing the team. So, a more attacking approach, then, as Sherwood has most often used a more defensive 4-3-3, with the hope being that including the team’s two most creative players would create more chances.

Garde as Man-Manager 

This set-up does seem to leave little room for the likes of Ayew and Jordan Veretout, but neither have demonstrated that they have what it takes to succeed in England. While both, due more to ignorance of their careers than anything else, were generally regarded as prospects upon their arrivals, the truth isn’t quite so simple. Both, despite their (relative) youth, (Veretout is 22, Ayew recently turned 24) have played well over a hundred first-team matches.

To think that Garde, for all his accolades garnered in developing Lyon’s youngsters can make a difference for the pair is foolhardy. With the players at Lyon, Garde was head of the academy and could follow the players throught their teenage years, watching them grow and cafrefully measuring their development, establishing a good awareness as to their readiness for first team football. After all, for every Fekir and Gonalons, there are also the likes of Enzo Reale and Yannis Tafer drifting about, players who never made it at Lyon.

Garde made his mark on Lyon by shaping players at a formative stage, before they had become professionals, not being a horse whisperer. Too, those who would believe that his being French can coax more out of the likes of Ayew and Veretout are foolish. The same is true for the non-French players as well; Jack Grealish is admittedly still a prospect, but he has been a professional for quite some time, having spent a full season at Notts County two years ago. The same is likewise true of Gil, who was a first-team regular at Elche for two seasons.

If Garde is appointed and does well, his success will be down to tactical consistency, not some magical ability to improve young players who are already fairly far into their professional careers. Conversely, if he is appointed and does poorly, it won’t be down (solely) to his inability to wring the best from these youngsters but rather to a hierarchy whose poorly researched signings seem a misuse of transfer funds thus far.

Whatever the outcome of the next few days, Villa are a club with deeper problems than a particular manager. No matter who is appointed, this season will be a pitched battle against relegation and whether it is Garde or someone else, confirming safety for the club will be a real achievement.

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