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TALKING POINTS: Week 32: Why St Étienne are at a tactical crossroads

Eric Devin’s talking points column returns in a week where we look forward to two high profile Champions League clashes involving Ligue 1 sides.

As I wrote several weeks ago, Saint-Etienne have endured a most frustrating season. Despite making an effort to spend on attacking players in the summer, bringing in Yohan Mollo from Nancy, Ricky van Wolfswinkel from Norwich and Kevin Monnet-Paquet from Lorient the club have continued to struggle to find the back of the net.

While a recent inspired run of form on the part of Max-Alain Gradel spurred a three match winning streak in the league, as yesterday’s victory over visiting Nantes showed, the Ivorian isn’t quite equipped to lead the team to Champions’ League qualification. Well-shackled by Nantes right back Issa Cissokho, Gradel’s repeated attempts to pick out Mevlut Erding in the middle were met with little success, as he finished the match with a 60% pass completion percentage. Having had little luck crossing, Gradel’s attempt to cut inside were similarly lacking, as Nantes’ back line continually rose to the challenge, dispossessing him more often than not. 

Mollo’s introduction for Monnet-Paquet provided a bit more impetus, but ultimately lumping crosses into the box is rarely going to meet with success against the likes of Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Papy Djilobodji. The introduction of Benjamin Corgnet, who replaced Landry N’Guemo as Christophe Galtier moved away from his usual defensive 4-3-3 to a more positive 4-2-3-1 did seem to brighten things more, though. With Corgnet thus on as the play-maker, things seemed to be more than functional in attack. While Sainte did fail to score aside from Frank Tabanou’s early free kick, they were a much more complete team during Corgnet’s half hour cameo, and perhaps a switch of formations to include the Frenchman on a regular basis might be worth consideration for Galtier. 

In 10 starts this season, (not including a match in which he departed injured after 12 minutes) the former Lorient man has seen ASSE rack up six wins, three draws and a solitary loss. Using the 4-2-3-1, Saint-Etienne had managed to climb as high as third after drawing with Rennes on Matchday 21. Not all of this is down to Corgnet, of course, but with none of the currently preferred midfield three able to be a spark creatively, he is the best fit as a number ten, and having an extra man in attack would reduce the need for route one football.

Especially against defensively sound sides like Nantes, allowing a creative player to set up behind Erding and drawing the wide players into the attack by playing the ball on the ground would force bigger centre backs out of position more often as they attempted to track the runs of the likes of Gradel and Mollo. However, that being said. since N’Guemo’s arrival and the resultant switch to a 4-3-3, he has consistently played well alongside Fabien Lemoine and Ismael Diomande, becoming an important part of midfield, and Galtier is now faced with a choice.  

There is still certainly all to play for as the club sit just two points off of a Champions’ League spot with six matches remaining, and while it is hard to argue against the club’s current seven match unbeaten run in the league, the theme of what could have been continues to crop up. Les Verts’ brilliant run to end the 2012-13 campaign is still fresh in fans’ memories, when a dramatic push for third fell just short behind the dynamic Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng. With the club once again in a similar position, might a return to this season’s earlier approach once again yield positive results in the race for Europe?

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