You are reading the Ligue 1 Talking Points column, written by Eric Devin.
With Champions’ League rivals Monaco and Marseille facing off this weekend, three points against struggling Bastia at the Furiani on Saturday were essential to Saint-Etienne’s third place hopes. Having been given all they could handle in December’s reverse fixture but emerging 1-0 winners, Christophe Galtier would have done well to be wary of his Corsican opponents. Not wanting to drop points, he set out the 4-3-3 that has become his formation of choice since the arrival of Landry N’Guemo at the beginning of the year.
Defensively sound and looking to hit teams on the break, the formation has allowed the front three (usually Max-Alain Gradel, Romain Hamouma and Mevlut Erding) to be free of defensive responsibility, and the trio have responded in spectacular fashion. Gradel in particular has been a revelation, scoring nine goals since returning from the African Cup of Nations.
That said, on the day, against opponents who also favour a smash and grab style, might Saint-Etienne, as the “bigger” side, have served up something with a bit more cohesion and creativity than a dour lineup with three defensive midfielders? After all, for much of the first half of the season, the team employed a 4-2-3-1, with Benjamin Corgnet behind Erding and two of Gradel, Hamouma and Kevin Monnet-Paquet on the wings. While Monnet-Paquet has been a disappointment since his arrival from Lorient in the summer, the team had been as high as third place using that formation, ahead at the time of Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain.
While ASSE are known for their defensive solidity, the irony is that switching to the 4-3-3 has actually seen the team concede more goals per match with it (13 in 12) than without (15 in 23). While there has been an improvement in the team’s attack (18 in 12 v 24 in 23), it’s not as if Saint-Etienne have become another PSG or Lyon, and as Monaco have shown, a side need not be so very prolific to enjoy a certain modicum of success.
Beyond this, however, is the club’s over-reliance on Gradel in the new formation. Having a player score half a side’s goals is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that player is a world class talent. While Gradel has really come on this season, he is also a player who has never been renowned for his scoring ability in Ligue 1 and indeed often found himself benched in favor of Monnet-Paquet or Yohan Mollo earlier in the season.
Now, in this new formation, the Ivorian is one of the first names on the team-sheet. So long as Gradel is on his game, Saint-Etienne are an excellent side, but if he disappears or becomes petulant, (the two are often closely followed by one another) they struggle mightily, especially when facing a sturdy defence.
Not that Gradel is a poor player, but his attitude and work ethic in terms of carrying the offensive load for a team often bereft of attacking inspiration is not what it could be at times. While many, myself included would have pointed to Saint-Etienne’s run-in ahead of their trip to Corsica and marked them as dark horses for third place, their lack of possession and creative flair against Bastia could go on to cost them dearly. Despite his somewhat controversial inclusion on the recent UNFP manager of the year shortlist, if Galtier cannot find the right balance in their remaining three matches, one must begin to wonder how much more time he deserves at the club.