TALKING POINTS: Week 36: Sagnol’s success lies in the defence

You are reading the Get French Football News Talking Points column, written by Eric Devin.

At the end of 2014, Willy Sagnol’s Bordeaux had reached a bit of a crossroads. Yes, they were doing fairly well, sitting sixth in the league, and Sagnol seemed to be getting good performances out of new attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri and Diego Rolan. There was, however, more than enough about to temper any over-reaching enthusiasm; leading scorer Cheick Diabaté had just been lost for the season, and while the offence behind the big Malian had other bright spots, no one looked ready to fill the net as he had. Coupled with a defence that was among the division’s worst, having conceded 26 goals in 19 matches at that point, things looked quite bleak. 

With a 5-1 loss to a rampant Lyon the side’s final match in December a microcosm of Bordeaux’s defensive woes and impotent attack, optimism was hardly the watchword about the Stade Chaban-Delmas, despite having exceeded expectations with regards to their placement in the table.  

What has happened in the intervening four months, then, has been nothing short of remarkable. In the calendar year, Bordeaux have the league’s second-best defence, behind only Leonardo Jardim’s parsimonious Monaco. Having played around with a variety of formations over the season’s first half, the last fifteen matches or so have seen Sagnol settle on a 4-3-1-2, with Khazri ahead of three defensive midfielders: Clement Chantôme, Jaroslav Plasil and one of Gregory Sertic or Andre Biyogo Poko.

The arrival of Chantôme, a fine player who rarely saw the pitch at Paris Saint-Germain, has been the catalyst on this settled formation, and with it, a new-found solidity that slots in well alongside Ligue 1’s other defensive juggernauts. Even though Bordeaux remain in sixth place, they still look a solid bet for the Europa League, owing to the likelihood of PSG winning the domestic treble. As Monaco have ably demonstrated in this year’s Champions’ League, defensive solidity when used in concert with an opportunistic attack can be enough for success in Europe, and the squad depth is in place to fight on multiple fronts.  

Next season, with Diabaté set to return, despite Bordeaux being in the same placement as five months ago, things are now looking rosier in France’s southwest, both in general and for the side’s attacking prospects. With Rolan having turned into one of the league’s most dangerous strikers in the Malian’s absence, the prospect of playing the two together in front of a solid midfield makes next season’s attack a more daunting prospect than at present. Add energetic attacking full backs Diego Contento and Mariano to the mix, and Sagnol just may have a dark horse for Champions’ League qualification on his hands in 2015-16.

The prospect of European football gracing the new Stade Bordeaux-Atlantique next season will go a long way energizing a support perhaps a bit disillusioned by the unevenness of the season’s first half. Couple this energy with a healthy attack and solid defence on the pitch, and it would be imprudent to doubt Bordeaux’s potential. Despite a seeming lack of options after Diabaté’s injury, Sagnol has galvanised his side, impressively redefining his team, his tactics and his philosophy. Still a relative novice as a manager, the hope here is that Sagnol and his adaptability can help the club continue to grow, returning Bordeaux to the heights of five or six years ago. 

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