You are reading the Get French Football News Talking Points Column, written by Eric Devin.
While the odds of Saint-Etienne capturing third place were slim at the start of Matchday 38, as the team would have to not only win, but also see Monaco and Marseille lose, Les Verts can nevertheless feel proud of their season, and be eager for the future, if Saturday’s effort is anything to go by.
While it is always foolish to pay much attention to summer rumours, something I know all too well as a Lyon fan who predicted an early exit for Bafetimbi Gomis two seasons ago, there will inevitably be some change in the summer at the Stade Guichard. Franck Tabanou to Swansea City and Mevlut Erding to Trabzonspor are just two of the rumoured departures, and neither figured in the 2-1 win over Guingamp, but manager Christophe Galtier showed how the loss of both may not be an issue, despite the decent seasons each have had.
While Tabanou’s attacking prowess as a left full back is impressive, considering his history as a midfielder, he often left a little to be desired on the defensive side of things. His deputy, Jonathan Brison, is 32 and is neither exceptional going forward nor particularly stalwart in defense. Meanwhile, Erding scored just five times from September to the present, another season in which he has failed to live up to the potential exhibited in scoring 15 for Paris Saint-Germain in the 2009-10 season. Despite each player having contributed something to Les Verts’ efforts over the length of the season, neither is irreplaceable, and the approach against Guingamp showed what might be the way forward.
While operating with something other than four at the back has been both successful (the 3-0 over Lyon) and not (the 5-0 loss to PSG) this season for Sainte, this particular iteration looks especially promising thanks to the freer role it affords this season’s revelation, Max-Alain Gradel.
Playing in what roughly amounts to a 3-4-3, with Brison and Kevin Theophile-Catherine (now a permanent signing) in wide roles in midfield, and Gradel as the center forward, Galtier may have finally got it right tactically. Saint-Etienne’s obvious strength is its number of quality centre backs; Loic Perrin, Florentin Pogba and Moustapha Sall have all had fine seasons, and Paul Baysse and Theophile-Catherine are able deputies. With youngster Benjamin Karamoko likewise having impressed in a pair of cameos, and deserving of more game time next season, the depth at the position necessitates being able to play three across the back, but with this formation, the club’s other position of strength is also retained.
Since the arrival of Landry N’Guemo in the winter, defensive midfield has also been a position where there is an abundance of options for Les Verts. With the former Bordeaux man joining the likes of Jeremy Clement, Ismael Diomande and Fabien Lemoine, there are essentially four players for two places in this set-up, which will allow for rotation in Europe, not over-taxing the squad and simultaneously giving the team a chance to do something other than sit back defensively (hinging on an extension for N’Guemo).
Further forward, Gradel is employed as a lone striker, given free reign to use his pace and guile to slip in behind defences. No longer tasked with having to also track opponents’ marauding full-backs, Gradel as a lone centre forward should in this role continue the type of goal-scoring form, driven by his acceleration and anticipation, which has been the engine of Sainte’s European push over the past few months. With promising youngster Allan Saint-Maximin a similar type of player, continuity will also be easy to maintain should Gradel not be available, a marked difference between the difficulty “shifting gears” that ASSE sometimes experienced this season in moving among Erding and Ricky van Wolfswinkel up top.
Lastly, with some two of Yohan Mollo, Kevin Monnet-Paquet and Romain Hamouma on the wings, there is also a group of players whose versatility can become a strength in attack. Despite Hamouma recording eight assists, the trio all had largely indifferent seasons, but both Monnet-Paquet and Mollo notched assists for Gradel on Saturday, illustrating their potential when used properly.
Each player, while nominally a winger, offers something slightly different, Hamouma more apt to play the ball off the ground, Monnet-Paquet more direct and Mollo a sort of a middle ground. Given that all three can play on either wing, Galtier is then given a choice to create favorable match-ups, depending on the system and personnel that ASSE face in each match. With Lens left back Ludovic Baal a rumoured arrival in the summer, as well as a bid being tabled for Sion’s Moussa Konate, the club may yet improve, particularly at Tabanou’s preferred position. So long as these players and others make sense within this framework, it would be no surprise to see Saint-Etienne challenging for the podium again, Galtier having finally figured out the right combination.