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Why Bordeaux have made a false start to the season

Eric Devin examines Bordeaux’s underwhelming start to the Ligue 1 2015/16 campaign, but explains that there is still plenty of time to turn their season around.

When Willy Sagnol was brought in to manage Bordeaux at the beginning of last season, to say that his team struggled with uneven performances would be an understatement, as several times the club ended up on the wrong end of lopsided scores. The nadir perhaps came with a 5-1 defeat to Lyon in the final match before the winter break, as Bordeaux ended the season’s first half with a defensive record, 27 goals conceded, that ranked a lowly fifteenth. 

With the club sitting in sixth place and well-primed for European football to welcome the then soon-to-be-completed Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, though, most were more immediately concerned with the club’s results, and not the manner in which they were achieved.

With the arrival of the January window, former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Clement Chantome was brought in on a permanent deal, and with his arrival, Sagnol switched the team’s formation to a 4-3-1-2, a formation which wrung the best from several players. 

Chantome was the most obvious of these, as he lined up alongside two of Andre Biyogo-Poko, Jaroslav Plasil and Gregory Sertic, but the freedom afforded the likes of Wahbi Khazri and Diego Rolan also saw the two have fine seasons.

With the midfield three generally playing tight and allowing Diego Contento and Mariano the space to bomb forward from fullback, Bordeaux’s defence was improved and were it not for a mightily impressive top five in Ligue 1, the club could have pushed even higher up the table. 

With the impending return of Cheick Diabate, and a raft of promising youngsters (Thomas Toure, Enzo Crivelli, Maxime Poundje, Frederic Guilbert), things looked bright for Bordeaux at the dawn of the season. Yes, Lamine Sane was still dealing with a knee injury, but all told, things looked bright for the club, especially considering the state of flux in which some of their rivals for the European places found their squads. With a  full off-season to improve and hone the team tactically, Bordeaux were even seen by some to be a dark horse for the Champions’ League. 

Cue disaster, then, as first Sertic and then Diabate suffered serious injuries, and Sane’s return has been slower than anticipated. With Sertic’s injury, Sagnol needed to do some tactical re-shuffling, as the added matches of the Europa League required a system where there were essentially two players for every position.

Even with the likes of Cedric Yambere able to step forward into midfield when called upon, to attempt to continue to play a 4-3-1-2 would mean a suicidal amount of matches for the central midfielders. 

Sagnol has instead settled on a more typical 4-2-3-1 for most matches. To make this formation work, Henri Saivet was drafted into central midfield, and given the captain’s armband in the process. The moved seemed odd from the manager on both counts, as Saivet, despite having given some impressive displays in previous seasons, was, owing to a combination of injury and form, generally an afterthought in Sagnol’s first season.

Making the player captain and asking him to play a new position, having previously been used in a variety of attacking roles, marked a sudden turnabout in the Senegalese’s fortunes, and he has responded quite well. 

As defensively sound as Bordeaux’s midfield had been last year, with the usual trio of Chantome, Sertic and Plasil deployed, there was a tendency to simply absorb pressure, the three forming a shield for the centre backs and allowing the full-backs to facilitate the attack. Now, with Saivet taking up a position alongside Chantome, there is considerably more dynamism, as the erstwhile winger has shown a nascent ability to be a solid tackler, combining his pace with a good sense of anticipation.  

Despite this, however, Bordeaux’s defence has continued to struggle, having at this point the poorest goals conceded numbers in the league, level with lowly Troyes on 16 after nine matches. With neither Pablo nor Nicolas Pallois the fleetest of foot and only Chantome to protect them when Saivet launches a counter-attack and is caught in possession, the team is thus too often caught on the counter, leaving themselves exposed as the wide midfielders/wingers (Nicolas Maurice-Belay and Biyogo Poko, most often) are derelict in tracking back.  

However, even in the face of this, it is hard to see how Sagnol could rejigger this team to make the system fit the personnel on hand, given the injury crisis. A 4-3-3 could leave the impressive Khazri with no natural position, likewise a flat 4-4-2, whereas a diamond 4-4-2 requires more defensive effort than could reasonably be expected from the players who would presumptively man the edges of midfield.  

Given the uncertain timetable on Sertic’s return, as well as Sane’s troubles, a season that once seemed so promising is threatening to be overwhelmed by these injuries, a disappointing reality given the unevenness of much of the league’s other European hopefuls.

That said, Bordeaux still stand a good chance of improving on their present standing, as Montpellier, Troyes and Gazelec, the current occupants of the relegation places are their next three opponents. With some time off to recover during the current international break, these next three matches will be a real test of Sagnol’s abilities, as the club’s current standing of 14th is unbecoming of its level of talent.  

If the former Bayern player can pick up seven or nine points from those three encounters, we can count Bordeaux as being on the up, but if not, perhaps it really is time to start taking the likes of Caen, Reims and Angers seriously as European contenders.  

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