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Claude Puel – OGC Nice’s hero’s Premier League dream comes true

The news that Claude Puel has been appointed to replace Ronald Koeman at Southampton has probably been greeted with a round of Google searching, unless fans of the Saints are keen observers of Ligue 1.

While the former Lille, Monaco and Lyon manager, most recently of Nice, does have a bit of a checkered record in France’s top flight, a bit of unpacking of his time at those three clubs ought to provide some cheer. It is true that Puel has been dismissed twice, from Monaco and from Lyon, albeit under somewhat extenuating circumstances in both cases.

However, he has also won Ligue 1’s Manager of the Year award twice, and arguably should have added a third trophy this campaign.

A dogged defensive midfielder as a player, Puel earned over 500 caps playing for Monaco, becoming a fixture as the club achieved its highest level of success under Arsene Wenger, winning the league and a pair of Coupe de France titles, as well as finishing runner-up in the 1991-92 Cup Winners’ Cup.

Upon his retirement, Puel moved immediately into coaching, taking charge of the reserves at Monaco, where he oversaw the development of such players as David Trezeguet.

After Jean Tigana’s departure, Puel was promoted to first team mananger, and did well to  guide the team to fourth place, just a point behind Lyon.

In his first full campaign, bolstered by the arrivals of young international talents such as Marcelo Gallardo and Rafa Marquez, the team took the league title, with Trezeguet and Italian forward Marco Simone both going over the twenty goal mark.

Despite winning the title that year, things disintegrated rather quickly for Puel, as the sales of the likes of Trezeguet, Willy Sagnol, Sabri Lamouchi and Fabien Barthez proved too much to overcome when coupled with a taxing Champions’ League campaign.

After the club finished 11th, Puel was given his marching orders, resurfacing the following summer at Lille. Even though Puel’s time at Monaco had nose-dived rather quickly, including an embarrassing group stage exit in the Champions’ League, his eye for nascent talent was in full evidence, as he had also sanctioned the acquisitions of Eric Abidal and an eighteen year-old Jaroslav Plasil before his exit.

Plasil is admittedly no world beater, but he has been important for the Czech Republic, while Abidal was one of the world’s best left backs over the past fifteen years.

At Lille, Puel was to oversee the rise of a club that had been to that point in time somewhat of a sleeping giant. His first two season produced mid-table finishes, but after the acquisition of the likes of Abidal and the Brazilian defender Dante, coupled with the promotions of the likes of Mathieu Debuchy, Kevin Mirallas and Yohan Cabaye, the 2004-5 season saw Les Dogues finish second.

The squad, with the exception of the midfielder Philippe Brunel, was largely a young one, comprised largely of players either brought in or promoted by Puel.

The next season, Puel continued his canny shopping by adding Stephan Lichtsteiner, and the club acquitted themselves well in a tough Champions’ League group, coming third and notably recording a 1-0 victory over Manchester United.

However, as is so often the case with success on a shoestring, Puel’smethods caught up with him. Always a tireless worker as a player, his demanding style saw Lille slump badly towards the end of what had been an excellent 2006-7, finishing a disappointing tenth despite having reached the Round of 16 in the Champions’ League. Despite the slump in form, he continued to do well in acquiring young talent, adding Michel Bastos from Brazil.

In 2007-8, the beginning of Puel’s final season in Lille saw the team’s slump continue, recording only one win in their first nine matches. By December, the club were flirting with relegation, the sales of Peter Odemwingie and Abdul Kader Keita leaving the team with a lack of focus in attack.

Things gradually improved in the season’s second half, as Puel handed debuts to academy products Adil Rami, Eden Hazard and Aurelien Chedjou. At the end of the season, Puel was courted by Olympique Lyonnais and Porto, both clubs with strong academies and hopeful that his keen eye for talent could take them to the next level.

Puel chose to stay in France, and his move to the Rhone club was somewhat disastrous. Financially buoyed by consistent participation in the Champions’ League, Lyon started to flex their financial muscle that season, spending heavily on Jean II Makoun, Ederson and Rennes’ John Mensah.

To say that the trio were less than succesful at the club would be an understatement, and despite Hugo Lloris’ supplanting the legendary Gregory Coupet, the season resulted in the end of Lyon’s record-breaking streak of seven titles.

The following season saw another negative net spend, as the money earned for Karim Benzema was turned into Lisandro Lopez, Aly Cissokho, Bafetimbi Gomis, Dejan Lovren and Michel Bastos. Lopez was generally superb for Les Gones, but the other four enjoyed uneven tenures at the club, despite a handsome profit being made on Lovren.

Despite this, the players did make a positive impact in European competition, as Lyon reached the semi-finals of the Champions’ League, followed by a gritty second place in the league. If not quite the dominant force of the early 2000s, Lyon did maintain their status as one of France’s strongest sides.

The summer of 2010, however, was where things started to go wrong, as the acquisition of Yoann Gourcuff for a record sum went horribly wrong, the player spending an injury-hit four years at Lyon, an necessitating a massive sell-off of players.

Despite another run to the last sixteen of the Champions’ League, the club slipped back to third. Lille won the title that year, largely down to the performances of the players that Puel had brought through, leaving no question as to his eye for talent, but some doubts as to his man management.

The two parted ways that summer, with Puel once again spending a year away from the game before resurfacing at Nice in 2012. In his first season in charge, the team performed magnificently in finishing fourth, a young side featuring the likes of Valentin Eysseric and Timothee Kolodziejczak exceeding all expectations, the team having flirted with relegation for much of the previous season.

An unseemly exit in the play-off stages of the Europa League and a 17th  place finish saw Puel’s status once again in doubt, but Nice, perhaps leery of paying a sizeable fee towards his dismissal, persisted, to their credit.

Once again, the manager did quite well to forge a team centered around youth, with Jordan Amavi, Nampalys Mendy, and Alassane Plea becoming key figures. Despite some mid-season stumbles, the club recovered to finish solidly mid-table, despite a mediocre defence.

In the most recent off-season, the surprise arrival of Hatem Ben Arfa saw the former Newcastle man join the likes of left back Ricardo Pereira, midfielder Jean Michael Seri and on-loan Monaco striker Valere Germain. Wanting to get the best out of Ben Arfa’s talent, the club employed an exciting, attack-minded diamond 4-4-2, the pace of Plea as one of the two central strikers key in stretching the defence.

In midfield, Mendy sat deep, while academy product Vincent Koziello and Seri operated centrally, both turning in revelatory seasons. Nice played some of the best football in Ligue 1, even with the odd mis-step at the back, and the development of the midfielders, as well as the young goalkeeper Yoann Cardinale, was the source of much optimism.

Les Aiglons remained in contention for the Champions’ League for much of the season, eventually falling just short. Even with the departure of Ben Arfa, Puel left the club in good stead, adding promising French youth inetenrational Remi Walter from Nancy in the winter window.

This takes us to the present, and Puel has, by this point, established himself as a fairly predictable manager, even if he doesn’t exactly have a foreseeable tactical philosophy. His teams play a high-energy game, but, despite the impressive aesthetics this season at Nice, are generally fairly prosaic.

This is certainly in keeping with recent play at Southampton, as the use of Steven Davis ahead of Victor Wanyama and James Ward-Prowse suggests a rather conservative approach, allowing the likes of Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic to facilitate the attack with little defensive responsibility.

In terms of player movement, Puel demonstrates a clear faith in youth and a remarkable eye for acquiring young/promising talent from abroad. He has, however, when handed larger sums of money, been found somewhat wanting, Gourcuff’s injuries notwithstanding.

The failures of Ederson and Aly Cissokho are cautionary tales, that while not entirely down to Puel are certainly black marks on his record. Given the television money that will be on hand on the South Coast, as well as from the sales of Wanyama and (presumably) Sadio Mane, Puel’s conservatism will need to be in full force when it comes to player acquisition.

That said, there is some suggestion that Puel may not necessarily need to access Ralph Krueger’s checkbook. Nathan Redmond makes a decent enough replacement for Mane, and midfield, with a healthy Jordy Clasie and the ascendant Ward-Prowse, should have enough strength in depth to cover the departure of Wanyama.

The further development of the likes of Matt Targett and Harrison Reed will be keenly observed, and with participation in the Europa League Group Stage secured, Puel’s mandate for his first season in English football will likely be a simple one.

Progression in Europe is important, but given the draw, that may be easier said than done. Before any play-offs or any other insertion of clubs, Zenit St. Petersburg, Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Schalke are all potential opponents as top seeds.

With further progression in the league unlikely, given the investments made by Manchester United thus far this summer, it will be up to Puel to merely maintain the club’s status as a bona fide contender for the Champions’ League, and to perhaps forge a more impressive domestic cup run than those managed by Koeman.

To wit, while Puel is admittedly an unorthodox choice for a club of Southampton’s ambitions, given his failings at Lyon and Monaco, his track record with young players makes him a good fit in other regards. Tasked with operating as a European-style head coach, with his involvement as regards player movement limited to promotion from within, he has massive potential.

Given that Southampton have forged their identity in recent years on youth development, profiting from an impressive academy and selling on its successful graduates, Puel’s eye for talent will come in handy.

If he is given the right staff, in particular someone with good English and experience in the Premier League, he should hit the above-mentioned benchmarks without too much of an issue.

Eric Devin, Chief Features Writer.

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