Long-time observers of French football are always quick to read L’Equipe; the venerable sports daily is in a place of privilege in terms of information, despite its sometimes dramatic headlines. While the paper may display some subjectivity in its player ratings, there is often a welcome frankness in that subjectivity; a player’s performance is taken not only in the isolation of the match but considered holistically against his talents and his campaign to date. These ratings are assigned on a scale of one to ten; most players receive a four, five or six. A player receiving a seven has had a superb match, while eights and above are rare indeed, with only two or three being handed out most weekends. On the opposite end of the spectrum, three is generally the lowest in normal parameters, while a two or a one is indicative of a superlatively poor performance.
In the matches played this weekend in France, there were four “twos” and one “one” awarded, the latter to SC Bastia captain Yannick Cahuzac, who was sent off for the third time this season. In a tight affair and three points from safety, it is quite easy to see how the Corsicans’ skipper’s dismissal was deserving of a low mark. Two of the twos were handed to members of Metz’s defence, Guido Milan and Jonathan Rivierez, similarly deserving in a 5-0 loss to Monaco. One more was awarded to another defender on the wrong side of a heavy defeat, Lorient’s right back, Steven Moreira, and one was for Bordeaux’s Jérémy Ménez.
The former Roma and Paris Saint-Germain man was an intriguing signing in the summer, given his international and Champions’ League experience. The hope was that, much as Mathieu Debuchy had last season, he could see the promise in Bordeaux’s project, devoting himself to the cause and earning plaudits for re-committing himself to a career that gone off the rails since leaving the capital. Despite generally poor home attendances in an area more concerned with rugby than football, Les Girondins, while not in the stratosphere of Paris Saint-Germain, are a side of some means and definite European ambitions.
The inclusion of Ménez as a veteran presence alongside a cadre of young attackers could have provided the likes of Adam Ounas, Malcom, François Kamano and Gaëtan Laborde a role model which they had lacked in previous years.
To say that it has not worked out for Ménez is an understatement; he started the season playing in a diamond 4-4-2 either as a striker alongside Diego Rolán or as an attacking midfielder, his performances thoroughly underwhelming in either position. After a straight red card on 38 minutes against Montpellier in December, he was rarely included in the starting eleven.
The official line from the club was a hamstring injury, but the underlying assumption was that he lacked the discipline and work ethic to be an example for his young teammates, either on or off the pitch. Manager Jocelyn Gourvennec is not one to suffer fools, as his recent exclusion of Diego Contento shows, and Ménez was no exception, the newly installed manager plowing on without his summer signing.
In Ménez’s absence, Gourvennec reconfigured not only his starting lineup, but also his tactics, moving away from the ungainly diamond to a more modern 4-3-3. This not only saw the team’s assortment of young wingers used in more natural positions, but also added solidity in midfield, where the aging legs of Jérémy Toulalan and Jaroslav Plasil had been seriously taxed. In 2017, over the first five matches in the league, Bordeaux had the division’s best defence, and third-best attack. Granted, they had not exactly faced a murderer’s row of opponents, but Friday night’s loss was their first in the league in 2017.
Laborde had been given place of pride in this formation, and Bordeaux immediately picked up form, getting the best from the academy product’s combination of physicality and mobility. These attributes make him the ideal fulcrum for the system; while his goal record is less than impressive (eight in all competitions), his ability to involve his teammates adds weight to the argument for his continued inclusion. With the likes of Kamano and Malcom cutting inside and width being provided by the attack-minded full-backs, Bordeaux were looking like a good bet to push into the European places ahead of the indifferent Marseille and the reeling Guingamp.
A 4-0 win at Caen, a team that, despite their position in the table, are a fairly strong unit at home (Nice’s first loss of the season was at the Stade Michel D’Ornano on Matchday 12) seemed to be the culmination of the team’s improvement, and a wobbly Paris Saint-Germain were looking nervously to their trip to the southwest.
The mid-week match against Barcelona would obviously take priority, but under-pressure Unai Emery could scarcely afford to drop points ahead of Monaco hosting hapless Metz. He responded with a fairly strong squad and got the needed victory, punctuated by an impressive Edinson Cavani double, but could Bordeaux have given the champions more of a run for their money?
Ménez had not featured on Tuesday’s victory over Caen, having ceded his place to Kamano, who notched a brace in a man-of-the-match display. He came in Friday evening on the left wing, displacing the in-form ex-Bastia youngster, playing a thoroughly diffident match before being removed with the result already assured for the visitors. Much as he had earlier in the campaign, Ménez’s performance Friday was similarly ineffective, despite playing in a more natural position.
Throughout the match, he displayed a lack of vision and creativity going forward, whilst also being derelict in his defensive duties ahead of makeshift left back Youssouf Sabaly. Thirty in May, it is painfully clear that Ménez is undeserving of a spot on this team, having chipped in with just three goals and a solitary assist to date. Kamano, by comparison, has five goals in roughly half the time on the pitch, without having played a significant number of minutes as a striker.
Save Ménez and Toulalan, Bordeaux’s purchases in the recent past have skewed very young (Kamano, Rolán, Mauro Arambarri, Milan Gajic, Isaac Kiese Thelin) and if a veteran player, no matter his pedigree and reputation is failing to get it done, he should be nowhere near the first eleven. Along with the aforementioned quintet, there are also the academy products Ounas and Valentin Vada who are more deserving of a chance, despite Ounas’ recent petulance. The makings of a bright, young team are here, but Gourvennec’s almost painful loyalty to Ménez, as well as Rolán and Diego Contento to some extent, has handicapped his team’s chances of success.
The manager’s impressive achievements at Guingamp were built around a veteran team, but for this group to succeed, he needs to place his faith in these youngsters. It is no longer a matter of not trusting potential; the likes of Kamano, Laborde and Malcom are already out-performing Ménez and Rolán, and Gourvennec should hasten to continue to play them regularly. There could be some argument for simple squad rotation for Friday’s match, with the team having played mid-week three weeks running. However, one would think that the confidence potentially gained by a win over the defending champions would mean that the rotation should have set up the squad to be at their best for Friday, not a mid-week trip to Normandy.
Only four points off fourth-place Lyon, in a season where no one outside the top three has shown any modicum of consistency, Europe is a more than realistic aim for Bordeaux, especially considering how their run-in appears to be setting up. Looking ahead at the team’s remaining fixtures, Guingamp, Monaco and Lyon still loom before March’s international break, but overall, the run-in is more than kind. Of the nine matches left to play after the break, only Nice have accumulated more points than Les Girondins to date. There is admittedly something to be said for the danger that relegation-threatened teams possess in a season’s waning weeks, but Bordeaux nevertheless have one of Ligue 1’s more comfortable spring schedules.
Dropping Ménez entirely may seem a risk to the squad’s depth, but another promising youngster, Thomas Touré is yet to return from a hamstring injury. An effervescent if slightly inconsistent presence, the Ivorian winger has been earmarked by Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane for success and, like his teammates, has impressed in flashes and is deserving of a longer look upon his return.
Touré is but one example; youth has been the prerogative of Bordeaux both in their transfer dealings and reliance on their academy in the recent past. That approach is now bearing fruit, and with relegation not a worry, Gourvennec must place his faith in the array of young talent at his disposal. The confidence potentially gained by qualifying for Europe could be a catalyst for these young players going forward. Monaco and Nice’s squads are sure to be picked apart by Europe’s elite to some degree this summer, and Bordeaux’s youngsters could lead the way to a challenge for the Champions’ League next season, if only they could get their chances in the current campaign.
1 | After averaging three goals a game this season, reaching the 70 mark in Ligue 1 during the week and seeing Falcao return to form, Monaco are certainly not desperately in need of another source of goals. But much to the rest of the league’s frustration, they have one. 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé was five years old when his current employers were losing to Porto the 2004 Champions’ League final but now, at still just 18, his age is proving no barrier for his talent. Upon breaking into Leonardo Jardim’s first team squad last campaign, five goals in helping France win the Euro U19s this summer pushed him to the forefront of the French footballing consciousness and, judging by his assured hat-trick in the 5-0 demolishing of Metz this weekend, he will be there for some time yet.
Another brace from Falcao was outshone by the cool, precise, stylish finishing of Mbappé, whose pace and directness give Monaco yet another dangerous variant in attack as they chase glory on all fronts this term. Comparisons with a French great (in this case, Thierry Henry) may, for once, prove to be more than simply hyperbolic.
2 | Atop of the Ligue 1 table at Christmas, an astonishing achievement in itself, Nice are now five points adrift of leaders Monaco. Goals from substitute Anastasios Donis and Valentin Eysseric aided Lucien Favre in scraping a point from the trip to Rennes having been two down inside the opening twenty minutes. Just two wins from their last seven league fixtures seems to have made third position and the accompanying Champions’ League spot as their most realistic target.
3 | January saw a multitude of Ligue 1 clubs linked to Andy Delort. The former Caen striker’s excursion to Mexico, joining fellow Frenchman André-Pierre Gignac at Tigres, proved to be a fruitless adventure and Toulouse manager Pascal Dupraz won the race to welcome him home. The resulting €6m signing could have saved Les Violets season. Having beaten PSG and Monaco at the start of the year, the bright lights of the Champions’ League have faded as Dupraz’s side lost the intensity that made them so compelling over the winter.
Talismanic forward Martin Braithwaite stopped scoring, the previously monolithic centre back pairing of Issa Diop and Christopher Julien started to look sluggish and injuries to Alexis Blin and Oscar Trejo slowed their midfield. But Delort has breathed new life into the side and changed all that. Opening the scoring in all three of his appearances to date, TFC are undefeated since his arrival, netting nine times in the process. The 4-1 routing of Bastia on Saturday being their latest Delort-inspired conquest, with Braithwaite back scoring again too. With the Ligue 1 table as tight as it is, a Europa League spot is no longer beyond their reach.
4 | When Lille won the title in 2011 under Rudi Garcia, Yohan Cabaye and Eden Hazard famously featuring, the state of the bottom of the table, slipping under the radar somewhat, was the real talking point. Monaco were relegated that year with a tally of 44 points, finishing, incredibly, just seven points behind Bordeaux eleven rungs up the ladder in 7th. As struggling teams picked up points both this weekend and over the mid-week fixtures, the bottom half is bunching up once more, with Lille now central to the drama at the opposite end of Ligue 1.
Caen’s pair of losses this week sucked them into a relegation play off place, having started the week in 15th, while Lille themselves dropped from 12th to 17th after 2-1 losses to PSG and Angers. That win for Stéphane Moulin’s Angers helped in moving them into 14th having started the week in the bottom three, with Dijon moving the same number of places up to 13th, beating Caen. With the standard of sides in the bottom half being overtly even and no one seemingly capable of maintaining form, the bottom half of the table could again provide just as much drama as the top come May.
5 | With René Girard sacked and relegation edging unerringly closer, Sérgio Conceição appears to have rescued Nantes. They won six of their first seven games under his purview and, more importantly, the fire and fight that was almost embarrassingly absent under Girard returned. However, after the initial bounce, three losses in the following four seemed to have Les Canaries reverting to type: insipid, slow and devoid of creativity. As a result, the 3-2 win over Marseille on Sunday night was made all the more impressive, as Conceição proved that his methods are continuing to affect the side in a positive way and that he is learning to trust one increasingly promising young French starlet.
Upon breaking into the first team at Nantes, a crippling knee injury put central midfielder Valentin Rongier out for close to an entire season and set the recovery period in real terms at longer still. Nevertheless, since easing himself back in this autumn, the 22-year-old has started the last six under Conceição; his waspish firefighting in defence and nous on the ball proved crucial last night in the surprise win. Conversely, Dimitri Payet remained on the fringes of the encounter for Marseille after scoring in the week in the win over Guingamp. Marseille still have some way to go before returning to the upper echelons of the French top flight.
Results: Bordeaux 0-3 PSG, Guingamp 2-1 Lyon, Dijon 2-0 Caen, Lille 1-2 Angers, Monaco 5-0 Metz, Nancy 0-3 Montpellier, Toulouse 4-1 SC Bastia, Rennes 2-2 Nice, St Étienne 4-0 Lorient, Nantes 3-2 Marseille.
Goal of the Week: Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain.
Team of the Week: Baptiste Reynet, Dijon FCO; Almamy Touré, AS Monaco, Loic Perrin, AS Saint-Étienne, Marquinhos, Paris Saint-Germain, Florentin Pogba, AS Saint-Étienne; Ryad Boudebouz, Montpellier HSC, Fabinho, AS Monaco, Valentin Rongier, FC Nantes, Angel Di Maria, Paris Saint-Germain; Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain, Kylian Mbappé-Lottin, AS Monaco.