A round-up of this week’s Coupe de France action.
Gourvennec’s Focus Misplaced?
While not quite an upset, the news that Angers had knocked back previously in-form Bordeaux, 2-1, in Wednesday’s early match was something of a surprise. Girondins manager Jocelyn Gourvennec had gone all in in the Coupe de la Ligue, but been knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain despite playing a strong line-up in that competition. Having avoided both Monaco and the champions in the quarterfinals of the Coupe de France, this competition represented a good chance for another push for silverware, something that could be key to a young team’s confidence as they chase European football.
With Metz at the weekend, Bordeaux could seemingly afford to prioritize the cup over the league, but it wasn’t to be, as Gourvennec rotated his front three and bizarrely brought in Nicolas Pallois at left back, even though Diego Contento was on the bench and youngster Théo Pellenard is also a capable option in that role. Pallois is a canny presence when used in central defence, but his lack of pace was embarrassing as Nicolas Pepé turned on the afterburners on the counter, blowing by Pallois to pick out Kévin Berigaud with a low cross.
As to the attack, Gourvennec’s preferred, youthful trio eventually made their way on to the pitch midway through the second half, but by the time they had found their bearings, Cheikh N’Doye had put Angers back in front, 2-1. They did draw several fine saves from Angers ‘keeper Alexandre Letellier in the match’s dying moments, but that only served to sharpen the point that they, or at least some of them should have been on the pitch from the off. With only the league to concentrate on going forward, there should be no further hand-wringing over Gourvennec’s player selection, but this should be counted as a missed chance at silverware.
Ben Arfa au milieu
Hatem Ben Arfa has made more news for a series of vague rumblings about his situation with Paris Saint-Germain and his future in recent weeks than anything he’s done on the pitch, but against Avranches yesterday, he came up big with a double and two assists. The amateur side’s 3-5-2 was frustrating the visitors until the 35th minute when Ben Arfa, playing at centre forward scored with a free kick. He added a second early in the second half before playing a slide-rule pass for Javier Pastore ten minutes from time. The quality of opposition must be considered before Ben Arfa is measured for a laurel wreath, but this marked the fifth time Ben Arfa has started as a nominal striker, and the opponents in the other four matches (Bastia twice, Rennes and Lyon) were of a considerably higher quality.
In those five starts, four of which have been in the domestic cups, Ben Arfa has recorded four goals and five assists, impressive totals no matter the competition. In the league for PSG, though, Ben Arfa has played 23 times; only four players have played more matches, but almost all of those appearances have been from the bench, and in different positions. Normally used as an attacking midfielder or a winger, Ben Arfa has shown once again his ability to score when played centrally, as he had at Nice last season. Nine-odd months into his capital sojourn, there is something of a “lesson learned” approach to be taken from this match, but if Ben Arfa stays at the capital club, with both he and Cavani having turned thirty this year, necessitating a closer eye on rotation, could he find new life as a back-up striker?
El Ghazi States His Case
Monaco’s dull win over Lille, with both sides offering heavily rotated starting elevens, was nothing to write home about. Valere Germain was the star of the show, opening the scoring with a sublime goal (can we link to that? I made a .gif, feel free to re-use it) but there might be something to be said for his opposite number as well. Anwar El Ghazi arrived in January as part of a raft of signings for Les Dogues; this was a group of players which were young, but not lacking in experience, and they have begun to make an impact on the team. Or, at least some of them have. While Junior Alonso has done well to deputize for the injured Marko Basa at centre back, and Xeka looks an accomplished, if sometimes overly aggressive central midfielder, the more ballyhooed attacking players, El Ghazi, his countryman Ricardo Kishna and Fares Bahlouli have flattered to deceive.
El Ghazi, with eleven caps for Holland at the age of 21, was the biggest attraction, though, and after a middling start to his time in northern France, there were, at last, encouraging signs for the youngster against the leaders. He had scored a key goal with his side down to ten men to defeat Caen in a match that had crucial implications in the relegation battle, but had offered little return otherwise. Some of this was down to tactics, as Lille’s 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 doesn’t fit well with El Ghazi’s talents, preferring a 4-3-3 instead, but some of it was also the improved form of Rony Lopes, on loan from Monaco.
Lopes’ injury had afforded El Ghazi a chance which he failed to take in the league, but due to the terms of the Portuguese youngster’s loan agreement, he was ineligible for this match. El Ghazi got the start against Monaco, then, but was played not on the right, but as part of a de facto front line alongside Bahlouli, with Kishna and Yves Bissouma in support. Tall and wiry, with decent upper body strength, El Ghazi’s movement and control was superb throughout, and should have perhaps felt unlucky not to record a brace, with Morgan De Sanctis rolling back the years in goal for Monaco with a pair of fine saves to deny the youngster.
El Ghazi’s fee (€7m) has come with heightened expectations, but perhaps those could be met more readily if he were to be given more of an opportunity centrally. Lopes is a more natural winger and deserves his place on the right, while Nicolas de Preville is ideal on the left, but neither Yassine Benzia nor Eder have been all that impressive centrally. If Franck Passi wants to persist with this system, he could do worse than giving El Ghazi an extended run as a centre forward, either replacing Eder or playing just off the big Portuguese. Seven matches remain for Lille, who are all but guaranteed safety, and those should be used as a tactical sandbox, to provide more opportunity to the January arrivals in the hopes that they deliver more performances in line with what El Ghazi showed on Tuesday.
Mendy’s Versatility Powers Guingamp
Guingamp’s signing of Alexandre Mendy from Nice was generally greeted with indifference around Ligue 1, and for the most part, the 23 year-old has done little to dispel that perception. It was a surprise, even, to see that he had played in more than half of Guingamp’s matches. He has scored just twice in those, with the caveat that a recent goal against Bastia came with the Corsicans down to ten men and well off the pace. However, many of those appearances have come in place of Jimmy Briand with Antoine Kombouaré wanting to preserve the veteran striker’s aging legs. In that role, Guingamp play a 4-3-3, with Briand sometimes dropping deep to allow the likes of Nicolas Benezet, Marcus Coco and Yannis Salibur to cut inside. However, against Fréjus, Guingamp played with two centre forwards, as they had at the weekend, offering a changed approach that deserves further examination.
Mendy isn’t as slow-footed as Guingamp’s other striker, Sloan Privat, but neither is he a pace merchant, and his lack of ability to link play makes him ill-suited to displace the veteran Briand. Rather than displacing Briand, though, might there be something to playing the powerful youngster alongside the former Rennes man? Privat prospered in that role at the weekend, but Mendy’ s connection with Briand, albeit against a lower-division side was impressive indeed. While Privat offers more of an aerial threat, Mendy uses his powerful frame to hold up play without sacrificing his mobility. If Guingamp persist with playing two strikers up top, that looks to surely get the best out of Mendy, who now, rather than laboring as a lone striker, can do more to involve his teammate in close proximity. Much like Lille, Guingamp’s safety is assured, and Kombouaré should do well to experiment with an eye towards next season, as a failed charge for European football shouldn’t be too difficult to recapture.