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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 28

“You’re dirty kids! You’re dirty kids!” was the cry of a joyous Pascal Dupraz as his Toulouse side returned triumphantly to their dressing room. His charges had just beaten perennial champions PSG at the Stade Municipal, having been relegation fodder just six months earlier. The win, and the 3-1 defeat of Monaco a fortnight later, marked the peak of an astounding rise for the unfashionable southern outfit as their violently charismatic coach continued to remould the club in his own image. After a considerable trough this winter to follow the peaks, the signing of striker Andy Delort has propelled Toulouse back to their compelling best.

A shaped finish from Rennes’ Ousmane Dembélé, an arrowed shot from colleague Kamil Grosicki and it was done. Their lead had been wrestled away at the death and after their final fixture of February 2016, Toulouse found themselves 10 points from the safety mark with just 10 games to play. They were all but down. A meandering, limp campaign led by the aloof Dominique Arribagé had finally flickered and died. With Arribagé sacked just minutes later, the Frenchman unable to repeat his heroics in saving the club from the drop a year earlier, Les Violets were coachless, rudderless and hopeless. Club president Oliver Sadran stated in the aftermath that “there was no plan B”.

But by Wednesday lunchtime, although it was far from clear at the time, a solution had been found in the shape of the erratic, prickly and equally unfashionable Pascal Dupraz, who was unveiled as head coach. “We must fight against fatalism. We must find, or at least increase the collective qualities of the team, pour in enthusiasm and love” was the balding 53-year old’s message to the club and his players. Dupraz previous’ experience of relegation scuffles was mixed, keeping Evian (his only other notable appointment) in Ligue 1 at the climax of the 2013/14 season before taking them down two years later, his tenure proving unpredictable and, at its end, exasperating.

Dupraz’s reign at Toulouse got off to a concerning start. Within days he was hospitalised. Chest pain that had been evident during his time with Evian, cutting a training session short and forcing Dupraz to watch his first game as manager from bed rather than prowling around his technical area as is now the norm. Nevertheless, the effect of his arrival was immediately evident, the hard fought 1-1 draw with Marseille preceded the 4-0 dismantling of Garonne derby rivals Bordeaux as Dupraz finally made his touchline debut, ending Willy Sagnol’s spell at Les Girondins in the process.

The glorious run continued, 15 points from Dupraz’s first nine games miraculously had them on the brink of survival. Where before they had appeared wayward and disinterested, Toulouse were now bombastic and intense. Prize asset Wissam Ben Yedder, now of Sevilla, having flitted in and out all season was cajoled into landmark performances, scoring eight in the ten games he played for Dupraz.

While Danish international forward Martin Braithwaite, handed the captaincy in virtually Dupraz’s first act as coach, marauded down the left flank in support and netted on four occasions himself. However, it was the faith placed by Dupraz in a burgeoning generation of youth products, his ‘dirty kids’ as their coach playfully referred to them, that proved crucial.

Desperate for points as far back as November 2015 with just a sole win all season, Dominique Arribagé threw in sixteen-year-old keeper Alban Lafont and rangy teenage centre back Issa Diop to his starting eleven for the first time. The debutants joined technical midfielder Yann Bodiger, 20 years of age, and holding player Alexis Blin, 18, in helping Toulouse beat Nice and spark a mini-rival that arguably did just as much to keep Les Violets in Ligue 1 as Dupraz did.

With his faith placed in all four men, Dupraz has moulded them into premier talents now essential to the way in which the team plays. Consistency, a commanding presence and lightning reflexes have seen Lafont emerge as one of the league’s best keepers; Diop’s pace, power and intelligence will likely see suitors forming a less than orderly cue come the summer, while Dupraz was quick to highlight the persistent heel issue of Blin during the side’s winter slump as a key cause.

However, decisively holding this disparate group, and the club as a whole, together was Dupraz himself. His boundless passion, intensity and ferociously bold outlook was swiftly embodied by his players on the pitch, morphing them into a compelling, aggressive and effective unit. As the side’s results improved and displays along with them, Dupraz rapidly endeared himself to the “TFC” (Toulouse Football Club) faithful.

Toulouse is not what you might call a ‘footballing hotbed’. Predominantly a rugby town, attendances had dipped below 9,000 as Arribage’s tenure petered out but, after criticising the vivacity of the support and accusing the fans of ‘wearing mittens’, Dupraz ensured that the pivotal final home game with Troyes was a sell-out, and the Stade Municipal a cauldron. A Tinder themed display before a home game in August featuring Dupraz and the phrase ‘It’s a match!’ served to illustrate his popularity and ascension to cult hero status.

Dupraz’s management style is an unusual, perhaps old fashioned one. He routinely harangues his players, often delivering instructions in an alarmingly aggressive manner. Crucially, however, this is clearly not to his players’ detriment but positive in sentiment and supportive in theme. He is rarely interested in plugging gaps with too many new signings, preferring to fashion a more effective, cohesive unit from what he has. Anyone that could destabilise the group this is cast aside.

His treatment of Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro being a case in point; stripped of the captaincy and swiftly dropped, while the promising Zinédine Machach was sent to the reserves after a disagreement during his first week in charge. Dupraz, however, insists: “A coach has to love his players.” Having beaten Troyes, Toulouse knew that a win on the final day at Angers would keep them up but Dupraz had saved his best trick for last.

On the eve of the encounter with Angers, the Toulouse players sat in a small, poorly lit room. The staff gathered around the walls and their manager stood before them. With the fire in Dupraz’s eyes verging on the maniacal, he unleashed a tirade of affection upon his players: “You deserve to stay up. For two and a half months I have been saying that you will stay up. The problem is not whether or not I will look like an idiot it is to see whether you have the mental, physical and technical capacity to do it. It is now that you have to do it. Not tomorrow, not yesterday. It is now! I have realised that I am not the only one who loves you. The staff, they love you. The fans have chastised you but they have shown you that they love you. What we will see here is undeniable. What we will see are people who love you.”

This was followed by emotional messages of support from the players’ loved ones projected onto the wall behind the coach. As the lights came up and the players dried their eyes, Dupraz ended with a simple “bon match.” It is difficult not to be moved by the full 117 seconds of unbridled passion, whether you speak French or not. The Toulouse squad were inspired. With rivals Reims ahead against Lyon, a win was essential and, having been 2-1 down, an 83rd minute free kick from Yann Bodiger, one of Dupraz’s ‘dirty kids’, won the game and kept Toulouse in Ligue 1.

Nevertheless, the revolution would soon falter. This season started as the previous one had ended, devastating home form proved too much for Monaco and PSG and had Toulouse as high as third during the autumn but the turning point came during the visit of Lyon in October. A clumsy afternoon from Lyon full-back Rafael saw him dismissed with the visitors 2-1 up but with over half an hour still to play. But instead of roaring their side home, as had become their custom, an air of quiet expectancy descended upon the Stade Municipal, as if a result against one of the league’s best was now a formality.

The fight had vanished. Toulouse were unable to make any meaningful inroads into the Lyon defence and the contest finished, anticlimactically, 2-1. Although injuries to Blin, Diop and Trejo were destructive, the intensity, courage and tireless enthusiasm that Dupraz demanded from his players dissipated in the following weeks and TFC proceeded to lose nine of their next 13 games, now appearing brittle and timid.

With once bright European hopes fading and the side dissolving into mid-table obscurity, it was time for Dupraz, outwardly admitting his side looked ‘sacred’, to break with tradition. The somewhat organic additions of Ola Toivonen and the towering Christopher Jullien aside, the acquisition of Swedish international winger Jimmy Durmaz was the club’s only real attempt to add some flair and guile during the summer to an otherwise bullish and workmanlike squad. A transfer that has met with varying results. But it had become clear Toulouse were in need of a sizeable shot in the arm to wake them from their deepening slumber.

Andy Delort’s dozen goals for Caen last term, subsequent failure in Mexico with Tigres and desire to return home in January saw him linked with the majority of the league’s 20 clubs, all in need of a proven Ligue 1 goal-scorer. But it was Toulouse and Dupraz that would secure his services in what was, for Les Violets, a hefty €6m fee. A marquee signing.

Although seemingly an obvious move for the club (and many others) Delort suits Toulouse and, more specifically, Dupraz perfectly. “I already loved him very much before. We have the same vision of football “ said Delort. Toulouse are unbeaten since Delort’s arrival, one which is in no small part down to the ex-Tigres teammate of former TFC striker André Pierre-Gignac, the 25-year-old opening the scoring in each of his first three starts, two of which were four goal wins.

Pivotally, however, Delort is a readymade Dupraz player. His rumbustious, smashmouth intensity embodies the spirit of his new manager on the pitch more than any before him. With the new signing installed, Toulouse are returning to their best. Braithwaite is back among the goals, visiting teams are being overwhelmed and defensive mistakes have dried up. The fearless Toulouse that is so quintessentially Dupraz has returned, Delort is leading the charge.

Despite a disappointing 1-1 draw this Sunday with a Lille side very much in a state of flux, Toulouse are now back in the hunt for a European place. The six-point deficit to Marseille in 6th is a sizeable but not insurmountable with 10 games to play, matches which include the visits of rivals OM and Rennes to South East France.

Delort is rapidly becoming ingrained in the Dupraz philosophy and leading his new side by example, fellow January signing Corentin Jean has added balance on the right, Braithwaite is returning to prominence and Trejo and Blin are finding form following respective injury lay-offs. Dupraz and his rebranded ‘dirty kids’ are far from being done with the race for Europe just yet.

 

1 | Nice were their methodical selves in a 1-0 win against Dijon on Saturday, winning for the fourth time in five matches since losing at Monaco, three of those by the same score. Mario Balotelli returned to the starting line-up and delivered a battling performance, even if he failed to find the back of the net. While the Italian still has much work to do to return to the level he was playing at earlier in the season, his movement was impressive, and Nice have continued to get goals from a variety of sources. At the Stade Gaston Gérard on Saturday, Wylan Cyprien was once again making a vital contribution in that regard.

His well-taken finish midway through the second half was his third goal in five matches. No other midfield player has more in the league this season, and the way the youngster’s role has shifted in the attacking third in the absences of Alassane Pléa and Ricardo Pereira is impressive; his willingness to shoulder more of the attacking load has kept Nice not only on track for Champions’ League football next season, but in the title race after many had left them for dead following a poor January.

2 | Rafael’s move to Olympique Lyonnais was considered an acknowledgement of the Brazlian’s slow slide, which had been apparent since at least 2013. Often heavily reliant on his recovery pace for covering his defensive mistakes, as he aged, his ability to cover ground declined sharply, and he was unable to keep pace in the Premier League.

This trend continued last season as well, with both Bruno Génésio and Hubert Fournier often preferring the more experienced and defensively sound Christophe Jallet in the biggest matches, even if it came at the expense of Rafael’s attacking prowess. Jallet has struggled with injury for most of the current season, though, leaving Génésio little in the way of alternatives. Given the scintillating recent form of Bordeaux’s pacey left winger, François Kamano, it seemed as if Lyon could be in some difficulty at the Stade Matmut Atlantique on Friday, but Rafael surprised with his best performance of the season, Lyon unlucky to concede as the officials seemed to miss an offside call. Roma beckon in the Europa League on Thursday, and will hardly be an easy proposition, but with Rafael on this kind of form, Lyon’s chances look improved.

3 | Angers’ surprising move to a 3-5-2 paid immediate dividends against the division’s most regular practitioners of the system, Caen. The team’s young wide players have been at the forefront of Angers’ style this season, but there was also acknowledgement that being played on the right was failing to get the best out of Karl Toko Ekambi, signed from Sochaux in the summer. The Cameroonian played last week at centre forward in Angers’ habitual 4-3-3, scoring a brace in a 3-0 win over Bastia. With Famara Diedhiou returning from suspension, manager Stéphane Moulin needed a way to keep the in-form Cameroonian on the pitch but also find a place for his leading scorer.

Using three at the back and no natural defensive midfielder, Angers turned in arguably their best attacking performance of the season. Conceding two goals against a mediocre Caen is far from ideal, but the result, their fifth straight win all competitions, took Angers into the top half of the table for the first time since November. With safety now all but achieved, the hope here is that the team continue to play with this sort of gusto; Monaco, Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain are all in their next five opponents, and none will be happy to see the Anjou club playing with such brio.

4 | Marseille would have been downcast after falling to Monaco in extra time in a 4-3 Coupe de France thriller on Wednesday, but seemed to recover well enough in thumping Lorient. After having come back from a goal down three times midweek, only to lose in extra time, Rudi Garcia’s side put their frustration to use in a 4-1 road victory. The win was only Marseille’s third in their travels this season, but showed this team’s potential, even in the absence of the injured Bafétimbi Gomis.

Playing a new formation, a 4-2-3-1 with Rémy Cabella deployed as a false nine, Marseille were ruthless and will undoubtedly gain confidence in their pursuit of European football. None of their three rivals for a top six finish won, and with Angers and Lille to play before the international break, the embarrassment of last week’s 5-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain is fading fast.

5 | Metz endured a week of mixed blessings; the news that their appeal against a points deduction for crowd behaviour was successful was a huge boost to the club’s struggle for relegation. Winter arrival Cheick Diabaté was on the scoresheet for the third match running, but Rennes’ last-minute equaliser meant that the team are now winless in four in the league.

Even given how poor Lorient and Bastia continue to be, relegation is still a worry with a visit from the Corsicans looming a week from Saturday. The team have played much better since the turn of the year, but the result against Rennes should go a long way towards emphasising the importance of maintaining focus throughout a match. Without that common goal in mind, Metz’s struggles, once a thing of the past, are likely to continue.

 

Team of the Week: Alban Lafont, Toulouse FC; Rafael, Olympique Lyonnais, Paul Baysse, OGC Nice, Christophe Jullien, Toulouse FC, Benjamin Mendy, AS Monaco; Bernardo Silva, AS Monaco, Morgan Sanson, Olympique Lyonnais, Valentín Vada, Girondins de Bordeaux, Francois Kamano, Girondins de Bordeaux; Kylian Mbappé, AS Monaco, Jimmy Briand, EA Guingamp.

Goal of the Week: Dimitri Payet, Olympique de Marseille.

A.W. and E.D.

 

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