Before September 3rd of this year and its acquisition by the City Football Group, Espérance Sportive Troyes Aube Champagne (ESTAC) was only a club among others, a modest team sometimes capable of moderately notable levels of success, perennially oscillating between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2.
After two seasons at the top of the Ligue 2 table (finishing in 3rd & 4th place respectively in 2019 & 2020) without nevertheless managing to climb back up to Ligue 1, the club can once again harbour ambitions of joining the highest tier in French football. After the departure of Jean-Louis Garcia following the club’s 19th place finish in Ligue 1 in 2017/18, the club first trusted Portuguese Rui Almeida, who was given just 12 months before being dismissed following defeat in the play-offs against RC Lens. After having sold the great talent Bryan Mbeumo to Brentford, Daniel Masoni, the club owner, decided to bring Laurent Batlles, a former Ligue 1 veteran, as head coach. The instability at coach level was combined with administrative turmoil: a few months ago, the City Football Group, owner of 9 football clubs and founded by the sovereign fund of Abu Dhabi, had begun the process of buying a French Ligue 2 club, hesitating between AS Nancy Lorraine and the club from Champagne, with ESTAC also being the subject of acquisition talks from Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis. Faced with a quite particular list of exit demands from Jacques Rousselot at Nancy, which was the football consortium’s initial favourite club to buy, the City Football Group finally chose Troyes. However, the club suffers from not being as established a French footballing brand as Nancy who, although dormant for the last ten years, are much better known than Troyes in France.
Indeed, despite a rather prosperous period at the beginning of the century, with a 7th placed finish in the French 1st division two years in a row and a victory in the Intertoto Cup, ESTAC Troyes have only played three seasons in the French elite since 2007. Moreover, the club is relatively young and its heyday lasted only a few years: it discovered Ligue 1 for the first time in 1999. Troyes’ history has been largely defined as being part of the segment of teams traditionally clinging to the ascenseur (elevator), like Caen or Bastia: teams who are used to moving up into Ligue 1 and down into Ligue 2 just as quickly. This constant panic makes it difficult to build a solid fan base.
However, the combination of the arrival of ambitious investors and the apparent retention of Batlles at the head of the club could allow them to settle permanently in Ligue 1. Last year was another transition period for Batlles, who sought to impose his playing style, as described by the team’s oldest player before his retirement, Stéphane Darbion: “He has very good tactics. He asks us to be intelligent in our move construction, he places a big focus on technical quality, on control, on making the right pass at the right time. He’ll be there to criticise a player if their pass is fifty centimetres too far to the left or too far to the right. That’s his trademark.”
Nevertheless, despite all these good intentions and a relatively high average possession, the club has struggled to clobber together an offensive approach. Last season, the club’s top scorer, Kiki Kouyaté, was a centre-back who has since joined Metz and scored only 5 goals. Lenny Pintor, a promising striker from Lyon on loan at the club, only managed 4 strikes. This is why the new owners have set the recruitment of a centre forward as a priority. Diego Rosa, a young attacking midfielder from Gremio, could sign at Manchester City and be immediately loaned to Troyes to fill in for the departure of Warren Tchimbembé to Metz.
The potential for attacking reinforcements have boosted a rather stable team, despite the departure of a few key players such as Tchimbembé, Kouyaté and Darbion. This group of players is now used to playing together and knows its coach. This is why, even before the official takeover of the club, Ligue 2 specialists at L’Équipe and Maligue2 referred to Troyes as one of the favourites for the championship.
However, excitement around the so-called revolution within the club must be tempered with the arrival of the new owners. The City Football Group owns two other clubs in Europe others than Manchester City: Lommel Sportkring, which plays in the Belgian second division, and Girona, which moved down to Liga Adelante after its takeover. While Troyes will certainly benefit from its privileged links with one of the biggest clubs in Europe and from the almost unlimited finances of its owners, the idea of a linear trajectory towards Ligue 1 or even the European Cups is by no means a foregone conclusion and will depend first and foremost on Laurent Batlles’ ability to get the best out of his group and how well he can gel with his new superiors.