Speaking in an exclusive sit down with Get French Football News, Reims manager David Guion discussed the club’s most promising youngsters, what a “coaching philosophy” actually means and much more.
It’s been a tough recent patch for Reims, with narrow defeats in the league and Coupe ending a positive run of just one defeat in nine matches. How is the morale of the team?
It’s good. We were really happy to have been on a great run since December. We had rediscovered our solidity and then our efficacy. Unfortunately that run ended at Lorient in a match where we had our chances but didn’t take them. But we know that all Ligue 1 matches are tough and for teams like us they turn on small details. Sometimes those details fall in our favour but unfortunately that wasn’t the case at Lorient. But we need to keep focused on ourselves and ensure that every weekend those details go our way.
It must be hard as a coach to always keep up a front of positivity for the sake of your players. Are you one of those coaches who can quickly move on or do you mull over defeats for a while? I often think coaches find it harder to move on from defeats than their players.
You’re right in the sense that today’s generation of players quickly moves on to other things – it is in their identity. It is harder for us but you bring up a key factor for coaches – it’s crucial that we are able to move on, otherwise we lose our impact, we can’t do anything. It’s important that we get the assessment and analysis of each match right in order to move the team forward. So you need to take the last match into an account but, if it’s a defeat, you also need to be able to clear it from your mind very quickly as the most important thing is the next match.
I read that you attach a lot of importance to self-analysis during a season – not only of your players but also of you and your staff. Are you harder on yourself than on the players?
Yes it’s important to be able to take a step back to be able to analyse with lucidity. I can’t get my analysis wrong, because it determines the direction that we choose to go in in our next week’s work with the team.
In terms of the team, this year must have been very different, taking into account COVID-19. What challenges did you face? Did you have to focus more on the mental state of the players than usual?
Yes, we’ve been a lot more attentive to the mental state of our players. But we’ve also been more attentive to their physical state, because at times players have had to take a break if they tested positive for COVID-19. Also, the fact that we’re playing in empty stadiums means that they have lost a lot of their usual reference points, so the staff and I have been speaking a lot more with them. We’ve focused on where they are, emotionally and competitively.
In training we have placed a lot more emphasis on competitive spirit as, since the stadiums are empty, I think that is an intrinsic value to maintain, so we’ve integrated it into our training, working on competitive spirit so that those values come out even more at the weekend. Anything that involves playing and being competitive. Anything involving the goal, involving speed relays – anything where we can insert an element of competition.
And have you noticed the difference?
Yes, every month we put up the charts showing which guys win the most, who wins the least, and we’ve seen that they pay a lot of attention to it, so we hope that through these little details, our work will cultivate that competitive spirit.
To what extent is the role of a coach on the football and tactical side, and to what extent is it man management?
Ooh tough question! I think that everything is connected. I don’t think that one criterion is more important than another. Everything is linked and man management is just as important as the technical, tactical, physical aspects. And I internalise all that in training, through my attitude, my tone, through my choice of training exercises. I integrate it all and see it in a holistic, systemic way.
And was it always your plan to become a coach, when you were playing?
Yes. My first professional contract was as a 19-year-old at Lille. And this might sound absurd today, but in my first year as a professional, at the same time I coached a seniors team in the Lille suburbs. From the start I was attracted by coaching.
Last season was brilliant at Reims – qualifying for the Europa League play-offs. But then the beginning of this season you lost the play-off on penalties and then it was a tough start. Do you think losing the play-off explains in part that difficult start?
I have to conclude that it does, because we have a very young squad and the emotional toll was significant. I saw that the players were affected and lacked experience at that level. But that is helping my young players today and will serve them well in future. So yes, in the first five matches we took just one point and Europe surely had an impact in my players’ heads – the emotional side clearly took its toll.
One thing that stands out between this season and last is that last season you had the league’s best defence but the second-worst attack. This season you have scored a lot more, but conceded more too. I’ve seen you talk about wanting to change the team’s style this year. So are these statistics pleasing for you?
Yes, we wanted to change slightly. I decided that, after two seasons in Ligue 1, the solidity that we had developed over that time enabled us to look to take the next step and to be more ambitious on the technical side. So we signed Valon Berisha to give us that technical touch, and we promoted a young technical player – Moreto Cassama – to give us more control of games and to enable us to play higher up the pitch. In parallel we lost three defensive first-teamers – [Hassane] Kamara, [Axel] Disasi and [Alaixys] Romao – so the start of the season was difficult because we had to take into account an acclimatisation period for a new centre-back pairing and a game based less on winning the ball back and more on possession. So I’d say that we’re still in that process of change but it’s going a lot better. We now have the second-best attack away from home behind PSG, and we have rediscovered our solidity over the last two months. And the team is gradually showing that new identity that we’ve been aiming for.
You mentioned players having left. Is it frustrating having to deal with players leaving every summer?
When you’re the coach of Stade de Reims you know very well that we won’t be able to keep our best players – that there will be a turnover. So, clearly if we still had Edouard Mendy, if we still had Remi Oudin, if we still had lads like that, we’d have even better results. But it’s the club’s project to promote and to develop young players so that they move on to European clubs. I know the club’s project perfectly well, I know that every year I need to rebuild part of the team and continue to help the players to progress and I know that some will leave each year.
For coaches like Tuchel then Pochettino, or Klopp and Guardiola in England, they’re all about the obligation to win trophies. But what represents success for you?
For the club the aim is always the same: to promote and develop young players whilst also bringing a style of play and maintaining ambition within Ligue 1, a championship where we can experience great emotions. So it’s expanding our identity, our style, to place ourselves just behind the big clubs, whilst also giving young talents the chance to reveal themselves.
So seeing someone like Edouard Mendy who is now at Chelsea must be a great source of satisfaction for you?
Yes we’re really pleased. When I took over the team I made Edouard my No.1 and then quickly made him one of my leaders, because not only is he an excellent goalkeeper but he is also a man on whom you can rely. And we shared some great emotions – almost immediately we were promoted to Ligue 1, then finished in eighth place in our first year [in the top flight]. And then it was time for him to move to a French club playing in Europe, which is the final step in order to then move to a big European club. I told him that Rennes should only be a stepping stone for him. And I’m delighted that he is now at a big European club.
Looking at the rumours and the Ligue 1 top scorers’ chart, Boulaye Dia is likely to be the next to leave. Can you talk about his progress with Reims and just how far you think he can go?
He’s a lad who comes from amateur football. He’s been with us now for three years and two years as a starter. What’s good is that, in two years, he has adapted and understood the expectations of the professional environment really well and this year he has added efficacy. So he is now ready to go up to the next level, a European club. He needs to choose a club where he will have playing time. He can still progress in his finishing and in his game with his back to goal. Remember he has come from a long way back so he has made loads of progress but there is still room for improvement, as he’ll discover when he joins a bigger club. He’s gone to another level with Reims this year, and another level again with his Senegal debut, knowing the quality of their strikers. Now it’s up to him to reach that next level with a European club and continue to progress.
Would you advise him, like Mendy, to join a French club playing in Europe before moving abroad?
Yes, that would be the ideal for him, because he is only 24, he’s a young striker.
I mentioned Klopp and Guardiola. We know about their gegenpressing and possession-based game. In France there has rightly been lots of fuss over Jean-Marc Furlan’s ‘beau jeu’ philosophy. You mentioned before that you’re moving more from defence and transitions to possession. Is there a David Guion philosophy?
Well first of all, when you arrive in a new club, you need to understand the environment and the ability in your squad. In my first season in charge, I had a squad with great attacking potential and I used that offensive ability to finish with the best attack, along with Nîmes, with 80 goals, beating all Ligue 2 records [Reims finished with 74 goals; Nimes 75; both were promoted, with Reims as Ligue 2 champions]. Then I quickly saw that, with attacking players having left, we had more potential to be solid and play a more transition-based game. But in terms of philosophy, I want to be myself and I look around to pick up all I can but, for me, the most important thing in a team is character, personality, team spirit – and to pick players with that spirit of competitivity and determination, but also intelligence and lucidity, and then give them the best conditions for them to show their best. Then it’s about working with the players on developing possession-based football, which is done gradually with the recruitment of players and with time. So that’s my philosophy – to develop an identity through character and personality and to have intelligent players with good technical basics who can impose a possession-based game but also be able to play transitions. But I’m not inventing anything new – most coaches are trying to do all that too.
How does it work in terms of recruitment? Is it you who says what positions you need to fill?
Yes. First we identify the position and then, based on that, we need to be able to find the player who corresponds perfectly. It’s a careful blend that needs to be found with all the characteristics that I’ve mentioned, as well as complementarity with the rest of the squad and someone who corresponds perfectly with the values that we want to promote in the team – character, personality, leadership. So it’s a delicate, difficult process that we need to work hard on.
Is that the same in terms of the youngsters you look to recruit into your youth academy?
Yes, exactly the same, as I know well because I was previously in charge of it. Except that there we give more importance to attacking elements, because we know that if we can get them to break through at the highest level, like we did with [Jordan] Siebatcheu, with Oudin, like we have at the moment with Boulaye Dia, with [Nathanaël] Mbuku, the club will have the chance to bring in a pretty fee.
What do you think of Mbuku’s potential?
I know him well because I recruited him for the youth academy from the Parisian region when he was 14. Today I’ve brought him into the first team and he is blossoming perfectly. He has fitted in well, he is passing every test one by one, he quickly takes in everything that we tell him, and it’s by progressing in his efficacy that he will make that big step to enable him to move to a big club.
I guess you need to be perfect in terms of timing – you had Dia to take over from Oudin, now Mbuku about to take over from Dia…
That’s right. It’s interesting to calculate future projections for the team and we know who in the academy is due to be promoted into the first team squad to potentially take the place of a current starter. It’s an interesting aspect of the work, which must be carried out in perfect harmony with the youth academy.
The image of Ligue 1 in recent years is that it’s always PSG winning. This year it looks like we might have a three- or four-team title race. Do you think PSG are pulling other clubs up towards their level? Is all their money good for Ligue 1?
In terms of their ability to attract top players it’s a good thing – we wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to play against the likes of Neymar and Mbappe. But the gap is so large between PSG’s players and those of other teams that they have been dominating easily the last few years – which has probably led to some of their problems in the Champions’ League. This year they started a little slowly and maybe need to be a little more vigilant to stop dropping points. But there are 14 matches left, Ligue 1 has lots of appeal and it should be a great finish.
In Ligue 1 there are several excellent French coaches but, compared to 20 years ago and the time of Wenger, Houllier, there are barely any abroad. Do you think that French coaches are currently a little underrated?
When we come up against foreign coaches who join our championship we see that we are the same level as them, if not better – and Ligue 1 is a tough league. So there’s no need for us to have a complex – I certainly don’t have one anyway. The only thing is that we are maybe a bit less “commercial” than other coaches – as in we don’t sell ourselves as well, we don’t communicate as well as foreign coaches.
I’d suggest that the problem of selling oneself is a more general Ligue 1 issue, not just for the coaches. And that isn’t helped by the current television rights issue which, added to Covid, might be putting some clubs in peril. Are you positive for the future of Ligue 1 and, more particularly, of Reims?
It’s clear that we need a deep reflection on football and Ligue 1, not just in terms of its exposure but also its attractiveness. We need to work out how to make it more attractive, in full stadiums, with a sound ecosystem. But I believe in its identity, based on successful youth academies, on players who have come through those academies, to start with. Then we need to think about the lads recruited – I think we need them to identify more with their region, with their supporters – I think that’s essential to the image of the club – and the ethics of the club will be crucial too. We need to reflect on all of that in order to rediscover the values and the strong identity of professional football in France.