I think it’s fair to say that our pre-season’s been mixed. We’ve done some good work in the transfer market so far and had some testing friendly matches where we’ve not only gained familiarity in my new systems but really pushed ourselves against tough opposition. On the other hand I could’ve done without losing Florian Ayé for 6 months and Phil Foden isn’t as integrated as I’d like him to be as his pulled hamstring has kept him out of most of our friendlies. Nevertheless, today is the day that we finally get to put everything we’ve been working on into practice.
We’ll start this season as we finished the last – With a simple 4-1-2-3 named Project: Meatloaf Mk II. Xavier Lenogue will continue to be between the sticks for the time being at least, as he performed well there after my arrival. Mike Kakuba lines up for his debut on the left side of central defence alongside Ruben Aguilar, Captiste and Faouzi Hikem. Deep fried demon Loïc Goujon will be our holding man, with the enigmatic Lamine Fomba in front of him as a box to box midfielder next to attacking playmaker Joël Soumahoro, another debutant. I’m going to play with wingers today and I want to save Zoun as an impact sub like I did after my arrival last season, so Adama Ba starts on the right and Corentin Tirard takes the left, with vice captain and 3rd debutant Hicham Aidir leading the line. The referee blows his whistle to begin the 2021/22 Ligue 2 season.
13 minutes in Aidir channels his inner Messi, dribbling into the La Berrichonne half and into the final third while holding their midfielder Castro at arm’s length. He dodges Castro’s challenge, cuts back across him onto his left foot, jinks past the poor lad once again and shoots with power. Delle makes the save, sending the ball out for a corner, but it’s a fantastic start from Hicham. He’ll have the fans onside in no time if he carries on like that.
La Berrichonne aren’t exactly threatening in the opening stages but they are having the lion’s share of possession, so we go on the counter just over quarter of an hour in. Almost instantly we put together a very slick passing move that ends up with the ball at Aidir’s feet again. He holds it up and slips in Lamine Fomba, who takes a shot but Delle catches it fairly easily.
After that the first half is largely devoid of action. In the 42nd minute with half time looming, I get the message out to go a bit narrower and play a bit quicker in the hopes that we’ll be able to strangle La Berrichonne’s patient passing moves and get the ball up to Aidir quicker. Before the break we do get the ball to him and he powers forwards towards the box. The striker’s a man possessed today, dodging a couple of challenges before letting fly from 20 yards. The shot has power but no accuracy though and the ball flies wide.
After the break I issue instructions to close down more and mark tighter, to try and put some pressure on our opposition and get us winning the ball back higher up the pitch. On the hour mark though we’re still deadlocked so I bring on Zoun for Tirard, who’s had a disappointingly quiet day. Zoun’ll take the right wing and Ba will cut in from the left.
5 minutes later, Lenogue thumps a goal kick forwards and Aidir nods it on. Zoun sets off at a sprint, causing panic in the defence. Exactly what I was looking for. The rapid Burkinabe winger bursts past his marker with the ball and runs it into the 6 yard box, but he gives himself too tight an angle and shoots across the face of goal, wide of the far post.
A couple of minutes later our free kick breaks down and is cleared by La Berrichonne. As they look to start a counter attack though Loïc Goujon wins the ball and pumps it back over the outrushing defence for Hicham Aidir, who’s played onside by their left back. He takes the ball down, dribbles into the box and blasts it into the far corner of the net, bagging himself a debut goal and giving us the lead. Good lad.
With 10 minutes to play, Adama Ba cuts inside from the left and passes to Aidir on the edge of the box. He takes a touch and pulls the trigger just in time to avoid a sliding tackle from a defender. The ball finds the bottom corner again, rippling the back of the net as the majestic Moroccan peels away in celebration. I have no words. Maybe I’ll never need to buy another striker again. I bring off Ba and replace him with debutant Phil Foden to give him some match fitness. He’ll slot in as a left winger.
After a couple of minutes Aidir slips the ball into the box for Zoun, who’s coming in from the right wing. He gets a shot in but the keeper rushes out and saves well. In the dying minutes Zoun gets loose again when Goujon gives him the ball in our half. He drives down the wing hugging the touchline and gets level with the box when Obiang puts in a tackle to send the ball rolling away into the area. Zoun rallies and gets to the loose ball first though and dribbles inside, before firing in our 3rd goal of the day. Stick a fork in this match, lads.
A 3-0 away win is what I would describe as a fucking fantastic start to a new season. It wasn’t a complete performance by any means but the second half was brilliant. Aidir’s off the mark and Zoun’s shown me some proper quality and justified my plan of keeping him on the bench, saving him for the latter stages. Add that to superb showings from debutant centre back Kakuba and holding man Goujon as well as good performances throughout almost the whole team and this has been an incredibly encouraging match.
As encouraging a performance as it was though, the transfer window’s still open and I’m still looking at the balance of the squad. As it looks as though Isaac Sohna’s going to be spending the season over in Nîmes I reckon that leaves us with 3 centre backs of sufficient quality that I’d actually trust to start for us, along with a couple of back ups. Therefore I’m dipping my toes into the market probably for the last time to sign another. After consulting with my scouts and watching some video reports I decide on former Paris Saint-Germain and now frustrated Borussia Mönchengladbach defender Mamadou Doucouré. He’s a good height at 6’1″ and is very well rounded and technically, mentally and physically strong. He’s also probably quicker and better on the ball than any of our other centre backs and is left footed, all of which could come in handy.
Over the next few days we receive more offers for some of our players too: AS Nancy Lorraine’s £300k offer for left winger Alessandro Bassani is rejected, along with Partizan Belgrade’s £2.1 Million bid for Ruben Aguilar.
Another bid that comes in is for yet another of our promising youngsters and probably one of the most promising. Benjamin Valette is a 17 year old defensive midfielder very much in the Franjo mould of being physical, determined and hard working. Don’t let his ginger mohawk fool you, he’s a hell of a talent. Olympique Marseille approach us with a £600k bid but I turn it down as I value him quite a lot higher.
Benjamin’s not best pleased at my valuation of him. After sitting down with him and talking it through, it seems like his heart is set on a move away. I don’t want a player who doesn’t want to play for me at the club, so I tell him he can leave. I won’t let him go on the cheap though, I reckon he can go right to the top and players of that talent don’t come at bargain prices. In other news though, 2 of the Santos 4 have made it into the Domino’s Ligue 2 Team of the Week – Mike Kakuba and Hicham Aidir are also joined by Captiste and Loïc Goujon in being recognised for their fantastic performances against La Berrichonne.
More transfer news follows: Young striker Brahim Ferhat completes his season long loan to USBCO, but I reject AS Nancy Lorraine’s bid for Alessandro Bassani.
And the offers just keep coming in, which I’m quickly finding to be an annoying byproduct of having a fantastic academy. LOSC and Stade Rennais both table bids in the region of £100k for 16 year old striker Abdoulaye Traoré, another player in the Franjo mould. He’s also pretty quick and very skilful. I reject the bids as he looks like a talent and £100k is nowhere near what I’d let him go for.
Then it’s Marseille’s turn to come knocking. A £250k bid is submitted for our 15 year old attacking midfielder Robin Faivre. Like Traoré he’s quick and extremely skilful on the ball, so I reject the offer. If he’s worth £250k at 15 I think it’s worth us holding onto him for a year or 2 at least.
Our next match is at home. We welcome Valenciennes to Stade Abbé-Deschamps, a side that also won their first match 3-0 against newly relegated Stade de Reims. They deserve a massive amount of praise for a very surprising result. Early as it might be, we’re top of the league but Valenciennes are in 2nd, behind us only on alphabetical order. Both teams’ confidence will be high so it should be an interesting game.
In their first match they lined up with a good old fashioned 4-4-2 so I’ll be giving a competitive debut to Project: Burnie Mk III so that our 3 defenders can comfortably take care of their 2 strikers. I’m also making a couple of personnel changes: Isaac Sohna will come in for his debut and Nathan Andre also starts while Adama Ba and Corentin Tirard make way as we won’t be using wingers. Sohna will man mark their pacy striker Nuno da Costa and Mike Kakuba will take Edouard Butin, while Captiste acts as the ball player between them, mopping up loose balls and linking up with central midfielders Fomba and Goujon. Wing backs Aguilar and Hikem will be cautious, staying back to take care of Valenciennes’ 2 wingers but also coming forward to support attacks when they can. We’ve got plenty of legs in the centre of midfield and Joël will play behind Aidir and Andre in quite a fluid front 3.
After a cautious start to the match we win a corner just before the 20 minute mark. Faouzi Hikem swings the ball into the centre and Goujon heads it goalwards. As the keeper makes his dive for the ball, Sohna rises at the near post to head it across goal in the opposite direction, but he can’t get it on target. We have a bit of a scare 5 minutes before half time when Xavier Lenogue collides with a striker and winds up with a deep cut on his arm, but after some treatment he stays on.
We go in for the break with the scores tied at 0-0 and I encourage Auxerre to keep plugging away. 10 minutes into the second half we get a great chance when Joël spots Aidir’s run and plays him in, but the striker’s shot is well saved by Kocik and the ball goes out for another corner, which comes to nothing.
With 20 minutes to go I bring on Zoun to replace Joël. In an attempt to find the breakthrough we’re going to an Antonio-Conte-esque 3-2-2-2-1, with Zoun and Andre going out onto the wings to add extra width. We also go more direct in an attempt to get us attacking with a bit more pace. 10 minutes on we’re still goalless and I bring on young Chassaing for Goujon to add a bit more creativity into midfield.
In the last couple of minutes, Osei-Berkoe cuts in from the left wing and takes a pot shot at our goal from 25 yards, which gives me a very brief panic attack before the ball flies over the bar. We enter injury time and the match seems destined to end as a bore draw, until Aidir drags a centre back out of position and creates space for Zoun to run into. Andre spots him and fires a pass into his path, which Zoun takes in his stride. The winger runs through on goal and slips the ball into the bottom corner. There’s not even any time for Valenciennes to come back at us as the ref’s whistle blows almost straight after kick off. Bloody magnificent.
That’s a massive result for us. Valenciennes came into this match on a high after demolishing a team that’s come down from Ligue 1 and just like La Berrichonne, we completely nullified them. Truth be told I would have been happy enough with that and a goalless draw, but we’ve sneaked all 3 points. I know it’s early days but I think this Auxerre side might have even more potential than I thought.