The 2 week International break is a chance for me to collect my thoughts after a hectic start to the season. We’ve really made a better start than I could’ve hoped for. Everyone’s pulling their weight and even Phil Foden’s starting to show why I broke my personal transfer record to bring him in, although not consistently. Overall I’m really happy. And why shouldn’t I be, we’re 2nd in the bloody league!
There was some good news and bad news to come out of our 3-0 win over Metz. I took Adama Ba off at half time as a precaution after he tweaked a muscle in his thigh and it turns out that he strained it, so he misses the entire International break, which is good timing if you think about it. On the upside though, we had 4 players in the Domino’s Ligue 2 Team of the Week. Phil Foden and Faouzi Hikem are both in after they had fantastic games against Metz and I mentioned after the match how pleased I were that they were starting to show their undoubted quality, but the other 2 pleasing inclusions are Issa Samba and Mamadou Doucouré, who I really had pegged as back up players about a month ago. Doucouré’s been spurred on after his debut penalty miss though and is putting together a mean partnership at the back with Captiste, while Issa’s barely put a foot wrong since coming in for the injured Ruben Aguilar.
I then get some more bad news though and it really is pretty bad. The jewel of our academy, Nathan Andre, slips a disc in training and will miss up to 3 months. This is bad news on a number of levels: Firstly, he’s an excellent prospect and I don’t want to see his development hindered, and secondly he was my backup striker in the absence of Florian Ayé, so it’s looking like until the New Year we’ll be relying solely on Aidir and possibly our functional target man Romain Montiel to score the goals. Romain’s a nice lad, but if Hicham gets injured before January our attack will be about as threatening as a crayon drawing of Bob Ross in a Pikachu onesie.
Anyway, the rest of the squad come through the break unscathed and are raring to go by the time our visit to Niort rolls around. Chamois Niortais have had a rough start. They were predicted to finish safe in midtable but early signs are that they’re in serious trouble. They’re currently propping up the League having won 1 and lost 7 of their first 11 matches.
They need to be respected though of course. Besides the fact that their luck might change and propel them back into mediocrity, they play with a narrow 4-3-3, the prospect of which always makes me anxiously furrow my brow slightly. The match will come a few days too soon for Adama Ba so Corentin Tirard will come in and have another chance to show me that he deserves to be here, although my patience is waring thin with him. We’ll stick with Project: Meatloaf Mk II but we’ll play very narrow as we do against these narrow formations.
After 10 minutes of the match, Tirard gets on the ball and does actually contribute, playing it inside for Joël. The playmaker dribbles to the edge of the box but shoots just wide of the far post. The rest of the half is nothing much to write home about aside from a chance about 7 minutes before half time, when Fomba squares the ball to Aidir. He plays it on to Tirard, who thwacks it at goal first time with his weaker right foot, but Allagbé pulls a save out of the top draw, tipping the ball against the post at full stretch. To be fair to Tirard, he’s certainly caught my attention so far.
The second half is even less action packed than the first, believe it or not, and with 25 minutes to go I bring Tirard off, replacing him with Zoun to stretch the defence as they tire. He’ll go onto the right flank and Foden will swap over to the left. With 10 minutes to play I also hook Hicham Aidir, who’s been quiet as a mouse all game. I could do without that kind of performance from him after Andre’s recent injury. Montiel comes on in his place as we trudge towards the final whistle.
Seconds later though, Fomba gets on the ball and looks up, assessing his options. Chamois Niortais have over-extended somewhat while looking for the breakthrough and are furiously pack-pedalling as our midfielder plays a direct ball forward to Montiel, who plays it first time into the acres of space in front of Zoun on the right wing. The 400 travelling fans roar with appreciation as the Burkinabe winger strides into the box, while 4 white shirts arrive just behind him. Zoun pulls the ball back towards Montiel on the penalty spot – But the pass is just behind the target man. There’s a half-second of silence as the chance appears to be gone, before another white shirt arrives. Zoun’s pass wasn’t meant for Montiel, it was meant for Phil bloody Foden, who strokes the ball into the bottom corner of the net to score what turns out to be the winning goal.
After the initial jubilation dies down, I’m not quite sure how I feel about that performance. We scored an 81st minute winner against the team at the bottom of the league at the end of a so-so match. On reflection though, our defenders all impressed and restricted the opposition’s 3 strikers to pot shots all day. Plus, I’m not going to overthink this one. We did dominate and although Hicham had an off day, we managed to find the net. I was impressed with Montiel’s part in the goal too, receiving the ball with his back to goal, playing it quickly into space for a quicker man and sprinting into the box to try and get on the scoresheet. Maybe he’ll be decent backup after all.
I get collared by a couple of my fringe players in the week leading up to our next match. Bingourou Kamara’s the first to come to me complaining about first team football, but luckily Captiste’s with me and manages to calm him down instantly. I don’t know how he does it. He’s like Phoebe in that one episode of Friends where she has a knack for breaking up with people. Just a couple of seconds of quiet conversation, then hug it out and everything’s sorted before you can say “Clunky popular culture reference”.
Amine Chassaing’s also unhappy with his playing time and he tells me that he wants to go out on loan. As Captiste opens his mouth to fucking hypnotise him or whatever he does though, I hold out a hand to stop him because I think it’s a brilliant idea. Chassaing could do with regular football and he won’t fit into my team at the minute, so I agree to try and sort him out with a loan move.
Our win over Chamois Niortais hasn’t gotten us any closer to table topping Bourg-en-Bresse, which is annoying. They’re keeping a 4 point cushion over us as they continue their fantastic 12 match unbeaten run. All we can do to try and catch them is to keep winning and wait for them to slip up, so I’m expecting us to beat Red Star FC in front of our own fans today. Red Star are doing fine so far in the League, currently sitting 6 places above their pre-season predicted place in 10th. They’re in decent form but so are we. And we’ve kept 2 clean sheets in a row.
Red Star play a narrow 4-1-3-2, which is an interesting formation. There’s not much sense playing narrow like we do against, say, Chamois Niortais’ 4-3-3, because this particular narrow system shouldn’t overload us that much going forwards, but will probably be quite difficult to break down. With that in mind I’m breaking out the Meatloaf. We’re the home side so I want us to dominate and peg them back in their own half. We’ve got the quality to find a way through if we can get them under the thumb. Adama Ba’s fit again so he’ll come in for the pretty ineffective Tirard on the left, cutting inside with Foden while we get our full backs overlapping again and helping to dominate the final third.
We’re behind within 15 minutes when midfielder Coulibaly chips a lovely ball through for Crnicki, who shows great technique in half-volleying the ball into the bottom corner of Lenogue’s net. The next 20 minutes are a pretty even affair but our situation worsens as we approach half time, when Loïc Goujon recklessly trips Red Star striker Bailly as he holds the ball up, earning a second yellow and a red. I respond by dropping Joël back into midfield alongside Fomba and giving our full backs more attacking responsibility. We will now go a bit narrower and exploit the flanks with those attacking full backs.
At half time it’s still a level game in every aspect but the scoreline and the number of players on the pitch. For the second half we’ll go more attacking as we need to find a way back in. On the hour though we’ve still not found an equaliser so Aidir becomes a target man who’ll hold the ball up as we build up play around him. We’ll also go more direct to him. For all my tactical tweaks, we’re 2-0 down less than a minute later when Cros chips the ball up for Crnicki on the edge of the box. It’s a nice little lay up and Crnicki capitalises, fizzing his volley into the bottom corner to double his side’s advantage.
With just over 20 minutes to go, Fomba and Berthé challenge for a header in midfield and Fomba pushes him right in the back needlessly. My head’s in my hands as the referee shows him his second yellow and Auxerre’s second red. “Get off the fucking pitch” I spit as our midfielder shuffles towards the tunnel, shaking his head in disbelief. He glances up at me gives me a dismissive look as he goes past. I’m furious. This is the first time while I’ve been at Auxerre where I feel like I’ve actually been out-thought by my opposite number. My tactics were wrong from the start and that’s why we’re losing, but having 9 men certainly doesn’t fucking help. Certain that the game’s already over, I rejig our formation with little confidence that it’ll improve our situation. We swap to a pretty pathetic looking 2-2-3-1 formation with a centre back pairing, 2 attacking wing backs, a midfield trio of ball winner Sissako, subbed on for Ba, and playmakers Joël and Foden. Aidir cuts a lonely figure up front.
We go route one from that point on and it only takes 5 minutes for the changes to have an effect. A pretty nice looking Auxerre move ends with Joël picking out Hikem in space on the left wing. The wing back gets to the byline and whips a delicious cross in to the far post, straight onto the head of Aidir who’s standing a couple of yards out. He nods it wide as the 5000 Auxerre fans groan in unison, echoing my feelings. I’m going back to my flat. This has been a remarkably frustrating day.
Somehow the match was still very very even if you look back over the match stats. We and Red Star both managed 12 shots and 5 on target, we had 51% of the ball, but we fouled nearly twice as much as they did. It gets me thinking. I don’t tell my teams to go out kicking the opposition about, but we do pick up a lot of cards and my Santos side broke the record for number of booking points picked up in a PSL season. The only explanation that I can think of is my philosophy. I like battlers. I like players who’d rather stick a foot in than shy away from a challenge. Maybe days like this are inevitable when you approach football like I do. Maybe my approach is fundamentally wrong, I don’t know. All I know is that even with 11 men we would’ve been beaten fair and square today and I’ve got to do better.