Faouzi Hikem’s really starting to grow on me, you know. When I came in he was overhyped maybe a little too much, leaving me underwhelmed with what I saw in person. Like Avatar. I watched closely and beneath the obvious positives I saw the flaws in his execution. A lot like Avatar. When you think about it, Avatar just wasn’t that good a film. Faouzi’s had a pretty good start to the season though and has had a good November in particular, which sees him scoop 3rd place in the Ligue 2 Player of the Month award, with the winner and runner up both having had fantastic months for Angers.
With the winter break mere weeks away it’s time to play our French Cup 8th round tie against our rivals ESTAC Troyes, a side that I’ve enjoyed playing against very much in my Auxerre career so far. The match at the Stade de l’Aube also happens to be my 200th in football. Where does the time go, eh? The local media are trying to hype it up a bit but to be honest it’s just another match for me. The French Cup represents our last chance of having a good cup run this season and I want a professional performance to see off our pesky neighbours.
Troyes recently booted their manager Benoît Cheyrou after their not so stellar run of games left them languishing near the bottom of the table. In his place I’ll line up today against former Le Havre stalwart Thierry Uvenard, who’s taking control of the first team until a new manager is appointed.
Thierry’s got his own ideas about how the team should be playing and will set up with a novel narrow 4-1-2-2-1 formation against us today. In response I’m going to be mixing things up a bit myself. We’ll go with a narrow variant on Project: Burnie Mk III, but instead of a flat back 3 I’ll be pushing one of the centre backs forward into the base of midfield, giving us a sturdy 2-1-2 in the centre to take care of the potential threat of those 2 attacking midfielders. I want us bombing up the flanks through our wing backs as it’s where the home side will be most exposed. The full team is Lenogue in net, Captiste and Doucouré at the back, Samba, Raf and Hikem in front of them, Fomba and Goujon in the centre of midfield and we’ll have Joël behind the 2 strikers. Except we don’t exactly… Have 2 strikers, do we? We have 1 out of form target man and 3 injured back ups. Still, this seems as good a time as any to go with a front 2 as maybe it’ll help Aidir out to have someone up there with him, so I’m dead set on the idea. After careful deliberation I decide to throw Abdoulaye Sissako up top. I mean, yes he’s a midfielder, yes he’s never played a game as a striker in his life, but he is a hard worker and a good physical presence. All I want him to do is close down the defenders and play in Hicham, so he’s only really an elevated ball winning midfielder.
20 minutes in we’re handed a gift wrapped chance when a bad back pass from Martial leaves Sissako one on one with Troyes’ keeper. He steps around Bernardoni and tries to clip the ball in from a narrow angle, but he can only hit the outside of the post. I think that’s probably a good indicator of how this little experiment’s going to turn out, isn’t it.
We are at least dominating the first half though and as the half hour mark edges closer we put together a patient passing move that ends up back with Captiste on the half way line. He brings the ball forwards in acres of space before firing it over onto the right wing, where Samba’s waiting to nod it inside. Joël controls the ball well and brings it past the centre back, leaving him clear to drill it into the far bottom corner. Get in, Joël. 1-0.
In first half injury time Troyes get the ball in the back of the net themselves when an Azamoum corner comes into the mixer. Dingomé does his best Maradona impression and palms the ball skilfully into the net, but it won’t count. We’ve had the upper hand so far so I tell the Auxerre team at half time to close down the opposition more to force mistakes and really make our domination count.
With nearly a quarter of an hour of the second half gone we’re playing some really nice football. Goujon passes to Joël 25 yards out and he pauses on the ball just for a beat to draw the defensive midfielder out of position. Then he slips the ball through the central channel for Hicham Aidir, who places it first time into the bottom corner. I’ve never done the robot before believe it or not, but when the ball hits the back of the net and Aidir sprints away with a broad smile of relief across his face, me and Crouchie… Well… We have a bit of a dance.
With our 2 goal cushion nicely in place I give Lamine Fomba a rest for the last half hour, with Gaizka Basauri coming on to replace him. We have a bit of a scare 10 minutes from time when Azamoum squares the ball for Niané on the edge of our 6 yard box, but he hits the post. Chassaing too makes a late cameo as we come through the match unscathed.
My 200th game in football has gone absolutely swimmingly, especially thanks to Hicham Aidir’s first goal in over 2 months. 8 long matches. It was a massive relief to see him tuck the ball away with that ice-cold precision I’ve become so accustomed to over the last 16 months. He’s timed it well as my experiment to try Sissako as a striker has not gone very well. He tried though, bless him.
Our 3rd consecutive victory over ESTAC Troyes has also sealed us a place in the 9th round of the French Cup, where we’ll play Sportive Granvillaise, so sayeth the draw.
Our next match is a biggie. Angers SCO are 3rd in Ligue 2 and on the same points as us, with a goal difference of 12 to our 14. With Bourg-en-Bresse 3 points ahead of both of us at the top of the table, this is a great opportunity for both sides to catch up to the league leaders as we come to the half way point of the season. Unfortunately we’ll be without Faouzi Hikem though as he’s strained his abdominal muscles in the gym and will miss both of our last 2 matches before the winter break. On the upside though, all signs are that strikers Florian Ayé, Nathan Andre and Romain Montiel are just days away from rejoining full training.
Call me a boring sod but I’d be happy not to lose this game. Of course a win would be ideal but I’m not going to push too hard for it. We’ll line up with our standard, steady Project: Meatloaf Mk II with Phil Foden and Adama Ba coming back in for Loïc Goujon and Abdoulaye Sissako as we get our inside forwards back onto the wings. Mike Kakuba will come in for Hikem and I’ll once again be looking to Mamadou Doucouré to fill in at left back. With full training looming and after half a season on the sidelines with ligament damage, last year’s top scorer Florian Ayé makes the bench for the first time.
Much of the match is a tense, scrappy affair. In fact in the first hour the only decent chance from either side is 25 minutes in when former Sunderland stopper Mika catches the ball from a Samba cross and promptly rolls it straight out to Phil Foden. The Stopfordian midfielder tries his luck from 25 yards but hits his shot straight against a defender’s legs. Gripping stuff.
Despite our efforts to control the game in the second half to put the visitors under a little pressure, we’re still goalless with 20 minutes to go. I have a choice: I can keep us as we are and drift through to the goalless draw that I would have taken before kick off, or I can roll the dice and try and nick a winner. Against my better judgement I signal for Florian Ayé to warm up. We’re going for it. Joël comes off and Florian finally steps onto the pitch to start his season, alongside Hicham Aidir in a 4-2-4 formation. We’ll exploit the wings, float crosses into our 2 big strikers and play direct to them. Come on lads.
Sometimes everything just comes together exactly like you hoped it would. Sometimes you roll the dice and come up with 2 sixes. This isn’t one of those times. 3 minutes after our tactical change, Trincão holds the ball up 25 yards out and draws out Captiste. Just for a second, our defence falls asleep and that’s all the time Josué needs to slip between Raf and Kakuba and dart into the space that our Captain’s left inside the box. The former Porto and Basel midfielder takes a touch and fires the ball low into the far corner. It’s 0-1.
I let out a groan. I’ve done this. Me and my greed. We could have escaped with a very good point but now we’re behind and in danger of falling behind the top 2. We go on the attack. A couple of minutes later Angers hit us on the counter attack and Trincão gets to the left byline before drilling a cross in to the near post. Pépé arrives but can only head the ball into the side netting. It’s a very close call.
We can’t lose our heads. I tell the lads to start closing down like they’ve never closed down before. I don’t want Angers to get a sniff of this ball for the rest of the match. 75 minutes turns to 80, then 85, then 90. And then Phil Foden plays a clever pass to Ayé on the edge of the box, who plays it through to Aidir, who slams the ball into the back of the fucking net from 12 yards. He’s back. He’s officially bloody back.
That was far too close a call and honestly I’ve got my players to thank for getting us out of that mess. I went into the match wanting a draw and either cockiness or boredom got the better of me. Note to self – Try not to scare me like that again.
So with 19 games played we’re officially half way through the season. Bourg-en-Bresse are still leading the way with 39 points after helpfully only getting a draw themselves in the last round of fixtures, while Auxerre and Angers are still 3 points behind, both with superior goal difference to the leaders. Stade de Reims still have to be kept an eye on though as they’re only 1 point behind us. We’ve still got 1 match left before the Winter break and as such can still technically go into the new year at the top of the table. We’re playing Valenciennes away.
Mike Kakuba and Lamine Fomba will miss this one through suspension after picking up the usual 3 yellows in their last 10 games, but Andre and Mounier are back in full training as I’m suddenly spoilt for choice for strikers. Well not quite as 3 of them are still massively lacking in fitness, but it still makes a nice change. I’m also ambushed in the corridor by my mountainous centre back Godspower Tower, who thinks that his name deserves to be on the teamsheet more often. Whilst I agree in principle that his name should be shared far and wide and maybe put up in lights somewhere, he’s just not going to get a look in for me. We agree that he’ll be sold in the January transfer window.
“Franjo are you confident for tomorrow?” Pipes up the first journalist at my press conference.
“Yeah, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be confident. We’re in good form and if we play like we have been doing Valenciennes will have trouble stopping us.”
“Do you think that it’s good timing, playing Valenciennes after they’ve sacked their manager Laurent Dufresne?”
“Perhaps. Obviously things haven’t been going well for them but I think we need to expect a reaction. I’m sure the Valenciennes players will want to impress any prospective new managers that are…” I’m silenced by Manon Penot, Auxerre’s Press officer, holding one hand out across my mouth while the other holds her mobile to her ear. We sit in silence for a moment. “Are we live?” I mouth to one of the cameramen. He nods, looking as confused as I feel. Manon nods in acknowledgement of her phone and leans right in to my ear.
“They’ve signed Zlatan.” She whispers.
“Excuse me?” I mutter back.
“Valenciennes have appointed Zlatan Ibrahimovic as their new manager” she says, quite breathlessly. I look across the room of journalists, all of whom are looking down at phones, tablets and laptops and muttering to each other.
“He’s not a manager”, I hiss.
“He is now” she whispers back, “And you’re his first opponent.”
I’ve got to say I’m more than a little bit surprised. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has completely dropped off the planet since he left Manchester United and retired in the Summer of 2018. Well, apart from the odd bit of guest punditry for BT Sport. His appointment’s knocked me for 6 if I’m honest. I mean, I’m taking on Zlatan in his first ever match as a football manager. How do you approach something like that? What the bloody hell am I meant to expect? I had planned on lining up against Valenciennes’ 4-4-2, which was about as predictable as the pissing sunrise, with Project: Burnie Mk III: My go-to formation against such shapes. Now I’m second guessing myself with the new man coming in. Ordinarily I’d say that a smart Manager would just keep his side playing the same shape until he’s had a bit of time to figure out what he needs to change, but knowing Zlatan he could just as easily drop some kind of horrifically unpredictable tactical bomb on us that’s been 3 and a half years in the making and is powered by sheer self-confidence, charisma and 35 yard fucking bicycle kicks.
In the end I stick with the plan and it’s a good job too. Zlatan does stick with the same 4-4-2 system that his predecessor used, so my first sigh of relief of the day is when I see the team sheet. For us, Lenogue starts in net, Captiste, Goujon and Doucouré form the back 3 with Goujon charging out both to break up attacks and to play the ball, Issa Samba and Ruben Aguilar are our wing backs, with Ruben starting on the left because Hikem’s out injured and is still faster than our backup left back Mombris, so why the hell not. Sissako and Raf form the midfield duo and Joël plays behind Aidir and Ayé, who gets his first start of the season. I’m taking a bit of a gamble on him as he’s still short of fitness, but he could also make all the difference. Captiste will tightly man mark Zlatan’s inherited target man Jordan Siebatcheu while Doucouré will mark out his more rounded team mate Nuno Da Costa, and we’ll play a fluid counter attacking game. Nathan Andre’s back on the bench.
Out on the touchline, I shake hands with Zlatan. It’s an odd moment, seeing his moustachioed face smiling down at me in the flesh. Once upon a time, when I was not too much more experienced than he is now, I used to have nightmares that this Swedish Behemoth was punching me in the face, ridiculing me for my inexperience in management and subsequent failure to keep my team afloat. Oh, how the tables have turned. The boot’s really on the other foot now, isn’t it Zlatan? Watch and learn young rookie as I give you your first lesson in Football Management.
After only a minute the hosts win a corner, but we clear the ball after a poor cross and start a counter attack through Joël, who plays it forward for Aidir. Aidir drives forwards, drawing a centre back over to the left before pulling the ball back into the space inside the box, but Joël calmly places the ball straight at the keeper from 6 yards out, who saves it. Sissako is the first to get to the rebound and tries to finish it from a narrow angle, but Cabezas slides in well to knock the ball against the post and out.
A quarter of an hour later we’re playing some nice patient football in Valenciennes’ half initiated by Joël and Aidir. We massively outnumber them in the centre and it’s showing as we pull them from side to side with our short passes and good movement. Eventually Sissako slides the ball perfectly through the defence and who else but Hicham Aidir chips the ball first time past the keeper. That’s 3 goals in 3 games for Hicham now. He’s gone from absolutely useless right back to a man on fire.
A couple of minutes later we counter attack once again and once again it starts with some nice interplay by Joël and Aidir. We toy with the Valenciennes midfield and defence before Sissako finds Aidir again on the edge of their box. Aidir darts towards the left hand side of the box with the ball and loses his marker, but drags his shot wide. 10 minutes after that we counter attack for the umpteenth time and again Sissako threads the ball through for Hicham Aidir, who’s having an excellent time linking up with the midfielders so far. Aidir takes a touch into the box but Kocik dashes out and catches what turns out to be a tame shot from the Moroccan.
Frustrated by 40 minutes of chasing the ball and tracking back to get back into position after yet another of his side’s moves breaks down, central midfielder Abdoul Kaboré sees red before half time for tripping Sissako while he’s already on a booking. That can only be good for us in the second half.
The first 20 minutes of the second half are quiet, and then Zlatan makes the change to a narrow 4-3-2. I don’t want us to get overpowered in the centre so I bring off Florian Ayé, whose done his fitness the world of good with 65 minutes of football, and replace him with Foden, who drops into midfield to match Valenciennes’ trio. We’ll focus down the flanks where they’re now vulnerable and I tell Captiste to stay on his toes and keep his distance from his marker, because the lumbering and ineffective target man Siebatcheu has been replaced by pure speed machine Terry Osei-Berkoe.
As I said in our previous match, sometimes everything just comes together exactly like you hoped it would. Sometimes you roll the dice and come up with 2 sixes. As I also said in our previous match, this isn’t one of those times. For fucks sake. Just 3 minutes after both sides make their tactical changes, Valenciennes work the ball into the box with Da Costa and he’s felled by stand-in centre back Loïc Goujon. Penalty. Goujon receives a booking and in front of the home fans, Da Costa blasts the ball straight down the middle from 12 yards to equalise.
In my eyes that equaliser is absolutely undeserved and I’m quite livid. I tell Phil Foden to push forwards alongside Joël for the last 20 minutes. We’ll roam from our positions and we’ll pass the ball into space to try to unlock the home side’s tiring defence. With 5 minutes to go it very nearly pays off – Aidir holds the ball up after we counter from a Valenciennes corner and then slips the ball into space for Joël, who’s bombing forward to his right. Joël gets into the area and if he lifts his head he’ll see Sissako and Aidir rushing forwards alongside him with absolutely nobody between them and the goal. He keeps his head down and fires a shot wide of the near post. Livid. We go on the attack.
With 90 seconds to play of normal time we win a free kick 35 yards out from goal. Foden plays it short and we work the ball around the box. Joël… Aguilar… To Goujon… Back to Aguilar… AGUILAR!!!
I feel no shame as I sprint down the touchline, hands held aloft. To some it would seem like quite the faux pas to openly celebrate defeating somebody at something you’ve done 201 times more than they have, especially when it’s their first time. In the moment though I couldn’t care less. There have been times this season where we’ve missed that winning mentality. Where we’ve rolled over and accepted our fates. Not today though. Today the ball fell to our usurped right back, filling in as a makeshift left wing back. Today he was left unmarked just inside the box and had a clear shot at goal. Today he gave me the kind of headache that I love. The kind of headache that you get when you have too many fantastic players to fit into your team.
Here’s your lesson, Zlatan: Some days you can do exactly what you need to do. You can even fight back with 10 men, but don’t be surprised if the referee’s whistle blows and you’re left crying in the corner, miserably contemplating the unfairness of life as you watch somebody else have the time of their lives at your expense. You’ll get used to it pretty quickly.