A torn hamstring. Perfect. Not even 3 matches into our big Ligue 1 adventure, we’ve lost Phil Foden for up to 3 months with a torn hamstring. I’m actually a bit annoyed with Phil. His timing’s awful, tearing a muscle when he knows full well Adama Ba’s out of contention while he finds a new club. Suddenly we’re left with Zoun and the transfer listed Corentin Tirard as our only senior wide players and we’re looking really light.
Luckily though, senior players aren’t all we have here in Auxerre. In fact I get a very timely reminder mid-meltdown that Auxerre are actually the joint best French producer of footballers playing in elite leagues, along with AS Monaco. Both of our clubs have brought through 25 players that are currently playing in the top leagues around the world. That’s how we’ll get out of this mess. Our academy grads will have to step up. Youth will prevail.
So as the transfer window closes I look through my reserves for reinforcements. What I want really is a left footer who can cut in and fulfil the same role as Phil, so why not young Alessandro Bassani, the left winger that was plagued with injury during my first year in charge?
I’ll tell you why not: Because Adama Ba is filled to the brim with rage that I didn’t let him move during the transfer window, even though his only option was playing sparingly for a Ligue 2 club, and is trying to lead something of a mutiny. His most vocal – Nay, only supporter? That’s right, Alessandro bastard Bassani. For fucks sake. So now I’ve got Tirard on the transfer list, Foden injured, Ba, who even if he wasn’t revolting has still lost all of my respect for the way he’s kicked off and Bassani who can absolutely get back in the reserves, having successfully set back his introduction into the first team by a few games at least. It never rains but it certainly fucking pours over there on the flanks, doesn’t it.
We do have some good news over the International break though: Mike Kakuba’s “Pulled a Corchia” and scored his first goal for Uganda, while Dennis Sundberg’s set us up with a new Bosnian affiliate club: HŠK Zrinjski Bostar. So that makes up for not even having enough natural wide men to organise a game of catch, doesn’t it.
AC Ajaccio are our next opponents in the league and they’re coming to ours, which in all fairness is one of the kinder matches we could have at this awkward time. Just as I’m starting to feel something close to optimism though, Abdoulaye Sissako strains his thigh in training the day before the match as a helpful reminder that this has been a really shit week.
So some decisions need to be made. Firstly, I’m bringing out the Meatloaf. We need to be beating the clubs around us this season if we’re going to have any chance of staying afloat so I want us to plant an early flag here that we’re the best recently promoted team around. In the absence of Sissako, Fabian McCarthy’s going to make his full debut as our box to box midfielder. I’m leaning into our predicament with a radical new front line: Zoun drops out after a disappointing start to the season and Brahim Ferhat and Serge Bamba come in to make their full debuts on the flanks, while Nathan Andre replaces the equally disappointing Hicham Aidir up front and will make his first Ligue 1 appearance. I wince as I glance down the final team sheet. This isn’t what I thought my team would look like for the 4th match of the season. There are an awful lot of square pegs in round holes. But I think… No, I know I have confidence. Youth will prevail. Pretty please.
With just over 20 minutes to it shows. One such square peg named Ruben Aguilar is drawn way out position and James Tavernier is allowed to receive the ball in acres of space on the right wing. From there he cuts the ball back for Robinet, who slots it into the net.
With around 10 minutes to go in the half though, we’re looking far more cohesive. A dangerous move sees the ball worked up to McCarthy 40 yards from goal and looking up he sees Tavernier leaving far too much space on the left. He waits for Aguilar, stood right next to the full back, to make the run into the vast expanse of open turf beyond him… We all wait for Aguilar to make the run… “Make the bastard run, Ruben!” I bellow, as Fabian awkwardly holds onto the ball in the middle of the park. Ruben finally steps forward, but it’s too late. McCarthy’s stalled for too long and is tackled. This, I think as I watch Ajaccio counter attack, Scarpellini cut the ball into our box and Vasseur power in the visitors’ 2nd, will not do. Aguilar, who if we’re being kind is only mostly culpable for both goals and has not stopped fouling since kick off, is replaced by Hikem with 7 minutes of the half to go.
That does the trick. Eager to impress in his first Ligue 1 appearance, Faouzi Hikem calms us right down with his presence on the left. So much so that just 5 minutes later we play the ball up the left wing, Ferhat cuts inside and passes to Andre and the striker fires us back into the game. This is more like it.
On the stroke of half time we’re looking good for a second. McCarthy spots Ferhat’s run inside, picks him out and the 17 year old moves the ball straight on to Nathan Andre again. Andre shoots first time and the ball’s surely destined for the top corner, but Riffi Mandanda pulls off a world class save to tip the ball against the bar. After such a rough start it’s encouraging that we’re unlucky to be trailing at the break.
Tavernier’s continuing to leave space at the right back position so we’ll target the left hand side in the 2nd half. This has the added benefit of taking some pressure off Bamba, who’s been anonymous so far. 5 minutes after the restart, Munoz slips a clever pass through for Robinet, but the striker wellies his shot over the bar. He evidently learns from his mistake though because when Jovane gets away down the right flank and chips a cross in for him, Robinet coolly applies the finish for 1-3.
With half an hour to go I throw on Aidir and Zoun for Joël and Bamba and we go to our usual plan B of a 4-2-4. The impact should be instant as within seconds Goujon plays a lovely pass down the line for Zoun to chase. The nippy winger chips the ball in from the byline and Andre lets rip with a volley from inside the 6 yard box… And hits the post. My head goes to my hands. Fortunately just like Robinet, Andre soon gets the chance to redeem himself. Once again it’s a nice pass from Goujon and this time a square ball from Zoun, allowing our young striker to slot in his 2nd goal of the day. We’re back in the hunt.
With just 5 minutes to play, Ajaccio have a corner, but it’s cleared and we counter! Andre’s the man on the edge of our box and he hoofs the ball upfield for Zoun. Dropping the shoulder, the Burkinabe winger leaves Tavernier in his dust, then skips past centre back Diarra. He’s through on the right wing! Ferhat and Aidir are arriving unmarked in the box! All he needs to do is square it and we’ll pick up a point! Square it! Square it, Zoun!
He balloons it over.
I’m not even surprised when McCarthy’s free kick smacks against the bar in the 91st minute, or when Andre’s denied a hat trick by a fingertip Mandanda save in the 93rd. Or when Ferhat’s follow up shot is deflected wide by a last ditch tackle. This has been a nightmarish 90 minutes.
The one thing I’ll say is what a bloody Ligue 1 debut that is for Nathan Andre. The lad’s got potential aplenty and I think that for now at least, he’s just become my first choice striker. Moving on so swiftly that we all give ourselves whiplash though, the Coupe de la Ligue 3rd round draw is made a few days later. We get Dijon at home, which won’t be an easy game, but could be much harder. Maybe a decent cup run would renew some of the squad’s rapidly depleting confidence.
The following week brings us a trip to Guingamp, who’ve had a pretty good start to their league campaign with 5 points from 4 matches.
Against Lyon I opted not to bring out Project: Burnie Mk III against a 4-4-2 in case it disrupted our momentum from our first 2 good performances. With no such worries 2 matches on though, I’m changing things around for Guingamp and their 4-2-4. The Serge Bamba experiment is over for now and he’s replaced by Mike Kakuba, who’ll make his own Ligue 1 bow in our back 3. Hikem will start in place of Aguilar on the left and I’m also dropping Joël and bringing Sissako in, who’s recovered from his thigh strain. He’ll run box to box while McCarthy starts in his favourite number 10 position behind a promising front 2 of Ferhat and Andre. Our biggest centre backs Kakuba and Doucouré will man mark their 2 huge strikers Privat and Pavlovic and our wingbacks will hold their position in defence against Guingamp’s advanced wingers. In the absence of their width we’ll focus our play down the middle where we have a numerical advantage. My plan is flawless and I’ll fight anybody who tells me otherwise. This slump ends now while it’s still in it’s infancy.
25 minutes in, Guingamp score with their first shot. We’re undone by a hoofed ball up the left for Lefeuvre, who gets goal side of Samba. The 4 attackers work the ball around the box before it’s played back to Lefeuvre and he taps it past Lenogue. We need more structure and I tell the team as much, because the hosts have taken the lead massively against the run of play with a fluid move. With 5 minutes to go we put together a good and well structured move of our own, which is pleasing. It ends with Sissako drilling the ball low against the post though, which in contrast makes me want to pummel the ground with my feet until I break through to the Earth’s core and become a steaming bowl of cyborg soup.
In the second half Andre comes off, having shown none of the cutting edge I saw in the last match. Aidir gets half an hour, but 15 minutes later we’re 0-2 down. I’ve no idea what Samba thinks he’s playing at but this time he actually abandons Lefeuvre and allows him a free cross for Privat, who slams the ball in from 6 yards. More changes are required, so on come Zoun and Joël for Captiste and McCarthy and we change to a 2-2-2-3-1 formation and set out to control the game. 2 minutes later, Samba’s caught upfield after a throw in, the ball’s hoofed over the top for Lefeuvre, he’s allowed a free cross and stop me if you’ve heard this one before but Privat slams it home from 6 yards.
Mendyl skying a free header 6 yards out is of scant consolation. As is yet another dominant loss. As is our actual consolation in the 90th minute when Djuricic turns Ferhat’s cross into his own net. I can see what’s happening here. I know the script. It’s all happening again.
It’s Katowice 2.0.