Two games into their return to Ligue 1, Ajaccio have been reminded just how hard it can be to make the step up from the second tier. Having split their time between the two divisions regularly over the past decade, the Corsican club have learnt a thing or two about how not to prepare for life at the top. Despite an inauspicious start this year, Olivier Pantaloni’s men have more reasons to be optimistic ahead of the rest of this season than in previous years.
L’Ours have had a busy summer bringing in no less than nine players whilst only bidding farewell to four with Jean-François Rivière and Julien Viale being the most notable departures. Amongst those arriving were Mexican international goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, experienced Brazilian striker Ilan, winger Frédéric Sammaritano from Auxerre and another wide man; Damien Tibéri from Sedan.
With new signings comes a new style of play, especially with the addition of two talented wide men that will allow Pantaloni to play an expansive game that when needed to, can move away from last season’s successful but defensively-orientated counter-attacking lineup. But will ACA fall into the trap that so many newly-promoted sides find by sticking to their previously successful tactics despite the success that smaller sides, such as Lorient, have enjoyed by playing an attacking game based on possession, teamwork and responsible defending?
It is hard to judge after only two games but the early signs suggest that at home Pantaloni will base his side’s play on the strength of the defence, which was not evident against Toulouse, and away from home particularly against bigger teams, they will play on the counter-attack with a strong emphasis on keeping it tight at the back. In the opening game against le Téfécé, ACA played attacking football in spells and switched between a 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 formations. Although they looked fairly solid at the back, the setup was designed to get the most out of the wide players and Sammaritano in particular, whilst staying strong in defence.
The approach worked at times but the side looked too timid going forward and the burden of their previously good defensive record seemed to weigh on their shoulders as many players looked unsure whether they should commit themselves further upfield. TFC’s second goal came at a crucial period when Ajaccio looked like they were getting back into the game and will want to be less cautious in future.
Speaking after the game, Pantaloni said: “It wasn’t an easy match. We were in trouble for 20 minutes, but then got back into it and created some chances. We started the second half in the same manner, but we were afraid of conceding again on the counter-attack. We didn’t capitalise on our good spell, and conceded the second goal, which really KO’d us. At 1-1 it would have been a different game.”
Their performance a week later at Stade Gerland however was much improved and saw a number of players, most notably Ochoa, put in impressive performances to earn the minnows a point. Switching between a more balanced 4-4-2 and a tough to break down 4-5-1 formation, ACA put in a more defensive all hands to the pump display while also illustrating a clinical side to their attacking that was not seen against Toulouse. Sammaritano benefitted from the balance within the side as he was able to shift up from his position on the wing at times to aid the attack, scoring with a deft 60th minute finish. Following that goal though Fabrice Begeorgi was substituted and the team tried to defend the lead when they might have been better off persisting with their original approach.
Despite Ochoa’s best efforts and the woodwork’s occasional intervention, Lisandro López eventually levelled the tie but the result is still a great point for l’Ours and the Mexican goalkeeper’s performance was one of the displays of the season so far. Justifying the hype that surrounded his mysterious transfer earlier this summer he made a string of athletic saves and strong blocks that had l’OL frustrated for most of the afternoon, and on this sort of form Memo will be earning his side some similar results before the season is out. His seven saves are an early indication of his fantastic ability and he already holds a key position in this side and is one of the main assets in their bid to stay up.
Speaking about his players’ efforts after the game, manager Pantaloni said: “I’m really proud that we came and took a point here inLyon. Given the number of chances and the shots against the posts, we should have been crushed, no question. We defended as best we could – especially Ochoa, who had a huge match and we knew we would have very few chances but took it when it came. The players made a huge effort and this result gives us a lot of confidence going forward for the season.”
Following the opening two results ACA fans could be in for a long season, but given the way they performed at Stade Gerland there is hope that they can repeat these results and build up a good record at home to help them avoid the drop. Immediate suggestions point to a need for greater quality in some areas of the side, particularly the defence as it won’t be as easy to keep goals out as it was in Ligue 2, but they also need another goalscorer up top. One bit of consolation for Ajaccio fans so far should be that their side have not been embarrassed in their previous matches and that there are definitely worse sides than them that could be occupying the relegation spots come the end of the season.