Since taking over the club in May at the end of last season, Claude Puel has made a drastic number of changes to his playing personnel in a short space of time. The team though are already looking improved under his stewardship and a few new arrivals in particular have caught the eye. The former Monaco, Lille and Lyon coach has a reputation to rebuild that has been left in tatters following an acrimonious exit from the Stade Gerland last summer, and the Castres native believes that les Aiglons is the ideal challenge for him to sink his teeth into.
Last season the side from the Côte d’Azur were at times woeful under the stewardship of first Eric Roy and then René Marsiglia and despite finishing 13th after a late season flurry of form, mainly thanks to Anthony Mounier’s goals, they had one of Ligue 1′s worst attacking records. With only four sides guilty of scoring less than them, Puel has set about reshaping the squad by doing away with the majority of last season’s forwards and opting to bring in fresh talent.
Gone now are the excessive midfield options such as Julien Sablé, Kafoumba Coulibaly and David Hellebuyck who often crowded Roy and Marsiglia’s lineups due to the abundance of players in that role. Sold too were the likes of high-earners Mounier, François Clerc, Eric Mouloungui, Franck Dja Djedje and Abraham Guie Guie who despite contributing towards last season’s survival, were sacrificed so that the squad could be strengthened in other areas. Granted Puel obviously wanted to keep left-back Fabian Monzon but saw an opportunity to do some canny business when selling the Argentine and receiving Jérémy Pied in part exchange.
So in came promising goalkeeper Joris Delle despite the presence of excellent Colombian netminder David Ospina, Romain Genevois and Timothée Kolodziejczak to supplement a largely unchanged defensive unit from last season. Pied, Kévin Diaz, Valentin Eysseric and Mahamane Traoré have been added to an already talented if inconsistent midfield which has then enabled Puel to concentrate on the attack. Also coming in were Argentine-Croat Darío Cvitanich and Dijon’s Éric Bauthéac as the club sought good quality at low value.
Puel must be applauded for his ability to seek out bargains, raiding relegated clubs and those in lower divisions for the best talent but also for managing to retain the services of his most experienced players. The likes of captain Didier Digard, Fabrice Abriel and Camel Meriem have been kept on will now be expected to guide the younger players in the team whilst a raft of players have been promoted from the youth academy. Youngster Alexy Bosetti looks particularly promising and compared to last year’s squad, the average age of the team has been reduced considerably.
Evidently Puel sees a chance to progress defensively from last season’s effort and has elected to keep the backline relatively unchanged for now as he gets to grips with his new players. In addition to keeping the midfield a familiar entity, it is in attack where he has made the most changes and added a cutting edge. Cvitanich and Bauthéac give the team more variety and added to Xavier Pentecôte and youth academy graduate Stéphane Bahoken, the team have a mixture of attacking threats now with pace, direct approaches and aerial threats all possible in various combinations.
Three draws and one defeat from their opening four games is hardly championship form but it represents the beginning of a period of consolidation for the club. Les Aiglons are already difficult to beat under Puel and despite yet having to register a win; there is an air of confidence surrounding the club which is something that has not been present for some time. Puel brings pedigree having enjoyed success at Monaco winning a league title, Lille in helping develop them into the club you see today and at Lyon in never having let the club slip out of the top three and thus, retaining OL’s Champions League status despite a tumultuous time off the pitch.
The early signs are positive though, a spirited performance against Lille saw them fight back from a goal down and then get pegged back by a dogged effort from Rudi Garcia’s men and a superlative performance from Mickaël Landreau in goal for les Dogues. That match saw Puel take an adventurous approach, playing Lille at their own game and hitting hard with pace and their ability from set pieces when possible. Although the penetration is not quite there yet, if Puel can develop his players belief then they will run through walls for him.
An opening home defeat to Ajaccio suggested that clean sheets will be hard to come by but a 0-0 draw at Valenciennes looks more impressive each game Daniel Sanchez’s men play and the 1-1 draw in Bordeaux illustrates the fight in Puel’s new-look side who refused to give in right until the death. With a resolute attitude like that, hard-earned points and scrappy victories will be the way that the side get up and running. Then, once he has finally been able to field a settled XI for consecutive games and there is money available, Puel can do some business in January and perhaps think about adding some quality.
Famed for his development of youth and ability to motivate groups of enthusiastic but limited players, Puel is something akin to Martin O’Neill in the Premier League. He has an aura that follows him thanks to the way in which he made his name and although Puel may not have tasted sustained success yet, he invariably fares better as one of the underdogs. With the club due to welcome the Olympic Nice Stadium (or Allianz Rivieira) next year, les Aiglons face a crucial period in their development. With a proven track record, it looks like Jean-Pierre Rivère’s team are in the right pair of seasoned hands as they tackle the season with renewed optimism.