While former Toulouse player André Pierre-Gignac is rediscovering the form at Marseille that made him a hero in his time at the Stade Municipal, TFC fans have a new star to cherish…
Anyone who watched Toulouse FC more than a few times last season would have guessed that they would never keep up the form that saw them flirting with the top three of Ligue 1 for prolonged periods in what was very nearly a great season for the club. At times they played with flair, with the ever-frustrating but at times magnificent Franck Tabanou pulling the strings from the left wing, and in Etienne Capoue they had a creative player that many of the top teams in Europe were coveting. Added to the sheer steel and tenacity of Etienne Didot in midfield, and a composed central defence partnership of Aymen Adbdennour and Daniel Congré, plus the unpredictable but almost entirely reliable Ali Ahamada behind them, Alain Casanova had the makings of a team that could push for European qualification, but one area of his side was letting him down, badly.
Umut Bulut promised big things after the club splashed €4.8m to bring him in from Trabzonspor, but his target of at least 15 goals during the season remained just that, and he whimpered out of Ligue 1, back to Turkey on loan, with only five strikes to his name. However, he still impressed more than Emmanuel Rivière, signed for a frankly huge €6m from St Etienne. Never a ‘natural’ goalscorer, the 22-year-old Frenchman has impressed in the junior ranks for his country, but is still yet to set Toulouse alight, although he did struggle with injury at times last season.
The close season didn’t seem a particularly fruitful one for TFC. Congré left for champions Montpellier, although has struggled to perform at even the most basic of levels for them this season, while fringe players like Paulo Machado and Antoine Devaux also thought it was time to move on. Happily, for Toulouse fans at least, Casanova managed to hold on to Capoue, who was frequently linked with a move to Arsenal, Cheikh M’Bengue, who had also been linked with the Gunners, and Moussa Sissoko, who seemed destined to leave, claiming that his career was stagnating. Although his agent was talking up moves to AC Milan and Juventus, it would seem that – for now – agent talk was all it was.
With the spine of the team still intact, Jonathan Zebina joining from Brest to add some experience in the backline, and the addition of the exciting Yannick Djalo from Benfica on loan, Toulouse had at least looked to have stood still, if not put together a team capable of finishing the job that it couldn’t the previous season. However, one man has given Le Téfécé fans hope that the top of the league shouldn’t be out of sight for them.
Despite being doubted by some, Wissam Ben Yedder has made an explosive start to his Toulouse FC career. He was only chosen as a substitute in the opening game of the season away to champions Montpellier, when Casanova chose to field the often anonymous Rivière instead, but after scoring the equaliser at the Stade de la Mosson, he hasn’t looked back.
In fact, Ben Yedder has been so important to Toulouse this season that only Zlatan Ibrahimovic can boast to have contributed more to his team’s cause. Of the 11 goals that TFC have scored in their eight games to date, Ben Yedder has six, contributing 55% of his team’s total, putting him second behind Zlatan’s 64% (9 of 14).
To Casanova’s credit, he quickly realised Ben Yedder’s importance in his new-look side, and it is one that is showing more attacking intent than last season. Rather than having Capoue and Didot both sitting back, the former is now afforded a role not dissimilar to a quarter-back in the NFL, dictating the play and using his fine array of passing skills to make the team tick, while Didot and Moussa Sissoko do the bulk of the defensive work ahead of him. The benefits of allowing Capoue this room are something that Ben Yedder is thriving on, as his pace has, and will, cause defenders problems throughout the season.
In contrast to Rivière, whose solitary goal this season was the luckiest that will be scored in Ligue 1, a defender’s clearance looping off him and into the goal, Ben Yedder is a player with confidence coursing through him at the moment, and he looks dangerous at all times. A breakaway goal away at Troyes, which saw him turn two defenders before smashing the ball into Yohann Thuram’s goal is a case in point and highlights not only his pace but his control of the ball, although he’s excelled in the air too, scoring a cultured flick-on header in Toulouse’s recent home draw with Valenciennes.
Whether the 22-year-old can maintain the start that he has made to the season remains to be seen, but at the moment Toulouse have arguably the brightest young star in Ligue 1 on their books, and, despite some disappointing draws, especially at the Stade Municipal, sit only three points behind second-placed PSG, such is the tight nature of the league.
This looks like being a landmark season for Alain Casanova’s men. Etienne Capoue’s re-inclusion in Didier Deschamps’ French squad will undoubtedly bring more attention to the talismanic midfielder, while Moussa Sissoko’s first call up in two years will also add fuel to the fire that his agent is so desperate to burn. If Le Téfécé can put a string of results together, aided by Ben Yedder, and make an attack on Europe this season, it may persuade two of their brightest stars to stay. Being more realistic, they may leave whatever happens, and a season in one of the top European club competitions would be a sizeable carrot to dangle in front of any potential replacements.
Ben Yedder has a long way to go before he will be held in the same light that Gignac was by the Toulouse supporters, but he couldn’t have dreamed of getting off to a better start.