One of the surprise packages of this season have been Valenciennes who currently sit in fifth place with 18 points from 11 games. Daniel Sanchez’s men finished 12th last season after flirting with relegation for large parts of the campaign, but this season they have already won five matches – almost half last season’s total. Although slightly inconsistent so far this year, the side have enjoyed some outstanding results and their form has largely been down to impressive performances from summer signing Anthony le Tallec and creative midfield talents Gael Danic and Foued Kadir. Also, Gregory Pujol scored twice in the recent win over Sochaux, serving a timely reminder that he is not gone even if he has largely been forgotten.
Last season’s problem for VAFC was a lack of goalscoring prowess and a defence that leaked goals. Sanchez’s men would record one or two good results and then follow that up with a run of disappointing form, undoing all of their hard work. This repeated process of taking one step forward and two steps back prompted Sanchez to address his side’s attacking problems this summer by bringing in le Tallec from relegated Auxerre to share the burden with young attacker Vincent Aboubakar and Pujol, who struggled horribly with bad form and injuries last season, netting just three goals in 13 games after hitting a career-best 17 from 33 the year before.
Pujol’s diminished presence in the side was one of the main factors that saw les Atheniens slide down the table after a 12th placed finish the season before, but last year Sanchez had the added pressure of the club’s new Stade du Hainaut being completed and relegation fears constantly looming over him. Pujol still managed to account for four points with his three goals, leading the team to a vital victory over Dijon and a draw against Sochaux. VAFC finished five points clear of the drop zone and those four points ensured that the club would not be scrapping against relegation on the last day of the campaign. Pujol’s absence however put pressure on 20-year old Aboubakar who, prior to last season, had only made 17 appearances with a single goal to his name.
The Cameroonian fared admirably with the added expectation and netted six times, laying on two assists in 27 appearances. However, in a team whose attacking trio of Aboubakar, Pujol and Mamadou Samassa only amassed 10 goals between them, VAFC were relying on midfielders Danic, Kadir, Remi Gomis and Renaud Cohade to provide the goals to ensure survival. Cohade has since departed for high-flying Saint-Etienne but Danic and Kadir have taken the added responsibility in their stride, accounting for or providing 13 of the side’s 23 goals this season.
Arguably though, the big difference has come in the shape of Anthony le Tallec whose five goals and one assist in six games have helped Sanchez’s men past Marseille and Lorient with the team thumping in 10 goals in just those two matches. A nomadic player at best who has never really excelled at any top-flight club thus far, le Tallec’s contribution has been a huge bonus for Sanchez. His link-up play with Danic and Kadir has been vital to the side’s free-scoring form, with the duo laying on three of the former Liverpool man’s five goals. But more importantly, Aboubakar and Pujol are also combining with the trio, le Tallec and Danic providing Aboubakar’s two goals so far this season, and Kadir setting up Pujol’s double against les Lionceaux.
A fully functional attacking unit is something that VAFC didn’t have last season and 23 goals in 11 games means Sanchez’s side already have more than half their scoring total from last season, well in advance of the winter break. Coupled with an intelligent summer transfer deal to strengthen the defence with the addition of 21-year old Loris Nery from Saint-Etienne and the good form of promising young centre-back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, les Atheniens have already kept four clean sheets this campaign. Building on a solid backline with a dangerous attacking lineup, Sanchez and his side look capable of pulling off a shock European finish so far.
Le Tallec for one is not renowned for his great consistency and the club, whilst impressive on a number of occasions this season, still have to address their fluctuating away form. If the attack can continue to produce goals like they have so far then their home form should be assured, but it will be the points dropped on the road that will cost them. Key to that will be the continued sharing of the goalscoring load between the strikers and the prolonged good form of Danic and Kadir; things are looking good so far though for Sanchez’s men.