Top-Flight Troyes: On the Verge of Promotion
There is a distinct chance that corks will be popping in the Champagne region this weekend, as Espérance Sportive Troyes Aube Champagne will achieve automatic promotion to Ligue 1 if they record a tenth away triumph of the season on Friday night, against Ligue 2’s eighth-placed outfit AS Nancy-Lorraine. Jean-Marc Furlan’s side have impressed with their consistently high levels of performance throughout this season, and it’s thanks to their strong form that they find themselves on the verge of making a return to French football’s top-flight after their relegation in the 2012/13 season.
Key to Les Troyens’ success this season has been the fact that they have been a collectively well-rounded outfit, with strengths to be found in their defensive game, as well as in their attacking and goal-scoring. No team in Ligue 2 has conceded fewer goals than ESTAC so far (17), but the Aubois side aren’t just high-flyers in terms of how well they defend. The current league leaders have also scored more than any other side in the division (48), and the combination of their defensive and attacking strengths has seen Troyes rack up an impressive goal difference of +31 – that’s a massive 21 strikes ahead of their nearest competitors for the Ligue 2 title Gazélec Ajaccio.
Much of the good work on the park this season at the Stade de l’Aube can be attributed to the side’s outspoken manager. As a well-travelled centre-back in his playing days, turning out for high profile clubs such as Bordeaux and Lyon, as well as provincial amateur clubs including Libourne and Saint-Seurin, Furlan gained an incredible knowledge of all tiers of the game. The Gironde native initially made his name in the managerial game as a successful amateur coach before coming to the attention of Troyes’ directors, and he would eventually guide his current club to promotion to Ligue 1.
After brief spells at RC Strasbourg and FC Nantes, the 57-year-old returned to the Stade de l’Aube and he made it clear in an interview with French amateur football magazine Footengo that he wants to remain at the club for the foreseeable future, despite admitting that his managerial history has taught him to become accustomed to short-term stays at clubs. Reflecting the culture of stability that Furlan appears to want to instil in the club, Troyes have lined up consistently this season in a well-balanced 4-2-3-1 system, with the centre-back pairing of Matthieu Saunier and Rincón and the holding midfielders Thomas Ayasse and on-loan Monaco youth product Jessy Pi, all helping to give the side a sound foundation upon which to build their game.
One of the crowning achievements of ESTAC in the club’s recent history has been the development of its now highly-respected youth academy, which has seen a host of the best of French home-grown talent emerge from within its ranks within the last decade. Internationals Blaise Matuidi and Mamadou Niang began their careers after progressing through the system, and youth development has been an integral part of the Troyes project.
By far and away one of the most exciting young players in France’s second tier, Corentin Jean is a prime example of the success of the system. Since scoring his side’s opening goal of the campaign, 19-year-old Jean has gone on to become his side’s top scorer in Ligue 2 this season, netting 10 times. The extremely technically-gifted attacker has played exceptionally well as a lone forward for his side, demonstrating great maturity for such a young player, and his strong performances haven’t escaped the attention of France under-21 coach Pierre Mankowski, who awarded Jean with his first cap last month.
Alongside Jean, the inclusion of 21-year-olds Pi and Jimmy Cabot in the first-team has helped to give the side more of a youthful image; however this season’s success can be more accurately attributed to the balance struck between youth and experience than just to the involvement of younger players in the Ligue 2 leaders’ set-up.
The starting line-up last week against AC Ajaccio had an average age of 27, and at the heart of everything that has gone right for Furlan’s season has been the veteran midfielder and captain, Benjamin Nivet. The 38-year-old has been an outstanding example to his teammates and his fellow professionals, scoring eight goals from central midfield and providing an equal amount of twists and turns. He has developed something of a legendary status at the club, and his efforts have been rewarded with a one-year contract extension, which should see Nivet lead his side in Ligue 1, in what could be his last year in professional football.
Even if Troyes do secure promotion with a win on Friday night, the title race in Ligue 2 remains alive and if Furlan wants his side to finish the season off with a trophy, he will need to ensure that his high standards continue to be met by his playing staff and technical team. If and when Troyes do seal promotion, they may just be the type of promoted side that succeeds in hanging on in the top flight for a few more seasons.
Key to Troyes’ success has been their balance, both tactically on the pitch and in terms of the age range within the squad ranks. This type of strategic harmony, and the side’s lack of reliance on a single player to carry them, could be key to the chances of Ligue 1 survival next year for likely Ligue 2 champions Troyes.