Toulouse Le Trek: One Year Under Pascal Dupraz

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For Toulouse Football Club, 1st March 2017 was marked by fanfare on the club’s official website, fansites, social media, and a hashtag trending on twitter: it had been exactly one year since Pascal Dupraz arrived at the Stadium Municipal and set about transforming the club.

The TFC side of March 2017 is markedly different from its incarnation of twelve months before, in terms of league position (19th to a positively nosebleed-inducing 9th), but more broadly in terms of status. At one time the laughing stock of Ligue 1, a sizeable yet hopelessly limp club, it has now become a force to be reckoned with, boasting an exciting young team that has collected a few large scalps along the way.

Christophe Dugarry, not Monsieur Dupraz’s biggest fan, recently suggested, in the wake of Marseille’s 1-5 humbling in le Classique, that Toulouse are a better team than the more illustrious OM. Dugarry’s comment may have had an element of facetiousness about it, but the very fact that Toulouse are being spoken about in these terms surely represents a substantial coup for Dupraz on top of the one he achieved by saving Toulouse’s Ligue 1 status in the previous season.

How can we assess Dupraz’s impact so far in charge of TFC? A look back into the dark days before his arrival is instructive to see the extent of the impact the Haut-Savoyard has had in La Ville Rose. The 2015/16 season for Toulouse was a slog of epic proportions. Coach Dominique Arribagé won only four matches, garnering the ire of fans along the way until he was dismissed on the 27th February after another defeat, this time away at Rennes. Dupraz came in as his replacement. The former Evian manager is notorious for his energetic touchline presence and his franc-parler in the media. If managers can be categorised into either the ‘thinker’ or the ‘motivator’ camp, Monsieur Dupraz would certainly fall into the latter.

His arrival galvanised the players, dragging them from 19th position, 10 points adrift with 10 games to play, to Ligue 1 survival by a single point with virtually the last kick of the last match of the season, away at Angers in a thrilling 3-2 away victory… following a pre-match team talk that has now entered into footballing folklore in France, “you’ve got to do it now, not yesterday, not tomorrow, you’ve got to do it now…”. And it was the left boot of Toulouse youngster Yann Bodiger that secured survival, his whipped free kick in the 80th minute guaranteeing Toulouse’s survival in Ligue 1, cult status for the 21-year-old, and surely one of the most memorable moments in the club’s 80 year history.

The wave of raw emotion and pent up energy that Dupraz unleashed in Toulouse, from both the players and the notoriously apathetic fans alike, continued into the start of the 2016/17 season, despite losing in the summer the club’s talismanic striker Wissam Ben Yedder (sold to Sevilla where, after a quiet start he is warming up nicely, 15 goals in 25 appearances in all competitions).

Instead, the squad was strengthened, and the positivity was maintained. The two men tasked with replacing WBY’s goals were the experienced Ligue 1 campaigner Ola Toivonen who came in from Rennes, and the tricky winger Jimmy Durmaz who signed from Greek champions Olympiakos. Equally, Dupraz bolstered a leaky defence that had conceded 57 league goals the season previous by signing the 6ft 5in Christopher Jullien from Freiburg to partner with another defensive giant, 6ft 4 Issa Diop who, like Bodiger and others, had been promoted from Toulouse’s impressive academy.

The season started positively. Toulouse had the confidence of a team playing off the back of an impressive run of five victories, three draws and just two defeats in Dupraz’s first 10 games. Morale-enhancing victories like the 4-1 win at home to Garonne rivals Bordeaux were supplemented by impressive away performances away at Lille (1-2), and defensive lockdowns on two tough away grounds at Marseille (0-0) and at Saint-Etienne (0-0).

The headline victories over reigning Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint Germain (2-0) and a freescoring Monaco (3-1) were the zenith of Durpraz’s wave. Toulouse’s long-suffering fans praised Pascal ‘Dieupraz’ in a play on words that hinted at the manager’s divine qualities, and excitedly talked of Europe. In a city where the oval-ball is king, the unfashionable football team, so often the subject of laughter and mockery, was talked about on an equal footing with the more illustrious Stade.

Times were good. Ben Yedder’s sizeable boots were filled by new captain Martin Braithwaite, the majority whose 10 goals so far this season came in those early games. Each goal he scored came with a donation of €1000 to charitable causes, further endearing him to a Toulousain public that were pinching themselves with the remarkable turnaround in the club’s fortunes.

Alban Lafont, the prodigiously gifted goalkeeper and jewel in Toulouse’s crown, who had made his debut in 2015 at the age of 16, continued to earn rave reviews for his consistency, composure and raw talent that has had him bracketed alongside AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma as a future great of the European game.

Óscar Trejo, the mercurial Argentinian playmaker who had blown hot and cold in previous seasons also came good, with his pulling of the strings in the centre of the pitch being essential to Dupraz’s style of quick attacks from the back to the front. The team was exciting, stylish and tough to beat, and along with Guingamp’s form and PSG’s lack thereof, considered one of the genuinely surprising elements of the first half of the Ligue 1 season.

The dizzying rise was always bound to be followed by a dismaying fall, with the young Toulouse team starting to get caught out. Their sparkling start to the season beginning to unravel before Christmas, leaving the fans increasingly nervous come January. An uncharacteristically limp performance against Lyon (1-2) set in motion a run of results that drove les Violets into a serious rut out from which Dupraz had to once again drag his players, before the all-too-familiar relegation worries set in.

For a club like Toulouse, a loss to a Ligue 1 giant such as Lyon is nothing to be ashamed of. But the subsequent matches to that result, drawing 1-1 at lowly Nantes, being beaten away at relegation-threatened Metz (1-2) and being beaten again on the road at Rennes (0-1) confirmed the end of Dupraz’s famous ‘wave’ and the beginning of a new, more concerning period for the club. Toulouse went seven games without a victory in all competitions, scoring only one goal throughout January 2017. The team once again seemed to be playing with the Arribagé-era shackles that it had so emphatically cast off when Dupraz arrived. The confidence that swept away PSG and Monaco was replaced by self-doubt and a pernicious nervousness.

Proactive as ever, Dupraz didn’t mince his words: “we have suffered too much, we have hidden, we are scared…I invite the players to understand that we cannot always wake up when we are 17th”. And backing up words with actions, he was active in the transfer market, welcoming the promising forward Corentin Jean on loan from Monaco, and beating Saint-Etienne, Rennes and Fiorentina to the €6m signing of Andy Delort from Tigres in Mexico, a move which many in France considered quite a coup for a club of Toulouse’s stature.

And Delort’s signing appears to have given the Dupraz’s Téfécé the shot in the arm that it needed. Strong, swashbuckling, swaggering and with an air of the spectacular (check out his bicycle kick against Bastia for a piece of Zlatanesque skill), Delort appears to have all the attributes for the talismanic striker that the club craves. (Incidentally, Andre-Pierre Gignac, another TFC striking hero was apparently instrumental in persuading his teammate to choose Toulouse over other suitors.) With three goals in his first five games, Delort has brought end product to this team, and equally crucially for Dupraz, a confidence that his team lives or dies by.

Up top things are looking up, and at the back the trio of Diop, Jullien and Lafont are rediscovering their defensive solidity. They locked out PSG at the Parc des Princes, and as the Toulouse bus pulled out of the capital (a bus incidentally that many Parisian fans had accused Toulouse of parking on the pitch), Dupraz must have had a satisfied smile. His side defended heroically, fully displaying their recently rediscovered plucky spirit. A clean sheet against last season’s champions who, in their games either side of the Toulouse match swept aside Barcelona and Marseille, meant that TFC have taken four points from six from PSG this season – as good a record as anyone else in Ligue 1.

Dupraz’s team are a work in progress. Imperious at home yet shaky on the road (eight Ligue 1 victories from 13 at the Stadium Municipal, only one away…), this is a team that is still learning how to manage themselves within games and not let themselves get carried away in victory or defeat. Nevertheless, the fact that Toulouse are now talked about as European candidates as much as they are relegation candidates demonstrates that Dupraz has this team on an upward curve. There’s work to do, of course, starting with keeping Premier League claws off talents like Lafont and Diop, planning for life potentially without Trejo and Braithwaite and ensuring that this season’s safety is met comfortably. But with the transformative figure of Pascal Dupraz at the helm, the club has new-found belief.

 

You can follow this article’s author, Miles Watson, on Twitter @Mileswatson92

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