Le50 2017 – Ronaël Pierre-Gabriel
It’s fair to say that Saint-Etienne’s last home game of the season could have gone rather better as a send-off to Christophe Galtier after eight years at the helm, as they conceded five to an on-fire PSG. Galtier’s last roll of the dice, 4-0 down after 80 minutes, was a characteristic like-for-like change of his right-back, removing the frazzled Kevin Malcuit for 19-year-old Ronaël Pierre-Gabriel.
Born in Paris, and having played at junior level there, he had trials at ASSE and Inter Milan, before joining les Verts as a 16-year-old. His reasoning? His father is a Saint-Etienne fan, and he was also aware that a move abroad at such a young age could be too much, a view backed up by Clément Lucas, his coach in Paris – too hazardous, he said, for a super player, although maybe also too modest.
In this, his first full senior season, Pierre-Gabriel made his first starts in goalless draws at home to Toulouse and away at Nantes before having to leave the field after only half an hour against Lille (also goalless at the time) with a hamstring injury. This ruled him out for most of the first half of the season, which must have been massively frustrating for a player looking to kick on after a handful of Ligue 1 games and some cup action in 2015/16.
Mostly a right-back, les Verts’ frequent injury woes have also seen Pierre-Gabriel at left-back, or left wing-back, on several occasions. Most of his appearances came once 4-3-3 was their go-to formation, after a slightly more ‘throw it at the wall’ approach to formations in the first half of the season, in which he displayed his strengths, in tackling and interceptions. Also, a fairly conservative approach to getting forward, not overly prone to bomb on – his dribbling is good and he can hold onto the ball well, but his passing can be a little random at times, and his aerial game could do with some work. The extent to which this restraint was down to the overall Saint-Etienne approach, and how much to his own characteristics, may be more easily gauged with the change in manager.
Pierre-Gabriel dealt both with his own injury, and those of others, and was finally able to put a run of games together in March and April, which run of six starts saw his two best performances of the season, away at Bastia and Dijon, and also earned him a call-up to the U19s, after playing a couple of matches for the U18s the year before. Unfortunately, the end of the season saw him injured again, and there would be no U20 World Cup trip to Seoul.
The goalless draw at Bastia may not have been the most thrilling football match ever played, but was a stern test of a young player’s concentration and application – with a stand closed at Furiani, there was a strange atmosphere, not helped by an extremely worrying injury to Vincent Pajot shortly before half-time, clear knocked-out by Nicolas Saint-Ruf (red card), and evidently in a very bad way. From a footballing perspective, things didn’t pick up as Pajot’s replacement, Fabien Lemoine, was also sent off off in the second half, so it finished ten-v-ten. But for Pierre-Gabriel, before his replacement in the 80th minute, it was a solid and measured performance that summed him up. Ditto in the 1-0 away win in Dijon, where his restrained style means he is rarely in shot for Saint-Etienne’s (rare) threatening moments, but his value showed late on as he came to counter Pierre Lees-Melou – where not tackling or intercepting, he can also get in the way, compromise a cross, to frustrate his opponents.
After injury did for the first half of his season and has now done the same for a chance to move up to a new age category at international level, next season will be key. With Kevin Malcuit moving on to Lille, and Kevin Theophile-Catherine also playing cover at centre-back, Pierre-Gabriel’s chances look good even if a new manager comes in who might be inclined to play fewer defenders simultaneously. He seems well-set to deal with that – the pressure of playing at such a young age is considerable, but his example is colleague Loic Perrin, who didn’t rush it, and sounds like a good person to have advising a young player. RPG may not be rocket-propelled, but he’s also not role-playing. He’s here for the long term.