Ligue 2 End of Season Stuff

Valère Germain
He was not this season’s top scorer, nor was he the assist leader; Valère Germain was simply the best player in the best team. Germain’s consistency was impressive and his continuous improvement over the last two seasons has been startling. In the second half of the season, when Ibrahima Touré lost his shooting boots and went five months without a goal, Germain was often the one to be found opening the scoring or playing a significant role in helping a teammate do it instead. Monaco would not have finished top of the league without him – 27 of their 76 points, some 35%, were the direct result of his goals and assists – and it seems a shame that such a promising player, who at his current rate of progress could be playing for the national team in a few years, will not be permitted to lead Monaco’s attack in the top division.

Jocelyn Gourvennec
With a budget of just €10m (the tenth biggest in the league and a third of Monaco’s resources) Guingamp nonetheless played some scintillating football, especially at home where they lost just once all season, deservedly finishing as league runners-up. The small Breton club have some excellent players, but there is wide agreement among journalists and fellow coaches that the majority of the credit for this achievement should go to Jocelyn Gourvennec, who is developing a reputation as a coach of some repute. Appointed to the post upon Guingamp’s relegation to the National in 2010, Gourvennec took his side back up to Ligue 2 in his first season in charge of a professional club. After a year of consolidation, Gourvennec steered his side to promotion with an emphasis on attractive football, extracting consistently excellent performances from players who were fairly average elsewhere: Jonathan Martins-Pereira, Fatih Atik, Christophe Mandanne and Mustapha Yatabaré – all of whom are in their mid-to-late 20s – all enjoyed probably the best seasons of their respective careers. Should Guingamp keep hold of their players and above all their talented manager, they could provide some excellent entertainment in Ligue 1 next season.

Gianelli Imbula
But then you knew that already. Guingamp’s Gianelli Imbula is ridiculously composed, supremely talented and scarily powerful. There are players who are constantly available for a pass because their off-the-ball movement is so intelligent, and there are player like Imbula who are constantly available for a pass because their touch is so good and upper body so strong that being surrounded by opponents has no discernible impact on their play. Not that Imbula’s movement is bad, far from it. He also possesses a reliably positive passing game, a product of his upright stance and attacking mentality. As good for his age as a midfielder could ever want to be.

Raphaël Guerreiro
2012-13 has been a good year for young talent in Ligue 2, from Monaco’s bright young attackers to Nantes’ promising midfielders, by way of Paul-Georges Ntep, Nicolas Benezet and Zacharie Boucher. I have picked, more or less at random, another player undergoing a similar positive development: Caen left-back Raphaël Guerreiro, a near ever-present (he started 37 out of 38 games) in the tightest defence in the league. He has added some additional defensive steel to his already impressive attacking game and, having decided to represent Portugal at international level, he was rewarded for his good form with his first u20 call up earlier this year. It surely will not be too long before his undefendable crosses start flying across the penalty areas of Ligue 1.

Filip Đorđević
Filip Đorđević has been in France for over five years now, and has always mixed glimpses of talent with long periods of, to put it kindly, unspectacular play. But in the early weeks of this season he exploded into life, and by November he already had more goals than in any other season of his career. His role changed slightly after the mid-season arrival of Fernando Aristeguieta, but he still popped up with vital goals, not least an excellently taken volley away at Caen in week 36 that effectively secured Nantes’ promotion to Ligue 1.

Caen’s forward line.
No stand-out flops here, but Caen’s collective inability to put the ball in the back of the net cost them dearly, especially in the final run-in. Consecutive home draws in April against Lens and Dijon sides reduced to ten men were particularly painful examples of a wider problem. They didn’t manage to score more than twice in any game after Christmas (and managed the feat only four times all season). Last summer’s loss of Romain Hamouma and the failure to adequately replace his directness from wide positions was probably the difference between promotion and another season in the second tier.

This should go to Le Havre’s perennially pleasing Oxbridge combination, but their kit is ruined by being sponsored by SuperU. I would give it to Caen out of spite, but their stripes are too thin, so Chateauroux it is.

Durak’s preposterous volley for Niort against Dijon in week 9

Angers 1-1 Caen, week 33
Ligue 2 is almost always a close-run thing, with plenty of matches that both teams are happy enough to not lose; only occasionally will you get games that both teams are obliged to win. With Monaco, Nantes and Guingamp playing well and picking up points, Angers and Caen went into their match in week 33 knowing that a draw would not be of much use to either. Cue a fantastic, end-to-end chance-fest that got better and better as the clock ran down and only finished 1-1 thanks to two excellent goalkeeping performances from Damien Perquis and Greg Malicki. The latter was my pick for goalkeeper of the year, playing probably the strongest season of his career at the age of 39.

TEAM OF THE YEAR (4-1-2-1-2)
Malicki; Jonathan Martins-Pereira, Raggi, Cichero, Guerreiro; Mendy; Imbula, El Jadeyaoui; Gragnic; Germain, Yatabaré.


The Long Game – Mourinho

“That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill”[1]

“Not every win is a gain.”[2]

It is one of the central paradoxes of sport, and football in particular: the nature of football as a contest means that we want to win, either as participants or as supporters. Yet there is a great sense of unease when the focus on the end rather than the means becomes too strong, and the higher up in football one goes the greater that unease becomes.

The case for the importance on winning above all else is often made by stressing how people “just want their names in the record books”. But this is illogical nonsense. The pure data of the results obtained in competition, even at its most detailed, is nothing next to the tomes of articles and books written about how these results were obtained and how the football in question made people feel. Once a certain threshold of achievement has been surpassed, history does not concern itself with what you won, but how you won it.

Which brings us to José Mourinho. For the first time in his career Mourinho has failed and his career trajectory, until recently rather straight, now has a noticeable kink in it. More than anyone else in the modern game, Mourinho focused on the end rather than the means. This is not a commentary on his tactics, simply a manner of highlighting the fact that Mourinho defined himself not by the kind of football he offered to the public but by the fact that he won. But as several people found themselves asking during his third year in Madrid, what does one call a winner when he does not win? This question, combined with a view of football encapsulated by those quotes at the top of the page, provokes a certain disquiet about Mourinho’s methods, all the more so when you view the situation not from the present, but from the future. How will Mourinho be remembered? How will his achievements be assessed when his career ends and in the decades that follow? Will coaches of the future cite him as a reference the way Jurgen Klopp did Arrigo Sacchi after Borussia Dortmund’s triumph over Real Madrid, or will his legacy be that of someone who took from football in the form of trophies, but did not give in terms of a significant positive contribution, tactical or otherwise. To answer a question concerning the future, we can revisit the past.

Mourinho had historical baggage from the very start of his career. His rapid ascent to the very top of European club management meant that there was an awareness very early on that this was someone who would enter the pantheon of the most successful managers, certainly of his own time and perhaps of all time. The desire to profit from Mourinho’s media-magnetism provoked countless biographies, documentaries and opinion pieces that have given us a wide range of attempts to place the Portuguese in a historical context, often by comparing him to greats of the past.

We have had Mourinho as Arrigo Sacchi, someone who had no career as a player but whose obsession with the game and desire to control the playing area allowed him to become arguably the dominant manager of his time.

We have had Mourinho as Brian Clough, a quick-witted and brilliant talker, as effective at getting the press hanging on his every word as he was at extracting the maximum from players who came to see him as a father figure.

We have had Mourinho as Helenio Herrera, a master of psychology who felt that he was wrongly accused of playing defensively by people who did not understand his system and erroneously associated his football with lesser imitations.

Most notably, we have had Mourinho as Béla Guttmann, the restless genius whose capacity for winning trophies was only matched by his ability to fall out with club administrators.

My personal favourite is Mourinho as Alf Ramsey, a formidably confident and determined individual, but overly keen on turning football into a battle and whose methods were questioned even while he was successful. The great Hugh McIlvanney, long-time sports writer for the Observer and the Sunday Times, wrote a fascinating report in response to West Germany’s 3-1 win over England in the first leg of the quarter final of the 1972 European Championship, the beginning of the end for Ramsay’s England team. Change the names and the parallels are frighteningly prescient of Mourinho’s current position and reputation in football:

“The greatest criticism to be made of Mourinho’s teams is that their really memorable performances, the days on which they overwhelmed the opposition with brilliance rather than grinding them down with dour efficiency, could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It is that truth that is behind the wave of resentment which has risen from Mourinho’s failure with Real Madrid. Cautious joyless football was scarcely bearable even while it was bringing victories. When it brings defeat there can be only one reaction. Obviously, some of those who are offering the noisiest condemnation of Mourinho are being hypocritical, for they were happy enough to ride with him while the results were good.

Those of us who have always had serious misgivings about his approach have neither the need nor the desire to gloat. What is happening now we always felt to be inevitable, because anyone who sets out to prove that football is about sweat rather than inspiration, about winning rather than glory, is sure to be found out in the end.

It is as true as it is unrewarding to say that what Mourinho requires now is not a different team but a different philosophy. His method was, to be fair, justifiable with Porto, when he had more limited resources, but since then it has become an embarrassment.

Mourinho should stop sending his teams on to the football field as if they are going to war. They should start playing the game again.”

With the exception of Clough[3] all of the coaches put forward as historical equivalents of Mourinho have something in common with each other besides an impressive Palmarès: Within a few years of their greatest achievements as managers, they were considered obsolete. Either out of management entirely, no longer desired by major clubs or no longer capable of achieving results.

Just as great teams fall having become parodies of themselves, so do great managers. When taken beyond the elastic limits, the very characteristics that allow them to get to the top either lose their effectiveness or become serious flaws.

The attributes that make Mourinho the winner he is when he wins are also what make him the failure he is when he fails. These attributes were also to be found in the great managers of the past with whom Mourinho has been compared, but having seen what befell them it would not be a surprise if Mourinho’s career from this point is marked more by failures than wins.

But whether he wins or not is, in my opinion, irrelevant. It is the manner in which Mourinho wins or loses, and the football that his teams play in doing so, that will determine his long-term reputation. More significant than the trophies Mourinho takes from football, however many, is the legacy, however small, that he gives to football. Will he be a reference for the coaches of the future? Will he be held up as someone to emulate, or as a warning? The answer will probably be a bit of both. Perhaps they will possess the same drive and attention to detail, but without the abrasiveness that so defines Mourinho. And perhaps, as McIlvanney hoped, they will send their teams onto the field not to do battle, but to play football.


[1] The response of Juanma Lillo to Sid Lowe’s suggestion that it could be considered normal to analyse football matches by taking the result and then explaining it.

[2] Norbert Seitz’s summation of Jupp Derwall’s phenomenally successful yet widely despised West Germany side of the late 70s and early 80s, as quoted by Uli Hesse in Tor.

[3] And even Clough got nowhere near the heights of his achievements with Derby and Forest after 1981. A UEFA Cup Semi-Final, some third place League finishes and a pair of League Cups is hardly a poor return, but having set the bar so high Clough still fits the trend of (relative) decline.

The Long Game – Introduction

Football was never merely a sport to be enjoyed for its own sake, either for me or for anyone else, and I am fascinated by the minutiae of why we follow football and how we interact with it. For me, football has been first and foremost a learning tool; for geography, politics, religions, languages, human nature and above all for history.

History is an impossibly vast subject. My favourite metaphor for history is that of a building the size of a continent. This building is filled with rooms, some bigger, some smaller, most visible through the windows on the exterior, a few completely hidden deep inside. There are no doors. All you can do is look through the window or windows you think show you best what it is you want to find out about the rooms you want to look at. The size of our building means that one only has time to truly gain expertise in what is visible through two or three windows. The rooms contain the events of the past. The windows are the types of historical investigation that are open to us.

Football is my favourite of the windows through which I choose to look at history. But in the same way that one’s hobbies can provoke or aid an interest in formal study, so those studies can influence the ways in which we interact with our hobbies. My fascination with history, and the history of football in particular, has a huge influence on my attitude as a fan of the sport[1]. My desire to understand where the sport came from, and how the society in which the sport resides came to take shape, provokes a fascination on where this society and the sport within it are going. My happiness or sadness at the outcomes of matches, tournaments or seasons take up relatively little of the time I devote to thinking about football, such is my interest in the more long term developments.

These pieces are thoughts on – and hopefully in some cases answers to – some of the questions I have asked myself over the last few years. In most cases I am simply writing, from a starting point of relative ignorance, articles that I would prefer to read. Where I have strayed unknowingly into ground that has previously been explored in greater depth, further contributions and corrections are of course welcome.

The issues I will deal with in this series will be fairly specific, but the underlying questions that provoke them are much broader. What state is football in? How did it get to that state? Where is it going? Are there lessons from history generally or the history of football in particular that can help us to understand the sport today and in the future? This is the brief; to study the game as one that lasts longer than 90 minutes.


[1] Especially as someone who no longer follows a club side and who never felt particularly comfortable in the world of partisan support.