Angers are starting to turn heads with their unconventional beauty | Football
The term “jolie laide” cannot be directly paired with an English word. It literally translates as “pretty-ugly” and is used to describe someone with unconventional beauty. In a footballing sense, few sides embody jolie laide more than Stéphane Moulin’s functional yet compelling Angers team. Quietly one of Europe’s best run clubs for some years, Angers are now starting to turn heads.
Their 2-0 win at Toulouse on Wednesday night, combined with PSG’s shock 2-0 defeat at home to Reims, means they are now level with the champions at the top of Ligue 1. That win in Toulouse, secured thanks to a brace from Moroccan forward Rachid Alioui, was their fifth victory in their first seven games this season. Their 4-1 drubbing of Europa League-weary St Étienne on Sunday was perhaps the pick of those victories.
Their current league position may be unfamiliar for Angers fans, but performances and results of this kind are not. Since the club was promoted to Ligue 1 in 2015, Stéphane Moulin has routinely masterminded obdurate, intense and precise performances. The manager has the 17th small budget in the league but he makes them difficult to beat and has led them to four comfortable, midtable finishes in the top tier.
Back in Ligue 1 for the first time since the 1993-94 season, Angers were in third at Christmas in 2015 after a typically bullish start. They only lost one of their first 11 games that season, beating Marseille, Lyon, Lille and Montpellier along the way. They have often troubled the established Ligue 1 elite. For example, in their eight games against Marseille since returning to the top flight, they have collected five draws (none being goalless) and one win. They reached the Coupe de France final in 2017 and only lost to PSG because they scored an own goal in the 91st minute.
Although finishes of 9th, 12th, 14th and 13th hardly stand out, Moulin and general manager Olivier Pickeu’s ability to maintain and remould an effective team with such little resource each year is remarkable. In a league where every club is scouring the lower tiers and value-for-money foreign markets to emulate the recent financial and sporting success of Monaco and Nice, Angers have become the masters of scouting and developing under-the-radar talent from the French second division.
The 11 players who routed St Étienne on Sunday were all either promoted with the club in 2015, signed from Ligue 2 or came up with Nîmes last season. While many clubs undergo widespread player turnover upon promotion, usually looking to sign experienced Ligue 1 talent, the team that shocked Montpellier 2-0 on the opening day in 2015 was made up entirely of players either promoted with Angers or signed from a Ligue 2 club.
Since then, Moulin and Pickeu have unearthed, developed and sold on at a profit a host of second-tier talent, enabling the club to remain financially healthy. Karl Toko-Ekambi was signed from struggling Ligue 2 side Sochaux; he scored 16 goals in Ligue 1 in 2017-18 and was then sold to Villarreal for close to €20m. Attacking midfielder Flavien Tait was picked up from then third-tier Chateauroux in 2016 for less than €350,000; he became the team’s most creative and important player and was sold on to Rennes for €10m this summer.
The Angers success stories are endless. Baptiste Santamaria, now one of Ligue 1’s best holding midfielders, joined from lowly Ligue 2 club Tours, where he was often used on the right of midfield. Napoli were keen to sign him this summer. Jeff Reine-Adélaïde was picked up on the cheap from Arsenal last year. His development under Moulin was so rapid that Lyon signed him for more than €20m last month. Nicolas Pépé also enjoyed his breakthrough season at the club before he was sold to Lille for an eight-figure sum.
Moulin is now the longest serving manager in Europe’s top five leagues and with good reason. His astute, pragmatic, yet bold management continues to be the catalyst for Angers’ rise. His teams are well organised, powerful, pacey, clever in possession (an attribute Moulin has maintained across several incarnations of his midfield) and almost telepathically cohesive. Santamaria aptly referred to his teammates as “11 warriors” last night, while Moulin highlighted the fact that each player, even the newcomers, were “in tune” with his ideas.
Goals are rare in Angers games – at both ends of the pitch – but Moulin’s player have a tendency to conjure theirs from a swift counter or a well-drilled set play. Only once has the manager’s success looked like faltering – when his team fell into the bottom two over the winter in the 2017-18 season. His contract was running down at the same time but the club wisely kept faith in their coach and awarded him a new deal. Normal service was quickly resumed.
Despite their better players being routinely picked off each summer, Moulin and Pickeu (whose future has been questioned lately, with Monaco and St Étienne keen to pinch him in recent years) have always been able to replace their stars. Mathias Pereira Lage, recently signed from Ligue 2 side Clermont, may be the next standout. His hat-trick of assists off the bench against St Étienne, combined with his versatility, vision and precise technical ability, may make this his season only campaign with the club. Rayan Ait-Nouri, a skilful 18-year-old left-back who already has two assists this season, could be close behind.
Moulin’s ability to routinely squeeze consistent displays from a host of workmanlike players is phenomenal. Centre-back pair Romain Thomas and Ismaël Traoré, versatile forward Pierrick Capelle and ball-playing midfielder Thomas Mangani have been at the club since that surprise opening-day win over Montpellier four years ago.
All are now beyond 30 and won’t be following Toko-Ekambi or Romain Saiss to more prestigious clubs, but they form Angers’ spine and have again been pivotal in 2019. Who knows, Europe could be next as Moulin’s unconventionally beautiful team continue to defy expectations.
Ligue 1 talking points
• PSG were much depleted in that 2-0 defeat against Reims. Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani, Julien Draxler and Mauro Icardi were injured; Thiago Silva and Idrissa Gueye were rested; Marco Verratti was suspended; and Thomas Meunier, Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos started the game on the bench. It was their first home defeat in the league (asides from when the title has already been secured) since 2012. Last season their second defeat of the campaign came in April, when the title all but won. But, in this campaign, their misfortune and complacency is keeping it tight at the top for now.
• Embattled St Étienne coach Ghislain Printant was reportedly asked to resign on Monday, just 48 hours before his side were to face promoted Metz on Wednesday evening. Largely appointed due to his popularity with the players, Printant has won just once in eight games, as last season’s fourth place side sit 19th. However, Printant, the assistant to former coach Jean-Louis Gasset, refused to leave in a meeting with President Roland Romeyer and has promised to battle on. Nonetheless, after a disastrous 1-0 home loss, he is teetering on the edge.