Claude Puel joins St Étienne and immediately turns up heat on Lyon | Football
Flanked by a pair of beefy security guards, Sylvinho emerged from a cloud of billowing pink smoke. To his left was a horde of Lyon fans, barely restrained by a makeshift barrier, clambering for a high five or simply to voice their support. It was a scene more akin to the front row of the pyramid stage at Glastonbury than the Lyon training ground. But in the week of the Rhône-Alpes derby, everything is turned up tenfold. With St Étienne and Lyon both in crisis, this one meant more than most.
Both clubs had enjoyed a productive week on the continent – Lyon beat RB Leipzig in Germany in the Champions League on Wednesday and St Étienne secured a draw against Wolfsburg in the Europa League 24 hours later – but, as the week progressed, it looked as if Sunday night’s derby might be the last hurrah for both coaches. As it turned out, St Étienne boss Ghislain Printant did not even make it to the weekend. He took training on Friday morning before being replaced by former Leicester City manager Claude Puel that afternoon.
Printant had seemed like an astute choice for the job when Jean-Louis Gasset retired in May. He had served as Gasset’s assistant, was a respected coach and enjoyed strong support from the St Étienne players, who backed his appointment and thought he would continue Gasset’s fine work. It did not work out that way. They were 19th in the league when he left on Friday.
St Étienne have lurched from one disaster – and manager – to the next since Christophe Galtier’s increasingly dreary reign ended in 2017. Puel is the fifth manager the club have appointed since Galtier left. Óscar García was in charge for just 13 games before he resigned amid arguments over recruitment; he left the club in November 2017 after a humiliating 5-0 home defeat to Lyon, perhaps the worst night in the club’s history. The young and inexperienced Julien Sablé was ill-prepared for the task of replacing García and he was gone after six games.
Gasset took the job in December 2017, becoming the club’s third manager that season. With Printant by his side, he dragged the club upwards. St Étienne were bold and organised under Gasset but they became porous and blunt under his former assistant this season. They beat Nîmes 1-0 last weekend – ending a run of six league games without a victory – but Printant’s fate was sealed.
The swift change of managers at St Étienne may put the club step ahead of their Rhône rivals. Lyon appointed former Arsenal full-back Sylvinho – who, like Printant, had mostly served as an assistant beforehand – in the summer to replace Bruno Génésio. He joined the club in partnership with new sporting director and Lyon legend Juninho Punumbercano.
It was an unexpected combination but the idea seemed to be working at the start of the season. Juninho had the goodwill of the fans and Sylvinho’s team began the campaign with two resounding victories, winning 3-0 at Monaco on the opening day of the season and then hammering Angers 6-0 in their first home game. The club’s outspoken president, Jean Michel Aulas, had never relinquished this much control, but his decision to back the all-Brazilian ticket seemed like a masterstroke.
However, results have tailed off badly since that bright start. Lyon have not won a game in Ligue 1 since they put six goals past Angers in August. They were capable of upsetting stronger foes under Génésio, but that has not been the case under Sylvinho. They have quickly run out of ideas under the Brazilian, who tinkers his tactics from game to game while somehow ensuring his side remains ultra conservative and unimaginative. His position was debated all week in the build-up to the derby and it looks even more precarious now. St Étienne won the match 1-0, leading Aulas to state, ominously: “We cannot do nothing.”
Puel had less than 48 hours with his new players before the derby, but he wasted no time in making changes. St Étienne had become a home for Premier League outcasts under Gasset – who squeezed the best from Wahbi Khazri, Mathieu Debuchy and Yann M’Vila (Yohan Cabaye also joined this summer), but Puel decided to put his faith in young players. Khazri and Cabaye were benched for the match, with 20-year-old midfielder Zaydou Youssouf, 19-year-old forward Charles Abi and 18-year-old defender William Saliba all given their chance.
The St Étienne fans were typically boisterous but, with both teams deploying three centre-backs and primarily aiming to avoid defeat, the match passed without major incident until the 86th minute, when Houssem Aouar skipped passed Saliba and was presented with a clear chance to score for Lyon. He missed. Four minutes later, St Étienne substitute Robert Beric punished him for that mistake, latching on to a pinpoint cross from Ryad Boudabouz to score a fine header. Le Chaudron exploded.
Although this win was a grind, Puel now has the platform to build something with St Étienne. This is a huge club with a vehement fanbase, a steady stream of youth products and the ability to lure quality players. The form of their rivals gives them hope of pushing for a Champions League spot. Lyon are in a slump; Lille are struggling to cope after their turnover of players in the summer; Marseille have a stale and stodgy squad; Monaco are perpetually in transition; and Angers and Nantes will surely dip at some point. Puel is a former Lyon manager, yet the passion with which he celebrated Beric’s winner will have helped him win over some fans.
Sylvinho, on the other hand, may not make it to the other side of the international break. He does not seem to trust his top scorer, Moussa Dembélé, and he does not seem to know his best team. Such uncertainty will not win friends in the stands or with his president. After his team’s limp defeat in the fiercest of all French derbies, the Brazilian may soon be making a quiet exit.
Ligue 1 talking points
• After Angers lost 4-0 at PSG on Saturday afternoon, Nantes became the latest club to enjoy a spell in second place in Ligue 1. Angers’ form this season has been impressive, but Nantes’ record of six wins from nine games verges on the miraculous. Having fallen out with cantankerous president Waldemar Kita, coach Vahid Halilhodzic left the club just before the season began, saying they needed to sign eight or nine first-team players. The club was nearly relegated last season after suffering the devastating loss of Emiliano Sala, so incoming manager Christian Gourcuff had a difficult job in front of him. He has revitalised the club. Repurposing midfielder Andrei Girotto as a centre-back has proved revelatory; the loss of influential captain Valentin Rongier to Marseille has been quietly covered by Mehdi Abeid from Dijon; and youth products such as Kader Bamba, Sammy Moutoussamy and Imran Louza have been trusted to fill gaps. Nantes have scored just nine goals in their nine games so far this season, but they have somehow managed to win at Lyon, beat Rennes in their own huge derby, and beat Nice this weekend – all 1-0. Nantes have been in crisis for some time but finally, thanks to Gourcuff, they are bouncing back.
• Amiens’ 3-1 win over Marseille was something of a statement for young Slovenian coach Luka Elsner. Elsner did not have much top level experience when he joined the club in May, making him a risky choice to replace Christophe Pélissier, who had guided Amiens to two successive promotions and then kept them in Ligue 1 – a massive overachievement given their resources. Amiens started the season badly, winning just one of their first five games, but they have slowly turned things around. The return of Gaël Kakuta has helped; he signed in the summer, having previously enjoyed a loan spell at the club. In-form striker Serhou Guirassy is providing a steady stream of goals; and defenders Aurelien Chedjou and Christophe Jallet are providing some much needed experience. Elsner’s team are currently above Lyon, St Étienne and Monaco in the table, so maybe he was a safer bet than people thought.