Football is more complex at the top than at the bottom. At the top of the table, teams are afforded the luxury of complexity. Managers have the resources to embrace idealism and purism and they can experiment and drive towards perfection. There’s often an absence of urgency in becoming solely outcome-based, as positive results are usually a base expectation. Things only get desperate when those expectations aren’t met. At that point, it becomes hard to distinguish between the attitudes of those at the bottom and struggling top teams but it’s at the bottom of the table that abstract concepts like grit and determination find their home.
Usually, such clubs don’t have the resources to compete tactically with the bigger or objectively better teams. They tend to focus on advantages beyond tactics. Some look to physicality to bridge the gap, others embrace mental facets. There’s also a focus on simplifying things, causing disruption to the process and taking full advantage of moments in games. Title races are nice but nothing truly beats the drama of relegation battles because of the weight of those non-tactical concepts.
Few understand this better than Pascal Dupraz. If you’ve seen Al Pacino’s famous ‘Inches’ speech from Any Given Sunday, then you’ve seen Dupraz’s own famous impassioned monologue. Dupraz’s team talk the night before his Toulouse side’s pivotal final day trip to Angers in 2016 went viral and brought tears to his players’ eyes. A dramatic 3-2 win saw Toulouse survive having been 10 points adrift with 10 games to go. Now, Dupraz has been hired to repeat the miracle at the similarly threatened Saint-Étienne. So far, with similar ideas, he looks likely to pull it off – minus the late-season drama.
Before appointing Dupraz, despite a talented squad, relegation was a genuine concern for France’s record champions. Les Verts won just two of their first 18 Ligue 1 games, losing the previous four. A first league win only came in early November, their 13th game. Claude Puel was finally been shown the door in early December but, in less than two months, Dupraz has turned it around.
Some fans voiced concerns about his lack of tactical acuity. Those concerns are valid, considering that Dupraz takes a far less nuanced than Puel and the fate of his previous teams – an underwhelming spell at Caen followed his Toulouse side’s regression once the euphoria of their dramatic escape had died down. What Dupraz provides, though, is something Puel couldn’t.
Dupraz’s leadership is like adrenaline when you’re in danger. He can make you do the improbable, but when that danger disappears, there’s little left to fall back on. Sustaining that adrenaline-induced level has been tough for Dupraz teams because there isn’t enough depth to his base processes. Even so, those Dupraz-sceptic fans were wrong to question his signing. Their club’s survival was no longer linked to tactical nous, allegedly provided by Puel, it had become a sheer mental and physical struggle that transcended tactical battles.
Since Dupraz’s arrival, Saint-Étienne players have repeatedly stated how he’s quickly forged a strong relationship with the squad. It’s clear that he’s focused on getting them emotionally invested again, ready to fight for their manager. This may be clichéd but it’s made a world of difference. Puel made things too complex as desperation set in with relentless tinkering. The players stopped believing in his ideas. As Sky Sports pundit and former Manchester United defender Gary Neville will tell you, as he found out during a brief managerial spell at Valencia, when your players start to doubt whether or not you know what you are doing – because you keep changing things, veering far from the original ideas you sold them – you’ll struggle to recover.
Football is a game for emotions. If you can’t maintain your squad’s emotional buy-in, you’re in trouble. Dupraz understands this. It helps that he’s a naturally emotional, even feisty, person who seems to know how to make his players feel things. A facet that will always be powerful at the bottom of the table. You can already see how it’s emboldened his players to make comebacks in multiple games, even when performances have been far from spectacular.
Dupraz has also simplified things. In a relegation battle, you need a unique blend of simplicity and clarity. He’s found a structure that works within weeks and is sticking with it, he’s simplifying his players’ roles and his reading of games and substitutions has been largely effective. On the ball, ASSE finally look coordinated and in sync, and everyone knows their job, in both off-the-ball movements and on-the-ball actions. There’s a greater emphasis on the collective as part of a simple and clear plan. The more they get results, the more confident and assured they will become.
It remains to be seen what will follow if Pascal Dupraz delivers on his mandate and sees his contract extended beyond the end of the season. A dilemma may then present itself if his method is scrutinized as it’s hard to see Les Verts running on the same fuel that got them out of the bottom three for long. Dupraz’s processes will need to be sustainable and rely less on the relationship between squad and coach. Something more complex would have to be established tactically which can function in the absence of the Dupraz adrenaline. How it ended at Toulouse serves as a concrete warning to not get carried away. For now, Saint-Étienne fans can rest assured that they’re in the hands of the perfect man to alleviate their relegation fears and take them to safety.
Astorre S. Cerebrone