After a four-month wait for French football to return, it did not take long for service to resume as normal. It was a promising start at the Stade de France witnessed by 4,100 mask-wearing, Covid-19 regulation-compliant supporters, as a buoyant St Étienne took charge in the Coupe de France final, hitting the post after five minutes and uncharacteristically taking the game to PSG. But St Étienne have not beaten PSG in their last 21 attempts and they were soon behind. Neymar’s simple finish, rounding off PSG’s first meaningful attacking foray, made it 1-0 against the run of play.
Having fallen behind after 15 minutes, Sainté were a man down after half an hour – as they had been in their other two fixtures against PSG this season. In what may be the last game of his career, club legend, captain and all-round nice guy (usually) Loïc Perrin was dismissed for a lunging tackle on Kylian Mbappé. The PSG forward was forced off with an ankle injury and the ensuing brawl produced five bookings (including Marco Verratti’s customary yellow, despite being on the substitutes’ bench at the time). It was a nightmare scenario for quintessential one-club-man Perrin.
St Étienne keeper Jessy Moulin produced some heroics to keep the score at 1-0 and his teammates put PSG under some pressure towards the end, but they could not fashion a genuine opening. PSG return to the Stade de France on Friday to face Lyon in the last-ever Coupe de la Ligue final before travelling to Portugal for their Champions League quarter-final against Atalanta. Puel, meanwhile, now has four weeks to prepare for the new Ligue 1 season.
St Étienne finished 17th in the truncated league season, perilously close to relegation, and Puel faces the tricky task of transforming an increasingly stale team. The first half on Friday represented Puel’s reign in microcosm. The team started quickly and Dennis Bouanga, whose performances kept the club in Ligue 1, could have scored a hat-trick. He struck the upright and forced two close-range saves from Keylor Navas in the first 20 minutes. But their hopes disintegrated quickly, much like Sainté’s form did this season after going unbeaten in Puel’s first nine games in charge.
The seasoned former Leicester and Southampton coach has already made sweeping changes. Whereas other French clubs have sought to develop local players with a view to selling them on at a profit, St Étienne had until recently been putting their faith in established names. Experienced players such as Yann M’Vila, Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy and Ryad Boudebouz were signed in recent years, joining fellow thirty-somethings like Perrin and Romain Hamouma.
That philosophy has shifted under Puel, with St Étienne now looking to emulate clubs such as Nice, Angers, NîmesNimes and Reims in utilising cheaper, under-the-radar markets, as well as giving academy products a chance. Two of the club’s three most recent additions, full-back Yvann Maçon and striker Jean-Philippe Krasso, have come from the third and fourth tiers respectively. Both played at the Stade de France on Friday night. The other, exciting 18-year-old France youth forward Adil Aouchiche, came through the PSG academy.
Puel has also started to clear house. Cabaye was released, Wahbi Khazri is drifting further from first choice; and veteran goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier was dropped and exiled for perceived poor performances – even being denied access to the training ground by a bailiff earlier this month. Puel clearly has a vision. Earlier this year he said the previous model could not “develop” the club.
“Rather than buying an established player, I would like to recruit, train and improve him,” said the coach, who has been afforded unprecedented power to realise his ideas. As well as oversight on player recruitment, Puel and his choice of general manager, Xavier Thuilot, have been given places on the club’s executive board alongside co-presidents Bernard Caïazzo and Roland Romeyer. Another of Puel’s side-kicks, Jean-Luc Buisine, was enlisted as sporting director in May.
Puel has tried to instil a meritocratic selection policy, a positive for Boudebouz who told RMC the coach had “given a lot of players a chance” and “brought back competition” adding: “When everyone feels involved and nobody feels like their position is safe, it changes a lot.” However, others have been less than enthusiastic. Mirroring the criticism he received in England, the 58-year-old’s apparent lack of charisma has made it difficult for some to invest in such an overhaul. “He is a good coach … maybe without good manners,” M’Vila said on Instagram. “He is not close to the players like we have previously experienced. You can walk alongside him without him talking to you, saying nothing.”
Perceived lack of personality aside, Puel has the right idea. St Étienne need change. Despite clinging on to European football throughout Christophe Galtier’s eight-year reign, they became increasingly unwatchable and defensive. Even after Galtier left in 2017 results continued to disappoint, as their squad grew older and more workmanlike. Despite a brief spark of hope under Jean-Louis Gasset, they can no longer compete near the top of Ligue 1.
Clubs such as Reims, who have invested in France’s biggest youth training facility; Angers, who continually unearth hidden gems; and Nice, who have made huge profits from player sales under the guidance of president Jean-Pierre Rivère and transfer guru Julien Fournier, make Sainté look embarrassingly old-fashioned. When William Saliba signed for Arsenal for €30m last year, he became their first academy product to be sold for big money since Kurt Zouma left for Chelsea for €15m in January 2014.
Sainté increasingly need that kind of cash injection. Although there is a new broadcast rights deal in place for next season, a report from Ernst & Young suggests French football has lost out on €1.27bn (£1.16bn) in revenue owing to Covid-19 and the decision, seemingly based on a misunderstanding between Uefa and the French government, not to complete the 2019-20 campaign. St Étienne have reportedly been one of the worst hit clubs financially as a result of the stoppage.
Although Puel conceded “transfers at €4m or €5m will no longer be possible,” he has a solid base of players. 19-year-old Wesley Fofana is perhaps the most exciting centre-back prospect in Ligue 1; midfielders Mahdi Camara (22) and Zaydou Youssouf (21) both impressed in the 2019-20 season; and forward Maxence Rivera (18) has shown there is more to come from Sainté’s academy.
Genuine change in the short-term will be tough, however. Despite some heroic second-half graft from his players, their defeat to PSG illustrated again that Puel has not come up with a plan that does not rely on Bouanga, who may leave soon. After narrowly avoiding relegation following some wayward form, Puel’s status is not as safe as his far-reaching power at the club would seem to suggest. The manager and team need to show some big improvements when the new season starts in August.