Claude Puel clings to his job as winless Saint-Étienne prop up Ligue 1 table
“My future? Ah good, do you know something?” said an angry Claude Puel earlier this month when he was asked about his position as Saint-Étienne manager. “There are 29 matches left and we’re preparing for a marathon to move up the table match after match.” Now 10 games into the season, Puel’s team remain bottom of Ligue 1 without a win. Their 5-1 thrashing at Strasbourg on Sunday was a low point in a depressing campaign.
Saint-Étienne had come into the season with some optimism. Eight wins from 15 league games at the end of last season had rescued some respectability and 11th place for Puel’s side after just one win in their previous 18 games. Such promising results, however, quickly evaporated. The fixture list has not been kind – Saint-Étienne have already faced the six best sides in the division outside of PSG – but Puel will be fortunate to survive the week, let alone the rest of the season.
Puel has the tools to produce better results. The club’s decision to put their faith in young players due to financial restraints and switch away from ageing bigger names such as Mathieu Debuchy and Yohan Cabaye has yielded a promising crop. Their 23-year-old captain, Mahdi Camara, is a busy holding midfielder who could soon be the subject of interest from abroad. Camara’s midfield partner Yvan Neyou, a leftfield addition from Braga’s B team, has become a stalwart for Puel and an international for Cameroon. The 23-year-old right-back, Yvann Maçon, showed real promise before he suffered a bad knee injury last season. And the two teenagers, the centre-back Saïdou Sow and powerful defensive midfielder Lucas Gourna-Douath, have potential.
The most promising youngster at the club is Etienne Green, a goalkeeper who was born in Colchester to an English father and a French mother. Few players in football have a more fitting name than the 21-year-old. Despite only breaking into the team this year amid Covid absentees – he kept a clean sheet and saved a penalty on his debut in April – Green has become the most exciting goalkeeping talent in France.
He lacks the physicality of some of his peers, but his reflexes are unerringly sharp and, like a young Iker Casillas, he has the knack of producing stunning saves at crucial moments. He has declared for England and, if he stays on his current trajectory, he has the ability to become the national team’s next great goalkeeper.
The young talent in the squad is complemented by players with Ligue 1 pedigree. Defender Timothée Kolodziejczak (30) has experience with Lyon, Nice, Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach; Wahbi Khazri has previously led attacks at Rennes and Bordeaux to good effect; the versatile Gabonese forward Denis Bouanga (26) was linked with a big-money move before his form cooled last season; and veteran forward Romain Hamouma has often rescued the team over the years.
Southampton and Leicester supporters often bemoaned Puel’s dour persona and uninspiring style of football, but he has pedigree in France. He won the title with Monaco in 2000, took Lyon to the Champions League semi-finals in 2010 and turned a well run Nice into a top-four team. Things started well for Puel at Saint-Étienne. He led the club to the Coupe de France final in his first season at the club, in 2019-20, and had a promising start to last campaign. However, as results have started to slide, the usually composed Puel has cut an increasingly cantankerous and frustrated figure.
Saint-Étienne’s prime concern is a lack of goals. Khazri is Puel’s only real threat, having enjoyed successful scoring seasons for both Saint-Étienne and Rennes since returning to France from Sunderland. The Tunisian, now 30, has been routinely wasteful this season and, despite showing his willingness to work for the team, he lacks the required movement and intensity. Three of his five goals this season have been penalties. Saint-Étienne have scored just nine goals in their 10 league games this season, the lowest tally in Ligue 1.
Summer signing Ignacio Ramírez was prolific in his native Uruguay, but he has barely been seen. Finding goals will be tricky, with no obvious academy graduate ready to step up. Much hope was (mis)placed on lanky young striker Charles Abi, but the 21-year-old has already been loaned to Ligue 2 side Guingamp.
Although Puel insists he retains the faith of the squad, his tendency to fall out with and exile senior players has become a burden. The chance discovery of Green saved the situation, but Puel’s decision to exile the long-term first-choice goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier proved divisive. Ruffier eventually had his contract terminated and is now looking to sue the club for €5m in compensation.
Khazri, Kolodziejczak and former Montpellier midfielder Ryad Boudebouz have all spent spells out of the squad in the last couple of seasons too. In 2020, former Saint-Étienne midfielder Yann M’Vila summed Puel up when he described him as “a good coach but he doesn’t have good manners. He wants everyone to do it his way. He’s not close to the players … You can walk next to him without him talking to you.”
The club has been open to new investors for some time and it emerged last month that a €100m offer had been made by the Cambodian prince Norodom Ravichak. Ravichak said he was “not coming for economic reasons” but his “goal is to take care of Saint-Étienne and those who work there so the club can return to its rightful position”. Spooked by their financial and sporting position, Ravichak is reportedly close to withdrawing his offer. French businessman Olivier Markarian and American investment fund Terrapin Partners are also in the running.
Relegation would be catastrophic for Saint-Étienne, especially if the club cannot find a buyer. Their finances have been badly affected by the domestic TV rights debacle and Covid-19 restrictions. Although a morning-long meeting was needed to discuss Puel’s position before the international break, with the hierarchy as it is, the 60-year-old’s substantial power within the club could be enough to save him for now – as could the reported obligation to pay him €4m if they sack him. Nevertheless, with fans protesting and investors balking at the team’s dire position, Puel is not done defending himself. The marathon may already be over.
PSG extended their lead at the top of the table to an ominous nine points this weekend. Despite being shaky in their 2-1 win against Angers at the Parc des Princes on Friday, Lens lost at Montpellier and Nice suffered a shock defeat to promoted Troyes. While 27 points from a possible 30 looks commanding, they have been unconvincing and needed another questionable refereeing decision to see off Angers. Mauro Icardi’s header struck Pierrick Capelle’s arm at point-blank range and the referee eventually awarded a penalty via VAR. In response, Angers posted an angry series of tweets describing the “frustration and inequality” generated by VAR. “We are simply asking for consistency, fairness and respect,” they concluded.
Lille’s 1-0 loss at promoted Clermont left the reigning Ligue 1 champions 12th in the table. They have won just four of their first 10 games. Club president Olivier Létang was clear after the game: “We’ve hit rock bottom.” Three league wins in a row before the international break had seemed to signal a resurgence but, despite retaining the vast majority of their title-winning core, Lille have lost all gumption, intensity and positivity. Replacing coach Christophe Galtier was always going to be tough, but the decision to appoint Jocelyn Gourvennec seems more than misguided following his hapless spells at Bordeaux and Guingamp. Claude Puel may have a competitor to be the next manager sacked in Ligue 1.
Ligue 1 table