A youthful Strasbourg side had only lost one in their last 10 Ligue 1 games going into Friday’s match against PSG. Les Alsaciens’ home, the Meinau has earned a reputation as one of the most fervent stadiums in France; it should have been a hive of positive energy as they welcomed the league leaders, but it wasn’t.
Patrick Vieira made only one change to the side that drew against relegation-threatened Clermont Foot a week earlier. However, that change saw the average age of the starting XI drop significantly, down to 22.8, making the Strasbourg side fielded against PSG the youngest to feature in Ligue 1 since Reims faced Brest in February 2022.
The 31-year-old Matz Sels, comfortably Strasbourg’s most experienced regular starter, was the man to make way after he completed a deadline-day move to Nottingham Forest. In the UK, the Belgian international is remembered – or perhaps not – for an ephemeral spell at Newcastle, but in the words of Strasbourg president Marc Keller, Sels is “one of [Strasbourg’s] legends”. After six years with Les Alsaciens, during which he established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Ligue 1, Sels sought a new challenge and so a departure was facilitated – so goes the official club line, communicated by Keller.
In his place, Alaa Bellaarouch, who turned 22 last week, and who prior to Friday’s match against PSG, had never featured in Ligue 1, was promoted, whilst Matthieu Dreyer was brought in as back-up. The former put in a mixed performance, saving a Kylian Mbappé penalty, but then making a distribution error that allowed the France captain to slot into an empty net moments later.
Sels’ surprise exit meant that the transfer window ended on a sour note and Strasbourg fans made their displeasure known. “All of our fears about the BlueCo project, confirmed in this transfer window,” read a banner unfurled by the home fans at the Meinau. Antagonism towards BlueCo was evident in the summer; Todd Boehly and co aren’t winning hearts and minds. “BlueCo aren’t welcome and never will be,” said Ultra Boys 90, RCSA’s largest supporters group, back in November. The statement came amid a downturn in form, however, their resentment transcends performances.
Strasbourg fans have described the current squad as “unrelatable” and even “unworthy”, with the inherited “destructive” youth recruitment policy at the centre of Les Alsaciens’ contestation. Vieira has often called for “patience” as his inexperienced players, many of whom have never played in Ligue 1, adapt to the level, as well as their new surroundings. “Trust in the process” goes the mantra, but when the process is centred on embellishing the squad of a club on the other side of the English channel, far away from picturesque canals of the Alsace region, buy-in is understandably in short supply.
At its inception, BlueCo’s purchase of Strasbourg was driven by the needs of another one of the consortium’s assets, Chelsea. “The challenge at Chelsea is that when you have 18-, 19-, 20-year old superstars, you can loan them out to other clubs but you put their development in someone else’s hands. Our goal is to make sure we can show pathways for our young superstars to get onto the Chelsea pitch while getting them real game time. To me, the way to do that is through another club somewhere in a really competitive league in Europe,” Boehly has previously said.
Strasbourg have become a surrogate for the development of potential future Chelsea players and for the Ligue 1 club there is a catch-22 situation, whereby either the players don’t deliver on their potential and therefore the club falls short of its objectives, or the players succeed, in which instance, they will likely be quickly fast tracked to the mothership club. Either way, it is unavoidable to get the feeling that Strasbourg loses out in this seemingly non-reciprocal partnership.
In many ways, Ligue 1 more generally has become a feeder for the Premier League, as now-former Monaco sporting director Paul Mitchell told us last season. “We have an understanding and a depth of knowledge from when we were in the Premier League, where we would look to sign and ascertain a profile that could be successful,” began the Englishman, who left the Principality club last October.
“We use that as a template when we recruit or develop our academy players because the Premier League is still the undisputed biggest league in the world, the biggest year-on-year spender. It is prudent for any business model that wants sustainability to build profiles that can be positively analysed, reflected and scouted by the biggest clubs in the Premier League.”
However, the imposition of a food-chain and a direct hierarchy, as is the case between Chelsea and Strasbourg, has a particularly alienating effect on fans of one of France’s most successful teams, with Les Alsaciens one of only six clubs to have won all three of France’s major trophies.
The feeling of subservience was once again aroused by the arrival of Andrey Santos from Chelsea late in the transfer window. The midfielder struggled to get a look-in at Nottingham Forest, was subsequently recalled and then loaned back out to Strasbourg until the end of the season. Naturally, he isn’t part of Strasbourg’s long-term plans, and with Santos currently away on international duty, he will only play a maximum of 13 games for his new club between now and the end of the season. Whilst all parties could theoretically benefit from the deal, it is clear that Chelsea’s interest reigns supreme.
“It’s not a good sign,” a Strasbourg fan told broadcaster Prime Video Sport on Friday night. “Those who doubted the project are doubting it once again.” Strasbourg ultimately suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat to PSG, and if not for another decisive Gianluigi Donnarumma performance, the league leaders could easily have been held to a draw. On the pitch, there is cause for optimism, but the departure of Sels has precipitated an existential question at Strasbourg. For whom do we exist? For Chelsea, or for ourselves? Les Alsaciens’ loyal and fervent following may not like the answer.
“We risk having a very mediocre season,” said Lyon owner John Textor back in October, shrugging off relegation fears. As the end of 2023 approached, the club were submerged in a relegation scrap and were perhaps even favourites to go down at the point that Fabio Grosso was relieved of his duties; mediocrity became utopic for a time, certainly preferable to an unfathomable drop into France’s second division. Following a 1-0 victory over Marseille in Sunday’s Olimpico, Lyon are making strides towards that utopia. Pierre Sage has certainly made a difference since taking the helm, but having suffered something of a relapse in January, the club’s plan was to spend their way to safety. With the DNCG (French football’s financial watchdog) restrictions eased, Lyon went on a spree, bringing in players such as Orel Mangala, Nemanja Matić, Saïd Benrahma and Gift Orban for a combined fee of over €50m, thus making them Europe’s top spenders. A “mediocre” season will justify that investment, and an assured performance offers cautious optimism for a strong end to the season.
On Saturday, Takumi Minamino was in Doha. The former Liverpool forward came off the bench as Japan were knocked out of the Asian Cup by Iran. Less than 24 hours later, he had returned to Monaco and surprisingly made the bench to face Le Havre. Adi Hütter revealed that Minamino had returned from the Middle East on Sunday morning, and had asked to feature in Monaco’s 1pm kick-off. “He said he wanted to be in the squad, so he was there,” said the Austrian. However, coming off the bench in the 71st minute, he couldn’t inspire Les Monégasques to victory, with the game ending 1-1. Hütter’s side were an attacking juggernaut at the beginning of the season, but the goals have recently dried up. Without a Ligue 1 victory in 2024, the Principality club are now looking over their shoulder as they drop out of the Champions League places for the first time this season. “Pressure is growing. It is normal because we have not won the last three home games. We have to be careful,” reacted Hütter. Things don’t get any easier, with a trip to local rivals Nice up next.