That Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace could appoint a coach of Julian Stéphan’s calibre was, in itself, an indication of the extent to which the side from eastern France have grown increasingly comfortable with their rediscovered Ligue 1 status.
Stéphan, son of Guy, replaced the outgoing Thierry Laurey in May. The change felt decidedly timely for both club and manager, with Laurey ultimately departing for Bahraini-backed Paris FC in Ligue 2. Of course, Laurey’s five years in the dugout at the Stade de la Meinau will, for the most part, be fondly recalled by Les Strasbourgeois. The 56-year-old masterminded the final stage in the club’s pilgrimage from the fifth tier of French football to the top flight in 2017, implementing an occasionally swashbuckling style of play as Le Racing secured promotion on the final day of the season. Two years later, with Laurey opting for an increasingly more conservative approach, Strasbourg would win their third Coupe de la Ligue title in the space of 25 years. Memorable wins under the Meinau lights against PSG, Lyon and Nice added further sparkle to the head-ever-so-slightly-above-the-water norm. The club also found itself just ninety minutes away from a place in the Europa League group stages in 2019, before a Filip Kostic-inspired Eintracht Frankfurt shattered Alsatian hearts.
And yet, it was difficult to dismiss the growing sentiment that Strasbourg had plateaued in the latter stages of Laurey’s tenure, with a gathering disquiet accompanying his final season in charge. Religiously sporting Stone Island attire, the coach would cut an increasingly forlorn figure in the technical area. A run of two wins in their opening twelve league games served as the bellwether for an almost exclusively miserable campaign. The absence of both the exceptional Mats Selz and the inimitably vociferous Strasbourg support for most of the season impacted gravely (as expected) – a timid defence conceded 58 goals in 38 matches, with 19 home fixtures returning a derisory 17 points. That their expected goal difference had Le Racing sitting seventh in the table would have offered little solace, if any, to the Meinau hierarchy. Mercifully, a draw with fellow strugglers Lorient on the 38th and final matchday guaranteed the club their Ligue 1 status for a further season.
Against that difficult backdrop, a close-season managerial shake-up was arguably inevitable. Julian Stéphan arrived in the Grand Est region with a blossoming reputation as one of the brightest young managers in France, tainted marginally by an awkward end to an otherwise highly productive spell as manager of Rennes in the north-west. While at Roazhon Park, the coach guided Rennes to their first trophy in 48 years and secured a place in the 2020/2021 edition of the Champions League for the side from Brittany. No doubt enlightened by his time working with the club’s youth academy, Stéphan also provided a platform from which the likes of Adrien Truffert and Eduardo Camavinga could prosper. Stéphan’s time in the north-west of France would, however, come to an end in March of this year. A listless exit from the Champions League was followed by a post-winter break run of just one win in ten matches. Perhaps foreseeing that his position might soon become untenable, Stéphan handed in his resignation “with a heavy heart”.
Rennes’ loss has so far proven to be Strasbourg’s gain. With eight games played of the 2021/2022 season, the early indication is that Stéphan is breathing fresh metaphorical life into Le Racing. The 41-year-old has done so primarily by implementing a high press hitherto unseen in this idyllic pocket of France, at least in recent times. Taking the admittedly small sample size available so far, Strasbourg have applied 160.6 pressures per 90 this season (the fourth most in Ligue 1). Quite tellingly, 37.3 pressures per 90 have been applied in the final third (only PSG and Monaco have registered more).
By contrast, Thierry Laurey’s more passive Strasbourg applied 139.7 pressures per 90 last season, with just 28.5 pressures applied in the final third per 90. Laurey’s penultimate season in charge (2019/2020) did see Strasbourg average circa 160 pressures per 90, but the focus there was very much on applying pressure in the defensive third (56.1 pressures per 90) rather than higher up the pitch (32.0 pressures per 90).
One of the main beneficiaries of Stéphan’s favoured system is the tireless Adrien Thomasson. In non-technical terms, Thomasson would perhaps best be described as a ‘nuisance’. In the oft-deployed 3-5-2 formation, the 27-year-old typically operates as the right-sided central midfielder in a three, with Jean-Ricner Bellegarde to his left, and one of either Sanjin Prcić or Jean-Eudes Aholou fielded as the enabling holding midfielder.
Thomasson and Bellegarde coalesce to form an intense pressing tandem. Thomasson sits second for pressures applied (184) in Ligue 1 this season, behind Lorient’s Laurent Abergel, and fourth for pressures applied in the final third (53). Unsurprisingly, Thomasson sits in the 99th percentile for pressures applied when compared with his positional peers across the top five leagues in Europe. Bellegarde applies fewer pressures (125), but does so with greater success (32.8%, compared with Thomasson’s 23.4% success rate). Notably, Bellegarde sits third in Ligue 1 for tackles won (17) so far this season. The former France U21 international patrols the pocket of space on the left between the middle and final third to menacing effect, astutely choosing his moments to harry the opposition and instigate attacks in advanced areas. Buoyed by the duo’s energy, Strasbourg as a whole have recovered possession 638 times – only Saint-Étienne, Monaco and Nantes have done so more frequently in the opening eight matchdays.
Stéphan’s desired energetic approach will of course need to be polished as the season develops. So far, their successful pressures rate stands at 26.3% – only newly-promoted Troyes have posted a lower number in Ligue 1. High-quality opposition will naturally be able to play through and expose Strasbourg’s still fledgling press. Notably, Le Racing applied more pressures in their defeats to scything PSG (220) and Lyon (198) sides than in any other game so far this season, but the end result on both of those away days was ultimately the same: Close (and commendably valiant), but no proverbial cigar.
It would be harsh to describe Strasbourg’s style as tending towards kamikaze levels of recklessness, but there is probably an argument to be made that they they have flown too close to naïve exuberance at times. Nevertheless, the impressive victory in the recent derby against Metz evidenced a willingness on Stéphan’s part to adapt and refine his system. On that occasion, Le Racing executed a considerably less taxing 150 pressures. In any event, Stéphan’s side are clearly playing with increased fervour and confidence. They are almost certainly heading in the right direction in their apparent pursuit of a composed freneticism.
Strasbourg, and their newfound intensity, are not perfect – they probably never will be. However, the building blocks of a successful top-flight French club are absolutely in place at the Meinau. A talented squad is propped up by one of the most under-rated goalkeepers in Europe, in Mats Selz, and spearheaded by one of the most under-rated forwards in Europe, in Ludovic Ajorque.
Off the field of play, President Marc Keller’s handling of the club’s overall affairs has been characterised by stability and sustainability. Indeed, Keller’s reassuring level-headedness has served as a welcome departure from the tumult and reckless mismanagement of the early 21st century. That tumult inevitably harvested financial disaster and punitive demotion to the aforementioned fifth tier of French football. Lessons have evidently been learned.
A trip to the brutalist Stade de la Meinau should find itself somewhere near the top of any ground-hopper’s wish list. Situated to the south of an endearingly beautiful and historically intriguing city, the regularly sold-out Meinau plays host to an indefatigable core of ultras on matchdays. Should Julian Stéphan succeed in fine-tuning his team’s approach, those ultras will soon be eulogising their latest hero.
This post was written by Alasdair Madden. Alasdair discusses French football and German football every second Friday on the Road to Nowhere European Football Podcast. You can find Alasdair on Twitter – @alasdairmadden. Alasdair obtained his statistics from the excellent fbref.com.