Last Sunday, on a cold, wet and windy February afternoon in Strasbourg, a day when the last thing you’d want to do is step outside the front door, Racing Club de Strasbourg edged a 1-0 win over Nantes in front of a sell-out crowd of 29,000 at Stade de la Meinau. The three points allowed Strasbourg to hold on to fourth spot in Ligue 1, reaching 38 points from 23 games. The only time that Strasbourg have exceeded this number of points at this point in the season was when they won the league title for the only time in their history in the 1978/79 season. Having been appointed last summer after leaving Rennes last year, Julien Stéphan’s success with Strasbourg is no accident.
His first taste of management came with SRFC who he joined in 2018. Just six months later, he secured Rennes’ first trophy in 48 years, beating Paris Saint-Germain in the final of the Coupe de France 6-5 on penalties. When the 2019/20 season was abandoned due to COVID-19, Rennes stood in third place, thusqualifying them for their first-ever Champions League campaign. Unfortunately for Rennes, this good form would not last, and Stéphan was sacked in March 2021 after a run of four straight defeats.
Meanwhile, Thierry Laurey’s Strasbourg were edging dangerously close to the relegation zone. With eight games to play, Strasbourg were five points clear of Nantes in nineteenth, and four points clear of Nîmes in the relegation playoff place. Thankfully for Les Ciel et Blancs, they survived the relegation play-offs on the final day, finishing 15th after a mutually beneficial 1-1 draw with Lorient. This season was not seen as a catastrophic failure for Laurey though. Le RCS’ expectations for the man that led them to promotion from Ligue 2 at the very first time of asking after promotion from the third tier the season prior was always to avoid relegation by any means necessary.
At the end of the 2020/21 season, Laurey’s contract expired and left the club on good terms with both supporters and management – fans of Le Racing still hold him in high regard for everything he did for the club, especially their Coupe de la Ligue win in 2019 and subsequent Europa League qualification campaign in the summer of 2020, where they were knocked out before reaching the group stage by the previous year’s semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt.
The announcement that Strasbourg had acquired Julien Stéphan’s services on the 28th of May 2021 came as a bit of a shock in France. Stéphan, even after being sacked by Rennes, was and still is regarded as one of France’s most exciting young managers. There was a sense that maybe he was deserving of a ‘bigger’ job, and so, in that sense, the fact that Strasbourg picked him up was a bit of a coup for the Alsace club.
Strasbourg’s season didn’t get off to a great start though; they lost on the opening day at home to Angers (0-2) which was followed by an unsurprising 4-2 loss to PSG and a little more worrying 1-1 draw to newly promoted Troyes. After three games this left Strasbourg at rock bottom. The next game against Brest already looked like a must-win for the new boss. The players duly delivered, putting in a convincing performance to secure a 3-1 win. Since game week six, they have racked up 35 points in 17 games – only PSG have managed more in the same time frame. This is a large part down to the firepower that they possess in attack.
So far this season, Strasbourg have the best combined goal-scoring trio and quadruple in the league; Ludovic Ajorque, Habib Diallo and Kevin Gameiro have 26 goals between them, joint with Rennes’ Gaetan Laborde, Martin Terrier and Kamaldeen Sulemana, and when Adrien Thomasson is added this total goes up to 33 goals between the four of them, well clear of every other attacking unit in France. Only PSG have scored more goals than Strasbourg this season, tallying 51 to Strasbourg’s 45.
So how has Stéphan transformed this group of players into a team that is chasing the Champions League places two-thirds of the way into the Ligue 1 season? His summer recruitment was excellent, targeting players he has worked with before in Gerzino Nyamsi, arguably Strasbourg’s best defender this season, and an experienced head in Maxime Le Marchand, who, when in the team, has impressed on limited opportunities due to injury. Experienced forward and Racing legend Gameiro returned to the club whose academy he developed at, and Aston Villa’s Fred Guilbert returned on loan after an impressive end to the previous season with the club.
Stéphan originally opted for a 4-4-2 system before settling on his 3-5-2 with very high attacking wing-backs since late August 2021. Strasbourg are always looking to hit teams on the break, setting traps for opposition defenders and capitalising on errors. The system that Stéphan adopts allows his wing-backs (Dimitri Liénard and Guilbert) to bomb up and down the touchline and whip balls into the box for the strikers. The three in midfield usually consist of a holding midfielder that sits back on attacks, sweeping up loose balls before the opposition midfielders (Jean Aholou or Sanjin Prcic), a sort of mezzala-type midfielder on the right side with the freedom to get forward, in and around the box with the attacks (usually Thomasson) and a creative midfielder who looks to pass the ball out wide to the wing-backs or directly to the strikers. This position is usually taken by Ibrahima Sissoko or Jean-Ricner Bellegarde.
If Strasbourg do end the season in the European places, it would be an extraordinary achievement for a team with an almost unique story in European football. Just 12 years ago, the club was declared bankrupt, relegated to the fifth tier and had to find an entirely new squad. By 2018, they had already made it back to Ligue 1, and now they have a chance to take the supporters on their first European group stage campaign since 2005.