“Operation Team Cohesion”, as new coach Gérald Baticle called it, was not what the Angers players were expecting. Instead of the usual pre-season training camp, they spent their days dressed in camouflage gear while being subjected to assault courses and military training in a bid to build team spirit. Baticle’s methods are different but after replacing Stéphane Moulin, who left Angers this summer after 10 years in charge, making him the longest serving manager at a club in one of Europe’s top five leagues, a change was needed. So far, it has been revolutionary.
Baticle inherited a physical side that was adept at hiding the ball from the opposition and grinding out results. Under Moulin, Angers were well drilled, meticulously organised and difficult to beat. Ligue 1’s leading clubs often struggled to break them down, but their conservative outlook often meant they too would stutter against weaker sides.
Under Baticle, Angers are completely different. They play on the front foot and look to win the ball higher up the pitch. Baticle has moulded Moulin’s stoic physicality into an all-action ferocity seen all over the pitch. Instead of defaulting to absorbing attacks and countering where possible, Baticle’s team play with intensity and look to take the initiative. Their pace and direct – but not long-ball – style have made Angers one of the best sides to watch in France this season. Moulin’s wily pragmatism lingers, but it’s now mixed with a gleeful attacking verve.
Speaking to So Foot last month, Baticle acknowledged that Moulin had achieved “extraordinary things” and that succeeding him was a “responsibility”, but he made it clear that he would be his own man: “I can only do Gérald Baticle.”
A long-time assistant coach with Lyon, this is Baticle’s first managerial appointment for 12 years, after a 23-game spell with then-Ligue 2 Brest. Since then, Baticle has been influenced by some of the great coaches in French football. “I had deep discussions with Arsène Wenger, Guy Roux and even Gérard Houllier, who imparted a lot of his knowledge,” the 51-year-old said.
“For 10 years I was at the service of a No 1,” Baticle explained. “I did everything there was to do as No 2. I set up the sessions, led them and dud additional one-on-one exercises while studying our opponents. At the same time I was observing, in search of what was interesting to keep, or not, in order to design my own method.”
So far, Baticle’s method has worked. Despite finishing 13th in Ligue 1 last season, Angers were nearly relegated due to financial issues. The club managed to convince French football’s strict financial watchdog, the DNCG, that their budget was serviceable in Ligue 1, but severe restraints were imposed on transfer business.
With no money to spend, the Angers squad has remained largely unchanged following Moulin’s departure. They hoped to sell their main asset, attacking midfielder Angelo Fulgini, over the summer and reinvest the profits. A late deadline-day bid from Feyenoord, however, fell well short of Angers’ €15m asking price and Fulgini stayed in France.
As a result, Angers could only sign three 21-year-olds who had been cast off by other clubs. Azzedine Ounahi joined from third-tier Avranches; Billal Brahimi arrived from Reims reserves; and Batista Mendy, a rangy defensive midfielder who joined the club from Nantes after his contract expired, was the only major addition to the first team.
Baticle, however, has managed to make Angers feel like an entirely overhauled team by radically changing their strategy. Moulin’s functional 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 has morphed into a dynamic 3-6-1. Baticle likes to use videos to coach his players and illustrated his aims by showing them various clips of Inter winning Serie A last season while playing a 3-5-2 formation.
Moulin’s experienced defensive stalwarts, Romain Thomas, Vincent Manceau and captain Ismaël Traoré remain where they were last season but Jimmy Cabot, an erstwhile attacking midfielder, has been repurposed as a flying wing-back. Meanwhile, Mendy’s graceful use of possession now complements one of Ligue 1’s most underrated players, the equally gifted Thomas Mangani, at the base of midfield.
Fulgini, who is now apparently keen to stay at the club having been impressed by Baticle’s philosophy, continues to orchestrate attacks alongside tricky former Southampton forward Sofiane Boufal. Replacing the bulky but reliable Stéphane Bahoken in attack is Baticle’s greatest triumph to date, 17-year-old Mohamed-Ali Cho.
Cho was born in Paris and progressed through Everton’s academy, where he represented England at Under-16 level, before returning to France and playing for their Under-21s. The teenager has been the revelation of the early season in France. He is fast, composed and uses the ball intelligently. Cho scored his first Ligue 1 goal just before the international break, as Angers beat their north-west rivals Rennes, and he has repeatedly confounded opposition defences with his astute understanding of space. He is already attracting the interest of Premier League clubs.
Cho’s standout display came in a 3-0 mauling of a lethargic Lyon last month as Baticle’s side outplayed, out-thought and out-ran Peter Bosz’s team. The 2-0 win over Rennes was just as impressive. Both were meaningful triumphs for Baticle, having spent a decade as Lyon assistant coach, largely as No2 to Bruno Génésio – now Rennes manager. Angers are second in the table after five games – an astonishing achievement for a team expected to battle relegation following Moulin’s departure with no funds to spend in the transfer window.
Despite Baticle’s glorious revolution, he still owes much to Moulin. Much as George Graham’s famously thrifty Arsenal defence provided a platform for the success of Arsène Wenger’s more flamboyant team in the late 1990s, Baticle’s gung-ho style has succeeded thanks to Moulin’s equally well drilled backline. Angers have long been dressed up as Ligue 1’s defensive fighters; France is now slowly realising they can play too.
Rennes managed to match PSG’s spending in the transfer window this summer. Although their outlay was mitigated by Eduardo Camavinga’s late £27m move to Real Madrid, the club spent eight-figure sums on five players: midfielders Lovro Majer and Baptiste Santamaria, forwards Gaëtan Laborde and Kamaldeen Sulemana, and defender Loïc Badé. Their start to the season on the field, however, has been underwhelming. They have lost their last two matches, away at Angers before the international break and, more worryingly, at home to a weak Reims side on Sunday. Rennes are in the bottom half of the table, having won just one of their first five games, and they are yet to show the cohesion or quality that was expected. Bruno Génésio eventually lost his job at Lyon due to frustrations over points dropped to weaker sides. He will need to find a solution to the same problem at Rennes to avoid the same fate.
Nice have been docked two points – one of which is suspended – and sentenced to play three games behind closed doors following an investigation into last month’s mass brawl during their match with Marseille. The game was called off with 15 minutes to play after Dimitri Payet had been hit by a projectile launched from the stands and decided to throw it back into the stands. Nice were leading 1-0, but the game will now be replayed in full at a neutral venue behind closed doors. Marseille physio Pablo Fernández, whose punch left a Nice fan needing medical treatment, has been given a nine-month touchline ban, while Payet and Marseille defender Álvaro González have also been handed bans.