Irrespective of what Bordeaux go on to achieve this season, it is impossible to overstate what their coach Laurent Blanc has done for the club.
In just under two years and nine months he has transformed the south-west side from occasionally successful also-rans into the emerging force in French football, having led them to a league and Coupe de la Ligue double last season, the top of the table this term and the last eight of the Champions League for the first time since 1988. Even more impressively, he has done so while making only minor adjustments to his playing staff in each close-season, taking Bordeaux to the top table of European football with a team containing only four regular internationals and featuring a notoriously stingy defence that cost just £3.8 million to assemble.
The key ingredients to Bordeaux’s success have been solidity and stability. Les Girondins are one of the toughest nuts to crack in the major European leagues, boasting a ratio of 0.82 goals conceded per game that is bettered only by Barcelona (0.62), Manchester United (0.78) and Schalke (0.81)*, while they let in just two goals in this season’s Champions League group phase despite being drawn alongside both Bayern Munich and Juventus.
Notoriously dangerous from Yoann Gourcuff’s wicked set-pieces – nine of their 13 goals in the Champions League this term have come from dead-ball situations – they pose a persistent aerial threat and demonstrated a ruthless will to win in the record-breaking 11-game winning streak that took them to last season’s Ligue 1 crown.
“They are high-calibre opponents,” said Marseille coach Didier Deschamps earlier this season. “They are well-oiled and win a lot of games 1-0. They control possession better than us and are better technically but the really big difference is that their full-backs are really involved in their attacks. [Mathieu] Chalmé and [Benoît] Trémoulinas play really high up the pitch. We hardly ever score from crosses from our full-backs. Bordeaux, even putting to one side their set-piece ability, score 50 percent of their goals from crosses from their full-backs.”
Blanc has also devised a series of different formations adapted to the demands of each opponent and each competition. Their default shape in the Champions League and high-profile domestic away games has been 4-2-3-1. For less taxing league games Blanc exchanges a holding midfielder for a forward – typically Brazilian Fernando for Argentine Fernando Cavenaghi – and changes the shape to an attacking 4-1-3-2.
In the 1-1 draw at home to Marseille in January, Blanc opted for a 4-1-3-2 that became a 4-1-4-1 in the defensive phase (see right). The space in front of the first-choice back four of Chalmé, Michaël Ciani, Marc Planus and Trémoulinas was patrolled by skipper Alou Diarra, with Gourcuff, Jaroslav Plašil and Wendel operating in support of Marouane Chamakh and Yoan Gouffran.
In possession, both Chalmé and Trémoulinas pushed well forward, with Diarra dropping back into defence to provide cover and Gouffran moving up front alongside Chamakh. When play broke down Gouffran fell back alongside Gourcuff, with all four advanced midfielders actively pressing Marseille’s defenders.
Bordeaux took a 1-0 lead when a robust Chamakh challenge prompted Steve Mandanda to spill the ball into his own net and would probably have held on for victory had Planus not been harshly sent off for a foul on Mamadou Niang with half an hour to play. The fluidity of Bordeaux’s midfield, in which players like Gourcuff and Plašil are comfortable adopting defensive positions, means the defenders feel safe in exploiting space when they see it, and the Mandanda own goal came from a marauding run and cross down the right by Ciani.
Bordeaux’s flexibility was demonstrated afresh in their 2-1 victory over Olympiakos earlier this month in the second leg of the Champions League last 16. The team set out in the custom European 4-2-3-1 (see left), with Wendel pushing forward from left-midfield at Bordeaux goal-kicks to give Chamakh a target for his flick-ons. Plašil would subsequently drop back into midfield alongside Diarra and Fernando, creating what was effectively a 4-3-1-2.
Wendel and Plašil’s ability to drop deep allowed both Fernando and Diarra to press their opponents high up the pitch, with Diarra on one occasion in the first half chasing his man all the way back to the edge of the Olympiakos penalty area. When Diarra was sent off after picking up two yellow cards Gourcuff dropped back into a defensive midfield position, but Bordeaux were still able to close out the win.
The limits of the side’s versatility were finally exposed in their 3-1 Champions League quarter-final first leg defeat to Lyon on Tuesday night when, with Ludovic Sané deputising for the injured Planus and Plašil occupying a midfield holding role in place of the suspended Diarra, Bordeaux were undone by an uncharacteristically nervous defensive performance that saw them concede two sloppy goals in the first half.
On song, Bordeaux are a fine team to watch, with both full-backs pushing on, Wendel and Plašil buzzing around on the flanks, Chamakh linking the play intelligently and Gourcuff illuminating proceedings with his spell-binding mastery of the ball.
However, although Bordeaux lead Ligue 1 on goal difference with two games in hand and will reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for only the second time if they win next week’s second leg with Lyon by two clear goals, there is a strong likelihood that this campaign will be Blanc’s curtain call.
Le Président, as studious and well-respected a coach as he was as a player, is the firm favourite to succeed Raymond Domenech as France coach this summer and Chamakh has reportedly agreed to join Arsenal. Diarra concedes that Blanc’s departure “could prompt certain players to think about leaving” and Gourcuff is unlikely to hang around at the Stade Chaban-Delmas if Blanc and Chamakh both fly the nest.
It could all end tomorrow, but when Blanc does depart he will leave behind – in the records, the trophies, and the fans’ memories – an enduring monument to the power of the team.
* Source: L’Equipe (edition 20,351), Monday 29 March 2010