• Joe Donnohue

Adil Aouchiche, New Beginning

Adil Aouchiche gets his new beginning at AS Saint-Étienne – but where will he fit in? Joe Donnohue analyses exactly that, looking at the space he is expected to fill in Claude Puel's team in an unstable environment.

Credit: Baptiste Fernandez / Icon Sport

The banlieues and brickwork of north-eastern Paris are a world away from the leafy, suburban lifestyle of Saint-Étienne. Metropolitan living, street football and climbing urban complexes punctuate Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the most impoverished districts of France’s capital city. Some five hours south east lie the Alpine hills, a feature of the skyline Adil Aouchiche will be greeted by for the next three years.


PROLOGUE

Given the dominance of Olympique Marseille, arch-rivals Olympique Lyonnais and most recently municipal heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain, it is often forgotten that AS Saint-Étienne are France’s joint-most successful club when measured by domestic titles.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Marseille – the fashionable side of the Côte d’Azur – claimed their sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth titles in swashbuckling, attractive fashion. Marcel Desailly, Jean-Pierre Papin, Abedi Pelé, Chris Waddle and Didier Deschamps were among those to lift four consecutive Ligue 1 crowns between 1988 and 1992.

PSG have won seven of the last eight campaigns, while OL’s run of seven successive titles between 2001 and 2008 remains a Ligue 1 record. However, Saint-Étienne’s Rhône rivals have not tasted victory since, and fall three short of ASSE’s ten.

Between 1956 and 1981, ASSE were Ligue 1 champions on ten occasions. From 1966 to 1970, they claimed four titles in succession and in the ten-year period between 1967 and 1977, also lifted the Coupe de France on five occasions – these were halcyon days. A tenth and final league championship would arrive in 1981.

In the following campaign, Saint-Étienne missed out on an eleventh by a single point, pipped to the post by AS Monaco, a side staffed by current boss Claude Puel. Since then, the club have failed to finish in the top three of France’s top flight – the most barren period in the club’s history.


ACT ONE

“In Brazil [at the U-17 World Cup] he proved his efficiency in his game with others. He has an ability to be accessible and then to deliver very interesting passes.” – Jean-Claude Giuntini, France under-17 coach.

On July 20th, 2020, having turned 18 years old, Adil Aouchiche signed for AS Saint-Étienne on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain. The jewel of the champions’ academy and a creative touchpoint throughout his youth international career with France, it was something of a coup for a side who finished one place above the relegation zone.

PSG have no under-23 side; it was dissolved. The club decided they could no longer justify the running of the team and that the costs outweighed the benefits. For a club backed by the Qatari state in all but name, and a pool of youngsters within the immensely-talented Île-de-France region to pick from, that seemed a perplexing decision, to say the very least.

Aouchiche had found himself at a crossroads. In the final year of his contract, PSG attempted to secure the prodigious playmaker to a long-term deal but assurances over playing time were of particular importance to the player. With no guarantees he would feature for the senior side, Aouchiche was presented with the prospect of another season with infrequent action.

Similarly, the club found themselves with a financial conundrum. Aouchiche’s representatives were well aware of the teen’s ability, and PSG could easily have bowed to their financial demands. But that may have established a precedent, financially appeasing lesser academy products in future, to persuade them to remain. In the end, they swallowed hard and stood firm.

And so, Saint-Étienne enter stage left.

Credit: AS Saint-Étienne

ACT TWO

He is part of this young generation with whom we want to develop our sporting project.” – AS Saint-Étienne manager, Claude Puel, upon signing Adil Aouchiche.

Saint-Étienne are in need of a reboot. This summer was supposed to be Claude Puel’s first uninterrupted opportunity to assess his squad, make decisions on players’ futures and start afresh. Many of those decisions will have been made earlier than intended due to the premature curtailment of the 2019/20 Ligue 1 campaign, but circumstances have been anything but ideal to conduct his first pre-season.

Their swansong of a long, drawn-out 2019/20 season took place on July 24th, a 1-0 defeat to PSG in the Coupe de France final. Their first outing in the new 2020/21 campaign will be on August 22nd, less than a month later.

Amidst their preparations, long-serving goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier has been involved in a public spat with the club’s management, banned from the club’s training ground. More recently, Yann M’Vila, Ryan Boudebouz, Wahbi Khazri and Loïs Diony have all been informed they are no longer needed at the club. Including Ruffier, that would mean four of the club’s six most-used players from last season would no longer feature. All is not well – and to make matters worse, an unnamed Saint-Étienne player tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of their friendly with Hertha BSC, subsequently cancelling the fixture.

It was expected that Puel would look to overhaul the squad gradually, promoting youth and phasing out the old guard who have overseen a successful but ultimately infertile decade. It looks as though Ruffier will depart the club, along with veteran captain Loïc Perrin and Yohan Cabaye. The revelation that senior figures – and top earners – such as M’Vila and Khazri could also be on their way out, suggests the overhaul has been accelerated somewhat.

It is not just demographically that ASSE have a problem, there are structural issues too. In 2019/20, only Amiens SC and Toulouse conceded more goals in Ligue 1 – they are soft to the core, issues which raised their ugly head in the 4-2 friendly win over Girondins Bordeaux.

Puel’s side also had the second-fewest shots per game last season, created the third-fewest chances and relied on penalties and own goals to supplement their goals scored column more than every other team, barring PSG and OM. If you are not creating chances, you are not scoring goals. ASSE have been crying out for a creative player to link attacks and construct high-quality opportunities in dangerous areas. Only Bordeaux completed fewer passes into the penalty area than Saint-Étienne last season – it’s bad, and it’s bad across the board.

There is nobody currently in Saint-Étienne’s squad who mirrors the style of Adil Aouchiche. That is encouraging – if you are an Aouchiche fan – but not so much if you support the club itself. He is a player with excellent technique, great spatial awareness, and loves to be his side’s playmaker.

The space vacated by every ASSE player on the pitch is precisely where Aouchiche thrives. Time and time again last season, ASSE struggled to link attacks due to a lack of an advanced fulcrum-type player, capable of receiving on the turn and spreading play out wide.

The question is ultimately: where does a free-spirited, creative essence fit in a team which is likely to be transitioning for much of the coming season, one which may need to implement a more rigid, secure shape to get results?


ACT THREE

“The supporters are magic. The city breathes football. I made the right choice.” – Adil Aouchiche upon signing for AS Saint-Étienne.

It is fair to say Claude Puel experimented during his first season as Saint-Étienne manager. Brought in to lift the side from the relegation places, Puel fulfilled his brief: ASSE are still a Ligue 1 club. For the most part, Puel employed a 3-4-3 shape with a deep-lying double pivot, or a variation of 4-2-3-1 with particular emphasis on building moves by creating overloads out wide.

Immediately after taking the reins, and utilising a 3-4-3, Saint-Étienne were good, rising to fourth in the table at one point. The team’s downfall perhaps lay in the various personnel and tactical changes Puel implemented on a game-by-game basis.

Adil Aouchiche is a something between an advanced number 8 and a number. 10. A simpler description would be to characterise him as a playmaker operating ‘in the hole’. Aouchiche has an uncanny ability to be able to make those gaps seem much larger than they are in actuality; his positioning and awareness of where spaces will open up is first class, particularly for a player so young.

One of the more identifiable aspects of ASSE under Puel is that they are a very active pressing side in the middle and final thirds. A great deal of that comes from Ryan Boudebouz, who while not being prolific, performs a duty to the team. Sacrificing that endeavour may seem foolish, but accommodating both Boudebouz and Aouchiche could prove troublesome.

A setup which emphasises wide build-up play and space creation in central areas could benefit a player like Aouchiche. Stretching the pitch with advanced wing-backs and a five-man defensive core made up of three centre-backs and two holding midfielders allows acres of space in central areas for Aouchiche to manipulate. Even when starting with a back four, Yann M’Vila would often drop between the two centre-backs and in possession create a three-man defence, with the full-backs pushed on extremely high and wide.

Yvann Maçon – an attacking right-back – has been brought in this summer to perhaps ease the transition of 35-year-old Mathieu Debuchy’s eventual departure. Maçon started the Coupe de France final as a right winger, emphasising his attacking capabilities and versatility.

It is entirely possible that the 18-year-old will be blooded gradually by Puel. Yacine Adli’s move to Bordeaux could prove to be a precursor to Aouchiche’s – he is another PSG academy product with substantial potential steadily finding his feet, and game-time, at a mid-table club.

Aouchiche started in ASSE’s first pre-season friendly – a 4-2 victory over Bordeaux, and lo, scored a superbly-taken goal. Many of the side’s understudies played the opening 45 minutes, while last season’s protagonists took to the floor for the second half, suggesting he is yet to earn a starting berth just yet, but with things changing on a daily basis at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, it is anyone’s guess.

The talent Aouchiche possesses cannot be ignored. All it takes for him to become a regular starter in this relatively understaffed ASSE side is a glimmer of immense quality; he showed exactly that in his first outing in green (albeit in the club’s white change kit).

He has the technique, self-belief and nonchalant demeanour to carry it out, and seven assists at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup is a testament to that. His first steps as a Saint-Étienne player reinforced the conviction he can be that player, and should continue to develop as such.

EPILOGUE

“The course of true love never did run smooth”Act One, Scene One, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Adil Aouchiche has only just turned 18, but has already made a move which could have huge ramifications for his career. Rhône Valley rivals Olympique Lyonnais have a long and illustrious history with players of Maghrebi origins – Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and the emerging Rayan Cherki are a handful of individuals who made, and are making, their names as part of Les Gones.

Now, Saint-Étienne have a Maghrebi maestro of their own; a wonderfully-silky, laid-back facilitator whose talent could very well be an endearing subplot to the 2020-21 Ligue 1 campaign.

Aouchiche will hope not to become the player whose head lies uneasy beneath the crown of expectation. Green shoots are sprouting, and while they are reassuring to say the least, they remain infantile, requiring nourishment. They could so easily be trampled by the weight of hope and expectancy.

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