Team Focus: Arribagé Puts the Fight Back in Toulouse

It was, fittingly, an emotional end to an emotional week in Haute-Garonne, Toulouse. After coach Alain Casanova’s near-seven-year spell as coach was brought to an end on Monday with Téfécé mired in the bottom three, the feeling was clear. If they couldn’t react after that, with a derby against Bordeaux on the horizon, then the odds were surely stacked heavily against them extending their current stay in Ligue 1 to 13 seasons.

Yet finally, Toulouse responded when they needed to. After just 4 wins in 22 matches in all competitions in a run stretching from early October, Saturday night’s victory over Les Girondins was more than three badly needed points, but the first rush of adrenaline that Casanova’s replacement, Dominique Arribagé, hopes will translate into momentum that will propel them out of trouble.

A change of mood had become imperative. Casanova’s hold on power had been wavering for a while. He survived the 6-1 home drubbing by Marseille, but last week’s reverse at near-certainties for the drop Lens was a bridge too far. “I just don’t know what to say,” had been the reaction of Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro after last Saturday’s defeat at Amiens – Lens’ temporary home – and Casanova had clearly run out of answers of his own.

“It’s the Arribagé effect already”, wrote Sunday’s edition of L’Equipe on the Bordeaux win. “Bringing hope back.” This was more than simply a case of new boss bounce. The new coach is a man who has always had his eagle eye on happenings at Le Stadium, having served Téfécé as a defender for six seasons during the 1990s and more recently headed the club’s scouting department.

Arribagé made some big calls ahead of kick-off in the derby, principally in terms of formation. Casanova’s trusted 3-5-2 was binned, with the team commuting to a 4-4-2 with midfield diamond, which has become increasingly popular in Ligue 1 over the last season-and-a-half.


Team Focus: Arribagé Puts the Fight Back in Toulouse


Yann Bodiger, at just 20, was brought in for only a second start in Ligue 1 in midfield, and handed the responsibility of the holding role. In turn Oscar Trejo was pushed up to the tip of the diamond, supporting Wissam Ben Yedder and Aleksandar Pesic up front. As indicative of the new approach – though in a spiritual sense - was the installation of Akpa-Akpro as captain, in place of the dropped Adrien Regattin.

The revised plan worked spectacularly well. Bodiger’s agility and reading of the game was clear, as he made 3 interceptions and 4 clearances, while he also supplied the decisive pass for Ben Yedder to open the scoring in the first half. Trejo was kept involved too, with his 69 touches more than anybody else in the side.

Essentially, Bodiger was more than just a handy shield, dropping in almost between the centre-backs - as the full-backs pushed forward – in a similar fashion to which Xabi Alonso often operates for Bayern Munich, or as Sergio Busquets would do for Barcelona; a de facto third centre-back. In a necessarily cautious display during which Téfécé typically retained five outfield players in their own half of the pitch (see WhoScored’s average player position map), the security he provided allowed a window of outlet on both sides of the pitch, with Marcel Tisserand and François Moubandje given intermittent freedom to push up.

Bodiger was a key part of an all-round improved defensive effort, after 11 goals had been conceded in the previous 4 Ligue 1 games, especially against a rugged Bordeaux side that put three past champions Paris Saint-Germain last week. Akpa-Akpro led from the front too, making 2 tackles, an interception and 3 clearances, providing invaluable cover for Tisserand, helping the Monaco loanee recover from his mistake that led to the visitors’ equaliser, scored by the in-form Diego Rolán.


Team Focus: Arribagé Puts the Fight Back in Toulouse


It was also in defence that their star man was present – Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik led the way, as he has so often this season (he is the squad’s most consistent performer, with a 7.29 average rating). The Cameroonian centre-back was a fitting scorer of the crucial winning goal, having largely kept a territorially dominant Bordeaux (60% possession) at bay at the other end with 3 tackles, 6 interceptions and 7 clearances. As the senior partner in an unfamiliar-looking back four with an average age of 23.3 years, his role in bringing calm to proceedings was pivotal.

Ben Yedder lent a steady hand to his side in a similar way at the other end of the pitch. With Trejo’s runs (including 4 dribbles) taking centre-stage, the 24-year-old was a model of economical efficiency, as he dropped just off Pesic to find gaps. He has often been questioned in this campaign, but his strike was his 10th of the season, keeping him on course to match his 16 and 15 goal tallies of the previous two years.

Both Ben Yedder and Pesic, who has scored 6 times (but only twice in his last 15 appearances), will be relied on as the battle to stay up intensifies. No other player in the squad has scored more than the struggling Martin Braithwaite’s 3, so pickings are slim.

All of a sudden, though, there is room for optimism, even if Toulouse remain in the bottom three. Upcoming trips to Metz and Lorient now inspire anticipation rather than dread. They have, as Arribagé admitted after the game, not become perfect overnight, but seem mentally ready to take the opportunity of having their fate in their own hands in a tight and potentially very nervy battle at the bottom.

Do you think Toulouse can survive this season? Let us know in the comments below