“I train with the pros during the week and I play with the youngsters at weekends… I am not the future of the club.” At 32 and disconsolate over his exile from Arsenal’s first team, the chances that Mathieu Debuchy would be part of any club’s future seemed slim at the start of the season. Lengthy injuries and the ensuing rise of fellow full-back Hector Bellerin at the Emirates had derailed his career, a career that seemed to be prematurely winding down, no matter what the Frenchman did. But now, rescued by St Étienne, Debuchy has enjoyed a startling renaissance as a goal-scorer, a leader and even the Ligue 1 player of the month for February. Miraculously, a trip to Russia this summer with Didier Deschamps could yet materialise.
A way out of North London was not forthcoming as a series of exit routes were propositioned then snatched away. Brighton made contact at climax of the summer transfer window without result, a loan spell with Bordeaux in 2016 was also fruitless – Debuchy’s displays and crucially his fitness falling short of his best – while the dissipation of Nice’s interest was hardest to take. “I met Julien Fournier, the general manager of the club, in June.” Debuchy told L’Équipe, “We discussed everything; Nice, me, how I was getting on. He asked me to meet the coach, I even agreed to physical tests, they were positive but there was no news.” Debuchy eventually found out Christophe Jallet had been signed instead, “like everyone else, in the press.”
Debuchy, however, remained stoically professional, as he has throughout his career. “He was a player who did not pose any problem in the dressing room.” explained Pascal Plancque in L’Équipe, former coach of Lille reserves. “He had a very good education, he was a leader with his attitude. He was not the most talented at first, but worked like crazy.” That attitude helped the younger Debuchy produce some eye catching results. A Ligue 1 champion with Lille, his boyhood club and the city of his birth, in 2011 before 27 France caps and remaining first choice throughout Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, after which a £12m move to Arsenal was secured following a standout 18 months with Newcastle. “Goodbye Brazil, hello Arsenal,” posted a clearly delighted Debuchy on Instagram.
Early displays were promising but operations on an ankle then a shoulder in his first 6 months at the Emirates proved irrecoverable. “You feel guilty,” a rueful Debuchy explained in L’Équipe, “the club recruits you, relies on you and, in exchange, you cannot bring anything.” Upon his return, despite his pedigree and international experience, a place on the bench quickly became one in the reserves. Insisting he had ‘proved his value’ a frustrated Debuchy described joining Les Verts on loan until the end of the season as a “relief”, quite the statement given the disastrous season St Étienne were enduring; trashed 5-0 at home by fierce rivals Lyon, manager Oscar Garcia resigning in the aftermath, while the relegation zone loomed ever larger for a club that had become European regulars.
Debuchy’s arrival, however, has coincided with St Étienne’s resurgence. After the Rhône-Alpes Derby thrashing at the hands of Lyon and a succession of porous, timid Les Verts displays, devoid of any intensity or confidence, this season was becoming one of their worst in an otherwise luxurious history as Ligue 1’s most decorated club.
However, the introduction of wizened, understated coach Jean Louis Gasset, former assistant to Laurent Blanc, has engendered a gradual restoration of St Étienne’s pride, self-esteem and league position. Gasset added some much need quality in the winter window in signing former Les Bleus midfielder Yann M’Vila, centre back Neven Subotic of Dortmund and former Rennes winger Paul-Georges Ntep from Wolfsburg alongside Debuchy and all, perhaps with the exception of Ntep, have settled in and found their form with ease.
The influence of Debuchy is difficult to understate. A goal on his debut away at Amiens helped St Étienne to a stabilising 2-0 victory before a late equaliser from the former Arsenal man saw Les Verts gain some level of redemption in the return trip to Lyon in February. Debuchy was again pivotal in St Étienne’s most impressive display of the season on Sunday afternoon as Gasset’s refreshed, newly positive side dispatched a conversely weary looking Nantes 3-0 at the Stade de la Beaujoire.
Debuchy again opened the scoring after masterful, early high pressing from ASSE and, true to form, Debuchy’s all-round play was again excellent; ably supporting attacks, while a number of well-timed interventions underlined the effect he has had on a previously shaky defence. Rémy Cabella’s brace as part of his latest standout performance, his return to form another by-product of Gasset’s astute leadership, made for a comfortable Les Verts victory. They are undefeated in Debuchy’s 8 games to date.
An outstanding opening quartet of displays across February led to Debuchy being voted, ahead of Neymar, as Ligue 1 player of the month. “He’s a great player, with a great state of mind,” explained teammate Kevin Monnet-Paquet, “A player like him reassures the defence and the whole team.” While M’Vila goes further. “Given his current performance and the fact that there is room at right back,” says the former Sunderland sentinel, “it would not be a surprise to see him at the World Cup. Mathieu is a great professional. You see it in his recovery and his way of working. He did not come to St Étienne for nothing.”
Having not made the latest squad, forcing his way into Didier Deschamps’ plans remains a difficult task, but Debuchy’s return to form and the fact the he is name is even mentioned under the same breath as the French national team is a sizable accomplishment. Arsenal might not have seen Debuchy as part of their future, but St Étienne fans are sure glad he could be part of theirs.
by Adam White