This article also featured on GFFN and Guardian Sport as part of the Ligue 1 review.
‘Savoir-faire’ doesn’t have a direct translation. The closest English equivalent would be “know-how” but the French phrase carries a sense of graceful adaptability, to respond seamlessly and appropriately to any situation. Few in football embody savoir-faire more than Thierry Laurey’s Strasbourg. Having fought back from near-liquidation and the sprawling french fifth tier in 2011, the Alsace club are edging towards Europe and perhaps even silverware thanks to their versatile and intelligent coach. Now fifth in Ligue 1, Saturday’s 5-1 win at Monaco was simply their latest eye-catching achievement.
European football would have been a dream for Strasbourg supporters as recently as 2014. Relegated from Ligue 1 in 2008, cup winners twice that decade, RCSA suffered through the mismanagement of Jafar Hilai and soon plunged down through the divisions amid spiralling debt as Hilai threatened to end business entirely should a buyer not emerge. Although former player Marc Keller rescued the club, Strasbourg resumed as fifth tier amateurs. Nevertheless by 2013 they had fought their way back to third tier National, boasting record average crowds - one fourth tier gate exceeding 20,000. However, sixteenth that season seemingly meant relegation back to French football’s wilderness, but their luck started to change. Financial irregularities for other clubs meant a reprieve and two titles in the next three seasons had Le Racing back in Ligue 1, astonishingly topping Ligue 2 as a promoted club.
Leading the Ligue 2 charge was Thierry Laurey. Despite guiding minnows Gazelec Ajaccio into Ligue 1 a year earlier, a brave survival bid only extinguished on the final day, success had long been lillusive for Laurey. Leaving Amiens in 2009, the now 54 year old spent 21 months unemployed, but never considered changing career. “I remember telling my wife, ‘This is what I want to do, and I'll continue.’ It's hard, the phone doesn’t ring, relationships at home are tense, and then one day it starts again.”
Strasbourg’s Ligue 1 return was dramatic, their 2-1 win over PSG the highlight while a typically boisterous Mineau willed Laurey’s men to safety with two late strikes to beat Lyon on the penultimate weekend after a worrying eleven game run without a win, despite some credible draws in that time. Laurey has built Strasbourg’s success on vigilance, adaptability and pragmatism. Switching between a 4-4-2 diamond, three centre backs and a more typical 4-3-3 since taking over, Laurey’s charges are well drilled and organised yet fluid, capable of achieving results by varying means.
After a stoic bus-parking performance away at the free-wheeling Lille (0-0), Laurey was unapologetic. "When I play someone who's superior to me, I try to be smart. We knew that if we left spaces we would be in danger. We are Strasbourg, the day we call ourselves Chelsea or AC Milan we’ll play differently.” Having wrestled another point from PSG, Laurey’s tone was similar. “We knew we were going to defend, it’s not a sign of weakness,” he explained, “We knew that we needed technical accuracy... given the commitment we showed, the rigor and the investment, I am very happy to take a point.” Laurey exudes a honest and intense persona, matching his club’s, “I wanted to be at a club with lots of enthusiasm, fervor and passion” he explained before extending his contract in December, “and my wish is more than fulfilled.”
A need for ‘progression’ is often stressed, as is a fierce desire to not to get carried away. "We have 29 points and the goal remains the same: to stay up by doing better than last season,” Laurey explained after beating Toulouse, “we would like the bottom three to be even further away. We’re managing matches better, we have a more mature team. We have the second best attack in Ligue 1, this is satisfying.” After a 4-1 win at Rennes Laurey explained his sides form “doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Our state of mind, our commitment, our offensive and defensive cohesion, we respected what we needed to do and it’s logical we’re rewarded."
Even after the mauling of Monaco, their sixth win in a row across all competitions, he remained cautious, pointing out that “we lost the ball easily, there are ways to improve the team's performance. I was not happy at half-time because we let Monaco back in the game.” After Naldo’s early sending off, imposing forward Ludovic Ajorque, who’s devastating display drew a rare 9/10 from L’equipe, and underrated midfielder Adrien Thomasson had RCSA two ahead before Falcao gave Monaco hope. Nevertheless after half time Ibrahima Sissoko and Ajorque ended the contest despite Strasbourg defender Stefan Mitrovic also being dismissed.
Victories over ‘bigger’ sides have become something of a specialty for Laurey, so much so that Strasbourg’s only two defeats since late September have come against promoted teams Nimes and Reims. A Coupe de la Ligue quarter final win at Lyon earlier this month may prove especially momentous. With PSG’s shock exit to Guingamp at the same stage, Strasbourg are the highest ranked team left in the competition and are now arguably favourites for their first major trophy in 15 years and accompanying European berth, assuming qualification doesn’t come via the league. Second top scorers behind PSG and keeping pace with the top four, even a Champions League spot isn’t fanciful.
Wherever their season takes them, Strasbourg won’t get carried away. "Whoever gets drunk, will quickly sober up" Laurey said of his players’ joy at beating PSG last season. Laurey’s constant drive for improvement and mastery of ‘savoir-faire’ will see to that.
by Adam White