This article also featured on Guardian Sport.
With modern football characterised by intensity and collective ideals, for a team to be completely dominated by one player is rare. But few clubs across European football are as dependent on one man as Toulouse are on Max Alain Gradel. After years of scrapping a Ligue 1 existence via miraculous escapes and relegation play offs, the loss of the Ivorian this summer could signal disaster at the Stade Municipal.
Talismanic status is not new for Gradel. Before a misadventure with Bournemouth, his time at St. Etienne under now Lille coach Christophe Galtier focused on one thing: qualifying for the champions league. Ligue 1’s most successful, St Etienne are proud and historic club with a raucous fan base, but forays into Europe's Premier club competition have been rare of late. With Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and others gone, Gardel became the epicentre for Les Verts’ hope.
While his colleagues were perhaps not of the same standard, Galtier famously squeezing the best from middling resources, Gradel handled the pressure expertly. Although St Etienne repeatedly fell short of the top three, Gradel's match winning displays convinced Premier League Bournemouth to spend £7m to acquire his services. Without Gradel St Etienne were noticeably diminished as his leadership, goals and consistency were, it turned out, very difficult to replace.
Having ruptured a knee ligament on his full Premier League home debut, when Gradel eventually returned to full fitness he found himself on the fringes of the team and bereft of confidence, rhythm and form. Unable to assert himself on the south coast, having discussed a move with a number of Ligue 1 clubs, Gradel joined Les Violet at the start of last season then under the stewardship of the inspirational, if one-dimensional, Pascal Dupraz.
Dupraz had astonishingly kept Toulouse in the division a year earlier having joined with a ten point gap to safety and just ten games to play, but his ferocious man management and aggressive intensity had quickly worn off with the club meekly dropping back to lower mid table after a lightning start the following year. The onus was on Gradel to perform and lead upon arrival. Perhaps encapsulating his Toulouse career, the Ivorian forward bagged the opening goal on his debut at the Parc des Princes, underlining his quality and fearlessness, posted an eye catching individual display but proved largely blameless for the eventual Neymar instigated late Toulouse collapse.
Toulouse went on to endure a disastrous campaign and Dupraz was replaced by assistant Michael Debeve that winter as TFC slumped to 18th which would have relegated them a year previously but they instead became the first beneficiary of the relegation play offs. Not only in that they enjoyed a reprieve but also in that eventual opponents Ajaccio were without various suspended players and were forced to play their home leg in Montpellier behind closed doors after a lengthy brawl in the previous round with Le Havre. Gradel’s superb free kick opening the scoring and inspired a 4-0 aggregate win.
Having started the year in the bottom two, Gradel leading his team to safety had become a theme as his individual performances had continued to impress while those around him wilted. Although Gradel’s 8 strikes made him the club’s top Ligue 1 scorer, his moderate stats conceal the influence he had on the team; dictating play, leading by example, initiating attacks, maintaining possession when under pressure and leading less experienced players through difficult games. Gradel was far from spectacular but quietly sacrificed himself for the team.
However, having been made captain, Gradel has assumed responsibility for just about everything since. A bizarre decision to reinstate Alain Casanova as coach, who left with the club fighting relegation in 2015, has unsurprisingly seen the team fail to kick on. Once again, this cannot be said for Gradel. Without their talisman’s 10 goals and 4 assists to date, Toulouse, who currently sit 15th and clear of danger, would likely be battling in the bottom three. Gradel has carried Casanova’s weak squad all year, the sole difference between likely relegation and mid table obscurity.
Toulouse have Gradel’s goals, assists and influence to thank for a host of points they barely deserved this season. A late Gradel equaliser against 19th placed Caen two weeks ago saved TFC from being sucked back into the fight while another late leveller secured an creditable draw with Reims last month. A brace away at second place Lille to win 2-1 in December, a goal and assist in saving a point against strugglers Dijon two weeks before and another equaliser in a fortunate 1-1 draw at Strasbourg before Christmas all underline the forward’s importance and were pivotal in setting up a relatively stress free run-in.
Despite a slight improvement in results this season, thanks to their inspirational captain, all is not well at the Stade Municipal. Ultra group, Les Indians Tolosa, who placed ‘wanted’ posters featuring club president Olivier Sadran (supposedly “the killer of passion”) around the Stade Municipal this weekend, staged a protest over repeatedly poor results during the narrow defeat of Guingamp. “Weary and resigned”, according to an Indians statement, the opening 20 minutes were boycotted while a sarcastic minutes applause was held in the 40th minute, the average number of points since the 14/15 season.
Although 86% of fans polled on prominent fans site LesViolet.com wanted Casanova sacked, Casanova remained diplomatic stating his ‘situation is secondary to the team’s’ and that his squad were ‘very concerned about the future of the club’, nevertheless his stays beyond the summer remains unlikely. Despite joyous dressing room scenes after the win over Guingamp depicting a united squad, without the player wearing the armband at their center, they may have little else to celebrate for the foreseeable future.
by Adam White