This article also featured on Guardian Sport.
A short walk from the centre of Montpellier lies Figuerolles. Less than affluent, dusty and a little frayed around the edges with plain buildings, narrow streets and a bad reputation, this is where the Savanier family calls home. When most footballers would have extricated themselves from Figuerolles after a rise as dramatic as Nimes’ humble yet bullish creative midfield general and arguably Ligue 1’s player of the season, Teji Savanier comes home from training every evening to his wife, children, parents and siblings in Figuerolles. For now, at least.
“Our tradition is to stay together.” Savanier told L’equipe last year, “It would make me sick to leave the neighborhood but life is difficult there. I play for my family, and if I have to shelter everyone or get them out of there, I'll do it." Having started his career with Nimes’ fierce Languedoc rivals Montpellier, Savanier moved up the Rhone to Arles-Avignon in 2011. Despite just an hour’s journey home, the midfielder only rented a flat in Avignon because his mother agreed to come too.
Having been a Ligue 2 regular since, firstly with Arles before joining Nimes in 2015, Savanier enjoyed a break through campaign last term as Les Crocs were promoted back to Ligue 1 for the first time since 1993. Despite the step up in quality of opposition for his first top flight season, Savanier has spent this year effortlessly dictating Ligue 1 games. Only Kylian Mbappe, Marquinhos and Marco Verratti have higher average game ratings from L’equipe this season. An uncharacteristically wayward display in losing 5-0 at Lille might have been his only even remotely subpar performance all year, the scoreline underlining how important an in form Savanier is to Nimes.
Although he’s often the deepest midfielder in Bernard Blaquart’s gung-ho Nimes outfit, Savanier leads the league in assists with 12. Although impressive, he also boasts a thunderous shot and a devilish dead ball delivery, Savanier’s true influence comes via his flawless technical ability, vision and proactive passing from deep paired with a ferocious, all-action style. Intimidated by no one Savanier is true leader and forever the competitor, telling L’equipe that he’s even desperate to win against his children. “I want to play all the time and beat them. I do not like losing, even against them.”
While Blaquart’s side are more than the sum of their parts and have continually thrilled and surprised, Savanier’s importance becomes ever clearer when looking at NImes individual quality. Although France Under 21 keeper Paul Bernardoni was added over the summer the only major outfield addition to the team that finished second in the second tier was winger Denis Bouanga from Ligue 2 Lorient.
As a result on paper Nimes look like a Ligue 2 team and one with a few gaps. Captain and centre back Anthony Briancon has been struggling for a partner all season while despite Umut Bozok and Achid Alloui’s combined 41 goals in the second tier last term, both have been unable to adapt as Savanier has. Although Nimes’ 53 goal tally is the seventh highest in Ligue 1, a reliable striker has been an obvious weakness all year. Bouanga’s seven, only one more than penalty taker Savanier, makes him top scorer.
Alongside his domination of games, swathes of assists and irrepressible technical ability, Savanier has provided a host of memorable moments this season besides. An astounding 50 yard lob in beating Dijon back in February and a typically nonchalant panenka against Bordeaux last month near the top of the list.
An altercation with Kylian Mbappe as PSG visited Stade des Costieres in September had initially halted Savanier’s superb start in Ligue 1. Tripping Mbappe to prevent a dangerous late counter, Savanier expected little more than the standard yellow card but was ludicrously sent off as Mbappe reacted to shove Savanier to the turf. Bewilderingly furious at his treatment, Mbappe stated, if he could, “he would do it again” and amidst the furore Savanier, who pointed out his tackle would be typical of the attention Mbappe will now receive, was handed an unfathomable five game ban.
His attitude and influence are perhaps best encapsulated by his reaction to that incident, Savanier’s desire to prove himself in the top flight has been untamable. Upon his return, Nimes were winless in 7 games but Blaquart’s men won 4 of their next 7 and jumped from a point above the bottom three into the top eight. Where other sides have tailed off, including fellow promoted side Reims, who have received much more acclaim after their own superb promotion season, Nimes’ late season form has catapulted them into eight place, above Reims and both cup winners Rennes and Strasbourg.
away from his family in Figuerolles. Rather than move clubs, “I always said that the ideal situation would be to go up with Nîmes.” Savanier told L’equipe in April “I'm fine here, half an hour from home,” also admitting that his mother still cooks for him because he “can’t cook anything, not even pasta” and that McDonalds is a post match treat. “Going home, for me, is the most beautiful thing that exists. Football comes after family.” Nevertheless, reportedly available for as little as 10 million euros and still only 27, Savanier has a lot to offer. His mum better start packing.
by Adam White