BLOG: Toulouse with it all to win
By I. Holyman
Just ten minutes away from being a Ligue 2 side last season, Tolouse FC have made the most of their miraculous escape to become the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, writes Ian Holyman.
It is easy to go over the top when describing footballing exploits, but the scenario from which Toulouse somehow extracted themselves last season is truly remarkable. As great escapes go, it was Houdini and Steve McQueen all rolled into one. Maybe even that is not going far enough.
In the bottom three since October, and ten points adrift of safety with just ten games remaining, Toulouse appeared already doomed to the drop when Pascal Dupraz took over coaching duties in March after Dominique Arribagé had been relieved of his functions.
Oscar Trejo's goal at home to already relegated ESTAC Troyes in the penultimate game of the season lifted TFC out of the relegation zone, but it was not until Yann Bodiger fired an 80th-minute free-kick into the net at Angers in Week 38 that safety was secured. With Stade de Reims also winning on the final day, a draw would not have been enough for Dupraz's men.
WATCH: The goal that kept Toulouse up
All of that means had you predicted Toulouse would be in fourth place ten games into this season, most people would have only agreed with you had you turned the table upside down.
Fear is a powerful motivator, and it is perhaps the fact of having come so close to plunging into the abyss that has driven Toulouse on this season. However, it is not enough to explain how both Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco have been beaten by TFC. And not only beaten, but also very much second-best.
Rather than being provoked by a spending spree as the summer window saw key and experienced personnel, such as Wissam ben Yedder, Etienne Didot and Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik, depart, the metamorphosis has been down to Dupraz opting — undoubtedly due to financial restraints as much as a belief in their talents — to give youth a chance.
A recent study by Italian sports daily, Gazzetta dello Sport, claimed Toulouse have the youngest average squad - 23 years and 93 days - of any team in Europe's top five leagues, and almost a year younger than the next side: current Ligue 1 leaders OGC Nice.
WATCH: Toulouse topple Monaco
While youthful attacking talents are more common, those who excel at the opposite end of the pitch are rare, and it is rarer still that they do so collectively. However, along with Nice and PSG, TFC boast the best defensive record in Ligue 1 this season with seven goals conceded. By contrast, only six teams were more generous to opponents than the south-westerners last term.
Yet, the oldest player in Toulouse's back six (including goalkeeper) in last weekend's goalless draw at Angers SCO was 26-year-old François Moubandje. Remove the Switzerland international, and no other player was older than 23.
The two teenagers have been spectacularly good: centre-back Issa Diop, 19, and goalkeeper Alban Lafont, 17 (yes, 17!). Though both were given Ligue 1 debuts by Arribagé, they have become bona fide first-team regulars under Dupraz, who — despite his own combustible temperament — appears to have imbued the pair with an aire of calm that defies their years.
WATCH: PSG are beaten in Toulouse
They have had work to do too with Toulouse surrendering possession to their opponents - their average of 47% is 14th in Ligue 1 - but that stat and their miserly defensive record is homage to the formidable unit Dupraz has forged in just over half-a-year in charge.
The youngsters, who also include midfielders Alexis Blin, 20, and Bodiger, 21, have been chaperoned by the more experienced Trejo, summer arrivals Ola Toivonen and Jimmy Durmaz, and captain Martin Braithwaite, who has taken on the armband with relish, and repaid his coach with not only goals — six already this season — but with inspiring, lead-by-example displays.
It is a blend that has proven more than a match for many this season, including the Ligue 1 champions. Dupraz, who is in his first coaching job outside of Evian-Thonon-Gaillard, deserves much of the credit, and after confirming his qualities as an arch-motivator last term, he has shown his ability to mould a team from seemingly meagre resources that can aspire to much more than simply to lose.