SPIRO: Saint-Etienne the big winners
By M. Spiro
By signing Mathieu Debuchy, Neven Subotic, Paul-Georges Ntep and Yann M'Vila in January, Saint-Etienne have given themselves a much-needed injection of experience and quality, writes Matthew Spiro.
A host of Ligue 1 teams should feel satisfied about their January business - and not only with regards to the players who have come in. Monaco, for example, can celebrate the fact Thomas Lemar is still on their books. Likewise Angers deserve praise for resisting Premier League overtures for Karl Toko Ekambi. Ditto Bordeaux for Malcom.
Ones for the future
Lyon will certainly be thrilled to have secured the services of two outstanding young players for next season: France Under-21 forward Martin Terrier has agreed to join from Lille for €15m once his loan spell at Strasbourg ends, and full-back Leo Dubois is poised to arrive on a free when his Nantes contract expires in June.
The most costly recruit of the winter window, ironically, is a player we know little about. Pietro Pellegri has huge promise but in signing the 16-year-old from Genoa, Monaco are essentially investing in the future. Considering their incredible track record of developing gifted attackers (think Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappé), Pellegri's decision to come is entirely understandable.
Sainté come up trumps
For me, Saint-Etienne are the big winners of the January window. They succeeded in bringing three French internationals back to Ligue 1 - Debuchy from Arsenal, Ntep from Wolfsburg and M'Vila from Rubin Kazan - as well as luring Borussia Dortmund's vastly experienced defender Subotic and taking Slovenian striker Robert Beric back from a loan spell.
Les Verts were in need of a lift, having struggled horribly in the earlier months post-Christophe Galtier. Indeed, had their chaotic campaign been allowed to drift further, a return to the second tier after 14 seasons in Ligue 1 was definitely on the cards. As it is, I now believe Jean-Louis Gasset's men - still only two points above the bottom three - can go on to finish strongly and claim a place in the top half.
Galtier had been such an influential, charismatic figure at the club for the last eight years, the season after his departure was always going to be tough. It didn't help that big mistakes were made. Oscar Garcia was clearly the wrong man to succeed Galtier, but the Spaniard didn't have the tools to work with either. Record-signing Loïs Diony proved a categorical failure in attack, while other under-achieving players were allowed to stay.
In January, the Saint-Etienne board discovered a ruthless streak. The eternally disappointing forward Alexandre Soderlund was sent packing having netted a miserly sum of three goals in 43 league appearances. Defenders Florentin Pogba and Leo Lacroix were also shown the exit door, along with Diony and Bryan Dabo.
They have been replaced by strong, mainly experienced footballers. The arrival of a player like Subotic, the Serbian centre-back who won two Bundesliga titles during his nine years at Dortmund, will serve as a wake-up call to the others. He will be demanding on the training ground and set high standards on the pitch.
As will another former champion, Debuchy, a renowned fighter who's looking to get his career back on track and force his way into France's World Cup plans. Debuchy and Subotic are particularly important because Saint-Etienne's defence has been a mess for too long. This season they have been too reliant on injury-plagued skipper Loïc Perrin. Only Metz, Dijon and Strasbourg have let in more than the ten-time champions.
The French public already know about the quality of Ntep and M'Vila, yet again both players have points to prove after falling from grace to an extent. Ten days after his arrival, Ntep has already started more games than he managed for Wolfsburg in the first half of the season. He looks hungry, determined and dangerous.
Righting the ship
Saint-Etienne's active window stands out because for so long the club has been too laissez-faire, happy to sit back and rely on Galtier getting the best out of a young group supplemented by a sprinkling of cheap, unproven foreign talent. The squad, however, had become stale, generally lacked quality and needed a makeover.
That this famous old club has made the financial efforts to rectify matters mid-season is a significant step in the right direction. There is still a long way to go, but the January acquisitions have sent out a positive message to the supporters and the benefits will surely be seen on the pitch in the coming weeks.