The champions that Rudi built
By I. Holyman
'There are no great teams without a great coach,' said legendary English boss Brian Clough, and there can be little doubt Rudi Garcia's work at Lille has propelled both himself and the club into the pantheon of French football.
Garcia's down-to-earth assistant coach, Fred Bompard, likes to say that 'Flattery weakens man', a message that both he and Garcia have been hammering into their squad all season long, wary of the history of last season repeating itself when Lille saw their hopes of Champions League football frustratingly slip away on the final day of the season.
However, with the club's first Ligue 1 title since 1954 - and their first league-and-cup double since 1946 - safely in the record books, the plaudits can now flow, and deservedly so, because Garcia has forged a side that has taken the title in flamboyant fashion. An attacking midfielder in his day, Garcia built his side in his own image. After seeing his team top the scoring charts - if not the table - last season, Garcia stayed true to his beliefs this term, and he and the French footballing public have been rewarded with the fluid attacking play that has become the club's hallmark.
65 goals in 37 games - with more possible with a game left - is five more than the next most-prolific side, and sees Garcia break the mould of the Ligue 1 coach, stereotyped as cautious and defensive. "Of all the clubs I've played for, Lille is without a doubt the strongest in terms of their attack," said well-travelled forward Pierre-Alain Frau this season. "There's such potential."
The majority of that attacking potency lies in a formidable trident of Moussa Sow, Gervinho and the remarkably-gifted Eden Hazard. The trio have amassed 47 goals between them and 20 assists thanks largely to their individual talents, but also due to Garcia, who has given them free rein to wreak havoc.
His use of the obdurate Rio Mavuba in front of the back four means the side has a defensive safety-net that allows the front three to concern themselves more with tearing opposing defences to pieces than tracking back while Yohan Cabaye and Florent Balmont, employed in slightly more advanced roles, both relay the ball to the forwards and put in the spadework.
While Garcia has done an excellent job in shielding the young Hazard from the searing glare of the media and those compliments he is so careful to avoid, he has also managed to successfully juggle his squad. Although admittedly he does not have the largest nor most high-profile group of players in Ligue 1, Garcia has cannily kept those who regularly found themselves on the bench come game-day both involved and interested.
Bit-part actors Tulio de Melo and Pierre-Alain Frau have provided key goals this season, the latter notably at Marseille in Week 26, while Ludovic Obraniak came off the bench to conjure the French Cup final winner. "When we're at full strength, we have assets on the bench, and we have to use them," said Garcia earlier this season. The squad's strength-in-depth has also allowed him to change his team's tactics, showing that - even for Garcia - playing good football does not always take precedence over getting good results: "We also know that when we're struggling to get our game going, that when we're too impatient, we can bring on a target man in Tulio and play differently." That has rarely been the case, though, this season with Nice coach Eric Roy comparing Lille to Barcelona after he saw his side taken apart by the champions in Week 20.
That is not to say that Garcia has neglected the game's defensive arts. While Mavuba patrols in front of the defence, the centre-back pairing of Aurélien Chedjou and Adil Rami has flourished, with both players establishing themselves at international level after shining for their club. David Rozehnal has proved a fine back-up for either of the two, while full-backs Franck Beria and Debuchy have been unfussy and resolutely solid. By making few changes in personnel, Garcia has allowed that all-important understanding to develop between the defenders, resulting in one of the best defensive records in the league.
That impressively low tally also owes much to the form of Mickaël Landreau, whose career has been revived by Garcia after the talented goalkeeper had lost both his confidence and his way at Paris Saint-Germain. The Lille coach's conviction that Landreau, an ever-present this season, could recapture the form that helped him win the Ligue 1 title with Nantes in 2000-01 and catapulted him into the French national side has been handsomely rewarded, not least of all at the Parc des Princes on Saturday night.
Few could have suspected that Garcia would win the Ligue 1 crown within three years of succeeding Claude Puel, especially given that he was sacked after his first season in charge. Behind-the-scenes politics led to Garcia being relieved of his duties for two weeks in the summer of 2009 only to then be reinstalled by club president Michel Seydoux. "I'm a big fan of loyalty and continuity," said Seydoux after putting Garcia back in place. "He's happy to come back." Probably not quite as happy as Seydoux is now, though, having taken the decision that has made Lille the champions of France.