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Saint-Etienne’s struggles put club on brink of relegation

Saint-Etienne's struggles

Photo credit: John Berry/Getty Images

Despite a midweek win, Saint-Etienne’s struggles still mean the club is in a historically poor position.

As things stand, Les Verts average a paltry .68 points per game in Ligue 1. That number actually jumped following the club’s most recent result. A 1-0 win over Angers ended an eight-game losing skid in the league. Currently, Saint-Etienne is on pace to finish the Ligue 1 season with just 26 points. That just about guarantees relegation.

For context on how substandard this is, this is developing into one of ASSE’s worst seasons ever. The win in gameweek 22 is just the third of the season. Simultaneously, the clubs 13 losses lead the division. Well, they are in the Coupe de France. But, that is mostly because Saint-Etienne played a pair of fourth-division sides.

This team is not like the 10-time title-winners of the 1980s, the 2013 Coupe de la Ligue winners or even the Europa League squad of 2019. Rather, the club’s first relegation since 2001 seems more and more like reality.

Saint-Etienne’s struggles mean that bright stars are on a sinking ship. Decisions are imminent in terms of jumping overboard.

Saint-Etienne’s recent struggles

Saint-Etienne dominated the French scene in the 1980s. Clearly, those days are in the past. However, the Saint-Etienne sides of the past 20 years produced elite talents. Among those to come through the ranks at the club are Dimitri Payet, Blaise Matuidi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. As a club, ASSE advanced to the Round of 16 in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup. Also, the club won the now-defunct Coupe de la Ligue in 2013.

From then on, things at the club spiraled downhill. Yet, the club did not trap itself in the relegation zone like the Saint-Etienne struggles of today. Then, Saint-Etienne desperately craved the trophies and European action, even if the club was not quite there. The club’s European drought looked set to continue after exiting the Europa League in the round of 32.

ASSE dropped to 16th place during the 2017/18 season, leading to manager Julien Sablé’s sacking. The replacement, Jean-Louis Gasset, led Les Verts to a 13-game unbeaten streak. The run of form propelled the club to a seventh-place finish in league play.

The next season, Saint-Etienne finished fourth under the guidance of Gasset. Consequently, Saint-Etienne qualified for the Europa League.

Unfortunately for Les Verts, Gasset resigned over transfer money disputes with the board. Without him, Saint-Etienne finished a shortened 2019/20 season  at 17th, just seven points above relegation. With a full season resuming in 2020/21, ASSE pulled a rabbit out of its hat. Hovering just above the drop for the entire season, a final stretch of games propelled the club to 11th at season’s end.

2021/22 Campaign

A big chunk of the 2020/21 season hinted at Saint-Etienne’s current season. The club started in the worst way possible, kicking off the season with a twelve-game winless run.

“We conceded three goals at home, and it is unacceptable,” star striker Wahbi Khazri ranted.

Khazri also used some expletives to show frustration with his teammates’ and his performances.

A win against Clermont Foot dragged Saint-Etienne out of last place. Only Metz’s nine points after 13 games sat beneath ASSE. Then, another win, this time against Troyes, set the stage for a classic Saint-Etienne run of form.

That was until a six-game losing streak put Saint-Etienne back where it started.

In the French Cup, Saint-Etienne keeps moving along. In its first game, Les Verts squeaked past fourth-tier team Lyon La Duchere. A sole goal from Arnaud Nordin prevented parity in the match.

A noticeable improved performance followed in the round of 32, this time against Jura Sud Foot. While this is another fourth-tier side, Saint-Etienne comfortably dispatched its opposition, 4-1.

Now in the round of 16, Saint-Etienne got the luck of the draw again. They will play Bergerac, another fourth-tier side. However, Bergerac is top of its group in that division.

The Bergerac clash will be a big turning point for Saint-Etienne. Advancing to the quarterfinals would be a bright-spot in a notorious campaign.

The game’s defining Saint-Etienne’s season

Three games accurately reflect Saint-Etienne’s struggles this season. Without improvement on these performances, chalk the club up to fall to Ligue 2.

Lorient 1, Saint-Etienne 1

This game opened ASSE’s Ligue 1 campaign in front of thousands. It appeared to be a promising start after the previous season’s struggles.

Saint-Etienne opened the match in a 4-4-1-1. However, the club failed to score in the first half. Lorient preyed on Saint-Etienne’s inability to score by knocking one in as the second-half got underway. A Wahbi Khazri penalty put the clubs back on level terms, which would remain the scoreline for the rest of the game.

ASSE logged 2.1 xG in the match, according to FBREF. Some of this was because of Denis Bouanga’s heroic efforts. He totaled eight shots and 62 touches, making him an integral part of the offense. Khazri showed his worth with his clinical finishing from the spot.

Overall, the match left a positive note for the season. Clearly, this game provided false hope for the remainder of the USMNT’s season.

Saint-Etienne 0, Rennes 5

Undoubtedly, this is Saint-Etienne’s low point of the season.

ASSE, playing in a 4-4-2, conceded a duo of goals early in the match. Martin Terrier scored twice in a span of just six minutes. Rennes struck again, this time off an own goal as the first half concluded. Terrier completed his hat-trick almost immediately after the second half started. Then, in the closing moments of the fixture, Chimuanya Ugochukwu scored the fifth Rennes goal of the day.

Saint-Etienne only won two of its Ligue 1 games then. Consequently, the club entered as massive underdogs. Even then, a loss of this size came as a shock to ASSE supporters and the players alike.

Khazri logged three shots but could not score as he did against Lorient. Saint-Etienne’s defense was surprisingly bad, failing to provide the offense with any kind of hope.

Reims 2, Saint-Etienne 0

Zero-point-one. 0.1. That was the xG ASSE produced in a horrific match against Reims.

ASSE lined up in a 4-3-3, focused on capturing their third Ligue 1 win of the season. El Bilal Toure’s 23rd-minute penalty quickly silenced the hopeful murmurs among a helpless Saint-Etienne side. The deficit was just one goal, but it was a bridge Les Verts could not cross.

Khazri did not produce his usual level of offensive productiveness. A red card from Denis Bounanga at the end of the first half did not help Saint-Etienne’s cause either.

Nathanael Mbuku’s 89th-minute score put all possibilities of a draw away.

It was a mediocre performance from Saint-Etienne. The entire Saint-Etienne team produced fewer shots than Toure, by himself, did. Khazri was not as involved in the game as his team needed him to be. The omission of a man forced Saint-Etienne into an uncomfortable position. Reims burnt ASSE down the wings, so their toughness on the flanks will need to be resolved soon.

Hope for escaping the struggles

Yet, there is still hope for Saint-Etienne despite its struggles. For one, it is a well-assembled team with a lot of prestige. Also, the roster itself is better than its current league position. Among them are one of the league’s best strikers, two young and agile keepers, and a defensive midfielder that the world’s best clubs have an eye on.

A showdown with fourth-tier side Bergerac in the French Cup will be helpful to see how focused Saint-Etienne is on their season. A quarter-finals appearance will be one of the high points of their season, and on Sunday, they will have a chance to book its tickets to the quarters.

After a derby with Lyon, they will play middling team Montpellier in their first February matchup. Montpellier is a quality side, and their attack is fine. Les Verts will look to exploit a sometimes-frustrated defense on February 5.

Although this looks out of Saint-Etienne’s reach, a PSG matchup looms around the corner. PSG already looks like the 2021-22 champions of Ligue 1, although Ligue 1 only just passed the halfway mark of its current campaign. In a PSG game, we can see the disparity between the ASSE teams of the 1980s and this current side. A win will reveal that the squad is better than the standings say. A loss is expected but will hurt their chances of staying in Ligue 1.

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