Newly promoted clubs in the major European leagues generally struggle with the leap in class, but France's Ligue 1 club Angers SCO are turning the conventional wisdom on its head this season. At the beginning of March, no other newly promoted club in Spain, England, Germany, Italy, France or Portugal was higher placed than the side based some 300 kilometres west of Paris. After 29 matches, Angers, who last played in Ligue 1 in 1994, were ninth in the table, just six points off third with nine games to play.
More than the sum
Côte d'Ivoire international Ismael Traore marshals the team from central defence and has played in all but two of the 29 league games – going the distance in all of the matches except one when a forced substitution had to be made. The Paris-born defender, who joined the club from Brest in 2015, said that the players were aware the fairytale beginning to the season would not continue throughout. “We knew more difficult moments would come. After all, we are only Angers. But we are going to keep focused on getting more points as soon as possible to ensure we remain in Ligue 1. We can't waste all the good things we did during the first half of the season."
A sturdy and consistent defence has been a key part of Angers' success, allowing just a goal a match, with Frenchman Romain Thomas and another African defender in Congolese international Arnold Bouka Moutou also playing key roles. Traore says the team-work and understanding of the players has pushed the side to places few thought they could reach. "I team up very well with Romain. We talk a lot, we agree on many things, so things happen well. And it is the same in other positions. We have a very good team-spirit."
In midfield, Cheikh Ndoye and Moroccan Romain Saiss have played 24 and 27 matches respectively, with the Senegalese international Ndoye the club's top scorer with seven goals, including two in the victory against Monaco. Another African international with a great future is 20-year-old Algerian Said Benrahma, who received his first call-up to the Desert Foxes in September last year.
Like most of his team-mates, Saiss was surprised just how well the club did at the beginning of the season. "Most of us were playing in Ligue 1 for the first time. We did not know where we were going, or what would happen. Of course we did not think we'd be just behind PSG in second place for so long. I thought it would be more complicated, but the points we have today, we have not stolen them. We worked hard, remained united and stayed humble, and it proved that even with a small budget you can make beautiful things."
In attack, Moulin has used Mohamed Yattara, who starred for Guinea at last year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Jean-Pierre Nsame from Cameroon and Congolese Ferebory Dore. The coach, who himself played for Angers for several seasons, has managed to mould players from so many different nationalities into one cohesive unit, which has taken the league by storm.
Saiss believes one of the reasons behind the success was the pre-season training the club had. "We played a lot of friendlies as we had a lot of new players. But we worked a lot on preparing, had everyone together from the start, and we can see now that it was very profitable. We assumed we would have very difficult times, but we knew that we all had to pull in the same direction. This is what makes us strong.
"We play like we train, and we rely on a really tough defensive unit, allowing us not to concede opportunities and goals. We knew each of our 38 matches was going to be a battle, and we continue challenging ourselves."