With any rebuilding project, the decisions have been many and the work has been hard, but Saint-Etienne may be on the verge of seeing some fruit from their labor. After years of bouncing between mediocrity in Ligue 1 and relegation to Ligue 2, ASSE is finally showing signs of being a competitive force again in the French game.
A return to the heights achieved by the great teams of the 1970s is unlikely, but being a consistent participant in European competition would be a satisfying accomplishment for the men in green.
There are many factors that have led to this resurrection of one of France's most treasured clubs. Player development, intelligent management decisions and coaching have all played a part in breathing life back into Les Verts.
Player development is key to building a lasting foundation for a team. It becomes even more important for a club with limited finances.
Saint-Etienne has made their youth academy a point of more focus over the last decade. The results have had a significant impact over the last few seasons.
Kurt Zouma, Faouzi Ghoulam and Josuha Guilavogui are the latest players to graduate from the junior ranks to be contributors on the senior team. Identifying, bringing in and developing young players is one of the best ways for cost-conscience clubs to turn their fortunes around.
The development of young talent can not only help the team on the pitch, but also help the club's balance sheets when the time comes for the player to move on to the next challenge in his career. Kurt Zouma has already been subject of rumored interest from teams like Manchester United.
With the 18-year-old the subject of interest from abroad, Saint-Etienne moved to extend the young defender's contract in an effort to keep him in the fold for a few years longer. The extension should help Saint-Etienne maximize the return for the highly regarded center-back.
The Zouma contract extension is a prime example of solid management decisions made by the powers that be. Convincing a young player with the world at his feet to stay loyal to Les Verts for a little longer shows the positive environment that currently surrounds the club.
Extending a player like Zouma is an easy decision, but club management has made several tough decisions the last few years. Understanding what the club needed, management made the difficult decision to sell three of their top players in the summer of 2011.
Blaise Matuidi, Dimitri Payet and Emmanuel Riviere formed a talented young core that many fans (including this one) felt would lead the team into better days. Knowing what they had and what they needed, Saint-Etienne pulled the trigger on letting the three move on.
All three were sold to Ligue 1 opponents making their transfers risky propositions with potential to backfire on the club.
Perhaps the most important player decision made coincided with the transfer of the aforementioned players. That summer, ASSE negotiated an extension of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's loan from AC Milan. The loan move was then made permenent in January of 2012.
Aubameyang has been the spark the attack needed. His talents have helped make ASSE one of the more dangerous offensive clubs in France. It is no coincidence that Saint-Etienne's climb back toward the top of Ligue 1 has coincided with Aubameyang's growth as a player.
After agreeing with the club to stay until the season was done, Aubameyang has announced his interest to move onto the next step in his career. While losing Aubameyang will weaken the squad, the transfer fee Saint-Etienne will be able to get in return will help finance squad reinforcements.
Aubameyang can give the team an even bigger financial boost if he can lead Saint-Etienne into a European competition spot before his time in green is through. ASSE has shown the capacity to use their funds wisely by signing affordable yet effective players. Brandao, Renaud Cohade and Romain Hamouma are all recent purchases that have contributed in big ways at reasonable prices.
The loss of Aubameyang will be felt, but the squad ability to overcome will be enhanced by Christophe Galtier. Saint-Etienne's coach has been a huge reason behind their resurgence.
The 46-year-old former Ligue 1 defender took the reins in 2009. He has brought a tactical style that provides for an exciting attack with solid defense. His ability to mesh players into his system has seen a more consistent Saint-Etienne on the pitch.
While there is still work to do, the progress made under Galtier is undeniable. With progress comes greater expectation. One has to believe that Galtier will continue to push the squad to greater heights.
With the money being poured into PSG and the same potentially coming to fruition in Monaco, a Ligue 1 championship is asking a bit much, but with the right coach in place and management making smart decisions ASSE has positioned itself to compete for a European spot for the foreseeable future. With the drought the Saint-Etienne fans have suffered, the club in its current form is a welcomed sight.
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