At the halfway stage of the 2012-13 season, a quick glance at the top of the Ligue 1 table revealed few surprises. Championship favourites PSG took the honorary title of ‘Champion d’automne’ (Autumn Champion) on goal difference, pipping two other giants of the French game- Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique de Marseille.
But just below this powerful triumvirate, nestled in fifth position behind Brittany neighbours Stade Rennais, were one of the surprise packages of the season so far, FC Lorient. And while the lofty league position of Les Merlus (the Hake) may have surprised many, there is nothing fishy about the club’s recent accomplishments.
Lorient is a small, coastal town situated in the French département of Morbihan in Brittany, north-western France. While the town itself only just scrapes into France’s top 50 most populous towns and cities however, Lorient’s football club is intent on mixing it with the nation’s big city boys.
FC Lorient turned professional in 1967 and have experienced numerous ups and downs. The club played in the French third tier as recently as 1995 before yo-yoing between Ligues 1 and 2 for over a decade. Since gaining promotion back into France’s top flight in 2006, though, FCL has been ever-present in Ligue 1. After enjoying five seasons of highly-respectable mid-table finishes (even achieving 7th place in 2009-10), the team struggled last season and avoided relegation by a single point and position after failing to win any of their final four fixtures.
That blip aside though, few would argue that FCL’s current spell among the elite of French football has been overwhelmingly positive. This season has so far brought even greater success, with a string of outstanding results having shot the club back into the headlines for the right reasons.
The first half of the season included draws versus PSG and Lyon, as well as impressive wins at home to Lille and away to Rennes, Marseille and Saint Etienne.
Thirteen points from a possible 15 in December left Lorient sitting pretty in fifth place at the winter break and, following their home win over Troyes on Saturday night, the Orange and Blacks even rose to fourth place - if only for 24 hours. So what factors have contributed to Lorient’s recent ascent?
On the Stade du Moustoir pitch (one of two artificial surfaces in Ligue 1), the club can boast a number of players at the top of their form. From goalkeeper Fabien Audard, described by manager Christian Gourcuff as ‘the best ‘keeper in Ligue 1’, through to forward Jérémie Aliadière who has already scored seven goals this term, the spine of the side looks strong. Other key players include powerful young centre back Lamine Koné, midfielder/Ben Stiller doppelganger Benjamin Corgnet, and Burkina Faso international Alain Traoré, whose strikes are usually showstoppers.
Off the pitch, the clubs future looks to be in safe hands. Club President Loïc Féry, the London-based French businessman who took the reins at FCL in 2009 aged just 35, has set about building the club around three principle themes: ensuring Lorient’s sporting stability by making them a permanent fixture in Ligue 1; improving the club’s infrastructure (including a brand new €11 million training ground, due to open this summer); and to develop the reputation of the club.
And then, there’s the manager. Brittany-born Gourcuff, father of Lyon and France midfielder Yoann, has been associated with the club since 1982 when he became player-manager. Gourcuff has left and rejoined FC Lorient numerous times in the intervening years, having spent parts of his footballing career elsewhere in France, as well as in Canada and Qatar.
His most recent return came in 2003 and he has been in charge ever since, overseeing their promotion in 2006 and becoming one of the most established bosses in the French game. Under his guidance, Lorient have gained a reputation for promoting youth and playing attractive, attacking, passing football.
It is this brand of football, coupled with Lorient’s ability to be profitable financially, that has drawn frequent comparisons with Arsenal. Furthermore, an informal link between the clubs has resulted in loan deals and transfers of players including Aliadière, Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin and Joel Campbell. Much like the Gunners, Lorient are also known for developing relatively unknown talent- with current internationals including Koscielny, Kevin Gameiro and André-Pierre Gignac having spent time in south Brittany before moving on to bigger clubs.
Gourcuff himself, once a maths teacher, has also drawn comparisons with Arsène ‘The Professor’ Wenger thanks to their shared football philosophy and their apparent willingness to prioritise style over results. Indeed, the FCL boss once said “the pursuit of results at all costs is the death of football”. One negative impact of this idea, of course, is that his team can occasionally ‘leave the back door open’. This was most evident back in the autumn, when Lorient conceded 16 goals during a disastrous four-match spell.
Whereas Wenger is burdened by the weight of expectation on the red side of north London, though, Gourcuff remains highly revered at Lorient. Supporters appreciate the stability that he and Féry bring to their club and, if the price to pay for seductive football and financial strength is the occasional hammering, so be it.
Over the years, Christian Gourcuff has been linked with moves to other French clubs, including PSG. But his strong character, alleged aversion to working with players with big egos and his strict adherence to his preferred 4-4-2 formation have led observers to question whether he could ever manage at a so-called big club.
With Les Merlus continuing to make waves in Ligue 1 (sitting in sixth place after 21 rounds), President Féry and the Lorient supporters are very happy for Gourcuff to stay put in his native region. And with the club’s future looking so bright, it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else.
Theo Benneworth is a Lyon-based Tour Director. Passionate about football on both sides of the Channel, he is also an Ipswich Town fan. Find him on Twitter here.