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Aug 26, 2014

Sagnol shines bright for Bordeaux

Willy Sagnol has started well in Ligue 1, with three straight wins to open the season.

It's funny how destiny sometimes works out.

Just think of Bordeaux, historically one of the top clubs in French football. In March, then-manager Francis Gillot told chairman Jean-Louis Triaud that he was leaving at the end of the season, one year before the end of his contract. In the quest to bring in a new man, Bordeaux decided to go for Zinedine Zidane. The France legend played for the club for four years (1992-96) and was keen to leave his role as Carlo Ancelotti's assistant at Real Madrid to be the main man somewhere else.

Talks between the club and its former No. 10 went on for weeks before ZZ finally decided the job was not for him. So Triaud contacted former France right-back Willy Sagnol -- who had 58 caps and a World Cup final appearance in 2006 for his country. The former Bayern Munich defender was the France under-21 manager at the time, but he also wanted his first managerial experience at a club. He had the choice between Lyon and Bordeaux; he chose the latter.

Now, after three weeks of Ligue 1 action, Bordeaux are top of the table and Sagnol is the revelation of the season. Meanwhile, Lyon are 13th and have lost their last three games in all competitions. In Spain, too, Zidane was defeated in his first game as manager of the Real Madrid reserve team.

At 37, Sagnol is the youngest boss in Ligue 1, but he has not been doing anything extraordinary football wise. Becoming the first Bordeaux manager to start a topflight season with three victories (1-0 at Montpellier, 4-1 at home against Monaco, 3-1 away at Nice), he has to keep it like that and not get carried away; we all know that PSG will probably win the league this season once again, but seeing Bordeaux top of the table is refreshing.

Against Monaco nine days ago, Sagnol's team was 1-0 down at halftime and being dominated. He changed everything, switching from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 that gave Bordeaux more pace and creativity, and they scored four goals in 25 minutes in the second half to record an emphatic 4-1 win.

Sagnol has also been clever in his recruitment with limited resources, bringing young players in like Wahbi Khazri (23), Diego Contento (24) and Tiago Ilori (21). He has also put faith into academy stars like Emiliano Sala (23) and Thomas Toure (20) and is getting the best of players who underperformed last season (Diego Rolan and Nicolas Maurice-Belay). On top of all of that, Bordeaux can count on their 6-foot-4 striker Cheick Diabate, who has scored 14 goals in his last 16 Ligue 1 starts and netted two already this season.

Sagnol's start as a club manager has certainly been promising. In a recent interview in L'Equipe Magazine, the Bordeaux boss said he was already interested in the tactical side of the game when he began his career as a teenager at St Etienne. Even if he was not always the most professional off the pitch as a player -- he used to smoke quite a lot, for example -- he was one of the cleverest of his generation.

It helps that Sagnol went to a good coaching school. Claude Puel, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Felix Magath, among others, have been his managers -- all demanding and meticulous. Sagnol has also been affected by his experience at Bayern, most notably the professionalism, winning mentality and discipline of the Bavarian club. He is trying to reproduce that at Bordeaux even if the culture is far too different between the two countries to make it totally work at the Chaban-Delmas stadium.

But the start of the Sagnol era resembles that of Laurent Blanc. The PSG manager arrived at Bordeaux in the summer of 2007 with no experience whatsoever as a manager, yet he brought a breath of fresh air to the club after two years under Ricardo Gomes and won the league in his second season in Gironde.

At that time, there was not the same financial power in French football, so it will be extremely difficult for Sagnol to do the same. It is not the aim anyway. As he says, Neymar will never play for Bordeaux and they will struggle to compete with PSG, but Sagnol is learning his trade and clearly learning it pretty quickly. On Sunday afternoon, Bordeaux are at home vs. Bastia with a great chance to make it four out of four and continue his rise.

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