A closer look at Patrick Kisnorbo's new challenge in France
Last month, French club Espérance Sportive Troyes Aube Champagne (ESTAC) unveiled Patrick Kisnorbo as their new manager. The former Melbourne City man becomes the first Australian to coach a men’s team in one of Europe’s top five leagues. On Thursday, he will sit on a Ligue 1 bench for the first time at home against Nantes.
Although now 16,673 kilometres away from the capital of Victoria, Kisnorbo will find some familiar faces in Troyes. Like Melbourne City, ESTAC is part of the City Football Group (CFG), and the Australian coach’s former mentor, Erick Mombaerts, holds a key role at Troyes. He is the Reserves coach, CFG's advisor at the club, and the technical director. Mombaerts ensures the CFG football values are developed and maintained throughout the first team, reserve team, and academy.
The Stade de l'Aube, home of Troyes. (J. Ossorio Castillo, Shutterstock)
ESTAC is a historic, albeit not very successful, club in France. Troyes’ football team was first founded in 1900. A century and several changes later, the name ESTAC was coined in June 2000 and has stuck since. Blaise Matuidi, Bafétimbi Gomis, and Djibril Sidibé are some of the most well-known players to have worn the blue jersey in Champagne.
They are famous for yo-yo-ing between the first and second French divisions in recent years (11 promotions or relegations since 2004/05). The residents of the Stade de l’Aube seemed to enter a new era when they became part of the CFG in 2020. They won Ligue 2 the following year and managed to stay in Ligue 1 in 2021/22.
Last season felt like the City Football Group's first year of influence on Troyes. Six players arrived on loan from Manchester City, with only two featuring regularly. But more importantly, Troyes became an attractive proposition for European players with a door to the powerful Emirati group. However, the strategy has not been to throw money at global talents to reach the heights of French football, as was done with Manchester City.
ESTAC have instead recruited seasoned Ligue 1 players (Rony Lopes, Adil Rami, Renaud Ripart) to help their prospects grow. They have already achieved (financial) success in their recruitment with Giulian Biancone (bought for €3m from Monaco in 2021, sold for €10m to Nottingham Forrest a season later). They have also trusted some exciting young talents like Iké Ugbo, Jackson Porozo, and Wilson Odobert.
Patrick Kisnorbo during his second friendly game in charge, a 1-0 loss to Paris FC. (Twitter: @estac_officiel)
One piece of business did raise some eyebrows in France: the purchase of Brazilian wonderkid Sávio from Atletico Mineiro in the summer for €6m. They instantly loaned him to PSV, which felt like a shady transaction from the CFG through Troyes rather than for the French club.
Bruno Irles was let go on November 8th after winning only three out of Troyes' first 14 games. After starting this season with three consecutive losses, he managed to turn things around with 10 points in the following five encounters. But unfortunately, a six-game winless run got him sacked.
When Ligue 1 took a break for the World Cup, Troyes had the second-worst defence in the division with 31 goals conceded. But they also have the fifth-best attack, scoring the same number of goals as RC Lens (2nd), Olympique Marseille (4th), and Lorient (5th). They have netted more than Olympique Lyonnais and OGC Nice, to name just these two.
Rumours about Irles’ successor started immediately, but Kisnorbo was never mentioned until the deal was complete. Alan Mangin is a journalist at L’Est Éclair (the leading newspaper in Troyes) who is in charge of following ESTAC for the daily publication. According to him, Kisnorbo was an unknown coach that did not bother the locals.
The pitch-side Jacuzzi at the Stade de l'Aube, one of the images of the season in Ligue 1. (Twitter: @estac_officiel)
“We are very curious about his style. He really seems to have his own way of doing things. He is relatively unknown, but rather than worried, the fans here are impatient to see what his method brings on the pitch,” Mangin said.
“The goal this season is to stay in Ligue 1, regardless of who the coach is.
“Kisnorbo comes to reinforce the City Football Group style that he learned [in] Melbourne with now ESTAC’s Director of Football, Erick Mombaerts.”
In a season where four teams will eventually be relegated, the task will be challenging for the former Leicester defender, with Troyes only a point above the red zone. Fans and pundits in Troyes have shown patience in the past, so long as the football is attractive and the coach’s ideas are clear and defined.
Kisnorbo’s new team
Kisnorbo is taking over a team still looking for its best line-up, and the bench has played a significant role in 2022. Nineteen players have played in seven or more games in Ligue 1.
Mateusz Lis saved a penalty against Paris FC last week. (Twitter: @estac_officiel)
Gauthier Gallon, the starting goalkeeper for the past three years, has seen competition arrive this summer in Mateusz Lis, the 25-year-old Polish shot-stopper on loan from Southampton. Lis has started three games this season.
The defence is also an area of uncertainty. American international and former Manchester City man Erik Palmer-Brown has been a mainstay in the back three with young Ecuadorian prospect Jackson Porozo and experienced French-Guianese international Yoann Salmier. But 2018 world champion Adil Rami has returned to form.
More importantly, the friendlies overseen by Kisnorbo show his preference to continue to use a 4-3-3. He gave the armband to Rami and paired him once with Palmer-Brown, and once with Salmier, with Porozo at the World Cup.
Less experienced members of the squad will hold the full-back positions. Thierno Baldé (20), Yasser Larouci (21), Andreas Bruus (23), and Abdu Conté (24) are all in contention.
Florian Tardieu, a mainstay in the middle of the park for Troyes. (Twitter: @estac_officiel)
Things are more settled in the middle of the park. The captain under Laurent Battles and Bruno Irles, Florian Tardieu, has transitioned smoothly into Ligue 1 over the past two seasons. Thanks to his technique, calmness, and leadership, he was one of the best Ligue 2 players over the past five seasons.
Next to him, former Lille prospect Rominigue Kouamé is a tireless worker, as comfortable harassing opponents on the ball as he is bringing it forward in possession. When either is absent, deep-lying playmaker Xavier Chavalerin or young Inter Milan loanee Lucien Agoumé slot in effortlessly.
In attack, Mama Baldé is in the form of his career. In his fourth Ligue 1 season, Baldé has equalled his most prolific tally in France, with seven goals and three assists.
Helped by former Monaco and Lille sensation Rony Lopes, young Canadian international Iké Ugbo (formerly of Chelsea and Genk) and Ligue 1 veteran and swiss-army knife Renaud Ripart, the Bissau-Guinean international has used his speed and agility to hurt defences all over France.
There is also a new phenomenon in France, and he wears the blue jersey of ESTAC. 18-year-old Wilson Odobert, a French international at U16, U18, and U19 levels, and a former PSG academy prospect, has impressed in his rookie season in Ligue 1. His dribbling, pace, and fearless approach to the game have caught the eye of fans and pundits. He already has three goals and two assists, so he is a youngster to watch under Kisnorbo’s leadership.
In a highly competitive season where the struggle for survival will keep pundits and fans hooked until the last game, Patrick Kisnorbo has his work cut out at Troyes. They were mute in front of goals in his first two friendlies in charge (0-0 against his former club Leicester, and a 1-0 defeat to Ligue 2 side Paris FC). Yet Kisnorbo still received praise for the defensive setup and football they played. His first Ligue 1 game will be against Nantes on Thursday morning AEDT, before a busy January where ESTAC face Strasbourg, Lille twice (French Cup and Ligue 1), and top four sides Marseille and Lens.
Click here to read more about Melbourne City young gun Jordan Bos, a beneficiary of Kisnorbo's management down under.