At what point do the realities of a league table begin to feel definitive?
There is no clear answer to this question but if, like Toulouse, you find yourself 11 points from safety with the season almost two-thirds of the way gone, it might be time to read the tea leaves, smell the coffee, and interact with as many other beverages as you can.
The city is known for the Cite de L’Espace, but there has been precious little reaching for the stars recently where its football club is concerned. For so long under the tutelage of erstwhile manager Alain Casanova, Toulouse were known for a stolid style more apt to put people to sleep than inspire any kind of wonder. Their current position at the bottom of the Ligue 1 table under Denis Zanko feels like it has been coming.
There really is no getting around it: FC Toulouse are a bad team. With an FC score of 59, they are the joint lowest-ranking club in Europe top five leagues (a dubious honour they share with SPAL); no team has won fewer matches (3) or amassed a worse goal difference (-26).
It would be tempting to wonder, then, why they are worthy of any mention.
Ibrahim Sangare. That’s why.
THE YAYA COMPARISON
The 21-year-old is far from a hidden gem, of course. There have been comparisons with Yaya Toure and Michael Essien, both midfielders who touched base with the French top flight before moving on to the Premier League. Indeed, for the last 18 months, it seemed Sangare was on the verge of walking the same path: interest in him has not been scarce, with clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton linked time and again.
Blessed with a turn of pace, dribbling ability and a first touch Casanova once described as “one of the best I’ve seen”, the rangy midfielder is one of the few silver streaks in the bleakness that has enveloped Toulouse’s season.
Sangare first broke into the first team in the 2017/2018 league season, becoming a real fixture in the side from December onwards and helping Toulouse stave off relegation by beating Guingamp on the final day, before winning a play-off against AC Ajaccio to preserve their top-flight status.
He began the following season in the same vein, but missed close to three months of action after slipping in the dressing room and tearing a tendon in his big toe. As if to underline his importance to the side, Toulouse sat in seventh place in the Ligue 1 table when he got injured, but by the time he returned, they were 14th.
The timing was pretty unfortunate, as he had begun to serve proper notice of his ability to run games from deep in midfield. In the game preceding the injury, a 1-1 draw against Nice, Sangare was inspired, completing 12 ball recoveries and winning eight tackles in a masterful display.
“I don’t want it to go to his head too much,” said Casanova, “but he is one of the best I’ve trained.”
He is certainly one of the club’s big assets. His FC score of 73 is bettered within the squad only by captain Max Gradel and William Vainqueur, but while both are the other side of 33, there is still plenty of room for Sangare to grow and his ceiling is certainly a lot higher.
A DIAMOND IN A ROUGH TEAM
To read that would suggest there are still some rough edges, but while there is no doubt he can become even better, he is performing at a really high level even now. In many ways, he is a four-leaf clover of a midfielder in terms of the sheer range of his abilities: he is adept at winning the ball, but can also move it up the pitch either by dribbling (despite his 6ft 3in frame, he is quite the sight slaloming forward and evading challenges with sudden changes of direction) or by passing.
He is attempting 15.7 passes in the final third, as well 7.8 long balls (both stats P90); his roughly 50% accuracy in the latter stakes points to an aspect of Sangare’s game that is a bit of a double-edged sword: far from seeking to massage his pass completion numbers, he is willing to take responsibility and risk the difficult play and try things that are not always immediately apparent.
I don’t want it to go to his head too much, but he is one of the best I’ve trainedAlain Casanova, former Toulouse head coach
Last season, of defensive midfielders who played at least 15 times in Ligue 1, none attempted or completed more dribbles than the Ivoirian. Yet, only Bordeaux’s Otavio attempted more tackles than his 4.8 P90, and even then Sangare was a lot more successful with his, and also was dribbled past only 0.7 times per 90, fewer than anyone else.
WHERE SHOULD HE GO?
Where would he fit? Among others, in terms of base style, he would appears the perfect fit as a replacement (and, whisper it quietly, an upgrade) for want-away Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka – accounting for Sangare’s understandably lower volume, they bring similar strengths to the table, but the Ivorian makes up for the Swiss international’s weaknesses with greater mobility, agility in tight spaces, and quicker feet to evade pressure.
In truth, that skill set would improve most sides in England.
The relative weakness of Toulouse’s position should realistically see Premier League clubs finally cast off their hesitation, and there is a very good chance that, come the end of the season, he joins former Toulouse midfield titans Moussa Sissoko and Etienne Capoue on the other side of the channel.