There really is no getting around it: FC Toulouse are a bad team.
With an FC score of 56, they were the lowest-ranked club in Europe top five leagues, no team won fewer matches (3) or amassed a worse goal difference (-36). The coronavirus bringing the season to a halt merely put this side out of their misery.
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 position at the bottom of the Ligue 1 table under Denis Zanko, and eventually out of the league, feels like it has been coming.
It would be tempting to wonder, then, why they are worthy of any mention.
Ibrahim Sangare, that’s why. The midfielder has signed for PSV in the Eredivisie for a modest £8m fee and it could turn out to be the bargain of the transfer window.
Ibrahim Sangare to PSV
The 22-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 two years, 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 - all the more strange that PSV have won the race.
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 was one of the few silver streaks in the bleakness that enveloped Toulouse’s 2020.
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 70 is the best in the albeit weak squad and there is still plenty of room for Sangare to grow.
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 attempted 15.8 passes in the final third, as well 7.2 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 Ivorian. 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 P90, fewer than anyone else.
And his numbers in Ligue 2, albeit in just two outings, showed how he is dominating games there. His passes P90 are up to 75, with a huge 26 going into the final third. He has averaged 2.5 interceptions and nine recoveries across both of those games so far.
He might have been the perfect fit at Arsenal. The Ivorian has excellent mobility, agility in tight spaces, and quick feet to evade pressure. In truth, that skill set would improve most sides in England.
But to PSV, and the innovative Roger Schmidt, it is. He will work with a fantastic coach and it feels like a no-brainer. Sangare is a lottery ticket waiting to be collected, one with immense current, and future, value.