The team is Brest. Its captain Oscar Ewolo is an evangelist with an open-all-hours prayer-room in his apartment and its coach, Alex Dupont, a wisecracking old fox who rides to training on a Harley-Davidson and has just one trophy (the 2000 League Cup, won with Gueugnon) to his name.
The turning-point of the season for Dupont came after Brest lost its third game of the season, 1-0, at Lyon. It had troubled Lyon with some attractive and attacking soccer, but ultimately fallen short. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas congratulated Dupont for his team¹s efforts and wished him luck for the season. "We all got pats on the back after the Lyon game but we lost," Dupont told Canal Plus. "I hated that feeling, so I thought to myself, if we're going to win matches, we're going to do things differently."
Going into Sunday's trip to Lille, Brest had not conceded a goal since then, a run stretching eight games and over 790 minutes. Dupont has made no apology for his more defensive system, which is basically a 4-4-2 (as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 that top-scored in winning promotion from Ligue 2 last season). "It's total rubbish that the best form of defense is attack," he said. "The best form of defense is good defending, and that's what we have been doing."
But Brest's success also reflects a different issue in French football at the moment, and that's one of competitive balance. Dupont would disagree, but Montpellier showed last season that any side with a good team spirit and a well-drilled defensive unit can do well in Ligue 1. Montpellier, also newly-promoted, was joint-top as late as Week 30 of last season, but fell away at the end to finish in fifth.
The two biggest clubs in France can afford to drop points now. French champion Marseille is traditionally a slow starter -- at this stage last season, it was five points off top place, compared to three now -- while Lyon, powerhouse of the last decade, is struggling to find a new identity under coach Claude Puel. For French experts, though, Brest's rise to the top, even if it's a brief one, merely highlights the defensive nature of the league. Brest scored 11 goals in its first 11 games: only the bottom four sides in the division have scored fewer.
This is no great surprise, as Ligue 1 is consistently Europe's lowest-scoring league: last season, its games averaged 2.41 goals, compared to 2.61 in Italy, 2.71 in Spain, 2.77 in England, 2.83 in Germany and 2.91 in Holland. This season, only Italy, 2.24, has a lower goals-per-game ratio than France's 2.26, with England averaging 2.59, Spain 2.66, Germany 3.13 and Holland 3.19.
The reasons behind this trend are a regular source of debate in France. "The cautious mentality in this league tells me that the playing standard has dropped," Christophe Dugarry, a former World Cup winner and now TV pundit, said on Canal Plus. "After all, why are clubs going to Brest with fear in their bellies?"
Dugarry was part of France's 1998 World Cup squad, which played its last three games with a five-man midfield behind (nonscoring) lone forward Stephane Guivarc'h. Many of Ligue 1's bosses were learning their trade 12 years ago and, according to one senior writer at France Football magazine, "an Aimé Jacquet culture has given French football its current defensive outlook." A lot of coaches, Puel among them, put keeping a clean sheet ahead of their attacking principles.
There are other theories: Uefa president Michel Platini has bemoaned "training academies that are more interested in runners and strongmen rather than technically-gifted players," while former Lyon winger Sidney Govou told L'Equipe: "I think there are fewer goals because French teams have reached a high level in terms of tactics, and teams are well-organized defensively."
This last suggestion is not as outlandish as it sounds: witness the ease with which France-trained defensive players, like Steven N'Zonzi and Christopher Samba (both Blackburn), Youssuf Mulumbu (West Brom) Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham Hotspur), Sylvain Distin (Everton), Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny (both Arsenal, the latter after only one season in Ligue 1) have adapted to the Premier League while others, including Philippe Mexes (Roma) and Julien Escude (Ajax and Sevilla), have succeeded elsewhere.
Back at Brest, Dupont, who has been nicknamed "Sir Alex" by the fans and given a job for life by the club president, has told his players to enjoy their moment in the spotlight. There's no doubt they intend to. "His philosophy is to work very hard in training and to live football," said goalkeeper Steeve Elana to Le Telegramme. "He also wants us to enjoy life and come to work every day with a smile, even if we lose."