Toulouse were a top-flight fixture for 17 years before being relegated in the pandemic-curtailed 2019-20 season, and a lot has changed on the banks of the Garonne since then. They fell just short of an immediate return to Ligue 1 last year, losing on away goals in a play-off to FC Nantes, a setback which led to coach Patrice Garande being fired. He was replaced by Philippe Montanier, and under the former Stade Rennais and RC Lens boss Toulouse enjoyed an outstanding season.
They eased to the Ligue 2 title by a margin of four points from AC Ajaccio, with a second-tier record 82 goals scored – in comparison Ajaccio scored just 39 and the next-best attack in the division managed 61 goals.
“It was vital,” Montanier told The team about the importance of winning promotion. “It was the first thing in the remit from the president. We had to win promotion, and do so playing good football, scoring lots of goals. I think we did ok. ”
Data-based approach to scouting
What has grabbed headlines in Toulouse has been their approach to signing players, with president Damien Comolli – the former Tottenham Hotspur, AS Saint-Etienne and Liverpool sporting director – favoring a heavy reliance on data.
“We are allowed to lose but we are not allowed to not be prepared to win. With our methods we try to get rid as much as possible of as many of the uncertainties and the irrationality that exist in football, ”Comolli told The team.
“That will not change between Ligue 2 and Ligue 1. All our decisions will be based on the same statistics except now we will have greater financial means and so access to other players. But we still will not be able to go for players in the Premier League or the Bundesliga, ”Comolli went on, adding that their database featured 70 different leagues.
“I think there are more than 40,000 players who we have everything on. Our scouting department is run by the former head of recruitment at Brentford. The head of our data department came from Airbus. He built flight simulators. The person in charge of strategy is a woman with three MBAs and an economics degree. ”
Van den Boomen: the star player
The approach has seen Toulouse build a cosmopolitan squad that proved too strong for the rest of Ligue 2. The superstar has been Branco van den Boomen (pictured above)a Dutch midfielder recruited from De Graafschap in the second division in the Netherlands in 2020. He ended this season with 12 goals and 21 assists, and was duly voted Ligue 2 player of the year.
Rhys Healey, an English striker recruited from third-tier MK Dons, finished as the division’s leading scorer with 20 goals. Support has come from Japanese forward Ado Onaiwu, while Danish defensive duo Mikkel Desler and Rasmus Nicolaisen played their part, as did Stijn Spierings, another Dutch midfielder. Center-back Nicolaisen, for example, was playing in England’s League One with Portsmouth in the 2020-21 season.
Van den Boomen was part of the team that just missed out on promotion a year ago, before further changes to the squad and the appointment of a new coach ensured success at the second attempt.
“Not long after the play-off we changed coach, lots of new players came in. It turned out to be a good strategy to move on and start again. It was really difficult for the two weeks that followed the matches against Nantes but after that it was time to move on and put it behind us, ”he said.
As for having numerous different nationalities in his squad, Montanier admitted that “English is the language of the dressing room. A lot has been said about our use of data, but it is just one of the things that helps us make a decision. Branco van den Boomen was spotted for his shooting ability, but there is a whole process behind it. We watch videos, the club meets the families of the players, finds out about their mentality. ”
The revolution at Toulouse began in the aftermath of their relegation in 2020, during those first months of Covid-19. Long-time owner Olivier Sadran sold the club to American investment firm RedBird Capital Partners, who acquired an 85 percent stake. RedBird recently agreed a € 1.3 billion deal to buy Italian champions AC Milan, but Toulouse remain ambitious and are hoping to do more than just survive in Ligue 1, from which four teams will be relegated next season.
“Technically and tactically, the players are better and more complete. I am still convinced we can get by, even though it will be tougher with four teams going down, ”said Montanier, while former Ajax youngster Van den Boomen – an admirer of Dimitri Payet – hopes he can impress at the higher level.
“I have confidence in myself. I have progressed a lot in recent years and improved every season. I think I’m ready for a new challenge now, to play at a higher level than in Ligue 2. I can not wait to see how I get on in Ligue 1, ”he said.
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