The French club Saint-Étienne didn’t play to their potential in the 2019/20 season and finished dangerously close to the relegation zone just a season after reaching the 4th place in Ligue 1.
Although their performance last season wasn’t impressive, they did have some players that stood out in the difficult times and gave the team hope for improvement. One of these players is Denis Bouanga. He was among the main responsible for Saint-Étienne‘s attacking ventures and ended up scoring 10 of the club’s 29 goals in the league.
The team started the new campaign recharged and looking way more organised, trying to build their own identity, and Bouanga is once again set to be a key part of the team’s plans.
Despite having a variety of roles previously the 25-year-old is employed at the right-wing this season and already scored two goals in the team’s first five games this term.
The team now seems way better prepared defensively, and it is up to the attackers to take advantage of that improvement and score as many goals as they can to put their team forward. That’s why the expectations on Bouanga are also growing, and he is likely to be the leading figure in the Saints’ frontline.
Position and formations
Bouanga, who was linked with clubs from Premier League and Serie A, is quite versatile which was quickly identified by the manager Claude Puel, who arrived a few months after the 25-year-old joined the Saints. That’s why he took the chance to experiment with his roles and positioning and used him in a few different areas until he found his most suitable one. Bouanga played as a winger, attacking-midfielder, centre-midfielder and even centre-forward in his first season with the team.
Despite the change of position, he showed a consistent performance, although the wing role was clearly what suited him best. Although Puel uses him in the wide areas this term, he still makes him switch between both flanks based on the game plan and the in-game events.
Puel’s vision seemed quite uncertain at first, and he wasn’t sticking to a concrete formation in the 2019/20 campaign, switching between back-three and back-four in a variety of different set-ups as 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and many more.
He didn’t start much different in his first five games now, although he has settled the four-man defensive line, which looks like a successful move so far. Due to his frequent change of formation, Bouanga is forced to adjust to a different position each game and having that in mind, his performance has been rather satisfying.
Contribution to the build-up
The Gabon international’s presence on the edge of the final third has proved crucial for the team’s build-up and attacking strategy. With his positioning, he provides more options for the ball progression, since he can both send it centrally but also carry it out wide depending on the opposition.
He isn’t the player to contribute with a high number of passes nor has the highest accuracy percentage, but is vital for ball progression thanks to his dribbling abilities and attacking flair. Although he often experiences difficulties in holding on to the ball, his spatial awareness and movement compensate.
He does carry the ball from deep on the flanks, but he also cuts inside when needed, providing additional options centrally.
He often drops back to help defensively, which we will explain in detail later on in the analysis, but what helps the team even more in these situations is his ability to start a counter-attack. Although the team are not highly focused on their counter-attacking efforts, Bouanga is a valuable asset on the occasions they do.
His confidence on the ball, dribbling abilities and pace help him to progress the ball quickly and deliver it to the final third, although their efforts rarely end up with shots due to the lack of support up front.
Final third impact
Bouanga is a significant figure in Saint-Étienne’s attack. He provides a lot of versatility and performs equally well in different areas, which is what makes him a regular starter for the team. His abilities to quickly adjust to the different opposition defensive strategies have proven crucial since his arrival. His set of skills allows him to play as winger, attacking-midfielder and even forward.
Despite his wide position, that sets him to supply the central areas with crosses, he likes to occupy the half-spaces too and help with delivering the ball to the box in different ways. He tends to support his teammates with through balls and smart passes, creating opportunities for his team.
That is very helpful against teams with a strong aerial presence that defend well in the box and are difficult to play crosses against because he can easily go out of the wide area and look for a better way to penetrate.
His presence in the half-spaces is useful against teams with well-structured low blocks since he provides more options between the lines and allows his teammates to move off the ball.
What’s even more beneficial for the team are his spatial awareness and shooting abilities. The combination of those results in him averaging 2.25 shots per game. Whenever he can’t find a way to supply his teammates with smart balls, he transforms into a direct threat. Again, Bouanga could be the solution against different defensive set-ups thanks to his ability to shoot from distance but also to make a well-timed run to the box and break defences. A lot of his goals are headers which are also proof of his aerial presence and adds on his value.
Going back to his wide role he not only supports the team with crosses but also provides an additional passing option and could exchange positions to circulate the ball and deliver it to the final third successfully.
The 25-year-old provides even more options in attack thanks to his precision and confidence on the ball. Having his abilities in mind, he is often used as a set-piece taker for the team. He is the first-choice penalty taker but is also an alternate for free-kicks.
He supports his teammates’ movement and shoots on his own equally well, adding explosiveness to the Saints’ attacking performance, even though they still cannot manage to take advantage of their attacking set-pieces.
Talking about his overall impact, we must say that Bouanga’s defensive contribution is very valuable, especially against teams that tend to attack through the flanks and play with width.
He does drop back behind the central line, supporting his teammates in the defensive actions, often diving into 1vs1 duels where he successfully recovers the ball. He tackles successfully and wouldn’t hesitate to challenge his opponents. That doesn’t always end up well, though, since he tends to commit fouls often.
His aerial contribution is important for the team, and his performance has improved. He dives into 4.89 aerial duels per 90 minutes which often turns crucial in key areas. It also helps the team in their attacking actions, as mentioned, since he often outplays his opponents and creates chances.
It is too early on in the new season to judge his performance, but there are some noticeable changes in his actions. Even though he is still very efficient and important for the team, there’s a noticeable drop in his numbers this term. While last season he was sending 3.28 shots on average with 46.8% of them being on target, he has now dropped to 2.25 (33.3%). This could be a result of sticking to the four-man defence which engages more players, and there’s less movement upfront when in possession too.
His dribbling frequency has dropped too from 7.34 per game to 5.26 per game. His overall passing accuracy has decreased, although his actions in the final third are more accurate compared to last season.
Some of his defensive metrics have improved – his defensive and aerial duels frequency has increased, although he seems to contribute less with recoveries in the opposition half.
Despite his decreased numbers in the new season, Bouanga has already shown a glimpse of his potential. Being that versatile helps Saint-Étienne to create their strategy game-to-game and adjust to different set-ups and defensive structures.
The 25-year-old could be the solution in difficult times due to his attacking flair and smart movement, and the Saints need to keep the momentum going if they want to achieve better performance and keep the Gabon international with them.