“I train with the pros during the week and I play with the youngsters at weekends. I am not the future of the club.” At the start of the season, 32-year-old Mathieu Debuchy was disconsolate about his exile from Arsenal’s first team and had slim chances of being part of any club’s future. Lengthy injuries and the rise of Héctor Bellerín had derailed his career, a career that seemed to be winding down prematurely. But now, rescued by St Étienne, Debuchy has enjoyed a startling renaissance as a goalscorer, a leader and even the Ligue 1 player of the month for February. Miraculously, he could still make it to Russia this summer.
He struggled to find a way out of Arsenal last summer. Brighton made contact at the end of transfer window but it came to nothing; his six-month loan spell with Bordeaux in 2016 had also proven fruitless – his form and, crucially, fitness fell short of his best; and, worst of all, Nice showed interest but then disappeared. “I met Julien Fournier, the general manager of the club, in June,” explained Debuchy. “We discussed everything: Nice, me, how I was getting on. He asked me to meet the coach. I even agreed to physical tests – they were positive but there was no news.” Debuchy eventually found out Christophe Jallet had been signed instead – “like everyone else, in the press.”
Debuchy remained stoically professional, as he has done throughout his career. One of his first coaches, Pascal Plancque, who managed him in the early days at Lille reserves, once said of Debuchy: “He was a player who did not pose any problem in the dressing room. He had a very good education, he was a leader with his attitude. He was not the most talented at first, but worked like crazy.”
Debuchy became a Ligue 1 champion with Lille, his boyhood club, in 2011. That success helped him earn 27 caps for France, remaining first choice throughout Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup. He returned from that World Cup as an Arsenal player, having secured a £12m move after after standing out for Newcastle in the Premier League. “Goodbye Brazil, hello Arsenal,” posted a clearly delighted Debuchy on Instagram.
Early displays were promising but he required operations on his ankle and shoulder in his first six months and never really recovered his place. “You feel guilty,” a rueful Debuchy explained in L’Équipe. “The club recruits you, relies on you and, in exchange, you cannot bring anything.” Frustrated by his lack of playing time, he joined St-Étienne this January. Debuchy said the six-month loan came as a “relief”, which is quite the statement given the disastrous season the club were enduring. In November they were trashed 5-0 at home by fierce rivals Lyon, a result that led to Óscar García resigning as manager. And, by the time Debuchy joined at the end of January, they were hovering above the relegation zone.
Debuchy’s arrival, however, has coincided with St Étienne’s resurgence. The introduction of wizened, understated coach Jean Louis Gasset has engendered a gradual restoration of their pride, self-esteem and league position. Gasset added some much need quality in the winter window in signing midfielder Yann M’Vila, centre-back Neven Subotic and forward Paul-Georges Ntep, alongside Debuchy. All of them, perhaps with the exception of Ntep, have settled well and found their form with ease.
It is difficult to understate Debuchy’s influence. A goal on his debut away at Amiens helped St Étienne to a stabilising 2-0 victory before his late equaliser gave them some redemption in the return trip to Lyon in February. Debuchy was again pivotal in St Étienne’s most impressive display of the season on Sunday afternoon as Gasset’s refreshed side dispatched a weary looking Nantes 3-0 at the Stade de la Beaujoire. Debuchy opened the scoring and his all-round play was excellent.
St Étienne are undefeated in Debuchy’s eight games to date and he was voted Ligue 1 player of the month in February for his first four appearances with the club. “He’s a great player, with a great state of mind,” said team-mate Kevin Monnet-Paquet, “A player like him reassures the defence and the whole team.” M’Vila goes further: “Given his current performance and the fact that there is room at right-back, it would not be a surprise to see him at the World Cup. Mathieu is a great professional. You see it in his recovery and his way of working. He did not come to St Étienne for nothing.”
He did not make it into the latest squad, so forcing his way into Didier Deschamps’ plans remains a difficult task, but returning to action and form has been a sizeable accomplishment. Arsenal might not have seen Debuchy as part of their future, but St Étienne fans are certainly glad he could be part of theirs.
• While the league action produced no small amount of fireworks, the main event in France over the weekend was the Coupe de la Ligue final, held on Saturday evening in Bordeaux. Despite the absence of Neymar and the prior good form of Monaco, it was never a contest. Paris Saint-Germain won 3-0 as Kylian Mbappé continued the run of good form he showed for France in recent weeks, delivering one of his best performances since moving to the capital. He picked up two assists and earned a penalty for Edinson Cavani’s opener. Despite their limp exit from the Champions League, there is still more to come from PSG and their young star in particular.
• After a frustrating defeat to Lyon a fortnight ago, Marseille managed to right the ship with a gritty 3-1 win over Dijon. It was not without cost, however, as Steve Mandanda and Adil Rami both picked up injuries. With Rami set to be out for a month and Florian Thauvin also absent, Marseille’s already thin squad will be stretched to its breaking point, setting up a very intriguing race for third place and a spot in next year’s Champions League.
• That the race for third remains intriguing despite Lyon missing their top two scorers, Nabil Fekir and Mariano Diaz, is largely down to Memphis Depay. He played as a central striker in Lyon’s 2-0 win over Toulouse and delivered under pressure – as he has so often for Lyon this season. Houssem Aouar, Bertrand Traoré and Myziane Maolida all showed good endeavour for Lyon, but none were able to prove as decisive as Depay. If he can continue the form he’s shown in the last two matches, the Champions League may just be beckoning.
Ligue 1 results