A few years ago some French football fans, let alone British followers, might have struggled to tell you who FC Lorient were. But now led by London-based French businessman Loïc Féry and wily manager Christian Gourcuff, les Merlus are a rising power in French football and ‘le jeu a la lorientaise’ (playing the Lorient way) is a popular refrain between French fans in the same way that Premier League fans speak about Arsenal’s style of play.
The Brittany-based club are often compared to Arsenal given their style of play, but their approach off the pitch mirrors the Gunners too and recently the club have become a finishing school for some of Arsène Wenger’s promising gems. Driven by the ambitious Féry, CEO of Chenavari Investment Managers and the youngest chairman in Ligue 1 at 37, le FCL have been inspired by Arsenal and Barcelona, whom they see as role models, and are developing a unique style off the pitch - including the club’s brilliantly innovative performance-related pay structure - to compliment the entertaining playing style on it.
“Despite being in different footballing dimensions both sides share many things,” said Féry. “Both enjoy consistency with managers who have been with the club for over a decade - we share a similar football philosophy and we are amongst the rare clubs that make money in this industry.” (Last year Lorient was the only club in French football with a positive net financial result.)
Labelled ‘the Arsenal of Ligue 1’, Lorient’s style of play is down to their charismatic manager Christian Gourcuff, who, in partnership with Féry, represents the combination of the club’s identity and heritage with ambition and the modern business acumen required to develop the club in the future. The side’s 4-4-2 formation - based on one-touch attacking football, constant passing and movement to create space whilst observing strict tactical instructions - is directly similar to that of Arsenal and Barcelona, whom les Merlus marginally trail in statistics showing the highest average number of passes per match in Europe.
Christian, father of Lyon and France midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, has been involved with the club since the 1980s and has overseen its revival and consolidation in Ligue 1 whilst developing a defined style of play.
“There is an affinity between the two clubs,” he said. “Arsenal looks for the same things Lorient does in their players. Our footballing philosophy led us to share similar styles and playing ethics and our approaches to games and preparation mean we have developed a strong relationship.”
Féry develops on this by saying: “The star of FC Lorient is the team. I tell our players that we have no Lionel Messi in the changing room, however, when they all give 100% of their ability, we can beat anyone, including Champions League clubs.”
Although there is no formal link between the two clubs, the close relationship they maintain is widely recognised and Arsenal continue to send their most promising youth products to western France. This stems from the Gunners’ signing of Laurent Koscielny in the summer of 2010, when Wenger and Féry first met.
“Arsène contacted me regarding Laurent and showed a great deal of respect to FCL,” said Féry. “He offered to meet me in person and I told him I wanted to loan Francis Coquelin. He accepted this with no guarantee that we would sell Koscielny and now we have agreed a similar deal for Joel Campbell.”
The young Costa Rican star is the latest ‘young Gunner’ to sample Ligue 1 with les Merlus and the forward is enjoying his experience so far having scored two goals in ten matches and enjoying regular game time.
“Lorient are a very good team who play good football like Arsenal and Barcelona,” he gushes. “The league is difficult and every game is hard but I think it will be a good experience for my career. I hope to play many games this season and I already feel comfortable because FCL and Arsenal are like the same team.”
“The defenders in Ligue 1 are particularly strong and difficult, both European and Africans, but it is a lot of fun playing here and I want to be involved in every game.”
Campbell is not the only Arsenal youngster to have enjoyed his time in Brittany; Francis Coquelin credits the period he spent on loan at Stade du Moustoir last season for making him a better player and former Gunners youth products Jérémie Aliadière and Gilles Sunu now enjoy playing for Lorient. Another familiar face in the side is former Portsmouth midfielder Arnold Mvuemba who has become one of Ligue 1’s most underrated midfielders since joining the club in 2009.
It seems that the friendlier, less pressured environment of Brittany, with top quality training facilities in nearby Ploemeur on the way and a first class education from one of French football’s greatest tacticians, pays dividends for the youngsters and makes the players happy.
“We share a similar philosophy so I think it is easier for the youngsters to adapt,” says Féry. “But the link is based upon trust and mutual satisfactory experiences.
“The interaction also goes beyond player loans. This summer, I took advice from Arsène before we signed Jérémie [Aliadière] and he kindly confirmed that Aliadière had the right mindset to potentially succeed here. He has been a great signing so far (four goals since the beginning of the season) and we recently extended his contract by three years. Gilles Sunu (two goals this season) is another good example of this.”
Lorient are a unique vision of the future for Ligue 1 and the club are pioneering a modern way of thinking and acting in the dated world of French football. The high business acumen that Féry brings to the club makes it more British than French in many ways given his exposure to the Premier League. Currently they occupy tenth place in the table after a good start to the season tailed off towards the end of last year with a disappointing run of form, but their unlucky defeat in the recent Coupe de la Ligue semi-final against Lyon suggests there is more to come from the enterprising outfit.
“Our ambition is to consistently finish in the top half of Ligue 1 and eventually play in Europe again,” said Féry of the future. “I would love to see Lorient play at the Emirates, it would be a spectacular match!”
That day might seem a long way off right now, but with Gourcuff working wonders on the pitch and Féry constantly developing the club in the background, if Wenger continues to send Arsenal’s most promising recruits for the footballing equivalent of a private education then Féry’s dream might not be so far-fetched…