Jocelyn Gourvennec, the French Klopp looking for his own Dortmund
On Sunday, Monaco's impressive record came to an end. They haven't conceded a league goal for 842 minutes since November, kept eight clean sheets in a row and won six of those fixtures. The likes of Marseille, Bordeaux and Lyon tried to find the net against them and failed.
Finally, tiny En Avant Guingamp solved the puzzle, winning 1-0 with a goal from left-back Dorian Leveque. Even more remarkably, they achieved the feat despite playing with 10 men for most of the game.
That is definitely not the first time Guingamp made headlines this season. They were the first team to beat Paris St-Germain, deservedly winning 1-0 in December to put an end to their 17-game run without defeat. They are also the only French team remaining in Europa League.
Before the season started, many pundits feared that Guingamp will harm the country's coefficients after qualifying for the tournament thanks to lifting the Coupe de France last term. In reality, it was the other way round, as Lyon were bizarrely dumped out by Astra Giurgiu of Romania in August, while Lille and St Etienne failed to win a single game combined during the group stage. Only Guingamp made everyone proud, having beaten PAOK Tsessaloniki twice and finished with 10 points in a relatively tough group. Next week, they take on the Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev as the competition resumes.
Not bad for a team that comes from a Breton village of about 7,500 inhabitants. The local Stade du Roudourou can hold 18,000 spectators, yet Guingamp contributed more to the world football than you would ever imagine, unearthing a Chelsea legend in he process.
Their most exciting season was in 2002-03, when they gambled on a little-known striker by the name of Didier Drogba, who joined an anonymous winger Florent Malouda. The pair developed a superb partnership that took Ligue 1 by storm and the team played outrageously positive football, scoring 59 goals and finishing just six points behind champions Lyon.
Drogba and Malouda left that summer, to be reunited at Stamford Bridge later on, and Guingamp suffered. They were relegated in 2004 and plummeted to third division in 2010. That could have been the end for such a small club, but the revival has been very rapid. One man is responsible for that.
Enter Jocelyn Gourvennec, one of the best young coaching prospects in Europe, who seems destined to superstardom. Upon Gourvennec's appointment in the summer of 2010, Lorient legend Christian Gourcuff said: "Jocelyn is the right person to revitalize Guingamp," while Jean-Claude Suaudeau was also certain that his former protégé would enjoy success.
Suaudeau, undoubtedly one of the most important coaches in French football history, is the right man to talk to about Gourvennec, whom he added to his brilliant Nantes team in mid-90s. "I had to have strong arguments to convince Jocelyn in every little tactical aspect, and that is why we spent a lot of time talking together. He wanted to understand everything," Suaudeu recalled back in 2010.
Gourvennec was a very unusual footballer, seen as an intellectual. He studied at university during the beginning of his playing career, enjoyed philosophy and politics and thoroughly read left-wing newspapers. He was also an exceptionally intelligent and elegant playmaker, which made him a perfect acquisition to the magnificent Nantes side after they won the title in 1995.
Born in March 1972, Jocelyn is exactly three months older than Zinedine Zidane and at a certain point was considered at least as talented. An injury robbed him of a place in France squad for Euro '96 and from then on Zizou and Youri Djorkaeff called the shots in midfield for Les Bleus, while Gourvennec remained without a single cap to his name. That was a great injustice, influenced significantly by a very unsuccessful move to Marseille in 1998. The midfielder failed at Stade Velodrome, and his career never really recovered.
Eventually, quite symbolically, Gourvennec retired on the same day as Zizou in 2006. Zidane exited head-butting Marco Materazzi in the chest in the World Cup final. Gourvennec decided to hang up his boots after his Clermont were relegated to the third division and he got no decent offers to continue playing. He already knew what he wanted to do next. He learned from all his coaches during his career, and there was only one path for him.
Contrary to many stars, Gourvennec decided to build himself from the very bottom. "You don't become a minister overnight," Jocelyn says. He worked with the amateurs of La Roche Sur Yon for two years before taking the opportunity to join Guingamp, impressing almost instantly.
The team was promoted back to Ligue 2 in his debut season, scoring 87 goals in 40 matches. Two years later, they climbed back to Ligue 1, alongside Monaco and Nantes. Last season Guingamp won the Cup, beating local rivals Rennes 2-0 in the final. This term, after a slow start, they are making exceptional progress, beaten just once in their last nine league fixtures, not to mention the huge success in Europa League.
Are there any limits to the Gourvennec project? Not if you ask him. "Jocelyn is very pragmatic, but always aims high," local expert Regis Delanoe of So Foot magazine tells ESPN FC,
"Gourvennec's Guingamp have absolutely no inferiority complex. The players believe that they are able to win, no matter who the opponents are. There is a clear message from the coach, who always chooses the strongest team, without favouritism. He gets the maximum out of every player, demands them to make sacrifices for the good of the team and gives them a lot of confidence."
One of the most intelligent players of his generation, Gourvennec has become one of the shrewdest coaches. He changes tactics according to opponents and is excellent at making adjustments during matches, as shown in the win over Monaco when Moustapha Diallo was sent off after just 20 minutes. His life experience helps him to better understand his players, as he explained in a recent interview.
"I have seen it all, from the very high to the very low. I've played in all the divisions, for big clubs and for small clubs. I was unemployed for four months, I overcame a serious injury. I was an idol at Rennes and Nantes, and then I was an outcast. I played for two teams that were relegated from the second division to the third," Gourvennec said.
Having enjoyed the majestic style of Nantes in the '90s, he implements a different plan that fits the players at his disposal. Guingamp's ball possession is just 44 percent, the second lowest in Ligue 1, but they are very fast and efficient on the counter.
"It is important to play attractive football and win. I am not interested in playing nicely and losing," Gourvennec says, and he takes his mission very seriously. "A coach is a politician. He defends ideas and philosophy."
The 42-year-old is still loving every minute of his Guingamp adventure but it is crystal clear that he will have to make the next step sooner rather than later. His name is naturally frequently mentioned when bigger clubs are looking for a new coach, and it was reported that Marseille considered Gourvennec before signing Marcelo Bielsa in the summer.
Marseille are probably not the best destination for Jocelyn, especially taking his difficult days at the club as a player into account. Gourvennec is a thinker, a philosopher who thrives when building long term strategy. His personal style is distinctly different to that of Jurgen Klopp, but there are certain similarities between the Frenchman's six years at Guingamp to the German's seven-year spell at a small club like Mainz, whom he turned into a household name before moving on to Dortmund in 2008.
In order to follow Klopp and make his ideas known around the globe, Gourvennec needs a Dortmund of his own. Who could that be? That's anyone's guess, but it must be mentioned that he once mentioned Liverpool as the team of his dreams.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin