Brest and Bologna, the Underrated Dark Horses in 2023/24

The rise of Brest and Bologna has been less talked about in the 2023/24 season compared to Girona and Bayer Leverkusen.

The Cinderella story in the Europe’s top five has come to an end in the Bundesliga, as Xabi Alonso’s side has clinched their first ever league title. Their story of wonder has taken centre stage this season. Florian Wirtz and co could potentially win trebles should they lift the DFB Pokal and Europa League trophy next month.

Compared to Bayer Leverkusen’s and Girona’s campaigns this season, the rise of Brest and Bologna seems to have been overlooked. The latter may still be a topic of discussion, particularly about their boss, Thiago Motta, who has been linked to several elite sides. Those sides include the likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Barcelona, and most recently Juventus and AC Milan.

In contrast, Brest went almost unnoticed. Their performance in Ligue 1 has been far beyond expectations. Stade Brestois is currently trailing PSG in the standings with 53 points, while Rossoblù sit fourth and is vying for a spot in the UEFA Champions League next season.

Stade Brestois 29

Brest’s surprising form this season has exceeded their own expectations. After being relegated in 2013, they were recently promoted to Ligue 1 in 2019/20. Their best finish in the French top tier was 11th in 2021/22. Last season, they finished 14th in the final standings.

Established in 1903, Brest has never won any major titles in club history. Their most notable silverware was the Ligue 2 trophy in 1981. The club has not been able to progress further than the quarterfinals in the Coupe de France. The last occasion in which the reached that round was in the 2014/15 season.

What is even more surprising is that this team has barely had well-known players in the squad. Perhaps the only names that might be rather familiar among the fans are the vice captain, Pierre Lees-Melou, and the left back, Jordan Amavi. The former once played for Norwich City in 2022, whereas the latter is a loanee from Olympique Marseille.

Their manager, Eric Roy, does not have much experience in the dugout. He only had a brief spell as head coach at OGC Nice from March 2010 to November 2011. He only brought them to finish 15th in the final standings. The former OM and Lyon man had longer stints as a sporting director for Lens and Watford before taking charge of Brest.

Roy normally employs the 4-2-3-1 formation with the modification to 4-1-3-2 or 4-3-3. His team relies more on collective work. Inter Milan loanees Martin Satriano or Steve Mounié mainly occupy the frontman role, supported by Romain Del Castillo and Mahdi Camara.

Del Castillo is their top performer this season, contributing six goals and seven assists so far, followed by Lees-Melou, who has netted four times in Ligue 1, and two wing backs, Bradley Locko and Kenny Lala. Meanwhile, Satriano and Mounié have not scored as many as Castillo. The former has only registered three goals and four assists so far, while the latter has four in his collection with fewer assists— only two.

Brest’s key success appears to be the stability, continuity, and balance within the squad. There have been very few changes in the roster in the past few seasons, with a balance of old, experienced figures and dynamic, energetic young talents. Grégory Lorenzi, the sporting director, is the man behind the team-building.

The club’s objective seems to be similar to Leicester City’s success in 2016. They first targeted securing 40 points to avoid relegation and aimed for positive results one step at a time instead of being ambitious to seal European place since the beginning of the project.

Brest’s humble philosophy has paid off as they were able to snatch points in some crucial games, like beating Lyon and Marseille at home and making a comeback to hold PSG in a 2-2 draw after going two goals behind on the road.

Bologna FC 1909

Meanwhile, Bologna’s success seems to be more anticipated than Brest. Their rise is not exactly sudden, but slow and steady. Last season, they already sat ninth in the final standings under Thiago Motta.

The former Inter and Barcelona man might have been praised for his unusual tactical fluidity with the evolving goalkeeper role by deploying him as one of the centre backs in their unique back four, 4-2-5 formation, almost similar to Ederson’s role in Manchester City. At times, it could switch to the unique 2-7-2, again involving the goalie, Łukasz Skorupski, as one of the centre backs. It is no surprise that Motta has stepped into the spotlight due to his almost instant success in Bologna.

Nevertheless, the true key figure lies in the hands of their technical director, Giovanni Sartori. He has gained a reputation for lifting the mid- or lower-teams to regular sides fighting for European spots. Sartori was the man behind Atalanta’s success in the past few years and Chievo’s glory days in the mid-2000s. During his tenure, La Dea managed to finish third in three consecutive seasons from 2019 to 2021 and reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League 2020, whereas Chievo was able to finish fifth in the 2001/02 Serie A and made their continental debut in the UEFA Cup in the following season.

Unlike Lorenzi’s Brest, which relies on stability and continuity, Sartori’s way counts on his ability to sign young players with underrated potential or revive the stars who were deemed failures for their squad. Joshua Zirkzee, Lewis Ferguson, and Jhon Lucumi are examples of the former, while Alexis Saelemaekers and Riccardo Calafiori are examples of the latter.

This season, Lewis Ferguson and co have collected 59 points so far. Their most notable results so far were the victory over Lazio in both fixtures, a win against AS Roma, and draws versus AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus.

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