Following the French national side's disappointing showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ last summer, Jeremy Toulalan entertained serious thoughts about hanging up his football boots altogether.
Then a key figure in Les Bleus’ starting XI, the holding midfielder subsequently changed his mind and opted to play another season with Lyon in Ligue 1. After that year failed to live up to expectations, he joined Malaga, one of La Liga’s rising forces, in the hope of rejuvenating his career, a mission that appears to have been well and truly accomplished – at club level, at least.
“There’s no denying that [post-FIFA World Cup] summer was very difficult for me. But Claude Puel, and the rest of the coaching staff at Lyon really helped me to regain my focus and get me motivated again. And that’s something that I’m very grateful for,” admitted Toulalan in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Now everything’s much better in every way,” he added.
Clearly the Andalusian air has been good for Toulalan. Malaga’s summer spending spree has propelled the previously modest outfit into a new era, and that outlay clearly played a large part in the Nantes-born player’s decision to move.
“It’s a new league campaign, with new players, and a demanding challenge of securing a place in Europe by the end of this season,” explained the defensive midfielder, whose new club currently lie sixth in the Spanish table, just behind Sevilla. “We didn’t get off to the best of starts, but our form has picked up a lot since then. Overall, we’ve achieved the results we anticipated, so things are going pretty much to plan.”
Regarded as ‘irreplaceable’ by Malaga’s Chilean coach, Manuel Pellegrini, Toulalan is one of the few players not to have missed a match all season for Los Boquerones. Having regained possession of the ball 125 times in his first ten matches, he also boasts the best role-specific statistics in the entire league.
“I like doing the running for others. Funnily enough, in Spain there’s less of a culture of defensive midfielders traditionally being asked to run around a lot. But I’ve been doing OK, and hopefully I can continue to do so,” he said with a smile.
As if being top of the statistical pile were not enough, the tireless No8 registered his first goal for the club in a 2-1 win over Villarreal at the end of November. This was in itself something of an achievement for Toulalan, given that he had managed to find the net just once in five seasons with Les Gones, and four times in total during a career that began at Nantes a decade ago.
“They used to really make fun of my scoring record at Lyon. To be fair, I didn’t have an awful lot of luck, and hit the post quite a few times. They’ve also started to tease me about it here. It’s obviously great to score, but for me it’s simply the icing on the cake,” stated the France international.
Toulalan is not the type to act in a way that makes him stand out from the crowd. Discrete and shy off the pitch, he is the antithesis of the stereotypical celebrity footballer.
“I live my life as I wish to live it. I don’t listen to the same type of music as my team-mates, and I don’t wear the same sort of clothes either. But I don’t make a big deal out of stuff like that, and I don’t feel left out either,” he said.
Acclaimed by the Spanish press, the Frenchman admits to enjoying the rave reviews his performances in a Malaga shirt have garnered, especially as he receives "less unwanted attention than in France.”
While his move to Spain has turned out as well as he could have hoped for, the former Nantes star has no intention of disparaging French football. He has nevertheless noticed some significant differences. “Ligue 1 is more physical. You get less space, less freedom on the ball. In Spain, it’s only once you get near your opponents’ box that you start to get closed down,” he said.
“But I honestly don’t have a preference; both championships are equally interesting. I would say that the physical work I put in back home has stood me in good stead for playing in a league like this one. The flip side of the coin is that La Liga has probably forced me to stop throwing myself around and to be a little less tactically naive than I was before,” he clarified.
The challenge of facing teams of the calibre of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and of raising his own game accordingly, was a major factor in deciding to come to Spain.
“There’s a real gap between them and us. You just have to look at the 4-0 defeat we suffered at home to Real. But let’s remember that we’re going through a rebuilding phase. The goal is to take small steps in the right direction, not necessarily to top the league straight away. We want to start featuring regularly in European competition,” said the 28-year old.
There is, of course, another Europe-related target on which the combative midfield man has set his sights: appearing at UEFA EURO 2012. His excellent domestic displays may well have put him in with a chance of earning a recall to a France squad in which he has not featured since South Africa 2010. “As long as I’m playing regularly, I’m in with a chance,” Toulalan said optimistically.
For a player previously on the verge of turning his back on football, appearing in Poland/Ukraine two years down the line would represent an impressive return to the upper echelons of the game.