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Ligue 1 Mid-Season Review | How a “big four” appears to be emerging & the pleasant surprises

2016/17 was one of the most successful seasons in French football for a solid few decades. I remember the days where our sides were the laughing stock of Champions’ League knockout stage analysis (ok, Monaco fulfilled this role decently this autumn) and where very few French sides had any European midweek games to look forward. Last season, PSG delivered an epic battle with Barcelona losing the tie 5-6, Monaco went all the way to the semi-finals of the Champions’ League (PSG’s aim) while Lyon achieved the same feat in the Europa League.

This has resulted in French football fans looking forward to the new season despite Monaco selling their best players (it is not said enough but Mbappé is still a Ligue 1 player which is an achievement as a move to Real Madrid was more likely than PSG at some point last summer). We now have four, stable top sides, winning games most weekends and playing decent football at the same time.

I find myself day-dreaming of someday having PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Marseille continuing this domination and achieving such performances in Europe which could land Ligue 1 a 4th Champions’ League. It would be bad for overall Ligue 1 drama but having the current top four as powerful as the Premier League big 4 (or now big 6?), in a move which would seriously put Ligue 1 on top of Europe.

PSG: Unai hasn’t done anything yet

The sub-title is harsh as PSG have only dropped points three times in the league (two draws at Marseille and Montpellier and a defeat at Strasbourg) and conceded just 15 goals in 19 games, yet we are all still reluctant to give the Spanish tactician any credit. Neymar’s arrival has been welcomed by a very French complaint à la “they should be trouncing sides left, right and centre week in week out such is the money the divas are on” rather than “wow look at that team play”. PSG are head and shoulders above anyone else in the league, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Competition from Monaco last season enabled them to dig deep and work harder than in other seasons. This season is very much like the league successes of the 2013-2016 era with Champions’ League performances the only metric with which people will judge them this season.

Speaking of the Champions’ League, PSG did beat Bayern Munich 3-0 (a night to remember reminiscent of the 4-0 trouncing of Messi & Co) but got beat by the same side 1-3 after being 0-2 down at half-time. That performance was a reminder that PSG’s mental strength is still, well, rather weak. Bayern’s football is not as impressive as in past seasons and PSG almost threw away another comfortable aggregate lead. The Real Madrid tie is the chance for Unai to prove that he has made PSG harder to beat when it matters (read, in a Champions’ League tie against world-class opposition). Make no mistake; Unai is gambling his season and very possibly his job on this tie. Will he succeed? This column does not believe so.

For what it’s worth, the 50 points achieved in this first half of the season is not the best the Qatari regime has even seen; PSG achieved 51 points in the 1st half of 2015/16.

The hunting pack

Despite having sold Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoué Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva (what a waste of a season he appears to be having), Valère Germain and Kylian Mbappé this summer, Monaco are second. Contrary to what we may think, the difference between Monaco’s first half of the season with their corresponding tally a year ago is minimal: a point and ten goals. Of course, the Mbappé revelation came into its stride in early 2017 (12 of his 15 goals were scored in the second half of the season) and the Principality side achieved more points and scored more goals after Christmas. However, Monaco were not as daunting an opposition to other European sides as last season. Their pitiful elimination from the Champions’ League group stage and continental football altogether is the glaring proof of that. This may be a silver lining as Monaco only have the league and national cups to think about while PSG need to focus on their sole objective which is to finally break their Champions’ League quarter-final (if they get that far) jinx.

But Monaco are not the only side, not too far away from PSG in the table: Lyon are just one goal difference point behind having enjoyed the form of the returning Nabil Fékir. One can only admire Lyon’s academy (Lucas Tousart, Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombèlé are the latest hot kids on the block) and the canny moves they made in the summer (Mariano Diaz, Marcelo, Kenny Tete and Marçal are all proving to be brilliant, understate signings). As a result, Lyon have scored as many goals as Monaco this season (46) as the joint-second most lethal attack in the league despite Lacazette being sold. Not bad.

The final member of this new “Big Four” is Marseille, who have been quite and unassumingly impressive for once. The players are working hard as a unit and goals are coming from all over the pitch. It is often said that each side winning week in week out needs to have “buteur maison” (home scorer if you’re translating word for word) and Marseille simply do not have that. They picked up Germain in the summer, gave him a run of games (4 starts from 5 games) and then sent him to the bench for the benefit of Kostas Mitroglou for almost 3 months. Germain returned in early December with the goods (3 goals in as many games), but what will happen next?

What Marseille do possess is a quality goalkeeper, a serious backline (now that the resident ninja and former captain of the France national team, Patrice Evra, has been sacked), an experienced midfield linchpin (Luiz Gustavo is proving more effective an investment as games go by), and creative wingers who score goals (Thauvin and Ocampos have scored 37% of Marseille’s goals). This means that this side is not enormously dependent on any particular player, which makes them consistently hard to beat. They are not playing particularly watchable football, but it has proved effective. I think the fans will settle for that given the mess they have been served with in past seasons.

The pleasant surprises

Nantes may have produced a poor performance on the opening day of the season at Lille (0-3 defeat, possibly Bielsa’s sole accomplished game at his time at the club) but Claudio Ranieri made amends as a run of eight undefeated matches followed. A bit like Marseille, Nantes are no fun to watch: they’ve scored more than a goal a game on only three occasions.

In another recent column, I wrote how the lack of up-and-coming managers worried me. I must say very little is being said or written of what a good job Sabri Lamouchi is doing at Rennes. Despite inheriting a squad in early November, Lamouchi gained important local wins against Nantes and Angers and has produced far more attractive football. The last two games of the year were losses but overall, Rennes look a much more promising proposition than under ex-manager Christian Gourcuff and Ruello (the former president who quit just after the Bordeaux win on November 3rd).

I could include the likes of Montpellier, Guingamp or Amiens to this list which shows how excellent the football in France has been for the past five months. Long may it continue.

P.B.

 

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