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Ligue 1 Mid-Season Review – How some of France’s most decorated clubs have placed themselves in grave danger of relegation

I cannot remember the last time that we saw so many big French cities (and big clubs if we are excluding Toulouse) in relegation danger in Ligue 1. The south-west is not a big football place (the sport is still to this day playing second fiddle to rugby, especially in Toulouse) but Bordeaux is a big football club who won the league 8 years ago – then breaking Lyon’s strong hold on top spot (they had won the 7 previous leagues) – but have since dipped in form, stature and general quality of how the players have been trained and managed.

Contrary to the south-west, the north is pretty much 100% football (us French often say it is the start of English culture regarding football in terms of match-going habits which very much differ from the rest of the country). Lille suffered a managerial casualty in this opening half of 2017/18 due to poor results. Nobody saw this coming, yet here we are.

Finally, St Étienne finally got caught up by their insufficient board-room strategy (or lack thereof) of letting the same players grow old and not letting youth take over. As a result, St Étienne is a club not necessarily headed for Ligue 2 but certainly not destined for European nights which Christophe Galtier had the fans accustomed to.

The following sentences will try and analyse the mistakes of the past and have a think about whether those mistakes will automatically mean relegation.

Unrest in the South-West

Toulouse are quite accustomed to survival battles at the bottom of Ligue 1 (they’ve finished in the bottom half for the last 3 seasons and 2 of those saw them scrape the barrel. So, I’ll start with the side whose worst league finish was 11th back in 2015/16 (which remains the club’s solitary bottom half finish since being crowned champions 8 and a half years ago).

I have no goal, aim or interest in discussing Bordeaux’s results or game-plan. The club (and the place) lacks ambition from top to bottom. The 1st example of this was during their Europa League elimination in their first round tie against Videoton. I had the pleasure of live-tweeting both games and what I said back then is still true today: Bordeaux do not have the players to score goals.

I have been hearing time and again what a good player Gaëtan Laborde is, but a decent finisher he is not. The problem is that Bordeaux are filled with technically-gifted players but lack someone who can simply score goals. That issue was partly addressed but Alexandre Mendy has not scored enough league goals (4) for him to be depicted as a successful signing from Guingamp.

It is no coincidence that players thrive in other clubs but just don’t gel at Bordeaux. Why is Mendy scoring so few goals? Why has Nicolas De Préville scored more goals in his 4 games at Lille than the rest of the rest of the half-season at Bordeaux? The club is mismanaged which renders the players unmotivated no matter how old they are. Experienced, good players (Malcom and… that pretty much covers it) want out as they are playing with bit-part performers whilst the youth players do not feel particularly wanted and reckon they could excel faster and more efficiently elsewhere (they are right of course). A sincere educational strategy has to be ingrained in Bordeaux’s youth system to enable them to rebuild a fallen past great.

Will Bordeaux get relegated? No, probably not. Will it do the club any good to spend a couple of seasons in Ligue 2? Yes, yes it would.

As said above, Toulouse are no stranger to relegation struggles. They had to change managers for 2 seasons running in order to finish 17th and avoid relegation, but last season was one of stability and even punching above their weight (they were 2nd in late September after beating PSG 2-1, that 13th spot finish was indeed very harsh as it was Toulouse worst league position of the whole season). This term didn’t start that badly with away defeats at Monaco and PSG (no shame in those results) and home wins against Montpellier and Rennes.

However, those wins dried up and only 3 followed till the festive period (including 2 wins in a row against Amiens and Angers in mid-October). Toulouse are down there due to their inability to score more than a goal per game (they have only achieved that 4 times out of 19 while they failed to score on 6 occasions) along with a shaky backline (1-2 defeats, home or away, has been the recurring theme of their season – half their losses).

Lille on the brink

It all started so well and had so much potential. After 2 seasons of mismanagement, Lille’s new board promised money and big movement in the transfer market (whether Mr Lopez’s has money or not and where it is coming from has been debated by other media but until the information is proven and official, it will not be discussed in this column) and delivered a major coup in hiring Marcelo Bielsa as their head coach. The omens were good.

We were accustomed to Bielsa’s methods having watched him work wonders at Marseille. We were under no illusion that his stint would be short-term but, honestly, not that short-term.

The first game of the season was full of promise. The tactics were bold and brazen (3-3-1-3, something you do not see too often anywhere in the world) and the football was exquisite. The new signings were gelling instantly and it was wonderful to watch. The 3-0 success over Nantes almost flattered the visitors such was the difference in tactical nous and player management during the game between Bielsa and Ranieri.

The problem being that this was to remain Lille’s sole league win till early November and a 3-0 success at bottom side Metz. In those 9 games, Lille picked up 3 points and scored 3 goals! Maybe the players were not prepared for the manager’s demanding style. Maybe Bielsa was not backed enough by the board.

You can find any excuse you want, the Argentine’s reign in Northern France will remain anything but a success. Football traditionalists and Bielsa “lover-boys” like Didier Roustan went up in arms when criticism was aimed at the ex-Marseille manager but the fact is, Lille are playing better football and are getting points on the table with him gone. They have now appointed Christophe Galtier as their new manager. As they say, onwards and upwards.

St Étienne: Europe’s in the past, survival is the present

Speaking of Galtier, St Étienne are finding life without him quite difficult. The fans were having a bit of a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum back when he was still in charge. The football was not great (take it from me, watching Les Verts in the Europa League was no fun at all) but talk of changing manager was scarce as Galtier was getting the club what they wanted. St Étienne even had a couple of false dawns of getting a Champions’ League finish. It never happened, but they were close.

With Galtier gone, St Étienne appointed Oscar Garcia for the new season and the lack of goals problem was addressed by the purchase of Dijon’s Loïs Diony.

The season started spectacularly. St Étienne won their opening 3 games after which they were 2nd. The points kept being added to the table until a rough patch (0-1 home loss to Montpellier followed by a goalless draw at Toulouse) was followed by the now famous derby defeat at home to Lyon (0-5). The place went to pieces after that loss. Psychologically, losing at home to Lyon is up there with the hardest things you have to endure if you are a Les Verts fan, let alone with that scoreline.

The fans turned on the players, most of them ill-equipped to respond on the pitch under such psychological pressure. Oscar Garcia left, entered ex-player Julien Sablé who showed his glaring limitations (it’s a tough job, in fairness) by losing pretty much all his games. The club is now in the hands of another man with limited experience: Laurent’s Blanc’s former right-hand man, Jean-Louis Gasset. He did manage to keep Montpellier up. Will he succeed with St Étienne?

The aim here is not to tell the footballing world that established clubs will go down in May but that if work is not constantly done, no matter how big you are, you will always be looking over your shoulder, such is the quality of this league.

Angers and Metz currently occupy the relegation spots of Ligue 1 but they won their last games in mid-week. They are not dead yet and have little fight about them; something the aforementioned four lack severely. If this keeps going on, the unfancied two will leapfrog the four sides who come from four big places in France and with reason. Ligue 1 is that kind of league these days.

P.B.

 

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