Eric Devin returns with his Ligue 1 Talking Points column after the first weekend of French top flight action took place.
With such a high rate of turnover during the summer at Lille, things were never going to be easy during the team’s first match, especially with reigning champions Paris Saint-Germain as the team’s opposition. So impressive in pre-season with a dynamic midfield and a fully-fit Serge Aurier, PSG had spent the summer consolidating, with little player movement save the arrival of Angel Di Maria and what seemed to be squad players in Benjamin Stambouli and Kevin Trapp. Trapp seems to have passed up incumbent goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, but the team’s mandate is clear in the belief it places in the current squad.
Les Dogues, by contrast, saw the permanent departure of no less than five first team players. Simon Kjaer, Idrissa Gueye, Jonathan Delaplace, Adama Traore and Nolan Roux all sought greener pastures in the summer. With Pape Souare having left for Crystal Palace in the winter window and loanees Divock Origi and Rony Lopes likewise returning to England, an aggressive buying policy was necessary, especially as 28 of Lille’s 43 goals were from among those players, Sofiane Boufal’s three goals making him the leading returning scorer.
With a considerable amount of money received from the sales of Gueye and Traore in particular, Lille brought in a bevy of younger attackers, including youth internationals Baptiste Guillaume (Belgium), Gadji Tallo (Ivory Coast) and Sehrou Guirassy (France). Eric Bautheac, Renato Civelli and Mounir Obbadi would all bring necessary top-flight experience, and promising young defender Ibrahim Amadou would complete Lille’s dealings ahead of Friday’s match. Lille’s pre-season had been an uneven one, with Renard switching among formations at will, deploying a 4-3-3 similar to last season’s in a draw against Braga, while a scoreless draw against Besiktas saw a 3-4-3 used.
While many of the personnel remained consistent among these switches, the changing spoke of a manager unsure how to get the best out of his players. For Friday’s match, a fairly positive 4-2-3-1, with Sofiane Boufal between Bautheac and Sebastian Corchia was used, but despite playing more than an hour against ten men, Lille were disappointing in attack.
Boufal was easily the club’s best player going forward, constantly winning free kicks and driving at PSG’s defence, but despite his best efforts, Les Dogues were unable to find an opening. To be sure, there will be improvement as the players become more familiar with each other. The interplay of Bautheac and Boufal in particular has the potential to produce some real moments, but without a focal point, it is hard to see how Lille will find the back of the net often enough to push for European places as they had last year.
The starting striker on the night was nineteen year-old Guirassy, and while he showed himself to be quite adept at holding the ball up and allowing the three attacking midfielders to get into the box, when he was tasked with getting a shot away, he seemed just a fraction off the pace, his hesitations costing his team.
Again, Guirassy is a young player, and his replacement, Tallo, fared no better, but it is here where things began to come apart at the seams. Despite doing relatively well in terms of forcing the issue in PSG’s half, both before and after Rabiot’s dismissal, Renard saw fit to make his first change at half-time, when the teams were still level.
Ibrahim Amadou was withdrawn for Ryan Mendes, as Benjamin Pavard, the right back, tucked in to central defence and Corchia dropped to right back. On the surface, the decision to use the pacy Mendes against the veteran PSG left back, Maxwell, makes some sense, pressing the side’s numerical advantage by keying on a player who is still a fine fender, but may have been feeling the effects of Rabiot’s dismissal a bit more sharply than his teammates.
That said, the key to much of what attacking joy Lille did have in the first half was Corchia’s fine passing. With Mendes doing little besides galloping up and down the flank, PSG’s substitutions, particularly Benjamin Stambouli, were able to play more towards Bautheac’s side of the park, limiting the former Nice man’s threat.
While Mendes’ introduction failed to come off as planned, one can again see the logic behind the decision to bring the Cape Verdean on, and it would be unfair to harp on Renard on that count. What was bizarre, however, was the introduction of Tallo for Guirassy. Despite his size, the former Bastia and Roma man is quite poor at hold-up play, meaning that Lille’s players would once again have to adjust on the fly, despite the nominal tactical system remaining the same.
Guirassy allowing the midfield to make runs into the box and providing them with layoffs had been integral to Lille’s threat in the second half, but with Tallo more of an opportunistic player, the ability of Lille’s striker to occupy a defender was limited. Playing a 4-2-3-1, a lone striker must be able to occupy defenders with regularity, and while there is no doubt that Tallo is a potent goal-scorer, his ability to function as a target man is simply not there.
Renard’s final substitution, however, was the one that rankled the most. Down a goal with twenty minutes to play, did the former Ivory Coast boss opt to put on Ronny Rodelin, his bulky frame the ideal weapon to bully the Parisian defense and nod the ball down for the likes of Bautheac and Boufal?
Or perhaps switch to a three man defense, allowing Corchia to operate further forward as he had earlier in the match? No, Mounir Obbadi was introduced for Rio Mavuba, an essentially like-for-like change that would offer little additional offensive threat for Lille. Despite Renard’s urgings, the team sat back, wary of the pace of Lucas, Aurier and Blaise Matuidi on the counter attack, allowing a dismal second half to elapse without the hosts having found an equalizer.
As there is presumably more money in Lille’s coffers after the sales of the likes of Kjaer, Gueye and Traore, the need for a proven goal-scorer is painfully apparent. With the likes of Majeed Waris having signed for Lorient and Andy Delort for Caen, it seems that most teams in Ligue 1 are doing their best to improve their strike forces, and Lille need to do likewise, especially as encounters with Monaco, Lyon and Bordeaux loom in the next four matchdays. That said, the right tools mean little if they are used improperly. Renard’s general tactical plan looked an attractive one compared to Rene Girard’s overly negative 4-3-3, but the former Sochaux boss failing to manage or even understand his players’ abilities could make for a painful campaign for Lille.
Renard’s trademark ability to inspire over a short period of time that has brought him so much success in the past on the international stage will only count for so much over a long and grueling league campaign. Perhaps Lille can rebound with an inspired performance against a Monaco side that will surely have one eye on a difficult Champions’ League qualifier against Valencia this Friday, but unless Renard can move away from this sort of naivety, fans of the northern club could be in for a difficult season.