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TALKING POINTS: Week 33: How Lille are managing surprise, Boufal-led recovery

You’re reading the Get French Football News Talking Points column, written by Eric Devin.

While I have previously used this space to highlight the considerable creative talents of Lille’s Manchester City loanee Rony Lopes, Les Dogues’ win over European contenders Bordeaux in Sunday’s matinee may have given the club a new hero in Sofiane Boufal. Not even a regular starter at Ligue 2 side Angers at the beginning of the season, the youngster’s creativity ended up spurring the western side to the second-best attack in the division and a somewhat unlikely promotion bid. When Lille, shorn of Marvin Martin and Lopes due to injury, came calling in the winter window, the decision was an easy one for player and club, especially considering the club’s record in developing young talent. 

Difficult to stop with the ball at his feet, but perhaps not used to the pace of the top flight, Boufal’s transition wasn’t quite instant as he adapted his game. However, now that he seems to have found his feet after a handful of a substitute appearances, his creative instincts have spurred a late push for Europe by Lille, the club winning each of his last four starts in the league. Able to play across the front line, but thus far generally used behind a front two, Boufal’s place against Bordeaux was alongside Nolan Roux up top. Playing off the more physical Roux, Boufal was able to operate in what was essentially a free role, creating the space necessary to play the ball over the top or to link up with play-maker Lopes, even dropping deep to run at Bordeaux’s full-backs when necessary, his interchanges with Djibril Sidibe consistently pinning back Mariano.  

While one must take his performance against Bordeaux with a grain of salt, as Mariano is more of an attack-minded player, and Willy Sagnol, in leaving Diego Contento on the bench, had created a void in terms of attacking players, Boufal’s rapid acclimation to Ligue 1 make him an intriguing prospect.

Coupled with his €3M price tag, he is easily the best bit of business from Ligue 1’s winter window. Going forward, while loanee Lopes’ future is uncertain, if Rene Girard persists with a 4-3-3 next season, Boufal behind a front two of, say, Roux and Ryan Mendes would certainly have more offensive thrust than most of the lineups the manager had trotted out in the season’s first half. 

With Montpellier and Bordeaux ahead of them in the race for fifth and sixth, and PSG still to play in the run-in, a return to European play is unlikely this season, their early-season struggles too much to overcome. That said, Lille have the league’s fifth-best record in 2015, and while the quality of Monaco, PSG and Lyon will probably be too difficult to unseat as far as placing in the top three goes, with their defense continuing to be as solid as ever, a full season of Boufal would certainly put them on level footing with the likes of Marseille, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne.

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