Eric Devin takes a look at another weekend’s worth of Ligue 1 action, which seriously shaped the title race.
1 | Thauvin’s Time
Since the purchase of Olympique de Marseille by Frank McCourt, rumours have swirled surrounding the club’s potential moves in January, with a return for Dimitri Payet being only the latest mooted move. Considering that two of the club’s better performers this season, William Vainqueur and Bafétimbi Gomis, are only on loan, a restructuring of the club’s playing staff is certainly needed.
Given their ages and histories, there is something of the mercenary to Gomis and Vainqueur joining the club; essentially frozen out at Swansea and Roma respectively, their moves to Marseille would allow them to continue to receive their considerable pay packets whilst almost being guaranteed first team football.
A third loanee, however, has gone beyond merely turning in competent performances. Florian Thauvin’s move to Newcastle was seen as a stroke of genius by many; underwhelming and underperforming since his arrival from Lille, to realize a 50% profit on a player uncapped at senior level was a considerable coup for l’OM.
A superb goal to seal three points against in-form Lille was just the latest in a series of incandescent performances that have Marseille knocking at the European places, in sixth place ahead of tomorrow’s autumn finale. Liberated by the space afforded him in manager Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3, Thauvin has thrived this season on being, for the first time since leaving Bastia, the focal point of an attack.
No longer tasked with the chores of tracking back or scrapping on the flanks, Thauvin can focus all of his energy creatively. The argument that football is a team game, etc, is certainly a valid one, but given that Thauvin’s newfound freedom has coincided with improved form on the part of the team, there is little evidence to suggest that anything should change. Thauvin has spoken about wanting to stay with Marseille “for the rest of his career.” On this evidence, who could blame him?
2 | Toulouse’s Muddled Midfield
It would be unfair to call Toulouse’s start to the season anything other than exceptional. Fine victories over Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain have seen Les Violets, seen by some as a certainty for relegation, on the periphery of the European places. Lately, though, a bit of the lustre has come off for Pascal Dupraz and his charges. Since defeating high-flying Monaco in October, the team have taken just eight points from nine matches in the league.
Much of this run has coincided with the absence of Issa Diop, but the youngster was back in the starting eleven Saturday for the visit of Nancy. His presence wasn’t enough to secure a result, however, as the hosts had to battle back to record a 1-1 draw.
The focus, then, must turn to Dupraz and his somewhat bizarre personnel choices. He put out the team in its customary 4-2-3-1, but central midfield, often the province of the dependable Alexis Blin and Yann Bodiger was staffed instead by Somalia and Tongo Hamed Doumbia. The Brazilian has played in central midfield before, but is a right back by trade, while the former Wolves player was making his first start of the season.
To say that the result was a disaster would be charitable; without the control and precision of Blin and Bodiger, the midfield struggled to support the attacking quartet in any meaningful way. Perhaps a 4-3-3 would’ve offered more support, or perhaps Dupraz should have rotated his playing staff better; (Bodiger was not included in the 18 after playing mid-week) these sorts of decisions will have an immense bearing on the season’s outcome.
Dupraz is a superb man-motivator, but more tactical nous is needed in Ligue 1, and Toulouse, despite still sitting eighth, will need a more cohesive approach in the weeks to come if they are to avoid another relegation scrap.
3 | New Look Nantes
The 4-4-2 has often been derided as unfashionable, or out of step with modern football. Sure, there are flashes of its success, such as at Atletico Madrid, or with the current Monaco, but for teams of lesser means, the system is nothing more than a relic, limited in its scope and potential.
Fans of Nantes must have been dubious, then, when new manager Sergio Conciecao opted for the system at Angers on Friday evening. Le Sco have had a rough time of it of late, especially at home, but Stéphane Moulin’s well-disciplined charges hardly seemed likely to succumb to Nantes’ pedestrian attack.
This was, however, a Nantes side buoyed by the return of Jules Iloki. The diminutive academy product has little to his game beyond his earing pace and decent crossing ability, but playing as an orthodox winger, his inclusion allows Les Canaris to stretch play more naturally. On the opposite flank, this has the knock-on effect of allowing Amine Harit more space to cut inside, and the youngster was duly rewarded with his first goal, the two wingers combining for Nantes’ second.
Although the goal came from a counter-attack, the two also combined well on the evening with Lucas Lima and Leo Dubois, the full-backs urged to bomb on as Koffi Djidji and Guillaume Gillet sat deep in midfield. This approach might not work against some of Ligue 1’s more possession-shy sides, but for now, Conciecao’s tactical shift has given hope to a Nantes fanbase that had been staring down what looked to be a very long season.
4 | Metz’s Indiscipline
For the fourth time this season, Metz finished a match with ten men, this time in a 3-0 loss at Caen. In a match already made difficult by fog, Milan Bisevac was sent off early in the second half, and what had been a tenuous lead for the hosts was almost immediately solidified by Ivan Santini. Julien Férét scythed through the right side of the defence as Metz struggled to readjust their formula after the former Lyon player’s dismissal, teeing up the Croatian at the edge of the area. Santini’s finish took some effort, but the space that opened up for Feret was inexcusable.
Manager Philippe Hinschberger soon took off young winger Gauthier Hein for another centre back, but the damage was done. There are many other teams who have received a similar number of red cards this season, among them Saint-Étienne and Bordeaux, so there is not necessarily a perfect correlation between discipline and success. Metz, though, without much in the way of superb individual play, rely much more heavily on a team ethos.
Lacking the speed to play on the break or the individual talent to pounce on an opponent’s mistake, Les Grenats can ill-afford to be further handicapped. A run to the Coupe de la Ligue quarterfinals has been a bright spot for the club, but unless Hinschberger can address his team’s penchant for appearing in the referee’s notebook, survival is unlikely for a team that has won just once since September.
5 | Nice Carry On
It is often said that to win a championship, a side must not only be good, but lucky. Injuries, player unrest, transfers; many factors play into a successful season, and Nice have been fairly blessed in this regard thus far. Paul Baysse has been a major loss, but other than the former Saint-Étienne man, Les Aiglons have generally had a full complement of players.
Likewise, while there are rumours of players moving into the club (Ezequiel Lavezzi), the rest of the squad seems settled and happy. Lucien Favre has impressed the playing staff with his rotation and tactical flexibility; all is going smoothly, or so it would seem.
There is also another kind of luck, however, and that came into play against a hard-working Dijon side during Sunday’s early match. Having a key decision go for or against a club can make also make a difference in a season, and it was that type of luck that saw Nice record the result, with Mario Balotelli’s offside winner and a penalty shout against Dante the key moments in the second half.
There is no implication of begrudging Nice the result; they were fully deserving of three points, but on a weekend where their nearest rivals both lost, these sorts of decisions made all the difference. If Nice do capture the title, or even a place in the Champions’ League come May, results like Sunday’s will have been decisive.
Team of the Week: Danijel Subasic, AS Monaco; Erwin Koffi, FC Lorient, Dante, OGC Nice, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Olympique Lyonnais, Jérémy Morel, Olympique Lyonnais; Paul Lasne, Montpellier HSC, Lucas Tousart, Olympique Lyonnais, Maxime Lopez, Olympique de Marseille, Mathieu Valbuena, Olympique Lyonnais; Enzo Crivelli, SC Bastia, Steve Mounié, Montpellier HSC,
Goal of the Week: Florian Thauvin, Olympique de Marseille.