With Ligue 1’s Friday evening opener a two-part affair, followed by the usual cavalcade of Saturday matches, fans of French football were treated to a thrilling weekend of action, at least until Sunday.
Paris Saint-Germain struggled to break down Bastia, Lyon (or at least Alexandre Lacazette) impressed and new managers Lucien Favre and Jocelyn Gourvennec saw their faith in youth rewarded. Several new arrivals made standout debuts, with Nantes in particular benefiting from a rejuvenated side under Rene Girard.
The three promoted sides all demonstrated enough that relegation isn’t a given, with Metz turning in perhaps the surprise result of the weekend, Yoann Jouffre’s penalty capping a 3-2 win over Lille that had seen them fall behind twice.
The match was one of three on the weekend that finished with that scoreline, proving that yes, goals are scored in Ligue 1.
While Nantes have had a fine enough stay since returning to the division in 2013, managing to generally stay clear of the relegation scrap, they are also a fairly easy target for those who would lambast the French top flight for its overly defensive nature.
Averaging less than a goal per match, the team was hamstrung by a transfer embargo, forced to rely on an overly defensive style of football under former manager Michel der Zakarian.
The former Montpellier defender did as he must, but even when money was spent, as it was last summer on Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, the aesthetics of the team’s football didn’t.
To replace the Armenian, the club brought in Rene Girard, whose title with Montpellier remains the pinnacle of his career, but was last seen making Lille one of Ligue 1’s most dour sides. Despite Girard’s reputation, Nantes’ first match, a 1-0 victory at Dijon, was impressive indeed.
Playing what was nominally a 4-3-3, the team displayed a remarkable fluidity in attack, buoyed by a raft of new signings. Left back Lucas Lima frequently got up the pitch to supply width, allowing Valentin Rongier, nominally the left wing, but generally a central midfielder in his career, to protect the back four alongside Guillaume Gillet, the deep-lying midfielder.
On the right, Jules Iloki hugged the touchline, stretching play and creating space in the middle for academy product Amine Harit and new signing Nicolaj Thomsen. Working in tandem, the two new arrivals are both superb on the ball and Thomsen’s diving header provided the goal on a cross from Iloki, showing a willingness to be a second runner in the box.
Harit was the real surprise, however. A regular alongside the much more celebrated Jean-Kevin Augustin and Kylian Mbappe as part of France’s U-19 European champions, he showed how, even when played deeper than is perhaps optimal given his talents, he is still able to influence a match in a definitive fashion.
Quick, and surprisingly powerful given his skinny frame, Harit was the tournament’s leader in assists this summer, giving Nantes a creative player the likes of which has been missing since the days of Frederic Da Rocha in his pomp.
With Adrien Thomasson andSigthorssen yet to make their respective returns, if the big former Ajax man can take the confidence he will have surely gained from a fine European Champions, he will provide Harit with an ideal outlet.
While I am not predicting that Les Canaris are on the verge of becoming a contender for European football, with Harit pulling the strings, Nantes have every chance of burnishing their reputation (and that of their manager) for playing attractive football.
Elsewhere in Ligue 1, another club was busy building on last season’s high-energy ethos, with another new signing at the centre of things. Caen will keenly be feeling the loss of Dennis Appiah, and with Andy Delort’s situation yet to be resolved, many, including this writer, were eager to lump Patrice Garande’s side in with the relegation contenders.
These factors, combined with the age of Nicholas Seube, so long a reliable bulwark in front of the defence in Granade’s preferred 4-1-4-1 were a source of consternation. Without the elegance of Seube, the grit of Delort and the leather-lunged Appiah, would Caen have enough to continue in the same vein that made them a neutral’s favourite last season?
Against Lorient on Saturday, the result was a resounding yes, even if the visitors played approximately three quarters of the match with ten men. Lorient were cruising at the time of Zargo Toure’s dismissal, up 2-0 through a Benjamin Moukandjo brace, but Caen grew into the game, the team embracing their roles almost seamlessly.
Damien Da Silva enjoyed a fine season at centre back last year, but he returned to his roots, reprising the role he had played at Bordeaux’s academy as a defensive midfielder, as former Lyon right back Mohamadou Dabo took Appiah’s place.
The real star of the show, however, was Croatian striker Ivan Santini. Signed from the Belgian side Standard Liege, the forward has had a somewhat itinerant career through Germany, Austria and the top flight in his own country.
He is admittedly not the same workhorse in terms of tackling and tracking back as Delort, but even if his defensive abilities aren’t as refined as the former Wigan man’s, he still shows a good enthusiasm for the job.
Powerful in the air, but also relatively cultured with the ball at his feet, if Santini can match Delort’s ouput of a dozen goals last season, Caen’s choice to sell the disgruntled striker may be a relatively painless one, especially as Pape Sane, who had a fine season with Clermont last year, waits in the wings as well.
While this column will try to take a holistic approach to football in France, covering the sides such as the aforementioned Caen and Nantes that perhaps aren’t often in the spotlight, there are certainly times when the big boys, namely Paris Saint-Germain, are deserving of attention.
The champions feasted on Lyon’s criminally high line last weekend, but struggled to break down Bastia on Friday evening. Layvin Kurzawa provided the scoring margin, pouncing on a rebound of a shot from Jese, a bad break for Bastia, who displayed their usual chippy energy throughout.
With the pressure off, Bastia having not looked like scoring after the interval, manager Unai Emery decided the time was right to introduce two of last season’s stalwarts, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi.
Due to injury and involvement in the European Championships, neither had played an important role in the champions’ pre-season. The pair’s introduction saw the team move from Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 to their trademark 4-3-3, with Adrien Rabiot supporting the two substitutions.
Matuidi still looks to be rounding into shape given his playing style and exertionsover the summer, but Verratti was fantastic, snapping about the park, crunching into tackles and winning the ball with aplomb.
As fine as his defensive work can be, though, the pint-sized Italian more importantly gave a frankly scary preview of his potential going forward. A sublime distributor of the ball, the thought of Verratti’s long passes finding the fluid quartet of Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Hatem Ben Arfa and Javier Pastore is frightening indeed.
PSG failed to score after Verratti’s introduction, but his impeccable vision clearly underlined the threat the team will pose once he establishes a rapport with his partner in midfield, one of Rabiot or Grzegorz Krychowiak.
As a coda, as reliable as the former Sevilla player has been for Emery, (to say nothing of his fee) the energy of Rabiot alongside the slow-footed Thiago Motta was impressive indeed, the youngster turning in a sterling performance after a middling preseason.
Seeing how injuries were much of PSG’s undoing in Europe last season, Emery’s ability to rotate the squad and keep players motivated without a drop-off in performance will be key, and Rabiot’s encouraging start can only be a positive in this regard.
In the south of France, the now-permanent manager, Franck Passi, got Marseille off to a familiar result, dropped points at home. A scoreless draw against Toulouse was an uninspiring result, but there may indeed be a silver lining for the team.
As poor as the defence had looked in pre-season, they looked equally as inspired against Les Violets.
Tomas Hubocan and Yoann Pele are worthy of particular praise, but the whole back line played generally inspired football, even the much-maligned Karim Rekik stepping in for an injured Henri Bedimo, the young Dutchman playing on the left, a role to which he is not accustomed.
While the quartet weren’t error-free, they were much better than they had been, and can hopefully gain some much-needed confidence from having kept a clean sheet.
Finally, a word on two new arrivals in the managerial department, Jocelyn Gourvennec and Lucien Favre. Both entered their respective positions at Bordeaux and Nice as coaches who would foster an aggressive, energetic 4-4-2.
Gourvennec had taken Guingamp to an unlikely cup win two seasons ago, performing admirably in Europe, while Favre had also overachieved in bringing Borussia Monchengladbach back to the upper reaches of the Bundesliga. Neither, however, had any great reputation as managers who could develop young players.
Yes, the likes of Marco Reus and Patrick Herrmann had risen to prominence under Favre, but with a few exceptions (Mahmoud Dahoud) the Swiss had generally preferred a more experienced and settled squad.
So too Gourvennec at Guingamp, who staked his reputation on minimal player rotation and a veteran-heavy squad featuring the likes of Lionel Mathis, Lars Jacobsen and a host of others in prominent roles.
What a surprise, then, to see both opt for incredibly young starting elevens against a fairly high calibre of opposition.
Gourvennec’s Bordeaux were hosting Saint-Etienne, a defensively sound European perennial, who while injury hit at present, were never going to be an easy mark. Despite the presence of the veteran Jeremy Menez (admittedly recovering from his ear injury) on the bench, Gourvennec opted to play a 4-2-3-1 that featured only two players older than 23, Jaroslav Plasil and Nicolas Pallois.
Gaetan Laborde, back from a spell at Clermont last season, started up top, scoring and assisting in only his second Ligue 1 match. Malcom and Thomas Toure were inventive and quick in wide areas, while defensive midfielder Valentin Vada, just 20, proved a more than able deputy for the suspended Toulalan.
For Nice, an emotional match in the wake of the terrorist attack there last month also came against a potentially thorny opponent, Christian Gourcuff’s Rennes. A hairsbreadth away from the European places last season, the Breton club may have felt a bit unlucky to lose, but Nice were deserving of at least a point despite playing a side with an average age of just 22.
Including substitute Anastasios Donis, six players made their Ligue 1 debut, four of those teenagers. Much like Marseille, while the play wasn’t exactly sparkling, Favre’s willingness to trust in this young but talented group could go a long way this season, especially with progression in the Europa League a potentially realistic target.
Results: SC Bastia 0-1 Paris Saint-Germain; AS Monaco 2-2 EA Guingamp; Girondins de Bordeaux 3-2 AS Saint-Etienne; SM Caen 3-2 FC Lorient; Dijon FCO 0-1 FC Nantes; FC Metz 3-2 Lille OSC; Montpellier HSC 1-0 Angers SCO; AS Nancy Lorraine 0-3 Olympique Lyonnais; OGC Nice 1-0 Stade Rennais; Olympique de Marseille 0-0 Toulouse FC.
Team of the Round (4-4-2): Jean-Louis Leca, SC Bastia; Alexander Djiku, SC Bastia, Vitorino Hilton, Montpellier HSC, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Olympique Lyonnais, Lucas Lima, Nantes; Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain, Bernardo Silva, AS Monaco, Maxime Gonalons, Olympique Lyonnais, Romain Hamouma, AS Saint-Etienne; Alexandre Lacazette, Olympique Lyonnais, Ivan Santini, SM Caen
Goal of the Round: Ryad Boudebouz, Montpellier