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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 11

Adam White and Eric Devin return with their weekly and much celebrated Ligue 1 Review column.

1 | Dijon hold strong

One would not necessarily associate promoted Dijon with a strong defence, as they recently conceded three goals at home to Montpellier, and had also been thumped by Angers in early September.

On their trip to Bastia, with veteran Cedric Varrault suspended and left backs Arnold Bouka Moutou and Quentin Rüfli injured, things looked all set up to equal more of the same. Leading scorer Enzo Crivelli was set to return for the Corsicans, and the crowd would be hungry for the club’s first win of the month.

It was not to be for SC Bastia however, as Les Rouges earned an impressive draw, with young Hungarian Adam Lang partnering Yunis Adbelhamid and Fouad Chafik turning in another solid performance at right back to limit the dangerous Allan Saint-Maximin.

The last two, signed from Valenciennes and Stade Levallois respectively in the summer, have consistently been among the team’s best performers, proving, much as Angers had last season, the quality that exists in Ligue 2.

As the likes of Montpellier, Caen and Lorient struggle at the back, Dijon have demonstrated that they have the resources to remain competitive in most fixtures. Continuing to build on this solid foundation, and with striker Lois Diony enjoying his first top-flight campaign, the team are looking an increasingly safe bet to stay up come the end of the season. – E.D.

2 | Toulouse hit a brick wall & are no longer underdogs

The fact that Toulouse will be disappointed not be beat Lyon on Saturday afternoon is a sign of the times at the Stade Municipal and testament to the remarkable effect Pascal Dupraz has had on the club.

But disappointed they will be and justifiably so. After equalising quickly via the head of Christophe Julien following the surrendering of a frustratingly soft penalty while enjoying much the better of the game over OL, despite Lacazette’s sucker punch on the counter to restore the Lyon lead, they will be feeling that this is an opportunity missed.

With Rafael deservedly and naively sent off for a second booking, TFC had the majority to the second half to overturn their deficit, something that, given their territorial edge, seemed likely.

But as the half wore on and they continued to press, zero openings were created against 10 man Lyon.

Given their superb home wins over PSG and Monaco, it was as if roaring back into the game and to victory was, from their fans perspective, inevitable. However, Lyon boss Bruno Genesio was able to procure a very useful three points with relative ease despite Rafael’s dismissal as their hosts struggled to break down a resolute defence.

Toulouse are still a side cast as underdogs. However, now that Dupraz has established them as much more than a Ligue 1 also-ran, they may find themselves in similar situations in the future and they’ll need a more coherent plan. – A.W.

3 | Jean Kevin Augustin needs his chance

Last season, Jean-Kevin Augustin was still a bright prospect, but at just 18, was decidedly raw. He spent much of the first half of the season with Paris Saint-Germain’s B team, scoring five goals in 8 matches in the UEFA Youth League.

He was a regular part of the senior squad from February onwards, starting a handful of matches as Laurent Blanc sought to negotiate fixture congestion. In the current campaign, however, he has been the forgotten man, limited to less than an hour of football, more than half of it in the 6-0 rout of Caen.

After a sterling summer in which he scored six goals in five matches to power France’s Under-19 side to the European Championship, his development is surely stagnating from a lack of regular playing time.

A brace against Northern Ireland in the Under-21 side’s match against Northern Ireland shows that he still has his scoring touch, so why does Unai Emery insist on leaving him on the bench?

Yes, Edinson Cavani did score a powerful goal to beat hapless Lille on Friday, but the chance which brought it was his fifth of the match, and only his first to be on target. I am not advocating that the youngster replace Cavani, full stop, but it is apparent that the Uruguayan is struggling for form at the moment, and Augustin should be picked to start a league match as the single striker.

Rennes next week is a potentially tricky match, but a visit from Nantes on the 19th could be a good opportunity. Whenever Emery elects to rotate his side, as one might have thought he would ahead of the team’s trip to Basel, Augustin should be prominent in his decision-making, not an afterthought.

His goal-scoring record internationally and with the team’s youth setup more than warrant it, and if this spell on the bench continues much longer, it could have real ramifications for his development. – E.D.

4 | OGC Nice can win Ligue 1…

Whisper it quietly, but it is beginning to look more and more likely that Lucien Favre’s Nice are genuine Ligue 1 title contenders. The ease at which they brushed aside Rene Girard’s faltering Nantes 4-1 this Sunday exemplified the supreme quality and effectivity of the team Favre is beginning to mould.

Mario Balotelli joined fellow forward Alassane Plea on the scoresheet, despite his spell out of the side, his run of goals shows no sign of halting. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic enjoyed a better start to a Ligue 1 career in terms of goals scored.

Wylan Cyprien once again showcased the intensity and ability which is making him one of the most exciting talents in the league this season.

Their lead at the top of the table is already 6 points. Should PSG keep up their indifferent start under Emery and Monaco continue to drop points as they did at St Etienne on Saturday night, that gap may prove to be a difficult one to make up as Favre’s disciplined approach continues to get the best out of a talent group of players.

There are many tests still to come of course; injuries, suspensions, fatigue and a possible extended EL run but for now Nice are thundering along at top speed. Can the rest keep up? – A.W.

5 | Sainté and Monaco think ahead

Both Monaco and Saint-Etienne put forth sides that were essentially first-choice for their encounter on Saturday evening, and many were eagerly expecting the match to be the highlight of the multiplex.

It is rare that two European regulars meet at 20:00 on a Saturday, but with the Coupe de la Ligue mid-week, the schedule-makers saw fit to give many of those teams in action Wednesday additional rest.

Instead, however, we were treated to a suffocating draw, with each side netting an early goal from a free kick, followed by a complete lack of action.

Kamil Glik had put the visitors ahead on six minutes before Loic Perrin equalized twelve minutes later; the match thereafter descended into a flurry of misplaced passes, poor touches and mis-timed tackles.

Thomas Lemar and Jordan Veretout both had decent matches, but they were emphatically the exception rather than the rule. In a match that should have fucntioned as a good advertisement for the quality of Ligue 1, we were instead treated to one of the weekend’s dullest encounters.

While not the best for the perception of the league, we should pause and give consideration to the reason that these two didn’t play to their best.

Both sit at the top of their groups in Europe, and face matches against the team likely to finish bottom this mid-week, with wins likely to all but secure progression.

Rather than exhaust their sides domestically, both Christophe Galtier and Leonardo Jardim have firmly gone all-in on European competition.

This is a welcome change from the approach of some Ligue 1 managers in the recent past, and even if it does throw up the odd clunker on a Saturday, the reward is more than worth it. – E.D.

6 | FC Metz’s points tally is a flattering one and they’re certainly still fighting for Ligue 1 survival…

Despite the more combative display and eye catching performances from Cohade and Sarr in particular, Metz’s 1-0 defeat to Rennes at Roazhon Park on Sunday afternoon was their fourth consecutive loss in a row, a loss that saw them drop to 13th in table.

On the GFFN Preview Show, I have praised their astute transfer dealings but many of their more experienced Ligue 1 acquisitions have yet to show the value of that pedigree and know-how.

Their four wins to date have been more down to circumstance than anything else.

The opening day win over Lille came against a side we now know to be largely in disarray without the talismanic Sofaine Boufal, the early 2-0 defeat of Angers is arguably accounted for by Moulin’s side adjusting through a brief transition of their own and the narrow win at Montpellier came through a penalty converted by Mevlut Erding.

Their only really creditable display came in the 3-0 win over Nantes, by virtue of a Erding hattrick.

Since then Erding’s goals have dried up as has Metz’s stream of points, making 4 wins and a draw from their opening 7 games seem more than a little flattering, Philippe Hinschberger has much to do stop his side slipping toward the bottom three.

Are there three worse teams than Metz in Ligue 1? I’m not sure there are. – A.W.

7 | Guingamp win battle of the men between the sticks

Pouring over the results in Ligue 1 this weekend, one might be tempted to think that Matchday 11 was a bit lacking in excitement. Two matches were scoreless, and another three were 1-0 results.

One of those was Guingamp’s win over Angers at the Stade Roudourou, a match which, despite its lack of goals, might have been the weekend’s most scintillating.

Each team had a host of chances, and were it not for superb stops from both Karl-Johan Johnsson and Mathieu Michel, the match could easily have been 2-2 or an even more attention-getting result.

The pair, newly arrived in Ligue 1 from Denmark and Ligue 2 side Nimes, respectively, may have flown a bit under the radar this weekend given the superb match Baptiste Reynet had against Bastia for Dijon, but both have been integral to their sides’ success thus far.

Angers had lost just once in seven in the league prior to Saturday, while Guingamp have won their last four matches to go fourth after Toulouse failed to overturn ten-man Lyon.

Guingamp play a more expansive style than the catenaccio-lite of Angers, but both have done well to keep opponents at bay this season, the rapid acclimation of their goalkeepers being the driving force in that regard.

Last season saw Reims and Angers themselves scale heights similar to those Guingamp are reaching at present, but the lack of a consistent ‘keeper was the undoing of both after Ludovic Butelle’s departure and the uneven form of Reims’ various men between the sticks.

Angers showed in this match the dangers of a thin squad, but Guingamp seem to have the right combination of attacking flair, depth and talent to continue their pursuit of European football.

Antoine Kombouare’s management and the youngsters Ludovic Blas and Marcus Coco might catch the headlines, but if Guingamp remain in contention for European competition come the spring, Johnsson will deserve some plaudits as well. – E.D.

8 | Praise for Alou Diarra

The gap between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 is a surprisingly wide one.

Despite the individual talent that exists in Ligue 2, brought to prominence by various high profile moves out of the division in recent years, the quality judged on a more even squad to squad basis still, in some cases, falls way short of the much higher level of Ligue 1.

Sides that have performed well in recent years upon promotion have had to do one of two things to survive in the topflight:

1 | Recruit extensively and wisely: Angers pulled this off wonderfully well last season, cherry picking some of that famed Ligue 2 talent from other sides and moulding a virtually new team, only 9 members of the promotion winning squad begun the following season in Ligue 1.

2 |  Revert to a much more defensive style of play: Something Nancy have realised that have had to do in order to stay afloat in 16/17 having signed very few additions over the summer.

Normally a combination of both is required and despite Correa’s switch in tactics, ASNL are still lacking in the first criteria.

However, the free signing of the experienced former French international Alou Diarra after Charlton’s relegation may turn out to be they key to keeping them in Ligue 1.

Top flight experience can also prove to be pivotal for a promoted side and Diarra’s calming influence as proved useful in both the midfield and in the opposition penalty area, his second strike since signing helping his side to a 2-0 win over Caen this weekend.

Should he continue to work in tandem with fellow French stalwart Benoit Predetti, they might not be 19th for long. – A.W.

9 | Morgan Sanson’s versatility drives Montpellier

Already missing Daniel Congré, William Rémy, Casimir Ninga and Yacouba Sylla, a stomach virus could have easily derailed Montpellier’s trip to Lorient on Saturday evening.

Presumptive starters Steve Mounie, Ryad Boudebouz, Ellyes Shkiri and Mathieu Deplagne were joined by Paul Lasne in staying at home, with Frédéric Hantz naming just four players on his bench, including youth team players Morgan Poaty and Pierrick Fito.

Lorient, fighting for their survival and hopeful of a win at home against the league’s worst defence, started brightly. Zargo Touré headed home from a corner before Sylvain Marveaux marked his return from injury with his first goal for Les Merlus.

Down 2-0, things seemed dire for Montpellier, although Souleymane Camara’s goal on the stroke of half-time had given the visitors some hope.

An equalizer eventually came from Morgan Sanson, the Under-21 international going from provider to finisher as he leveled the proceedings with a superb solo goal, exemplifying his value to the team.

A long-term injury casualty last season, Sanson has been the only player to start all eleven matches for La Paillade this season, and his versatility has been as big a reason for that as his talent.

On Saturday, Montpellier played a 4-1-4-1, with Sanson shuttling between defensive midfield and a more creative role alongside Stéphane Sessegnon.

This box-to-box role is his best position, but he has also played wide on either flank in a 4-2-3-1 and as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3.

His versatility has been a huge part of the team’s ability to weather the flurry of fitness issues they’ve suffered, and at this point in the season, it is he, and not the flashier Ryad Boudebouz, who is the team’s most essential player. – E.D.

10 | Another bore draw between Marseille & Bordeaux: the sign of something deeper

For a second week in a row, Sunday’s feature Ligue 1 match up ended in a dull 0-0 draw.

Despite the prestige of the two clubs, the grand stage of the Velodrome and the attacking talent on show, stalemate quickly and unerringly descended upon the south of France.

These types of games are becoming all too common in Ligue 1 and after the non-event that was Le Classic last weekend and the steadily growing list of other examples, the slow, physical, defensive football prevalent across the league represents sign of a deeper malaise in Ligue 1 and various other corners of European football.

This is not to say Ligue 1 is lacking in excitement. It remains a vibrant division with young talent bursting through on a weekly basis, a range of heavyweight historic clubs and a number of technically gifted, tactically nuanced sides providing some classic encounters, the Metz-Nice fixture from the weekend before being one of many examples.

For me, however, the problem in Ligue 1 lies at least partly in the fact that teams have little reason to attack. Three points carry surprisingly little incentive when one (and not being beaten) will largely do. This is a feeling that intensified this season with the introduction of the relegation playoff place for the side finishing 18th in Ligue 1, who will now play Ligue 2’s third place side for a place in next season’s top flight.

This, alarmingly, represents something of a compromise after the LFP’s ruling that the number of relegation places would be reduced from 3 to 2 last season. A decision that was overturned before the formalising of the new playoff system was complete ahead of this season.

The original reasoning behind the switch was to provide ‘confidence to investors’, seemingly meaning that sponsors are more likely to invest in teams and the league in general if they can be sure that the side they are pouring money into (or the league’s bigger clubs generally) are not going to disappear into Ligue 2 any time soon. Or at least be less likely to. An utterly baffling thought process for a number of reasons.

The ‘product’, what the league represents, the spectacle and the excitement generated is surely the primary reason behind the generation of money and further sponsorship as well as TV viewers.

The better the league’s brand, the more lofty a perception it carries which then feeds directly into it’s level of exposure both in France and further field, making Ligue 1 a greater proposition for investment both in individual clubs or in the league as a whole as both would see increased revenues.

Surely the standard of football and levels of excitement across the league are central to this approach. This casts the reduction of relegation places in direct opposition to the building of the Ligue 1 brand by directly damaging the spectacle and standard of football by extending mediocrity.

I agree the league format and overall schedule needs to be overhauled but if anything the number of relegation places should be increased and the number of teams decreased to 18 or even 16, while Championship style promotion playoffs would greatly add to the competitiveness in Ligue 2 as would a similar set of playoffs for the final Champions League berth in Ligue 1.

With a 16 team league (which I realise is a stretch) there could be 2 outright relegation spots for 15th and 16th and a pair of relegation play off places for 14th and 13th, while 3rd to 6th enter into European playoffs, meaning the mid-table would be largely eradicated.

Teams would have to look for the three points for more readily as in a smaller, more competitive league they would mean far more at both ends of the table. Scraping draws here and there simply wouldn’t cut it anymore as the Ligue 2 trap door would be widened.

As it stands, sides like Metz, Dijon, Caen and Montpellier can drift through a season picking up draws to keep them afloat. This is because they know that the number of points needed to give them a chance of staying up has likely been markedly reduced while the proposition of a two legged play off with the likes of Le Havre, Troyes or Amiens is hardly a daunting one.

The league needs to give its teams something to play for both out of fear of the drop and/or of the prospect of European glory. If OM or Les Girondins had something overt to aim for last Sunday the levels of intensity and attacking play would have been far higher, as it would be across the league, feeding into the Ligue 1 brand and, as a result, encouraging sponsors and, in turn, investors.

Although there are many issues vis-à-vis the reduction of teams and reorganization of structure, clubs losing home game revenue and how to rearrange the schedule amongst them, nevertheless, in contradiction to some of the league’s clubs, it might be time for the LFP and FFF to be a little more bold. – A.W.

Team of the Week: Baptiste Reynet, Dijon FCO; Fouad Chafik, Dijon FCO, Loic Perrin, AS Saint-Etienne, Yunis Abdelhamid, Dijon FCO, Ricardo Pereira, OGC Nice; Jean Michael Seri, OGC Nice, Morgan Sanson, Montpellier HSC, Alou Diarra, Nancy, Wylan Cyprien, OGC Nice; Mario Balotelli, OGC Nice, Alexandre Lacazette, Olympique Lyonnais.

Goal of the Week: Morgan Sanson, Montpellier HSC

[Photo: Libe]

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