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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 13

The most comprehensive analysis of the French top flight, here every week with Adam White and Eric Devin’s review column.

1 | Lyon’s defence makes their case

Lyon’s defence has been only part of their woes thus far, but even in a somewhat dire match against Lille on Friday evening, there were perhaps signs of better things to come. In last season’s run-in, the improvement in Lyon’s defence was marked, as Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Samuel Umtiti formed a strong partnership that allowed the club to rise back up the table after a mediocre start to the campaign.

Umtiti’s departure to Barcelona in the summer was a disappointment, but the club seemed to have bought well, bringing in Nicolas N’Koulou from Marseille and the highly-rated Argentine youngster Emanuel Mammana. Mammana has shown good form in places, but N’Koulou has generally been poor, the team’s recent upturn in form coinciding with his not having played since the 3-1 loss to Guingamp.

Mammana was unavailable on Friday, and Yanga-Mbiwa, who has had a similarly indifferent start to the season, was brought in to deputize for the youngster. Granted, Lille aren’t the strongest opposition, but the pair were instrumental in notching Les Gones‘ first clean sheet since the derby win over Saint-Etienne on Matchday 8.

Watching the two, it is easy to see why they could be key to a potential Lyon revival. Last year, Umtiti was a good defensive presence, but also got forward on occasion with the ball at his feet, leaving Yanga-Mbiwa to mop up, the two developing a good understanding. This season, however, the roles have reversed, and the former Newcastle man is tasked with developing play on the ball, with Diakhaby playing short passes and making clearances.

The youngster has come on leaps and bounds, and his energy Friday made all the difference, recording nine clearances and comfortably dealing with the threat of Eder. 

Lyon obviously face a sterner test at the weekend in the form of Paris Saint-Germain, but continued progression from the pair could be key to picking up points as Lyon chase down their rivals for the top three. – E.D.

2 | Nantes need to switch back to a diamond to give their strikers support…

The diamond midfield is a French classic. The Magic Square of Giresse, Tigana, Platini and Fernandes were masters of the art in the 80s as Les Bleus emerged as an international force, winning Euro 84 at a canter.

Le Carré Magique’s legacy continues to have its effect on French football with a number of Ligue 1 clubs having some relationship with the diamond. If not through deploying it as a go-to tactic, then as an option often suggested by fans and media. It’s time Rene Girard listened to those nagging voices.

Previous boss Michel Der Zakaraian’s most effective spell with Les Canaris was facilitated by a diamond and Girard has used it to good effect in the past at Lille. Nevertheless, Girard has shied away from the switch from a 4-1-4-1 this year despite its repeated infectivity, stressing the use of pace in wide areas.

It is true that pace is a valuable asset but this is much less the case in Ligue 1. The lack of space provided by organised sides with stay-at-home full backs often affords pacey players limited chances to affect the game as opposed to other leagues. This is coupled with the fact that Alex Kacaniklic and Nicolaj Thomsen have proved ineffective additions in wide roles this season, while Amine Harit and Adrien Thomasson have again shown they are more suited to central positions.

More to the point, a diamond formation would allow Girard to play two forwards. Emiliano Sala has looked relatively sharp by his standards this season while Polish signing Mariusz Stepinski has proved himself to be a capable finisher (if little else). Their issue in a lone striking role is the lack of support which regularly leads to isolation.

With a more compact midfield square of Gillet, Harit, Rongier (when fit) and Thomasson at the tip, Nantes would have more control over the ball, make best use of all their creative players and provide their strikers with support from behind as well as from each other.

Whatever Girard decides, he must start winning quickly as President Kita’s finger is still hovering above the big red button marked ‘eject’. Something has to change after another abject display in the 2-0 loss to Paris on Saturday afternoon, and fast. – A.W.

3 | Briand Wins Battle of Veteran Strikers 

In Sunday’s early kickoff, visitors to the Stade Roudourou must have been thrilled with Jimmy Briand’s last minute equalizer. Bordeaux had been largely kept in check by an eager Guingamp side, but the away outfit looked set to take three points as Igor Lewczuk’s header still separated the sides as the match headed to stoppage time.

Briand had battled all match long, striking the crossbar and being denied by a strong save from Jerome Prior, but he finally made his mark at the death, stealthily slipping between two defenders to nod home a lovely cross from Lucas Deaux.

The veteran has been inconsistent this season, but has never lacked for effort, his doggedness having rightly earned him the captain’s armband, and his goal was well-deserved.

Compare the former Lyon man’s fortunes, then, to those of Jeremy Menez. The ex-AC Milan man has been a disappointment to date, and his effort Sunday was no different, seeing a penalty saved late on and failing also to turn home the rebound when unmarked at close range.

Granted, he was bizarrely asked to play off the front two of Diego Rolan and Francois Kamano, an unfamiliar role, but the effort he turned in was poor indeed, a sharp contrast to that of Briand.

Some might argue that Menez is being misused or is lacking match fitness, but three months into the season, his excuses are starting to run short. Bordeaux have improved defensively under Jocelyn Gourvennec, but they are still missing a trick in attack, and much of that is down to Menez.

The club have a chance to right things in the next two weeks against Bastia, Dijon and Lille, but to do so, Les Girondins have to get more endeavour (and leadership) out of their senior attacking player. – E.D.

4 | Bernard Casoni makes a promising start but suffers similar obstacles to Sylvain Ripoll…

Lorient are lucky to have any points at all this season but, unusually, the blame can’t be placed on the coach. Sylvain Ripoll was sacked before the international break with his side adrift at the bottom of the league; very fortunate wins over OL and Lille accounting for most of their points to date.

Despite this, Lorient have largely looked organised and aggressive in Ligue 1 but they simply lack the quality to survive in this division having sold their three most important players in the summer and failing to replace them.

The considerable funds accrued were not invested in Ripoll’s tenure (arguably because of a lack of faith in the man himself from club hierarchy to start with) and, unsurprisingly, given the fact that Lorient were a weak Ligue 1 side to start with, the team has faltered.

New boss Bernard Casoni’s debut in the 3-0 home loss to Monaco on Friday provided some interesting new ideas from the former French international but also carried the familiar feeling that Les Merlus simply aren’t good enough.

It was, despite this, arguably Lorient’s best display to date. Casoni had his new charges pressing high and in groups, often winning the ball back in dangerous areas and creating some presentable chances for the first 30 minutes or so. However, they also repeatedly left gaping holes at the back as a result. Monaco often failed to exploit these opportunities and the score could have read 5-2 Monaco by half-time. In the end a sublime free kick from the hugely talented Thomas Lemar, part of an equally standout overall display, saw Jardim’s side run out easy winners, leaving Lorient comfortably beaten without playing too badly once again.

The transfer window can’t come soon enough for Casoni, he can only hope Les Merlus are still within reach of safety come January. – A.W.

5 | Team Effort Sees Nice Stay Top

Battling back after an ugly loss at Caen, a deflating Europa League defeat and the absences of Paul Baysse and Mario Balotelli, it would have been too easy for Nice to slip further from top spot Sunday evening.

The team were away to Saint-Etienne, one of Ligue 1’s most intimidating atmospheres, and even if Christophe Galtier’s side were battling their own injuries, (Romain Hamouma, Robert Beric) this match had all the makings of a “trap game.”

Nice certainly did benefit from some poor finishing, notably by Nolan Roux, and Yoan Cardinale had a few saves to make as well, but it was the way the visitors controlled the midfield that made the difference.

With Sainté lining up in 5-3-2, limiting Jordan Veretout and Henri Saivet was going to be the key to stifling the hosts’ attack, and Nice did that in fine fashion. Balotelli has certainly garnered most of the headlines for Nice this season, but young Wylan Cyprien has been one of the club’s unsung heroes, and he once again showed his versatility, playing a deeper role to help protect the back four.

Even though Cyprien is a strong player, rather than rely on his physicality, he and fellow midfielders Jean Michael Seri and Remi Walter instead controlled play with crisp, accurate passing.

Chasing shadows, Les Verts’ on-loan midfielders cut frustrated figures, and the hosts’ loss was a fair result, allowing Nice to re-affirm their status as contenders thanks to Favre’s patient midfield.

Week 17’s showdown with Paris Saint-Germain looms, but Cyprien’s versatility stands as a microcosm of his team’s, a recipe for success developed through faith in youth. – E.D.

6 | Rudi Garcia needs to make the Velodrome a fortress again if OM are to thrive…

France 2 Germany 0, EURO 2016 semi-final, Stade Velodrome. Despite such an impressive result, Didier Deschamps will not be happy with Les Bleus’ summer. The lacklustre display and eventual defeat in the final to a very beatable Portugal side, without its talisman for much of the game, amounted to nothing short of a catastrophe.

As a result their superb win over the Germans in the last four has been somewhat forgotten. One aspect of that triumph is something that will likely also be overlooked in future discussions of great French wins; the Velodrome’s atmosphere.

Despite it being renowned continent-wide as a great stadium, OM’s ground, roof and all, is truly one of the great amphitheatres of world football but is rarely recognised as such. Before Marseille’s slump of recent years, the din and ferocity of the Stade Velodrome often acted as a 12th man in huge games both in Ligue 1 and on the continent and, should Rudi Garcia have designs on returning the club to the summit of French football, utilizing such a potent weapon will have to be part of his plan.

Otherwise, should the club continue as it did under Michel, who managed to go an astounding 7 months without a home win last season, the Velodrome can be as hostile for its residents as it is for its visitors.

OM fans are a merciless bunch at times, playing the Benny Hill theme music from the stands when their team were suffering through a particularly awful run of form while displaying pictures of goats in a bid to mock their players.

OM are undefeated at home in 2016/17 and are yet to concede a goal in either of Garcia’s home outings to date, beating Caen 1-0 on Sunday for the new manager’s first home win. With the crowds and noise returning, the Velodrome could become a fortress again and start to roar its tenants to victory once more. – A.W.

7 | Stéphane Sessegnon’s Revival Continues Apace 

Stéphane Sessegnon has had, to be fair, a bit of a star-crossed career. He showed impressive work ethic after arriving to France at age 20, working his way up through Ligue 2 to earn a transfer to a pre-QSI Paris Saint-Germain.

Once there, his performances were solid, if unspectacular, but a falling-out with Antoine Kombouaré saw him make his way to the Premier League, where he spent three seasons each with Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion.

Out of contract this summer, he only signed on with Montpellier in late September, but has quickly settled into a role on the left wing. His presence has not only given Montpellier stability in terms of a formation, but also another creative option.

Ryad Boudebouz was fantastic down the back end of last season, but the feeling was that if he could be stopped, so could Montpellier. Morgan Sanson’s runs from central midfield have been impressive in support of the Algerian, but with Sessegnon beside him, the team have more balance, and more freedom for the creative duo.

Sessegnon has also displayed more willingness to track back, something that was not always, apparent earlier in his career. Jerome Roussillon has the pace and energy to trouble most opposing defences, and his recent interplay with Sessegnon has given him just a bit more freedom in that regard, a combination which was on full display against Bastia on Saturday evening.

Much like Jimmy Briand at Guingamp, rather than being humbled by a return to Ligue 1, Sessegnon has embraced his role as a canny, hard-working veteran, and it is to both he and the team’s benefit. – E.D.

8 | Pablo Correa, Ligue 1’s tinkerman?

 Much like Lorient, Nancy lack quality. Their season, as well as Les Merlus’, will likely amount to little more than a relegation fight.

But one thing Nancy have that Lorient don’t is some degree of depth. To call Pablo Correa a tinkerer would be an understatement as the Uruguayan coach has rotated in the extreme this season, both in formation and selection.

Take attacking midfielder Loic Puyo for example. Puyo was an intermittent part of the side last season but this time around, Correa has taken it a step further. After starting as a second half sub for the first two games in Ligue 1, Puyo was thrown in for the 2-0 home loss to Guingamp, keeping his place for the following win in Lorient, playing well, and scoring the equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Nantes, lasting 90 mins in all three games.

He was then dropped to the bench for the midweek game at Bastia before being left out for the next four games despite being fully fit, three of which he didn’t even make the squad, before returning and scoring twice in the cup, keeping his place for the following two games before then again being left out entirely this weekend.

Puyo is not alone, only veteran Alou Diarra, centre back Clement Lenglet and goalkeeper Guy Assembe seem certain to make the 11 or even the match day squad from week to week while Correa has given starts to 25 players so far this campaign.

However, Nancy are improving as a method seems to be emerging from Correa’s apparently mad approach. The thumping by Monaco aside, ASNL have looked more competitive in recent weeks, winning 3 and drawing 1 of their last 5 games. Correa did say last week that his selection will start to settle down as his best team emerges but is this a good idea?

The coach made the point that he wanted more fight in his midfield for the game with Dijon on Saturday night, starting with the combative Ivory Coast International Serge N’Guessan (who himself has failed to make the squad 5 times this season, despite being fully fit) over Vincent Marchetti, winning the game 1-0.

For now, horses-for-courses seems to be working for Correa and should he continue to pitch his selection wisely, this could be a key factor in their bid to survive. There’s still much tinkering to come from Ligue 1’s new tinker man. – A.W.

9| Dembélé or no Dembélé, Rennes Fail to Move On

Angers have had a more uneven start to this season that last, despite bringing in two highly regarded attackers from Ligue 2 in Karl Toko Ekambi and Famara Diedhiou. Despite an occasional lack of fluidity going forward, though, the team have remained as resolute as ever at the back, led by ex-Nimes goalkeeper Mathieu Michel.

That said, should Rennes have expected more, playing at home with the visitors down to ten men for more than half an hour? Yoann Gourcuff had hit the post earlier, and Nicolas Pepe’s goal was a bit of absurd individual skill. The hosts had dominated possession, but failed to put a shot on target besides Giovanni Sio’s opener.

It was a perfect encapsulation of Rennes’ season to date, the team failing to capitalize on good possession with clinical finishing. Wesley Said has looked decent in flashes, and the same can be said of Sio, but failing to reinvest the money earned from Dembélé’s move to Dortmund into a striker is looking an increasingly poor decision.

The team have all the talent needed on the wings in the likes of Kamil Grosicki, Paul-Georges Ntep and young Adrien Hunou; Gourcuff and youngster Adama Diakhaby are decent enough centrally, but with no outlet, it is all for nothing.

Christian Gourcuff was seen to be the right man to lead the club forward after stumbling at the death last season, but his dogged use of possession football has left the club with an impotent attack far below the collective talent at his disposal.

There is no easy answer, given the personnel available to him, but if the club fail to bring in a striker in the winter window, this season looks set to be more of the same. – E.D.

10 | Toulouse stumbling, but no cause for alarm yet…

No wins in 4 games after such an impressive run for Toulouse might be seen as a disappointment. And in truth it is.

Half an hour with all the ball against a ten man OL should have resulted in at least a point and a last minute equaliser at Nantes after a solid display amounted to 3 points dropped before the break.

Dupraz’s run of misfortune continued this week as a moment of madness from keeper Lafont and defender Moubandje in scything down Opa Nguette for a soft penalty and a bizarre fluke from Georges Mandjeck conspired to give Metz a wholly undeserved 2 goal lead.

It was a margin that they mained until minute 95 when a neat finish from PSG loanee Odsonne Edouard came as little more than ‘too little, too late’ for Toulouse. Despite the worrying run of results, Dupraz won’t be too concerned just yet. Toulouse were arguably the better side in all four games and 10 points from this short stretch would not flatter them as they continue to play hungry, aggressive and intense football.

Sweden international winger Jimmy Durmaz keeps exciting, Diop and Jullien remain predominantly monolithic at centre back while Martin Braithwaite seems desperate to prove that he’s every bit as capable as the departed Wissam Ben Yedder in attack.

There are still gaps to fill however; left back Moubandje has been a weak link for some while, despite his functionality, Issiaga Sylla doesn’t provide the threat that Durmaz does on the opposite flank, leading to a lack of balance on occasion.

Nevertheless, Toulouse remain a threat to the top 6 in Ligue 1 and will still be hopeful that they can threaten the European places come May.

Team of the Week: Karl Johan Johnsson, EA Guingamp; Ricardo Pereira, OGC Nice, Rolando, Olympique de Marseille, Kamil Glik, AS Monaco, Ludovic Baal, Stade Rennais; Wylan Cyprien, OGC Nice, Maxime Gonalons, Olympique Lyonnais, Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco; Radamel Falcao, AS Monaco, Jimmy Briand, EA Guingamp, Stéphane Sessegnon, Montpellier HSC.

Goal of the Week: Nicolas Pepe, Angers SCO.

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