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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 16

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

1 | Gourvennec gets it wrong, again

Bordeaux entered Saturday’s match at home to Lille unbeaten in eight matches across all competitions, and even though Les Dogues had shown signs of life in their last two matches, few would have expected the hosts to struggle as badly as they did.

Lille dominated the ball from the off, playing with a fluid front four that gave Bordeaux fits, only a superb match by Jerome Prior keeping the hosts within touching distance. Nicolas de Preville gave the hosts the lead just before the interval, an instinctive strike after Adama Soumaoro had failed to snare the rebound from Renato Civelli’s header.

It was a deserved lead, but the reason Lille were able to dominate proceedings may have had more to do with Bordeaux’s bizarre setup than their own graft.

Gourvennec had played the team in a diamond formation, with Gregory Sertic in front of the back four, Jeremy Menez behind a front two of Diego Rolan and Gaetan Laborde and Jaroslav Plasil and youngster Zaydou Youssouf as the central midfielders.

I have already lamented the use of Menez in any sort of creative role in this space, but this frustration was doubled by the manager leaving all of Adam Ounas, Francois Kamano and Malcom on the bench from the start.

Shorn of a truly creative player, Bordeaux instead tried to play long balls toward the two strikers, always likely a losing proposition for the 5′ 10″ Laborde and the wiry Rolan against Soumaoro and Civelli, both of whom are hulking presences at centre back.

Not only this, but Jeremy Toulalan and Valentin Vada, probably the club’s two best midfielders as regard building play, were also on the bench.

Playing at home to one of the league’s poorest teams, manager Jocelyn Gourvennec thus not only used a system which excluded his team’s most incandescent attackers, but left the players who would’ve been best in it on the bench.

Ounas, to be fair, did replace Youssouf early in the second half, and immediately made an impact, consistently drawing fouls and creating balance in attack with fellow substitute Diego Contento.

The issue, though, is with the manager persisting with Menez and Rolan, both of whom are badly out of form. Undoubtedly they are, at their best, among Ligue 1’s best attackers, but with only six goals between them to date, the likes of Laborde, Kamano and Malcom have demonstrably shown more.

Bordeaux have one of the division’s most impressive arrays of young attacking talent, a strong ‘keeper in Prior and an improved defence with the arrival of Igor Lewczuk; all of the pieces are there for this team to be a contender for European places, but the stubbornness of Gourvennec has thus far proved to be their undoing. – E.D.

2 | Dijon again prove their resilience but Caen could be in trouble…

Unbelievably, this time last year Caen were second in the Ligue 1 table. The 29 points from their opening 16 games greatly eclipses the 15 points that has them in 17th place a year on. The difference, as is the case across the league is two fold.

Firstly, they sold two of their better players in the summer and haven’t replaced them adequately; Dennis Appiah, who has moved on to Anderlecht, and Andy Delort who has joined Andre-Pierre Gignac at Tigres in Mexico.

Secondly, they lack goals. Delort was arguably the difference between a relegation fight and a comfortable upper mid table finish across these two seasons for Caen and the lack of a direct replacement has been the major contributor in the decline of a side that, Appiah and Delort aside, has changed very little. Ivan Santini hit the ground running but his form and consistency has tailed off (until this weekend) and aside from the perennially wayward Nantes, they are the league’s lowest scorers with 12.

Three of those goals, including a brace from Santini, came in an enthralling 3-3 draw at home to promoted Dijon, a result that further underlined the disintegration of form across the squad. Dijon played the final hour with a man short after Arnold Bouka-Moutou was rightly dismissed for a pair of yellow cards.

Caen dutifully took a two goal lead by half-time but were hauled in by another goal for the exciting Lois Diony, again supported ably by wingman Julio Tavares, and an unfortunate Vincent Bessat own goal which deflected home from a Diony cross.

This would have been a game that Patrice Garande would have expected to win but instead his side have dropped two crucial points to a direct rival and continue to stare at a relegation battle for the remainder of the campaign. – A.W.

3 | Guingamp show flexibility, Martins Pereira pick pays off

Guingamp’s bright start to the season has been powered by Antoine Kombouaré’s faith in youth; Ludovic Blas, Marcus Coco and Jordan Ikoko have been ever-present as the team maintained a surprising battle for European football.

On Saturday at home to Nantes, though, none of the three were included in the starting eleven, and Guingamp were none the worse for it, instead completing a comprehensive win in a derby match.

Some rotation is normal, especially at what is a busy time for French sides, but Kombouaré’s use of Jonathan Martins Pereira in particular demonstrates an unheralded canniness on the part of the manager.

The veteran right back has struggled with injury to start the season; this was only his second start, and he doesn’t offer nearly as much going forward as Ikoko. However, with Nantes setting up in a 4-2-3-1 with both attacking full-back Lucas Lima and Adrien Thomasson on the left, the effervescent but occasionally ill-composed Ikoko would have been under an immense amount of pressure.

On the evening, though, both were well below their normal standards going forward, and the frustrated Thomasson was eventually sent off for a scissor challenge on Yannis Salibur.

Nantes are never much of an attacking threat, but in deploying a veteran presence to limit what they did have, the canny Kombouaré ensured his club the best chance at three points and continued their unexpected tilt at the European places. – E.D.

4 | OGC Nice now need to prove they can handle the pressure of a genuine title race...

On September 21st, a Mario Balotelli double inspired Nice thrashed Cote D’Azur (and title) rivals Monaco 4-0. Before and since, the club from the Principality have arguably been the best side in Europe outside Spain this season as they continue to average 3 goals a game and look like genuine contenders on both the domestic and continental stages.

The result proved that Nice’s form was more than just that, comprehensibly beating the best side in the country. However, after their routine 3-0 win over a depleted Toulouse on Sunday night, who were again poor away from home, they now need to prove that they not only have the quality but also the nerve to handle the pressure before a huge trip to Paris, this coming Sunday.

This will be by far the biggest test yet for the leaders. Despite PSG’s shock 3-0 loss at Montpellier this week, PSG are still on paper the most talented team in the league and have been looking more and more like their old selves at home with a string of routine wins. If Nice can go to Le Parc and put PSG under pressure then not only are they proving themselves to be a genuine rising force but it could also mark a genuine powershift in French football. Allez Nice! – A.W.

5 | Metz’s fans drop opportunity

A visit from recently in-form Lyon was sure to be worrying for Metz manager Philippe Hinschberger, especially with a host of regulars (Kevin Lejeune, Ismaila Sarr, Yann Jouffre) unavailable after coming off in the mid-week defeat to Nancy. Things started brightly, though, as Cheick Doukouré and Georges Mandjeck confidently bossed the midfield.

Renaud Cohade looked sharp as well, and youngster Gauthier Hein scored a superb opener on the half hour to set Metz on their way. Hein has barely figured this season, but he, along with Thibault Vion, Sarr and Opa Nguette have given the club plenty of optimism as regards their young players; most observers had seen Metz as the weakest of the three promoted sides, with key man Yeni Ngbakoto having departed for England.

A chance to take three points from one Ligue 1’s titans (who admittedly may have been looking forward to their Champions’ League clash with Sevilla) went begging, however, when Lyon ‘keeper Anthony Lopes was hit with a firework immediately after Hein’s goal.

Lyon’s doctor and both captains, Guido Milan and Maxime Gonalons, were also the target of objects being thrown from the crowd, and the match delegate ended the match after a 45 minute delay.

Whether the match will be replayed or awarded to Lyon is not known at this point, but even a restart from the point of abandonment will be a tough ask, as Lyon will surely be motivated to avenge Lopes, who has reportedly suffered some hearing damage as a result of Saturday’s events.

A win or draw against Lyon would have left Metz solidly mid-table, but they instead are just three points off the drop, with crucial trips to Caen and Bastia to come, and with only their fans to blame. Metz are one of France’s historic clubs, and Ligue 1 is better with Les Grenats in it, but if the team is relegated come May, their supporters will do well to reflect on this match. – E.D.

6 | If Florian Thauvin’s form continues into the spring, a France recall should be in the offing…

Didier Deschamps has his favourites. Despite his poor season at Newcastle and little improvement since a bamboozling £30m move to Spurs, Moussa Sissoko is first choice for Les Bleus. Granted, there are tactical benefits in him offering more defensive solidarity on the right with Antoine Griezmann in a central role alongside Giroud or Gameiro but nevertheless, few others would have the former Toulouse man in their French eleven.

This attitude has also worked in the opposite direction. Despite calls for Karim Benzema to be recalled they continue (arguably justifiably) to go unheeded while the perhaps less justifiable absences from the Euro 2016 squad of Hatem Ben Arfa, Kevin Gameiro and others were missteps that in hindsight could have cost the French glory on home soil this summer.

In a number of these cases, Deschamps has favoured those he sees as a positive influence on the group, meaning, despite poor domestic form, Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye kept their places. However, given France’s intermittent displays over the last 2 years, it may be time to make some allowances.

Given his Ligue 1 form, typified by a super opening goal at the Velodrome in a 3-0 OM win over Nancy on Sunday afternoon, Florian Thauvin could be one such allowance. The lack of a good attitude has long been an issue for the former Bastia and Newcastle man, bearing the brunt of Alan Shearer’s wrath for some comic tuxedo wearing and lack of work rate.

However, since his return to France he has been consistently superb and is now a genuine force in Ligue 1.

Perhaps the likes of Thauvin, Benzema, Ben Arfa and even Samir Nasri should be in Deschamps thoughts going into 2017, if he wants to add some much needed guile to aid Dimitri Payet in wider areas ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

7 | Ellyes Shkiri states his case

Ellyes Shkiri was a peripheral figure for much of Montpellier’s 2015-16 season; the team were struggling to score and he failed to even make the bench for most of the season’s first half.

The arrival of Frederic Hantz coincided with a run in the first team, however, and the summer departures of Jamel Saihi and Jonas Martin did much to open opportunities for the youngster in midfield, even with Yacouba Sylla arriving.

Played both in holding midfield and as a central defender in the absence of Daniel Congré, Shkiri was quietly one of Montpellier’s better players, leading the league in interceptions to facilitate the club’s ability to play on the counter. Against Paris Saint-Germain, though, Shkiri showed how he can be much more than a destroyer.

Hantz had opted for a 3-5-2 against the champions, and this afforded Shkiri with a greater level of freedom. Joris Marveaux played as an orthodox defensive midfielder, and nominal wingbacks William Remy and Paul Lasne sat deep to counter the threat of Serge Aurier and Layvin Kurzawa.

Shkiri was then freed to join Morgan Sanson in attack, and the lanky Tunisian wreaked havoc against an overmatched Parisian midfield. An aerial threat at 6′ 3″, but also possessed of a wiry strength, Shkiri showed another dimension, scoring his third career goal with a sublime strike.

Laurent Pionnier sent the ball long towards Steve Mounié, whose header was played into the path of Sanson, holding the ball up before slipping it back to Shkiri, whose superb shot slipped past Alphonse Areola, Montpellier doubling their lead from seemingly nothing.

Like Sanson, Shkiri’s multivalency allows Montpellier to employ a small squad and vary formations to cope with injuries and suspensions.

Still just 21, his considerable physical gifts have already made him an inexorable presence on the pitch, but if he continues in this vein, his technical ability may soon surpass that as well, powering La Paillade as they seek to improve their stead. – E.D.

8 | St Etienne’s fatigue is starting to catch up with them and it could be Galtier’s undoing…

Roughly, at least a third of the continent’s top flight clubs start the season with the aim of making it into European competition. Many of those who achieve that goal are then hampered the following season by the poisoned chalice that is the Europa League.

Yes, the financial benefits of playing in Europe’s secondary competition are obvious as is, in theory, the club’s increased ability to attract players to their club. But in footballing terms, very few benefit and, arguably, their progression is set back rather than enhanced. Bordeaux are a case in point.

An excellent 6th place finish in 2014/15 saw Willy Sagnol lead Les Girondins triumphantly into the Europa League. But by Christmas they were out of the competition without winning a game, stranded in the bottom half of Ligue 1 and in the midst of an injury crisis of biblical proportions.

By March, Sagnol’s promise had extinguished and he was out too. Many of the unfortunate events that befell on Bordeaux in 2015/16 can be traced back to their inability to handle the Europa League schedule. They looked increasingly exhausted as their young squad simply could not handle the strain.

Their league form suffered, injuries mounted and the pressure on Sagnol increased exponentially from both media and fans. St Etienne have suffered the same issues this season: an extensive injury crisis, floundering in mid-table, scraping results they barely deserve and, as they showed at Rennes on Sunday lunchtime in a 2-0 loss, they are exhausted.

Fortunately for Christophe Galtier his defensive style aids their recovery a little, as does his squad’s higher level of experience, but in a season where it could be make or break for Galtier, a tired team unable to fight consistently on both fronts (the clear goal from the club’s point of view this season) could see him go the way of Sagnol if he can’t carefully manage his team’s tiredness over the busy mid-season. – A.W.

9 | SC Bastia need not worry?

Prior to their trip to Monaco, Bastia were up to their usual tricks; they had the fifth-best defence in Ligue 1 and looked to have enough to avoid a relegation scrap. Alexandre Djiku, an electric presence in their first few matches, was back from a broken arm, and he and Mainz loanee Pierre Bengtsson would provide the team with the necessary attacking impetus from full-back.

Their loan signings looked canny; Allan Saint-Maximin and Enzo Crivelli provided, respectively, a creative spark and the kind of physical presence in attack that had gone missing when Brandao and Floyd Ayité had departed. Abdelhamid El Kaoutari and Lenny Nangis were less of a success due to injury and uneven form, but the Lille loanee had shown enough for Francois Ciccolini to continue to give him opportunities.

Now, though, things look much more perilous. The club, winless since September, were always unlikely to do much against the division’s form team, but the way in which they capitulated against Monaco was worrying indeed.

The goals scored by the hosts were generally superb in their execution, but that they were chances at all were generally down to sloppy passing and an inability to hang on to the ball on the part of Bastia.

Monaco are more adept than most clubs at punishing teams on the break in these instances, but grinding out results through the reliability of veteran players has been the hallmark of Bastia’s style since returning to Ligue 1.

With the experienced trio of Bengtsson, Gilles Cioni and Yannick Cahuzac at fault for three of Monaco’s goals, the issues on display are in dire need of correction, especially with Lorient, Caen and Lille displaying improved form in recent weeks. – E.D.

10 | Bernard Casoni is improving Lorient, but where does he need to strengthen this winter to keep them up?

After 9 goals in their first 13 games under Sylvain Ripoll, Bernard Casoni’s Lorient scored 7 and taken 5 valuable and well earned points across the three games last week.

The 2-2 draw at Angers on Saturday night was bettered only by the excellent 2-1 home win in midweek over top 4 side, Rennes. Nevertheless, Lorient are still bottom and despite the much improved displays since Casoni’s arrival, reinforcements will still be key to their survival.

With the winter window approaching, Casoni will be expecting some of the funds garnered from sizeable deals for Ndong and Guerreiro to add to his squad.

But where most needs bolstering? Since the aforementioned departures, Lorient have looked weakest in midfield. Arnold Mvuemba was an astute signing but Cafu has yet to settle properly alongside him and despite praise for Francois Belugou from his manager and Wesley Lautoa’s decent displays last week, neither should be considered long term replacements for Ndong in the holding midfield role.

Meanwhile, the lack of Yann Jouffre or any semblance of form from Romain Philippoteaux, Maxime Barthelme or Jimmy Cabot in wide areas means creativity is also an issue.

Ligue 2 could be an option for Casoni, the talent that has helped not just foreign clubs but promoted sides and lower end Ligue 1 outfits in recent years can’t be ignored but this may be still be a gamble given their position.

Lorient need experienced Ligue 1 performers who will add to the quality of their squad and start to fill the void left by Ndong and co.

St Etienne duo Benjamin Corgnet and Jeremy Clement could be a ready made fix, frozen out by Galtier and likely to move in January, both would fit the bill. Loan moves for PSG’s Christophe Nkunku or Adama Traore of Monaco could be worth considering. Either way, despite the new manager bounce, Lorient need the cavalry to arrive to strengthen their resolve. – A.W.

Team of the Week: Jerome Prior, Girondins de Bordeaux; Jonathan Martins Pereira, EA Guingamp, Hilton, Montpellier HSC, Dante, OGC Nice, Marcal, EA Guingamp; Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco, Morgan Sanson, Montpellier HSC, Ellyes Shkiri, Montpellier HSC, Yannis Salibur, EA Guingamp; Radamel Falcao, AS Monaco, Steve Mounié, Montpellier HSC

Goal of the Week: Kamil Grosicki, Stade Rennais

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