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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 4

Adam White and Eric Devin return with their weekly Ligue 1 Talking Points Column.


1 | PSG’s unbalanced squad may be their undoing…

Jesé, Krychowiak, Ben Arfa, Meunier and Areola (who returns): Does this list of players amount of a productive transfer window for PSG? Given the evidence so far, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’. Of those five recruits only Greg Krychowiak could expect to make Unai Emery’s best 11 and even he has strong competition from Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot.

With the loss of Ibra and the implementation of Emery’s favoured 4-2-3-1 set up, their squad looks surprisingly thin in a number of areas. If Emery is keen to play his 4-2-3-1, the attacking midfield slot is all important, but as it stands the Parisiens, can only count a solitary option for this position amongst their ranks in Javier Pastore.

Granted, Verratti has played there before but it’s not his natural role and he struggled there against Monaco. Although Ben Arfa played at the top of a diamond for Nice at times last season, the position is very different in a 4231, as Raheem Sterling will testify. As a result, with the ongoing fragility of Pastore’s fitness, Emery may be forced back into a Blanc-esque 4-3-3 with no viable replacement in attacking midfield. Issues here are then compounded by those in attack.

Although PSG are flushed with wide men this season, without Ibra the centre forward position has been notably diminished and inadequately stocked over the summer. Cavani’s wayward form can’t be balanced out by the likes of Jesé (see his anonymous display on Friday night) or Ben Arfa who, like Jeseé, is not a lone striker.

As a consequence, PSG’s insipid display on Friday against St Etienne was characterised by a lack of ideas (Veratti aside, in his deeper role) and an absence of cutting edge. A questionable penalty call seemed to have masked PSG’s failings only for Robert Beric to deservedly equalise in stoppage time.

With a lack of options in these two positions, not to mention just three recognised centre backs, and the window closed behind them, PSG could rue what now appears to be an unbalanced squad; a problem of their own making. – AW


2 | Monaco Find Form, Permanently?

Last week’s victory over Paris Saint-Germain was an accomplished one, but there were still naysayers over Monaco’s performance. Injuries, a new manager, a new system, it was merely an opportunistic victory early in the season, a matter of timing over player quality.

In European competition, the team had ridden their luck against two sides missing key players. Monaco were a good side, but much of it was smoke and mirrors; they would be back to the unevenness that characterized last season before long. The desparate draw at home to Guingamp was perhaps a clearer indication of the “real” Monaco than progression to the Champions’ League.

There would have been no arguments from this quarter with that opinion, prior to Saturday’s trip to Lille. Les Dogues have endured a poor start to the season, sure, but they have always been one of France’s most resilient defensive sides, eager to frustrate opponents with physical centre backs and the reliable Vincent Enyeama in goal. In Sebastien Corchia and Julian Palmieri, they have two fine attacking fullbacks, so even if the attacking players are still finding their feet, they remain a dangerous team.

For the visitors to take such complete control in this match, a combination of goals from unlikely sources (Djibril Sidibe, Adama Traore, Kamil Glik) and another resolute performance from Nabil Dirar only serves to underline their success of a fortnight ago. With Benjamin Mendy and Thomas Lemar soon to return from injury, the team will only continue to improve, exhibiting a superb balance between veteran players and young, attack and defence. If Monaco hadn’t served notice with their defeat of the champions, this victory certainly will. -ED


3 | Adam Ounas needs to start on the right…

Once again Bordeaux’s gung-ho style under new coach Jocelyn Gourvennec produced an open and fluid game on Saturday afternoon, on this occasion the 3-1 scoreline at Parc OL ended in their favour after a heavy defeat Toulouse and wins over ASSE and Nantes in the opening rounds.

The victory perhaps flattered them a little; Malcom’s equaliser squirmed under Lopes, Sertic’s header came with a man advantage after Gonalons was dismissed and Menez’s deflected effort in the closing stages followed Lacazette’s withdrawal through injury leaving OL with just 9 men. Nevertheless FCGB were impressive going forward and Lyon again lacked ideas. Aside from the welcome result, the most pleasing aspect of the performance was the return to the side, and to some semblance of form, of Adam Ounas.

Ounas was one of the surprise stories of Ligue 1 last year, breaking into the side under Willy Sagnol and making waves with his direct, tricky wing play and habit of scoring important goals, all of which led to strong links with Manchester United and Napoli over the summer.

A feature of his displays was an unerring ability to jink inside his full back, beat a centre back and get a shot off from the edge of the D. And much like the master of such a run, Arjen Robben, Ligue 1 defenders were well aware of his plan but often unable to prevent its execution.

However, with Gourvennec favouring Malcom on the right and Ounas (who is left footed) on the left, this weapon has been somewhat dulled. Considering the fact that Ounas looked far more dangerous on the rare occasions when he was able to drift out to the right hand side against Lyon, perhaps Gourvennec should reconsider his strategy here if he is to get the best out of, arguably, his premier talent. -AW


4 | Bengtsson Brings Balance

SC Bastia have already been heavily lauded in this space for their canny loan signings. Enzo Crivelli’s bulk and motor from Bordeaux, Allan Saint-Maximin’s craft from Monaco and Abdelhamid El Kaoutari’s steel from Palermo all look to be key pieces as the Corsican club embark upon their yearly battle to avoid relegation.

Hamstrung by financial regulations in the recent past, the team have generally relied upon players who have experience in France, not wishing to gamble given the potentially damaging effects of relegation. The late arrival of Pierre Bengtsson was somewhat of a surprise, then. Granted, with more than a dozen caps for Sweden to his name, he is certainly of an exceptional pedigree. Too, the loss of Julian Palmieri to Lille had exposed the attacking limitations of Florian Marange, necessitating the need for a left back to balance the enterprising (and unfortunately injured) Alexandre Djiku.

But, could someone schooled in the Danish league translate his play to the much more physical Ligue 1, especially to the degree usually expressed by Bastia?

His sublime free kick winner will certainly do much as regards fans’ forgiveness for the defensive foibles that are likely to occur, but there is more to the former Mainz player’s game than that.

Quick, and possessed of a superb left foot, his deliveries will surely have the likes of Crivelli salivating. Bastia have played around with a few formations, but Saturday’s 4-2-3-1 likely provides the most promise as regards the Swede, as Saido Diallo and Lenny Nangis both have the work ethic to allow him the necessary license to get forward.

When Djiku returns, Bastia will, for the first time in a while, have the type of attacking full backs so important in the contemporary game. This doesn’t make them dark horses for Europe, but with their dangerous attackers in the fold as well, their quartet of loanees will probably do enough to keep relegation similarly at bay. -ED


5 | Lorient are the worst team in Ligue 1 but will still stay up…

On our Thursday night GFFN preview podcast, I have repeatedly used the phrase “I’m worried about Lorient” and after their blunt showing in the 2-0 home to loss to Nancy, who seemed the poorer of the two in the build up to this game, my fears have only deepened.

Much like PSG’s squad weakening, this is a problem at least partly of their own making. Last season Lorient were closer to losing their Ligue 1 status that the table suggests, Benjamin Moukandjo’s 13 goals, 11 coming in an autumn purple patch, arguably accounted for the 7 point gap between themselves and Reims in 18th, giving the Breton side a cushion upon which they could rely for much of the campaign when their form tailed off in the spring.

Over the summer an already weak squad lost its three most important players: the stylish, creative influence of Yann Jouffre to Metz, the battling, ball-playing midfield presence of Didier Ndong to Sunderland and the all-round technical ability of Rafa Guerreiro to Dortmund.

This exodus is by no means unexpected or unusual for a club in Lorient’s position, selling their premier players on to bigger clubs abroad is largely responsible for funding their continued presence in Ligue 1 and is something they have dealt with before; the talismanic Jordan Ayew leaving for Aston Villa last summer.

However, their response to the depletion of their squad has been slow and ineffective, acquiring Guimaraes’ Cafu the only real attempt to fill the various voids. The terrible loss at home to the promoted side on Saturday night was not wholly down to mistakes or disorganization but a glaringly obvious lack of quality, however, assuming they aren’t cut adrift, Lorient still have the means by which to survive.

Both Guerreiro and Ndong commanded eight figure fees, the proceeds of which have yet to be touched and by the time January rolls around, Sylvain Ripoll’s side will be able (and will probably have to) spend their way out of trouble and strengthen enough to stay up. Nevertheless dark autumn months lie ahead for Lorient and Ripoll’s future is become increasingly uncertain. -AW


6 | Angers Roar Back

Things hadn’t exactly started out well for Angers this season; three Ligue 1 matches saw the club without a goal or a point, their formerly vaunted defense having been breached with impunity by the likes of Metz and Montpellier, teams who would be likely fellow mid-table scrappers.

It looked like more of the same on Saturday evening at the Stade Jean Bouin, as visitors Dijon scrambled home an unlikely goal on eight minutes, wholly against the run of play. Famara Diedhiou, last year’s leading scorer in Ligue 2, finally got off the mark in the top flight, rising high to meet a Thomas Mangani cross, and it looked as if the hosts would have a return to the exceptional level of last year.

Then, things took a turn for the worse as Billy Ketkeophomphone was sent off on the half hour mark, leaving Angers with a tall order, their physical style compromised as it was against a Dijon side looking to build on the previous match’s defeat of Lyon.

As it was, though, Angers picked their play up another level, and when Dijon also had a man sent off, the result was inevitable. Karl Toko Ekambi, a player whose arrival was greeted with some level of uncertainty after his early season displays, struck the post, and eventually scored a fine goal, while Cheikh N’Doye resumed service as usual, also opening his account.

Toko Ekambi in particular was magnificent, the space afforded by each side missing a man allowing him to stretch play as well as cut inside, and he revelled in this new freedom, turning in a man of the match performance.

A word, too, for the youngster Nicolas Pepe, who replaced Baptiste Santamaria at the interval. Rather than operate in midfield, though, the academy product took up Ketkeophomphone’s spot, providing a robust, tough-tackling approach by contrast. This was a bold move on manager Stephane Moulin’s part, but one which should pay dividends going forward, especially with Ketkeophomphone’s indifferent start to the season. -ED


7 | Balotelli could be a breath of fresh air for Ligue 1, assuming his positive attitude continues…

Unless you’re a particularly close observer of Ligue 1, picking out what pundits might refer to as ‘characters’ could be a little difficult. French domestic football is not internationally renowned for diverse personalities out outspoken individuals, especially when compared to La Liga or the Premier League.

This is not to disparage the French top flight, it makes up for it in a number of other areas, most notably the raft of young talent that so regularly bursts into life to light up the division, but Mario Balotelli could change this perception. Nice’s new number 9, standing with his arms wide, looking up at the Allianz Riviera after the conversion of an early penalty on Sunday night, reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, showed the kind of cocky bravado the league now lacks following Ibra’s departure.

Since his return to England with Liverpool (if not before) Super Mario has looked disinterested and lackadaisical, even by his standards, but during his new side’s pulsating 3-2 triumph over OM, that attitude appeared to be dissipating. His eagerness to restart after his headed equaliser and his smiles at the final whistle at the Nice players applauded their fans showed a keenness and a positivity that many would have not expected from the Italian international upon his arrival.

This was a scene that will delight the Nice support and Lucien Favre who, if he can continue to get the best out of his new asset, may have just made the signing of the season. Will his positive attitude and goalscoring form continue? For the good of the league, let’s hope so. -AW


8 | Guingamp’s Reprisal

No one thought it would last for long, Guingamp’s place as Ligue 1 leaders, but there had to be some optimism in place ahead of a visit from a Montpellier side whose struggles have been well-documented in the recent past.

Indeed, Guingamp started the better, with Sloan Privat stinging the bar early on, but it was Montpellier who took the lead after some poor play in midfield from the hosts. This was a new challenge for Antoine Kombouare’s team, as they had yet to come from behind this season. It remained to be seen how they would respond, but when Marcus Coco leveled the score some twenty minutes later, it seemed more than fair.

A draw was perhaps a bit disappointing in the end, but Montpellier’s William Remy had a strong match, and with Jimmy Briand and Nicolas Benezet still to return to full fitness, there will be yet more options for Kombouare to unlock opposing defenses.

With the likes of Nice, Saint-Etienne and Lyon all struggling with injury issues and fixture congestion, Guingamp now have a real opportunity to continue their stay in the table’s upper reaches.

A trip to Toulouse and a visit from hapless Lorient precede an admittedly daunting trip to Bastia next weekend, but given the European obligations of other teams as Guingamp reach full fitness, there is a real chance they could yet regain their surprise spot as Ligue 1’s leader before the next international break. -ED


9 | Mevlut Erding, a real goal threat? Surely not…

In Ligue 1, a genuine goalscorer is everything. In a division often economic in its distribution of goals and tight in its defending, a striker who can consistently and reliably take his limited number of chances is crucial.

It can easily mean the difference between a comfortable mid-table finish and relegation. Previously, arguably only Monaco, PSG, Lyon, Toulouse and perhaps Marseille can claim to have snared this rarest of breeds but now Metz and Turkish Ligue 1 journeyman forward Mevlut Erding can stake a claim to join this group.

Now 29, Erding has spent nearly his entire career in France; Sochaux, PSG, St Etienne, Rennes and Guingamp amongst his employers over the past decade but he has often been derided for his wayward finishing and long barren runs, his record reads 86 in 271 games which is less than 1 in 3 league outings.

However, since his return to Ligue 1, after another dry spell at Hannover, he has 5 goals in 4 games, including an opening day brace to see off Lille and a hat-trick on Sunday at la Beaujoire to rout Nantes. Erding has been uncharacteristically sharp and ruthless in front of goal, he has hustled and harried defences while continuing to run the channels and off the shoulder of his marker to the benefit of his team. During the summer his self-set target of 14 goals was scoffed at by some, the figure would take him to 100 Ligue 1 goals, but in this form and with Metz looking more than equipped to stay up, he may yet reach it with some ease. -AW


10) Ligue 1’s Best Defence is… Rennes?

The teams that have recently built their reputations on stalwart defences, Lille, Angers and Saint-Etienne have all endured mediocre starts to their campaigns, and the top three teams in Ligue’ 1’s defensive table make for some surprising reading.

Toulouse, unbeaten until their trip to Bastia, come second, they and surprise package Nice having conceded just three goals each.

The leader, however, with just two goals conceded, is Rennes, who sit just three points off the top of the table, and would be in second were it not for Malang Sarr’s opportunistic winner on the opening matchday. But, is this really an improved team over the one whose defence stuttered so badly down the stretch last season, costing the team not only a shot at Champions’ League football but European competition, full stop? After all, Christian Gourcuff is not exactly renowned for being a defensive mastermind, preferring an expansive 4-4-2 during his time at Lorient.

Perhaps, is the blunt answer. The two goals that Rennes have conceded, the one by Sarr in Week One and Daniel Congre’s header a fortnight ago were both from set pieces, so the club have yet to concede from open play.

However, in an experimental Nice side, Nancy and Montpellier, Rennes had yet to really face any of the division’s truly impressive attacking sides. Caen aren’t as lethal as some, but their high-tempo style under Patrice Garande has been dangerous, as Bastia and Lorient can attest. For this match, though, with Clement Chantome absent, Gourcuff opted for more of a 4-4-1-1, with his son Christian behind the highly mobile Giovanni Sio.

With Romain Danze and Ramy Bensebaini adeptly providing width from the fullback spots, the team do well to stretch play laterally and vertically, leaving the centre of the park the province of the defensive midfielders, Gelson Fernandes and Benjamin Andre on the day.

The two sit deep, their physical approach forcing teams wide where the play of the aforementioned wide players makes Rennes superb on the counter.

While this approach may not work against the trickier side in Ligue 1, Rennes under Gourcuff look reborn, exhibiting a subtle blend of his hallmark possession football with just enough reliance on pace.

Paul-Georges Ntep made his return on Sunday afternoon, and Kamil Grosicki is likewise expected back; with these two in the fold and an already potent defense, Rennes could once again be European contenders. -ED


Goal of the Week: Julian Palmieri, Lille.

Team of the Week: Stephane Ruffier, Saint-Etienne; Youssouf Sabaly, Girondins de Bordeaux; Loic Perrin, AS Saint-Etienne, Kamil Glik, As Monaco, Djibril Sidibe, AS Monaco; Ricardo Pereira, OGC Nice, Wylan Cyprien, OGC Nice, Fabinho, AS Monaco, Nabil Dirar, AS Monaco; Mevlut Erding, FC Metz, Mario Balotelli, OGC Nice.

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