Ligue 1 Review – Week 7

“I will not leave this club, even if we have to fight relegation until the last day of the championship, unless I am relieved of my responsibilities by the club. I am ready to deal with whatever I will be faced with. Because I know what it means to suffer in defeat.” Marcelo Bielsa had heard enough. Since his return to France, the colourful Argentine and his Lille side have been repeatedly criticised; their 4-0 loss to Monaco on Friday left LOSC 18th in Ligue 1 with no wins and just a single goal since the opening day.

That 3-0 victory over Claudio Ranieri’s Nantes aside, Lille have been blunt and lethargic, their displays tinged with the a sense of chaos that often makes a Bielsa team so compelling but, in this case, so brittle. As speculation over his future escalated, Bielsa lost his cool with the press pack that he believes have repeatedly done him a disservice.

Following his bizarre departure from Marseille on the opening day of the 2015/16 season, Bielsa’s already eccentric reputation has only intensified. His two day spell at Lazio last summer being a contributing factor, the feeling that he could again abruptly depart Ligue 1 after his team’s dismal month seemed to be a genuine possibility.

In a fiery presser on Wednesday, Bielsa addressed the circumstances around his resignation from Marseille, angry at the suggestion he could not cope with the pressure of his job. Instead Bielsa stated “because Marseille’s owner’s lawyer and another man named Philippe Perez, came to tell me [and my staff] we would have a 10% salary reduction, without providing any reason for it”, he resigned.

Perhaps most startling was Bielsa’s claim that a prominent club official berated him and his staff having decided to leave, shouting “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!”, a reference to an unsuccessful approach by the Mexican FA before his resignation. As a result, assumingly unless a similar situation arises, Bielsa was forceful in his assertion that he would not quit Lille this season, attempting to dispel the idea that he is somehow flakey, overly impatient or not fully committed to his role. Recent reports that he assessed over 120 potential signings this summer would seem to support this. However, whether his continued presence in Lille is a positive one remains to be seen.

Following his arrival in July, the win over Nantes aside, Lille’s displays have been static, disjointed and, despite the feeling of disorder, oddly dull. A lack of cohesion is understandable just six games in to what new owner Gérard Lopez, whose friendship with Bielsa facilitated his return to Ligue 1, envisages to be a long term appointment after a complete and frankly ruthless overhaul of the playing staff.

Seven players were parachuted in on January’s deadline day after Lopez’s ownership was ratified by the authorities at the last minute and another nine significant signings were added over the off-season. Meanwhile, 17 first team players have left Northern France in the same period. Only midfielder come centre back Ibrahim Amadou started both the opening games of this and last season.

Although certain departures were wise, most notably rapidly declining former France international Rio Mavuba, others were unfathomable. One of Ligue 1’s best goalkeepers in recent years, Vincent Enyeama, appears to have been exiled, the club allowed the sale of Lille’s premier forward, Nicolas de Preville, after 15 league goals last season with the player being told his employers “needed the money”, while battling midfielder Xeka left for Dijon despite some influential displays after signing from Braga at Christmas.

The squad has been stripped of all experience and most of its Ligue 1 nous. Kévin Malcuit, still seen as a relatively youthful signing given his late breakthrough at St Étienne last term is the oldest active player in squad at 26. The average age of players still at the club with minutes this season is just less than 22 years.

A young team is of course not a negative in itself, especially in Ligue 1, a fertile breeding ground for youth talent, but some of Lille’s fledgling stars seem lost without any guidance or experience. Winger, Nicolas Pépé (22), having arrived with some promise from Angers after interest from bigger clubs, was installed as the de facto striker with de Preville sold, an uncomfortable position for him and where he is now isolated on a weekly basis, a prime example.

The acquisition of classy central midfielder Thiago Maia (20) from Santos was seen as something of a coup for LOSC, but after some ineffectual displays a bizarre switch to left back for the visit of Bordeaux had him in disarray and eventually sent off. Clearly some oddly forced decision making from their manager has not helped these young players settle either. The decision to make a third first half change for tactical reasons after two injuries at Strasbourg before then placing 5’9 de Preville in goal after keeper Mike Maignan was sent off with all substitutes used before then replacing him with Amadou after conceding is perhaps the most perplexing and typifies Bielsa short time at the club.

Discontent has been apparent in the last few weeks with some fans citing a perceived lack of respect for the club and its senior players, Bielsa’s hacking apart of the team seen as unnecessarily ruthless. Enyeama aside, experienced Ligue 1 players such as towering Montenegro centre back Marko Baša, long serving full-back and recent captain Franck Béria plus lanky Portuguese forward Eder, although admittedly not typically a ‘Bielsa player’, could have all been utilised at least as part of a transitional season in guiding their youthful colleagues but were all unceremoniously dismissed over the summer. As a result the team is cripplingly timid, has no spine and, outwardly at least, lacks any sense of togetherness. The squad has quality but for now LOSC look like a hastily assembled under 21 national side ahead of a youth tournament.

After seeming to blame his players for last week’s loss in Guingamp, the Argentine stating that he can’t be held responsible for his team’s level of effort, Bielsa took the blame for the Falcao inspired 4-0 Monaco win. “It would be impossible not to be worried. I feel responsible for the situation. I very much regret that the price paid by the players for the reality that they must face. I am very disappointed by the fact that it is not up to expectations”.

It’s early on but it would appear that this ‘reality’ faced by the players is indeed entirely El Loco’s doing. Marcelo Bielsa’s influence on fellow managers, his style and eccentricities afford him something of an aura and his poor management of the club thus far is being masked by it. Other managers would be in far greater danger than he is with the same abysmal start.

It may be too early to say, again seven games does not represent a long period of time at all, but the sentiment that Bielsa may turn out to be another manager that the game is leaving behind is a growing one. His only real success of recent times was a brace of final outings in the Europa League and Copa del Rey in 2012 when at Atletico Bilbao and even in the intervening five seasons, the European game has continued to evolve when Bielsa may not have.

A fast start is a characteristic of most Bielsa sides, almost to a clichéd extent, before form falls off a cliff. It was assumed that this would be the case with Lille this season but they have been on a downward trajectory, similar to his Marseille side that topped Ligue 1 at Christmas before finishing a distant fourth, since the second fixture. Perhaps worst of all, more generally for LOSC, is that their current course is a familiar one. In the preceding two seasons Hervé Renard and then Frédéric Antonetti were seen as able to revive Les Dogues, but were both swiftly fired with the club struggling to keep its head above water by the Autumn and a relegation battle looming large. On both occasions the season was all but written off (although Antonetti somehow took Lille into the top six after Renard was sacked, adding to his credibility) and a short term appointment installed to save them from the drop, with Franck Passi replacing the former.

“I am aware of our position, the coach must find a way to change things, we continue to support Marcelo,” said Gérard Lopez after the loss to Monaco. This is the right attitude with so few games gone, a potentially exciting coach and talented squad at his disposal but should Lopez hold faith for too long with the side in such lacklustre form, his manager’s reputation could put Lille in danger.

1 | With Memphis Depay and Maxwel Cornet both left out of the squad with an eye on Thursday’s Europa League clash against Atalanta, Bruno Génésio opted for youngster Houssem Aouar on the left wing against Dijon on Saturday. Lyon’s defence left much to be desired in a 3-3 draw at home, but the academy product was impressive indeed. His only prior start had come last spring in Lyon’s infamous trip to Bastia, but on Saturday, he hardly looked a callow teenager, recording a fine goal from Kenny Tete’s low cross and generally tormenting the experienced Fouad Chafik. Like club captain Nabil Fékir, much of Aouar’s strength lies in his positional versatility; while he started on the wing on Saturday, he is comfortable taking up a more central role as well. Deceptively strong despite his wiry frame, his movement dovetails with that of Fékir quite well, giving Lyon a third creative presence alongside the captain and Bertrand Traoré. If Saturday’s evidence is anything to go by, Aouar, despite Depay’s hefty price tag, may find himself in the starting eleven more often, continuing Lyon’s impressive run of academy graduates finding success in the first team.

2 | Even without the injured Neymar, there was hardly optimism at the Stade de la Mosson ahead of Paris Saint-Germain’s visit on Saturday. The leaders were aiming to move a step closer to the French record of consecutive wins to start a season, and Montpellier looked to offer little resistance. Things hardly came off that way, though, as Michel Der Zakarian’s 5-4-1 worked a charm against Kylian Mbappé and company to record a scoreless draw. Montpellier had been one of the bottom half’s better sides to watch last season, with marauding fullbacks, the powerful Steve Mounié and Ryad Boudebouz all eager to attack.

The departures of Mounié and Boudebouz were unsurprising, but the appointment of the former Reims and Nantes boss seemed a shock, as he had never achieved much beyond a reputation for negativity at his previous clubs. Fans of attacking football may have been disappointed, but Der Zakarian has already proved his worth, with Montpellier currently comfortably mid-table behind the league’s fourth-best defence. With Casimir Ninga still working to get back to his best after an ACL injury and Giovanni Sio having served a lengthy ban, La Paillade have been rather grim in attack, but Der Zakarian’s emphasis on defensive solidity has kept the club afloat without totally limiting their potency, particularly on the counter. Monaco loom on Friday, but on the evidence of Saturday’s result, the champions should be as wary as the leaders of their southern neighbours’ organisation and focus.

3 | Tactics also made the difference to the west, as Bordeaux’s shift away from their habitual 4-3-3 made the difference in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. With Nicolas De Préville and Lukas Lerager both struggling and the team only drawing, 1-all, Jocelyn Gourvennec brought on Alexandre Mendy and Jonathan Cafu in their places. Mendy is an archetypal target man, big, strong, and good in the air, and offers a vastly different look to the clever, albeit undersized former Lille player. This pair of substitutions saw the hosts shift to a 4-2-3-1, with Malcom taking up a more central role. As we emphasized last week, his creativity has been at times underutilized, but on this occasion, he was brilliant once more, almost immediately slipping in Mendy for a 2-1 lead and later making an important touch in Cafu’s goal on the counter. It may be that a 4-3-3 is generally a better system for Bordeaux, but seeing that Les Girondins can be effective in a different formation only lends more credence to their continued challenge for the top three ahead of what is looking an increasingly interesting trip to Paris for Saturday’s early kick-off.

4 | We rightly placed a great deal of emphasis on the impressive play of Nice’s Jean Michael Seri a fortnight ago, but on the evidence of the team’s last three matches, another player could yet prove to be as influential as the Ivorian. No unknown quantity on these shores, Mario Balotelli’s first season in Nice was plagued by inconsistency and, to no one’s great surprise, a few disciplinary and injury issues. He did manage to score seventeen goals, but he could seem indifferent and petulant at times. He was in the referee’s notebook again against Angers on Friday, but he was also on the scoresheet, giving him six goals in seven starts across all competitions. In those seven starts, four of which have come in the league, Nice have picked up four wins and two draws, compared with a solitary draw against Ajax in the club’s four matches without the Italian. For all of Seri’s inventiveness, Nice are plainly a more dangerous team with the Italian fit and leading the line. It is still early, but with Balotelli among the goals, Nice have every chance to continue to climb the table and renew their challenge for European football, something had seemed wholly unlikely a month ago.

Results: Nice 2-2 Angers, Lille 0-4 Monaco, Montpellier 0-0 PSG, Bordeaux 3-1 Guingamp, Caen 1-0 Amiens, Lyon 3-3 Dijon, Metz 0-1 Troyes, Saint-Étienne 2-2 Rennes, Strasbourg 1-2 Nantes, Marseille 2-0 Toulouse.

A.W. with E.D.


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