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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 1

It seemed too familiar for Lyon in the match’s early going, even if the faces were different. Nabil Fékir is flagged offside, Mariano Diaz finds himself in a good position but shoots straight into the hands of Strasbourg goalkeeper Bingourou Kamara, and Memphis Depay, hugging the touchline, foolishly concedes a throw-in. Fékir and Lyon’s three other attacking players, Depay, Diaz and former Chelsea winger Bertrand Traoré, looked set to dazzle without any end product, their skill on the ball going for naught as they struggled to break down a Strasbourg side that themselves looked dangerous on the counter.

Without the sublime finishing of the now-departed Alexandre Lacazette and the inventiveness of Mathieu Valbuena, Lyon’s attack looked dire indeed, portending a potentially long season of underachievement. It also seemed set to offer a firm rebuke to the club’s hierarchy as to their buying strategy. The sums that Lyon recouped for Lacazette and midfielder Corentin Tolisso were impressive, but in turning them into Traoré and Diaz, having previously bought Depay in January, the team’s tactic of purchasing younger players (Fekir, a month past his 24th birthday, was the oldest player in the front six on Saturday) who had seemingly failed to live up to their potential at the world’s biggest clubs looked a specious policy.

Depay had struggled badly in Manchester after a massive transfer from PSV Eindhoven, chafing under the direction of José Mourinho and barely featuring last season. He had the occasional moment of brilliance in 2016/17 after joining Les Gones in January, but doubts remained over his ability to be a consistently potent attacking threat. Traoré, still just 21, had been on the books of Chelsea for what seemed an age, but even after impressing with Ajax last season, he was apparently no closer to the first team at Stamford Bridge. Diaz, a product of Real Madrid’s academy, and a prolific scorer at reserve level, faced a similar lack of options for playing time at the Bernabéu, having played just 300 minutes across all competitions in his first season with the first team.

It seemed thus, that, twenty minutes into their season, Lyon, mere months after an impressive run in the Europa League, were learning the hard way that feeding on the bigger clubs’ scraps while letting their own academy’s best depart was hardly a recipe for success. Beyond the aforementioned trio of recent arrivals, though, perhaps more focus was placed on Fékir, whose brilliant 2014/15 season had even seen France manager Didier Deschamps alter his tactics to suit the Lyon playmaker. Played in an experimental 4-3-1-2 against Albania in September 2015, Fékir suffered a cruciate injury, ending his season prematurely, and when Lyon ended up finishing second again, scarcely a thought was given to him.

A year ago, Fékir turned up for the season overweight and disinterested, and struggled to regain his form. His bad attitude was exemplified by a stamp on Nice defender Paul Baysse’s arm in a match against the then-leaders in mid-October, and it seemed a lost season and potentially a lost career for the player who had been named Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year just under 18 months prior. Fékir showed some glimpses of improved form down the back end of the season, but still appeared to lack both the cutting edge and consistency of his best period.

He turned up for the current campaign looking in better shape, and more committed, scoring with regularity in the pre-season. He was even somewhat surprisingly named captain; a role most had thought Jérémy Morel or Anthony Lopes would be better suited to given Fékir’s previous season. Even with the armband, on Saturday it appeared that those gains were ephemeral. When there were points to be won, Fékir looked once again frustrated and unimaginative, lacking both the leadership and the quality to drive Lyon back to being a fixture in the Champions’ League.

It would scarcely suffice to say, then, that after a middling twenty minutes, what followed from Lyon over the next seventy was scarcely believable. A bit of trickery from Depay allowed Diaz to give the hosts the lead from range, and more chances followed before the interval. Early in the second half, Traoré won a penalty, superbly converted by Fékir, before Diaz and then Fékir again burnished the result in the match’s final minute, allowing Lyon to top the table after Ligue 1’s first matchday with a 4-0 win, delivering an emphatic validation for their reconfigured attack.

Now, it goes without saying there are certainly a host of caveats to this. Strasbourg, a promoted side, were playing on the road, and their young goalkeeper, Kamara, was making his first top-flight appearance having moved from second-division Tours. Some of the players, indeed, in Strasbourg’s team, had not even played professional football prior to last season, having joined the club before two successive promotions, and a raucous Parc OL may have proved too intimidating an atmosphere.

Still, though, Lyon could scarcely have asked for a better start to the season, and one has to feel that if they are to have any significant degree of success, their young quartet of “has-beens” continuing to find a measure of redemption will have to be at the heart of it. Not every match will be this easy, but all of these players will surely benefit from the confidence gained in scoring goals and dispensing with opponents of a lesser quality. The best sides are always methodical in their success, never putting results in doubt, and that was far from Lyon’s forte last season; this lays down an important marker for the current campaign, especially with so much turnover in the squad.

 

1 | As Andy Delort’s arrowed shot skipped passed Monaco’s Danijel Subasic on Friday night, you could be forgiven for thinking the Ligue 1 title was already Paris-bound. Being trimmed of three top performers and Neymar’s historic transfer amounted to a seismic shift in momentum away from Leonardo Jadrim’s previously triumphant title-winning Monaco and towards the capital club this summer. Delort had followed Zinedine Machach in giving Toulouse the lead either side of a Jemerson header, the effervescent Monaco of last season significantly dulled in a sparsely populated Stade Louis II, with Toulouse looking sharp on the counter. Nevertheless, crucially for Les Monegasques, and perhaps the league as a whole, Falcao and Kamil Glik completed a hat-trick of headed goals to wrestle all three points away from a furious Pascal Dupraz and his side.

Despite the season’s obvious infancy, needlessly dropped points on the first day with the fanfare surrounding Neymar’s arrival would have been a meaningful psychological blow. But despite the shift in focus, Monaco should remain buoyant. Although they process differing skill-sets Youri Tielemans and João Moutinho should comfortably account for Tiemoué Bakayoko’s absence, as Chelsea fans may soon discover, the rangy midfielder has his limitations at this stage in his career.

While the gap left by Benjamin Mendy should be ably filled by Jorge and Almamy Touré, a £51m fee more than a good deal for Monaco. The, admittedly significant, issues for Jardim will be adequately replacing Bernardo Silva and retaining Kylian Mbappé. Retaining their title with Neymar and PSG clear favourites would easily surpass last year’s achievements, but Paris would be wise to remember; they didn’t see them coming last season either.

2 | Neymar didn’t play on Saturday afternoon as PSG eased passed Amiens at the Parc des Princes. But his move to France is not only the standout story of the season so far but should also be seen as a watershed moment for French domestic football. Despite the £198m signing’s diplomatic and magnanimous tone during Friday’s unveiling, the underlying causes of the move would still seem to be personal rather than an interest in the PSG ‘project’. It would appear that the ‘bigger challenge’ he spoke of in his press conference, though implicit, is winning the Ballon D’Or.

The implication being that this challenge could not be undertaken in Leo Messi substantial shadow. The fact that the he appears to view PSG and Ligue 1 as capable of elevating him to the level of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi helps underline Ligue 1’s increasing relevance. A series of frustrating flakey performances in Europe over recent seasons has reinforced the notion that French sides have a tendency to collapse in tight European ties, an idea PSG’s limp exit to Manchester City and their implosion at the Nou Camp would seem to reinforce.

However, Monaco’s electrifying campaign last season, Lyon’s Europa League semi-final, investment at Marseille and Marcelo Bielsa and Claudio Ranieri’s returns have added weight, star quality and provided a engendered a higher standard of football amongst the upper reaches of the league. Neymar’s decision to join PSG can undoubtedly also be attributed to money, the motivations of his entourage, the persuasive powers of Les Parisiens’ Brazilian contingent and personal acclaim, but it shows Ligue 1 is edging closer to realising its vast potential.

3 | Perhaps the most attractive tie of the opening weekend came on Sunday lunchtime between two returning managers. Marcelo Bielsa had been coaxed back to Ligue 1 by Gérard Lopez as the new Lille boss with the promise of deep pockets, extensive youth development and oversight to mould the club in his own image. Bielsa left Marseille after just one season having catapulted OM to the summit of Ligue 1 by Christmas 2014 before they disintegrated over the spring to finish 4th. Although Bielsa is an enthralling appointment, a long term ‘project’ historically, hardly suits him.

As OM fans discovered, his sides often burn out by the turn of the calendar year, unable to sustain the intensity he demands. Bielsa’s new look Lille continued the Chilean’s now well-worn form; hitting the ground running in beating Claudio Ranieri’s Nantes 3-0. Bielsa’s task will be pinpointing a slightly more even handed, sustainable approach that suits a strong group, reinforced to the tune of €50m via the wallet of Lopez. Ranieri and Nantes are, on the other hand, simply looking for consistency. After two dire 14th place finishes under Michel Der Zakarian, struggling for goals and lacking in ambition frustratingly became the norm, something René Girard merely escalated before Sergio Conceição bullied what is a talented group of players into some stirring displays and a surprise 7th place, rescuing the club from likely relegation under Girard last season. Ranieri’s career has been undulating to say the least.

Leicester’s glorious title win and Greece’s loss to the Faroe Islands mark two ends of an unpredictable spectrum. Although the foundations of had been laid by Conceição, tempted away by Porto in the summer, Ranieri seems to be focusing on his own ideas; a proclivity towards the conservative and a move towards 3 centre backs in pre-season. This is a perhaps unwise given the success of Conceição but if Sunday’s encounter proved anything, it’s that both managers have some way to go to prove they can achieve long-term success in Ligue 1.

E.D. and A.W.

 

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