‘In transition’ is a phrase common in footballing lexicon, much like its natural partner, ‘project’, it suggests an ideology is in the process of taking hold at a football club. However, the expiry date of any such philosophy continues to be eroded by the impatience, competitiveness and often fickle nature of modern football meaning, before these ideals can take root, the big red button marked “reset” is pushed without much consideration or foresight. A process which, in some cases, has become a frequent one, should results not be immediately forthcoming.
A vicious cycle develops and clubs can become suspended in a state of perpetual transition, a constant search for an identity resulting in an absence of it altogether. The plight of such clubs, Valencia, Marseille and Aston Villa in particular, has been well publicised but Lille’s toil has gone largely unnoticed, hidden away in northern France following their 2011 league title. But now, with the club sold, a possible relegation battle looming and ‘El Loco’ waiting in the shadows, Lille will soon be cast in sharp relief.
To say that Lille fans are indebted to Michel Seydoux is an understatement. The film producer and businessman turned club president oversaw Les Dogues as they journeyed from Ligue 2 hopefuls and the dilapidated Stade Grimonprez-Jooris to European regulars, in a new home at the gleaming Stade Pierre-Mauroy through a glorious league and cup double, a superb new training complex and relative financial security.
But now the steady hand of Seydoux has gone, the club sold to Gérard Lopes, who is “not a buyer, but a successor” Seydoux insists “one who has the vision, the capacity, and a project to allow Lille to continue to win titles”. But with him comes the zenith of an uncertainty that has been growing since their 2011 Ligue 1 and cup triumph and another season that has descended into underachievement as Lille approached the Saturday evening’s trip to Caen just a point clear of the bottom three.
Domestic titles brought with it Premier League interest in the summer of 2011 and the departure of Yohan Cabaye and the erratic, but then pivotal, Gervinho, while Adil Rami left for Valencia as the double winning side was slowly disbanded. Eden Hazard and top scorer Moussa Sow stayed put for one more comparatively underwhelming campaign, Lille finishing bottom of a weak Champions’ League group, while coach Rudi Garcia departed for Roma in 2013, as LOSC slumped to 6th place and again failing in Europe. René Girard replaced Garcia, the alchemist behind Montpellier’s 2012 league win, carrying a remit of returning the club to the league podium and title race. The subsequent third placed finish amounted to relative success in spite of the sales of Dimitri Payet, Lucas Digne, Aurelien Chedjou and the erstwhile Florian Thauvin for a sum over well over €40m. But the exodus showed a shift in the club’s tact.
With defender Simon Kjaer the only reinforcement of note and a series of limp displays resulting in a lacklustre eighth place finish the following year, amid criticism from media and frustration from supporters Girard’s reign petered out, his contract left to expire. Girard cited the shift in policy as a cause, it not meeting his expectations. Seydoux meanwhile explicitly stated that the club must move away from signing established players and towards developing their youth products. With this in mind, LOSC shifted focus to two-time African Cup of Nations winning coach, Hervé Renard. His arrival was heralded by some sections of the fan base but greeted with trepidation by others, his club career being a torrid one to date.
Renard’s new Lille proved to be a shambles. His aggressive management style seemed to breed division amongst the squad and his poultry 13 league games yielded just seven goals, leaving Les Dogues with genuine relegation fears. What started out as another transitional year turned into a season that was close to being written off entirely. Frédéric Antonetti’s uninspiring arrival represented another shift in direction.
The nomadic Ligue 1 coach, formerly of Rennes, Bastia and others, was appointed to provide solidity and consistency as the club. Like many before him, he dispensed with the identity his predecessor had been attempting to mould, at least temporarily, in favour of safety. To many onlookers’ amazement, however, Antonetti briefly exceeded expectations in guiding Lille to a superb 5th place finish and a Europa League berth. But once again, success proved to be fleeting.
It became painfully clear early in the current campaign that Lille’s rise had been almost single-handedly driven by the supreme Sofiane Boufal whose guile, skill and finishing had dragged his teammates by the collective shirt collar into the upper reaches of the table.
The £25m that Southampton paid for him fell someway short of reflecting his true importance to Lille. Antonetti was gone by autumn, plunging the club again into a period of transition, relegation fears and a lack of identity. With Seydoux himself saying his team played “like goats”, this was amounting to another season which Lille fans would do little more than endure, the club becoming ever mandering.
With this season mirroring the last, the murmur of revolution gathered momentum in the boxes and suites at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. Seydoux’s protracted negotiations with Luxembourg’s Gérard Lopes finally reached a climax and the club officially changed hands on January 26th. The switch in gear, and in transfer policy, was sudden. With just five days before the January window reached its garish yellow-tied conclusion, Lopes’ ownership and its validity had to be ratified by French football’s financial authorities, the often alarmingly strict “DNCG”, before the club could actually make any signings that were immediately promised by the fresh management team.
As a result, deadline day was exceptionally hectic as an eclectic troupe of players made their way to northern France. Paraguay international defender Júnior Alonso (Cerro Porteno) followed Brazil U20 centre back Gabriel (Avaí) across the Atlantic, combative Portuguese midfielder Xeka (Braga) aided skillful Dutchman Anwar El-Ghazi (Ajax) in providing an injection of European experience, while former Monaco forward Farès Bahouli (Lyon) and winger Ricardo Kishna (Lazio) made up a half dozen additions within 24 hours of each other.
As Seydoux’s ethos of developing youth lurched into overdrive, of the six, only Alonso at 24 exceeded 22 years of age, the former’s aim to promote from within was circumvented by the new regime. The promising teenage trio of technical midfielder Martin Terrier (19), who has sporadically impressed this winter, along with Youssouf Kone (21) and Hamza Mendyl (19), had their paths to the first team made considerably more crowded.
Despite the influx of talent, Lille proceeded to implode, disastrously losing the three games that followed deadline day to PSG and fellow strugglers Lorient and Angers. A brief revival either side of Christmas under Antonetti’s interim successor, long serving Lille coach Patrick Collot, was by then long forgotten and the stand-in boss was relieved of his duties just last week to be replaced by former Marseille assistant Franck Passi, a regular interim lacking in meaningful managerial success or pedigree. The seemingly scattergun strategy itself raised further questions as to who was behind these new signings and why. Two men that Lopes describes as his ‘friends’ may provide an explanation.
Perched on a touchline cool-box the Velodrome, coffee in hand or otherwise, Marcelo Bielsa rapidly endeared himself to the French footballing public. His Marseille side of the 2014/15 season led the table at Christmas with a tireless, gung-ho style that produced compelling encounters and spectacle to a league that in the past has struggled to find either. Despite fading to fourth in the second half of that campaign, ever since his ignominious exit from OM after an opening day loss to Caen, a stormy relationship with club hierarchy reaching a head, Bielsa’s stock remains high across Ligue 1, particularly on the south coast.
Rumours of a hero’s return to OM with the arrival of investor Frank McCourt persisted for some time. But it would be Lille and Lopes to secure El Loco’s services ahead of next season. The club formally announcing the deal that had been discussed for some time, not least by Lopes himself, on Sunday morning with Passi charged with keeping the club in Ligue 1 for the remainder of the current campaign.
Bielsa’s influence is matched, if not exceeded, at least for now, by Lopes’ right-hand man and new general manager Marc Ingla, formerly Barcelona Vice-President between 2003 and 2008. “The club may now need change. It is a serious project.” said Ingla, a statement of intent. “LOSC has done very well in recruiting in the past. There are many talents in the region, in France, in Belgium. It’s going to be a competitive project. We will do it differently, using the assets of the club. The club in general works, the infrastructure is great. We are here to bring new ideas, new working methods. “
Bielsa’s future employers made a sizeable step toward safety in defeating follow relegation candidates, Caen in a nervy 1-0 win last weekend. Newcomers Xeka and El-Ghazi finally proved their worth despite Adama Soumaoro’s petulant, if harsh, dismissal for a shove on Ivan Santini just after the hour.
Xeka’s rumbustious display in midfield saw a burgeoning partnership with the powerful presence of Ibrahim Amadou develop, with El-Ghazi showing considerable composure to slide his shot past Vercoutre on 69 minutes having been picked out by a neat Yacine Benzia pass. El-Ghazi and Passi celebrated together, hinting that this team are ready for the fight and that they knew what this snarling victory could mean with the club propelled into 14th, but still squeezed in tightly to the bottom third of the Ligue 1 table.
For now, Lopes, the prospect of Bielsa and a glut of signings have provided some hope for a club that has been quietly floundering for a number of seasons, but crucially what Les Dogues need is an identity and for it to take up permanent residence. Consistency, however, is not something readily associated with El Loco. Bielsa’s club tenures tend to open with a flourish; the well drilled, intense nature of his leadership and style have his sides going hard from the start, racing into leads and exciting with their open, brash, almost naive attitude to attacking football.
But, as with OM, they then hit a wall. His charges tire, the overbearing intensity becomes counterproductive and their form disintegrates with alarming pace. In the cases of Marseille and Bilbao, despite successes with both, with 18 months his tenure had burnt itself out. A repeat performance could be costly for Lille. They have rescued themselves from one disaster and they look ready to rectify a second, but if the turmoil left in Bielsa’s wake at OM is anything to go by, they might not survive a third mis-step in this division.
1 | Steve Mounié scored the winner for Montpellier in their defeat of ten-man Saint-Étienne on Sunday, his fourth goal in as many matches for La Paillade. The team won three of those and are now on 32 points, nine clear of the drop. More attention may have been focused on Ellyes Shkiri’s spectacular overhead assist for the striker’s goal, but Mounié, who had played a grand total of 39 minutes for Montpellier before the beginning of the season (he was a regular starter last season on loan at Ligue 2 Nimes), has been one of Ligue 1’s best-kept secrets.
Powerful and big enough to be an orthodox centre forward, he is also quick enough to latch onto balls over the top, making him the ideal outlet for Montpellier’s counter-attacking style. A difficult trip to Nice awaits on Friday, but Montpellier’s following two matches are at home to stumbling Guingamp and Nantes; winning one or both of those will all but secure the club’s position in the league for next season, an impressive return given the malaise that surrounded the team after the sale of Morgan Sanson. Given Montpellier’s proclivity for selling their best talent (Bryan Dabo, Rémy Cabella, Benjamin Stambouli), Mounié may not be long for the club, but his achievements in a short spell have the hallmarks of a real talent.
2 | There may yet be a three-way title race in Ligue 1; Nice, despite the dismissal of Mario Balotelli, managed to record a trademark scrappy win at Lorient, 1-0. Seven of their sixteen wins have been by that score this season, and this week’s defensive hero was young ‘keeper Yoan Cardinale, who made five saves, punctuated by a sublime double stop from a corner. Nice will find things more difficult this weekend without either of Balotelli or the injured Alassane Pléa, but a win on Friday against Montpellier would put immense pressure on Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, both of whom could only draw this weekend and face much more daunting matches (at Marseille and Guingamp, respectively) than do Les Aiglons. They are not quite the Nice of autumn, but count out Lucien Favre’s squad at your own peril.
3 | Monaco’s draw at Bastia came as a bit of a surprise; the Corsican club have forged a reputation as a nasty, physical side who get results at home, but have been as poor at the Furiani as on the road this season. In playing the leaders so tight, though, Bastia only served to reinforce the one weakness of Monaco’s style. Leonardo Jardim’s side is superb at playing on the counter, but have struggled mightily against teams who do the same.
A scrappy win over Montpellier, and a comeback draw against Ligue 2 Sochaux in the Coupe de la Ligue are further recent examples of this; Monaco aren’t used to dominating possession, and in these situations can become overly reliant on a moment of brilliance. João Moutinho’s equaliser against Sochaux was another instance of this; Monaco lack an alternative when opponents willingly cede possession and are too easily found out. This likely won’t be an issue against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this mid-week, but could have serious implications in their title quest. Whether it’s a new system of play or different personnel, Jardim needs to recognize opponents’ gambits more quickly, and react, or the chance of a title may slip away.
4 | Marseille could have been forgiven for turning in a limp performance against Rennes in Saturday’s early kickoff. It is true that the Vélodrome has been a bit of a fortress this season, but missing Bafétimbi Gomis, the focal point of their attack and leading scorer, as well as starting defenders Hiroki Sakai and Rod Fanni, the hosts were at loose ends, and struggled to break down Christian Gourcuff’s injury-depleted squad in the early going. The hosts were persistent, though, and the breakthrough came with half an hour to play, through Clinton N’Jie.
The young forward, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, has flattered to deceive this season, being used on the left of Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3 and seemingly in a tenuous position with the arrival of Dimitri Payet. However, Marseille showed superb flexibility on the night, as both Payet and Florian Thauvin consistently cut inside, allowing the former Lyon youngster to stretch play vertically. This offers a marked contrast from the play of Gomis, who functions as a more static target man, but it does speak volumes to the ability of Garcia to adapt in the absence of a crucial player, something which will be vital as Marseille continue to chase a European position.
5 | The focus of last week’s column was Bordeaux’s potential and manager Jocelyn Gourvennec’s seeming misuse of it. All of Valentin Vada, Gaëtan Laborde, François Kamano and Malcom started, authoring a comprehensive 3-0 win against Guingamp. Admittedly, Guingamp were missing the influential trio of Jimmy Briand, Marcal and Jérémy Sorbon, and have been Ligue 1’s poorest team since the turn of the year, but a win this weekend, with Saint-Étienne falling to Montpellier, keeps Les Girondins firmly in contention for the European places.
Kamano was easily man of the match, recording a goal and an assist, but alongside his young teammates, Cédric Carrasso deserves a mention. He caught the eye with a superb save of Nicolas Benezet’s overhead kick, but his organisation and physical presence were equally important. The veteran has only a dozen league starts this season, having missed a large chunk of time due to a knee injury, but in those matches, the team have lost just three times, twice to Paris Saint-Germain. As much as the team’s cadre of youngsters needs to be given their chance in attack, Carrasso’s continued health (he similarly missed the second half of last season) is imperative if Bordeaux are to continue their push up the table.
Team of the Week: Baptiste Reynet, Dijon FCO; Kevin Malcuit, AS Saint-Étienne, Dante, OGC Nice, Christopher Jullien, Toulouse FC, Benjamin Mendy, AS Monaco; Florian Thauvin, Olympique de Marseille, Ryad Boudebouz, Montpellier HSC, Corentin Tolisso, Olympique Lyonnais, François Kamano, Girondins de Bordeaux; Steve Mounié, Montpellier HSC, Sadio Diallo, SC Bastia
Goal of the Week: Kevin Monnet-Paquet, AS Saint-Étienne