FEATURE | Why are the goals drying up in Ligue 1?

“There is no action, no shots on target,”  complained France U21 manager Thierry Henry after Round 12 of Ligue 1. Only 12 goals were scored in eight games across the weekend. Low-scoring games have become a trend in the French top-flight this season and an untimely one. Amidst the LFP’s unsuccessful attempts to auction the Ligue1 broadcasting rights, the perceived lack of entertainment in recent weeks could have far-reaching consequences. 

It isn’t even necessarily the [lack of] goals [that are making Ligue 1 boring currently],” added Henry in his press conference this week. However, there is no denying the trend: fewer goals are being scored in Ligue 1 this season. For the last two seasons, exactly 1067 (2.8 goals per game) goals have been scored in Ligue 1. Those figures were in line with a long-term trend of more goals in France’s top-flight per season. 

However, only 261 goals have been scored so far this season at a rate of 2.48 goals per game. Should scoring continue at the current rate, there will be just 740 goals this season, albeit with two fewer teams. Round 11 saw the least goals scored in six years, with only 13 shots hitting the back of the net. Three of those came at the Parc des Princes as Paris Saint-Germain beat Montpellier HSC 3-0. Round 12 saw even fewer goals (12), although only eight matches took place with Stade Brestois’ fixture against RC Strasbourg Alsace postponed.

‘It will be a war every Sunday’ – Nicollin

However, the reduction of teams in Ligue 1 makes comparison to past seasons difficult. Only 18 teams are competing in France’s top-flight this season as opposed to 20 in previous years. Speaking back in 2021, Montpellier president Laurent Nicollin expressed fear of the type of football that this decision would engender. 

If we go down to 18 teams, I am scared that we’ll be watching sh*t matches, because everyone will play with the fear of relegation. It will be a war every Sunday,” said Nicollin. 

That fear of relegation is real for many teams this season. RC Lens, currently 6th in Ligue 1, are just five points above the relegation play-off spot, whilst Olympique de Marseille, currently in tenth, and FC Lorient, who occupy that relegation play-off spot (16th) are separated by just two points. 

There were quite a few high-risk games this weekend. Teams don’t want to open up because they’re playing against their direct rivals at the top, or the bottom, especially at the bottom,” said Henry. Whilst that seemingly rings true in France, it doesn’t in Germany. 357 goals have been scored in the Bundesliga, another 18-team league, up to and including Round 11. Should scoring continue at the current rate, then over 1100 goals will be scored in the German top-flight this season. 

A foreign influence? 

The France U21 manager also highlighted OGC Nice’s lack of goals, despite their second-place standing in Ligue 1. Francesco Farioli’s side are unbeaten so far this season and are just one point behind leaders PSG, but they have averaged just over a goal per game. 

Farioli is one of 10 foreign managers in the league, with eight non-French managers entering Ligue 1 this season (Farioli, Luis Enrique, Adi Hütter, Luka Elsner, Gennaro Gattuso, Laszlo Boloni, Carles Martínez Novell, and Fabio Grosso). Nice sporting director Florent Ghisolfi has described Farioli’s style as “intellectually stimulating” adding that the Italian wants to “control the game, but he also searches for stability.” That focus on “control” and “stability” is shared by Luis Enrique and Gattuso in particular.

Arsène Wenger, who this week criticised the number of foreign coaches in Ligue 1, conceded that they do “bring fresh ideas”, and there has been a reorientation towards a focus on defensive solidity, generally speaking. However, it would be too broad to state that Ligue 1 is a more defensive, less entertaining league as a result of this fresh influx. Hütter in particular has brought an attacking, vibrant and entertaining style and Monaco are the second top-scorers in the league, behind only Luis Enrique’s PSG.

The Lens precedent

However, the Principality club’s approach, which is currently premised on outscoring the opponent and not necessarily on keeping a clean sheet, is the exception to the rule. RC Lens certainly adhere to the maxim: ‘Defences win leagues’ and it almost took them to the title last season. Les Sang et Or conceded just 29 goals last season and were comfortably the best defensive side in the division. They finished just one point behind eventual champions PSG, despite having only the fourth-best attack. 

It is clear that certain teams in Ligue 1 are trying to emulate Lens’ defensive solidity in the hope of challenging if not for the title, then at least for the European places. 

The teething issues as teams adapt to Ligue 1’s new structure, the new individuals within the league, and the precedents previously set all culminate to create an unequivocal and uneasy truth – that this is set up to be one of the least prolific seasons in recent Ligue 1 history. It comes at a bad time too. In the wake of the failed auction of Ligue 1’s broadcasting rights, the image and attractiveness of the league are of primary concern to the LFP. Tighter defences and fewer goals will do little to strengthen their hand as they look to entice broadcasters.

GFFN | Luke Entwistle

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