Ligue 1 Preview | Are Lille equipped to challenge at the top again?

One To Watch: Angel Gomes
Is this finally the season the youngster proves all the promises placed on his back were truthful? There’s definitely a blueprint for that to happen after a very interesting first season as a starter for Lille, followed by a trophy-winning campaign at the U21 European Championships with England. After a 12-year spell at Manchester United, the technically gifted midfielder had to try something new to finally kick-start his professional career. Transferring to Lille in 2020, his spell at partner club Boavista enabled him to get regular playing time. However, it is under new LOSC manager Paulo Fonseca that he truly made his mark, at the heart of midfield as a creator. Equipped with a true sense of flair and a great vision for a killer ball, he managed six assists and two goals in 36 league games.

Integral to Fonseca’s midfield along with André Gomes, who has since returned to Everton, and workhorse Benjamin André, the Englishman was asked to play even deeper with the Young Lions this summer. As a deep-lying creator, he ran miles on end, tackling and intercepting the ball in every corner of the pitch. Standing at only 168cm, not many would have imagined the Red Devils’ graduate converting into a box-to-box midfielder. While Anthony Gordon, Levi Colwill, or James Trafford took the front cover of the newspapers on the way to winning the Euros, there is no doubt that Les Dogues’ contribution was immense. He will play an integral role again this year, in a season which could see Lille push on from a very promising first season under the management of Fonseca.

Signing To Watch: Samuel Umtiti
It has been a whirlwind of a career for the Lyon academy graduate. Coming into the first team ten years ago under Rémi Garde’s management, the centre-back moved to Barcelona four days after the end of Euro 2016, where he deputized for the suspended Adil Rami from the quarter-final onwards, before losing to Portugal in a heart-breaking final. His first two seasons in Catalunya were affected by injuries, but he was undoubtedly a starter alongside Gerard Piqué. Keeping his spot in the French national team, he played an integral role at the 2018 World Cup, scoring the only goal to beat Belgium in the semi-final. After claiming the ultimate prize, it became aware that he pushed back a knee surgery in order to be fit for the competition, with supporters praising him for his ‘service to his country’.

Unfortunately, that goal was the peak of his career at the age of 24. Repeated injuries have kept him away from pitches since, and it is only a move away from the Nou Camp that enabled him to come back. He spent last season on loan at Serie A side Lecce, playing up to 25 league games for the first season since 2017/18. His performances attracted many clubs in Italy and France; while he seemed destined to rekindle his partnership with Dejan Lovren in Lyon, eventually Lille took the gamble to bring in an injury-prone but valiant centre-back to replace the departed captain José Fonte. Only 29-years-old and always in high spirits, he will be key to accompany youngsters Leny Yoro and Tiago Djaló once he returns from his ACL injury. A true test for Umtiti’s body, but his season in Italy showed good promise of a player returning to his best level.

Squad Analysis:
Finishing fifth for Lille was an achievement after a poor post-title season that saw them finish 10th and face financial difficulties. However, they bounced back tremendously under the management of Fonseca via some neat recruitment. While Mohamed Bayo was not a success in his first months, he could eventually match the levels he showed at Clermont. Rémi Cabella and Ismaily on the other hand, were resounding successes and should be instrumental to Lille’s fortunes this year.

This summer saw Lille invest, once again, in youth. Aaron Malouda, ex-Chelsea winger Florent Malouda’s son, arrived from Rennes’ academy, while ex-Lyon and Marseille goalkeeper Pascal Olmeta’s son also signed as a backup between the sticks. More interestingly, Tiago Santos arrived from Estoril as competition for the right-back spot with Timothy Weah leaving for Juventus, and Iceland international Hákon Arnar Haraldsson, has arrived to bolster the midfield. A product of FC Copenhagen’s prolific academy, the creative attacker has already shown some promise in the Champions League last season, as well as scoring fivw goals in pre-season, including a hat-trick on his debut for Les Dogues. Certainly one to watch out for.

The real question to ask, however, is where will the goals come from. Jonathan David and his 24 league goals could depart in the coming weeks if a serious offer comes in for him. While the explosive Gift Orban is still on Lille’s radar to replace him, this might not solve the inherent problem of efficiency in front of goal. Edon Zegrova and Adama Ounas also embody this problem, which the club will need to solve before the end of the window.

Lille’s defensive output was tremendous last season. Lucas Chevalier’s first season in the top flight was superb, earning him a start throughout the U21 Euros with France back in June. Saving a third of the penalties he faced last season, he is essential to building up from the back, while still relying on very solid reflexes on his line. Ageing captain José Fonte has departed this summer, as Samuel Umtiti brings his experience to an already well-oiled machine. With Benjamin André as impeccable cover in front, there is no doubt that the sixth best defence in the league with 44 goals conceded (not helped by the seven against PSG in August) will continue developing as one of the best in the league. It is also important to add that their attacking playing style, while it may not always be the most efficient in front of goal, is a beauty to watch. A major plus for entertainment value at least.

As mentioned before, their efficiency in front of goal has stopped one of the most exciting teams in Ligue 1 from hoping for a better place in the table. According to Understat, Lille underperformed their xG in open play by 9.4 last season, a stat which looks far better from set pieces (+1.92). Jonathan David’s goal tally is certainly impressive, being one of the top scorers in the league since his arrival three years ago, but 10 penalties need to be considered here, representing a good chunk of Lille’s 65 goals last season. While the creative output from midfield is undeniable, the irregularity of wingers and a plethora of squandered chances will undoubtedly be a glass ceiling for Lille to continue progressing and reaching the likes of Rennes, Marseille, or Lens. An unfortunate trait of Fonseca’s teams in the past, where the artful playing style takes over efficiency in front of goal and scrappy 1-0 wins. Additionally, Lille will have to improve their away form, conceding seven defeats on the road, compared to a mere two at home (to Nice and PSG).

Lille were one of the most exciting teams to watch last season, with a balance between great defensive solidity and attacking flair often leading to very exciting games, particularly against rivals Marseille, Rennes, or Lyon. However, while these games were certainly entertaining, they did not always bring three points to Les Dogues, and they will need to improve on this aspect if they want to stay in Europe next season, particularly with the added games in continental competition. Lille may not currently have the squad depth to compete on all fronts, but Fonseca has said lately that he hoped for four more signatures until the end of the window, to bolster his squad. That being said, the club’s history has shown that they have a European pedigree to vouch for.

While they finished 10th the last season they were in Europe (2021/22), they were a proud representative of French football, reaching the Champions League last 16, eventually losing to Chelsea while holding their heads high. An adventure deep into the Conference League could certainly be on the cards for Lille, most likely at the expense of another regular season in the league. First, they will have to pass the qualifying play-off for the group stage, later in August.

 GFFN | Tom Abadie

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