LIGUE 1 PREVIEW | Lens prepare to battle on domestic and continental fronts

One to watch: Salis Abdul Samed – The Ghanaian international was arguably the best midfielder in Ligue 1 last season. As he explained in an interview with Get French Football News, since arriving from Clermont last summer he has taken his overall play into another dimension, having gained the confidence to drive forward from midfield himself after his interceptions. With Séko Fofana gone, the focus will be on the 23-year-old Abdul Samed to step out of the Ivorian international’s shadow and lead the team from midfield, on both domestic and European stages.

Signing to watch: Andy Diouf – The French midfielder’s loan spell last year from Rennes to Basel proved the ideal platform to launch his career, no least thanks to his performances on the European stage. He was named UEFA’s Conference League young player of the season as the Swiss side notably knocked out Nice on their way to the semi-finals, and scored all three of his goals last year in the group stages of the competition. 

Lens will have high expectations for the French U21 international, who arrives in the wake of Séko Fofana’s departure – in pre-season, the 20-year-old has already claimed a regular starting spot alongside Salis Abdul Samed, precisely in the former captain’s role. His box-to-box style, along with his driving runs forward and eye for a long-range goal, will mean he has every chance of emulating the Ivorian international.

Squad analysis: The squad that Franck Haise clinched second place in Ligue 1 with is mostly intact, with Séko Fofana and Loïs Openda the only departures of note. Given the French coach’s style of play revolves more around collective effort than individual exploits, Lens will likely continue their all-action approach on the pitch, although personnel changes could mean that Haise’s tactics take some time to settle in. The arrivals of Stijn Spierings on a free transfer and Andy Diouf from Basel will have inspired some degree of confidence, even if the arrivals are somewhat lacking in other departments.  

Strengths: The Artois outfit’s defensive solidity was the foundation of their success last season – they had by far the best record in Ligue 1, with only 29 goals conceded. Having tied down both goalkeeper Brice Samba and defender Kevin Danso to new contracts, this is the one department that will offer guarantees both in domestic and European football. The Austrian international – who Get French Football News named as Ligue 1’s player of the year last season – will be flanked by his familiar centre-back partners of Jonathan Gradit and Facundo Medina.

By extension, the team’s wing-backs are just as crucial to their overall play – expect much of Lens’ attacking threat to come down the flanks on the counter. Last season saw Przemysław Frankowski step up after Jonathan Clauss’ departure for Marseille, with the Pole showing the same attacking verve as his French counterpart, all the while remaining defensively astute. He is also the team’s main penalty-taker. On the opposite side, Colombia’s Deiver Machado provides similarly complete coverage of the left flank, having scored four and assisted three last year. The two wide men are backed up by Massadio Haïdara and Jimmy Cabot respectively.

Weaknesses: The Sang et Or’s attacking options are evidently weaker now that last year’s top scorer Loïs Openda has left the club. As serviceable an option as Florian Sotoca can be – especially given his tireless pressing work – the long-serving Frenchman is no match for the Belgian’s output in front of goal. Bringing in a new marksman will have been a priority for the club this summer, although their efforts to bring in Levi García from AEK Athens have proved fruitless – the Trinidadian instead decided to sign a new contract with the Greek outfit. The signing of Morgan Guilavogui from Ligue 2’s Paris FC could prove crucial in this regard, if the younger brother of former French international midfielder Josuha can continue the form that saw him score 18 last season.

Verdict: The tired axiom that newfound European football hamstrings up-and-coming teams is often wheeled out, but in this Lens team’s case the continental stage is genuinely uncharted territory. Playing three games a week with a squad that has little depth will invariably prove a challenge – their late-season winning runs in the past few years have always come when they were only involved in one competition.`

It would be difficult to see the team’s upward trajectory since promotion continue at the same pace next season – instead, a likelier scenario would serve up a season to consolidate their position as upper-table regulars, accustom themselves to Europe, and to bed in new signings. In any case, bringing in a centre-forward who can regularly convert the team’s impressive work into goals is increasingly a priority – whether they can do so before the end of the transfer window could be decisive in their ability to battle on all fronts.  

Salis Abdul Samed best summed up the mood at Lens regarding the prospect of playing in the Champions League, in his interview with GFFN: “ We know that Europe is the highest level, so we need to work even harder to make sure we’re ready. We’ve beaten Marseille, PSG, Monaco in Ligue 1, but it’s not the same in Europe, there are different players and different tactics. We know it’s going to be difficult, but it’s up to us to prepare. I think mentally speaking, as well as physically, we’ll be ready.”

Another title push would appear somewhat out of reach – not least given how the likes of Marseille and Rennes have strengthened this summer – but expect Franck Haise and his players to chicoter their way to European football once again.

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