Ligue 1 Review | Jérémy Doku shows how tricky a French title charge is, even as PSG fail

Yet to win, or score from open play, PSG confirmed their status as vulnerable champions via a 1-1 draw at Toulouse this weekend. However, if a title race is to coalesce, at least one challenger must emerge, and Sunday night’s prime-time game between Lens and Rennes tested the credentials of two hopeful pretenders. But the ensuing draw only exposed weaknesses in both rather than breed confidence for either.

Lens finished just a point behind PSG last season, their tally of 84 surpassing Lille’s title-winning haul of 2021. However, their ruthless, efficient, impermeable persona was worryingly absent in a 3-2 opening-day defeat to Brest. It would be easy to conclude that the marauding Seko Fofana, whose energy and talent allowed him to play as midfield destroyer, dynamo, and creator all at once, was even more crucial to Franck Haise’s team than assumed.

Fofana departed for Saudi Arabia this summer. A crushingly unromantic decision, given the love Lens’ boisterous fans had for their captain and the Champions League adventure to come, but an understandable one given the mammoth contract on offer. While the exit of Loïs Openda to Leipzig and Kevin Denso’s proposed move to Napoli would be concerning, both players are replaceable. The Chelsea-linked Elye Wahi, who was presented at the Stade Bollaert last night after arriving from Montpellier, is arguably an upgrade on the streaky Belgian striker, for example.

Fofana’s leadership and talent, however, are virtually irreplaceable for a club like Lens. The new 20-year-old signing from Rennes, Andy Diouf, is the ordained successor after a productive year on loan with Basel. Nevertheless, despite his clear raw ability, the gap in effectiveness between the lightning-rod presence of Fofana and Diouf, only a fledgling talent at this point, could be debilitating for some time as Diouf develops. Lens’ soft, timid performance at Brest was improved upon, especially in the first half, against Rennes, but the lack of penetration without Fofana was again obvious, and a title challenge is looking increasingly unlikely without it.

Rennes’ start to the season has been typical of Bruno Genesio’s side, however. A 5-1 opening day victory at home to Metz again underlined the talent in midfield and forward areas and the stylish football Benjamin Bourigeaud and Co. are capable of. Rennes, however, are somewhat of a flat-track bully, and the point rescued from Lens via a Bourigeaud penalty was barely deserved. As is often the case against the rest of the top eight, Genesio’s side, who struggle when not dominating possession, were disjointed and lacked cohesion in attack.

New signings such as the versatile creative forward from Nantes, Ludovic Blas, Lorient’s graceful young midfielder Enzo Le Fee, and the wizened veteran Nemanja Matic, add quality but, as yet, little evolution for Genesio, whose coaching career has puzzled more than it has impressed. At Lyon, Genesio’s side’s form were the opposite of Rennes – strong against strong opponents (see displays against Manchester City) but brittle when asked to dominate weaker Ligue 1 sides. This led to some frustrating results that derailed OL’s desperate hunt for a trophy.

Balance, meanwhile, has often been Genesio’s issue at Rennes. It was finally found at the end of last season by moving Bourigeaud into central areas and reintroducing the consistently injured winger Jérémy Doku on the right. Linked with half the Premier League, it’s likely Doku’s cameo for the final half an hour of this game was his last Rennes outing – a fact that will concern fans given how quickly his ingenuity transformed proceedings.

Flamboyant 21-year-old Belgian international Doku is like a sleight-of-hand magician. He’ll show you the ball before it quickly disappears, amazing all onlookers. Various injuries have, however, derailed Doku’s development following an impressive sojourn at Euro 2020(1), and it took until the end of last season, nearly two years later, for form and fitness to combine once more. They did so to devastating effect, and a meandering Rennes season ended with a late run into the top four.

Fortunately, Doku’s supreme skilfulness persists. Lens goalkeeper Brice Samba was forced into several crucial saves late on to keep his team level, largely due to Doku’s creativity and unpredictability. Despite little consistency last term, the winger still managed the third most successful take-ons in Europe’s big five leagues according to FBRef, and, at this very early stage of the new Ligue 1 campaign, he;s been 100% successful in his take-ons thus far.

Without Doku and Fofana, Rennes and Lens become predictable, much more containable, and slow. The transient nature of Ligue 1 is often a strength given the opportunities it provides young players and the perpetual market that sells talents to bigger clubs for fees that keep all outfits outside Paris afloat. But, in this case, it reinforces Parisian dominance, and teams like Rennes and Lens struggle to separate themselves from a constantly evolving chasing pack.

As their meeting proved, both clubs still need to find solutions, and quickly, if they’re to take advantage of PSG’s transition. In truth, however, such is the talent of Fofana and Doku, those solutions may simply not exist.

Adam White | GFFN

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