Ligue 1 at Mid-Season: Past and Premonitions

Ligue 1 has quietly become one of Europe’s most exciting leagues over the past five months. While Juventus, Real Madrid and now Chelsea look like unstoppable forces, and Bayern Munich isn’t far behind, things look much different at the top in France. Nice are top for the moment, but injuries (Younés Belhanda, Dalbert Henrique), suspension (Mario Balotelli) and international duty (Jean Michael Seri) could prove unnecessary complications in the next month. Monaco can be an unstoppable force on their day, but a recent slip-up at home to Lyon shows that they still have work to do mentally. Paris Saint-Germain lurk as well, hoping to restage the 2014-15 season, where they were third at this point in the campaign but finished in fine form, eventually winning the title by eight points.

Below the top three, Lyon would be just two points behind PSG if their match in hand is awarded as a win, while Marseille could yet be boosted by investment under new ownership. Guingamp have surprised as well under new manager Antoine Kombouaré, while managerial changes at Nantes and Lille have boosted those clubs’ fortunes considerably. Lille are also newly moneyed, and Lyon have been boosted by Chinese investment, too. Ligue 1 is still behind the likes of Germany, Spain and England in terms of overall attraction, but given its combination of passionate fan bases and reputation for developing young talent, more and more focus is being placed on the division, and deservedly so. In this piece, we seek to not only review the first half of the campaign in Ligue 1, but to take a look forward as to how the second half might unfold.

Nice’s Development

Nice spent heavily this summer, even if they did net a significant return on the sale of Nampalys Mendy to Leicester. New manager Lucien Favre has significantly changed the side, not only personnel-wise but also tactically. Seeking to get the best out of dynamic fullbacks Ricardo Pereira and Dalbert Henrique, Favre opted to play a 3-5-2, with Younes Belhanda behind one of Alassane Pléa or Mario Balotelli, but injuries have shown the team’s flexibility. The three central defenders to start the season were the veteran Dante, the Saint-Etienne castoff Paul Baysse and untested 17-year-old Malang Sarr. When Baysse went down with an injury, the team successfully negotiated his absence by using a combination of nominal fullback Arnaud Souquet, Maxime Le Marchand and Olivier Boscagli.

Even with young ‘keeper Yoan Cardinale a step off the impressive form he had shown last year, Nice still have the league’s best defense, a testament not only to Favre’s faith in youth but also to the adaptive qualities in midfield. Mendy’s departure left Nice without an orthodox defensive midfielder, even if Mathieu Bodmer has played the role relatively often in the recent past. Vincent Koziello, Jean Michael Seri and new signing Wylan Cyprien were more attack-minded, and Remi Walter looked a callow and undersized option ahead of the season. It was a surprise, then, when Koziello, so bright last season, was dropped for Walter, with Seri playing the deepest of the three.

Rather than rely on their physicality, Nice have instead knitted together a patient and intelligent attack in midfield, recording the division’s best statistics as regards possession and pass completion rates. The ability of the midfield to keep the ball has also impressed, as Nice have been fouled at a higher rate than any other side in the division. Dalbert and Pereira chipped in as well, racking up the tackles, allowing the likes of Pléa and Belhanda to focus on stretching play laterally. Mario Balotelli has been a bit of a wild card, and his upcoming suspension is frustrating, but his goal record speaks for itself. A massive match with Monaco looms in February, but despite a flurry of absences and the Europa League thus far, Nice look well-equipped to continue their tilt at the title.

Marseille Ahead of Schedule

The arrival of Rudi Garcia in the south of France was a stroke of genius from Marseille. The former Lille manager was in over his head at Roma, failing to earn the respect of a veteran squad, but he has delivered with Marseille as he did with Lille. Winning a title with Les Dogues was almost unthinkable, but Garcia continued on with the foundations laid by Claude Puel, giving chances to youth in low-stakes situations. Their confidence growing, they were then able to push the team further up the table, eventually to a title before the likes of Mathieu Debuchy, Eden Hazard and Moussa Sow departed.

A similar renaissance is in place at Marseille, where under Garcia’s direction, the team are playing attractive attacking football. Florian Thauvin has hugely impressed as an inverted winger in a 4-3-3, with youngster Maxime Lopez driving the team forward from central midfield. Bafetimbi Gomis failed to make an impact in England, but he has been a more than serviceable focal point this season, with ten goals to date, while Clinton N’Jie’s pace stretches defenses at his side. The defense still needs improvement, particularly at the fullback positions, but for a team comprised largely of loanees and has-beens, a tilt at Europe this season was a pipe dream. The team, newly under American ownership, will no doubt look to strengthen in the January window, and while nine points to the Champions League positions is probably a step too far, a good run in the cup playing attractive football and a Europa League place will do much to win back a frustrated fan base ahead of a big summer.

Team of the Half-Season

Stéphane Ruffier (AS Saint-Etienne); Ricardo Pereira (OGC Nice), Kamil Glik (AS Monaco), Dante (OGC Nice), Marcal (EA Guingamp); Thomas Lemar (AS Monaco), Tiemoué Bakayoko (AS Monaco), Wylan Cyprien (OGC Nice), Jean Michael Seri (OGC Nice); Alassane Pléa (OGC Nice), Alexandre Lacazette (Olympique Lyonnais)

Young Player of the Half-Season

Wylan Cyprien (OGC Nice)

For aficionados of French football, Cyprien’s name is far from unfamiliar, having impressed with Lens for several seasons. One of the club’s best players during their recent top-flight season (2014-15), he was always destined for a move to a bigger club, but how he has taken another step up at Nice is nigh on unbelievable. Quick, strong and versatile, Cyprien’s performances have seen another promising youngster, Vincent Koziello, relegated to the bench. His free kick against PSG last month showed another side to his game, and Nice might do well to keep him this summer, although the promise of Champions League football could be an ample enticement.

Manager of the Half-Season

Antoine Kombouaré (EA Guingamp)

This was a difficult decision; Lucien Favre’s ability to take Nice a step further than Claude Puel is impressive indeed, but the Swiss has done so with considerable financial backing. The salaries of players like Dante and Balotelli (and even Belhanda) aren’t something most clubs in Ligue 1 could absorb. Favre does get credit for his transfer moves, as Henrique and Cyprien in particular have been excellent, likewise Pléa in an expanded role. That said, Nice were fourth last season, and with Lyon dropping back a step or two, their progress was somewhat expected.

Guingamp, though, are a much smaller club, both in terms of financial power and their visibility on the European scene. Their previous success was built around a dogged, veteran-heavy 4-4-2 under Jocelyn Gourvennec, but Kombouaré has transformed the Breton club. Moving to a 4-3-3 with a rejuvenated Jimmy Briand deployed centrally, the former PSG and Lens manager has struck a fine balance between youth (Marcus Coco, Ludovic Blas) and experience (Lucas Deaux, Etienne Didot, Moustapha Diallo). He has also overseen some canny transfer moves on a budget, as Benfica loanee Marcal and Swedish international Karl-Johan Johnsson have proven to be some of the better players at their position thus far. Guingamp will do well to hold off a hard-charging Marseille for a place in Europe, but they’ve showed no signs of slowing to date, a fine start powered by Kombouaré’s wisdom.

Predicted Finish

  1. AS Monaco
  2. OGC Nice
  3. Paris Saint-Germain
  4. Olympique Lyonnais
  5. Olympique de Marseille
  6. EA Guingamp

Monaco are simply too talented to fail; where the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Nice have struggled to balance European play, Leonardo Jardim has masterfully succeeded in both the Champions League and domestically. His use of young players such as Almamy Touré, Abdou Diallo and Gabriel Boschilia has also shown that there is more to come from this club. Nice are superb on their day, but their draw against PSG saw them ride their luck to some extent; the absences of Seri, Belhanda and Balotelli are probably too much to overcome, even if reinforcements arrive in January. Paris Saint-Germain are undoubtedly talented, but the looming absence of Serge Aurier and unrest within the squad (Angel Di Maria, Hatem Ben Arfa) means the team is in a state of disarray. Add in what will surely be a prioritization of the Champions League in February, and a fifth successive title seems unlikely.

Below the current top three, Lyon are in good form, but not playing especially well. The league’s decision over their postponed match at Metz looms; an awarded win would see the club just two points behind PSG, but a replay would further congest an already dense fixture list. Marseille have no such obligations, with only the Coupe de France and the league to manage. Florian Thauvin is in the best form of his time with l’OM, and youngsters like Maxime Lopez and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa have burnished manager Rudi Garcia’s reputation for giving youth its chance whilst maintaining an attractive style. Below that quintet, Guingamp look like the best of a flawed bunch. Lille, Rennes and Saint-Etienne all could sneak in here, but each have their weaknesses, and will also suffer due to absences from the Africa Cup of Nations.