Lille’s Resurgence to the Top

The Worthy Competitor

Often mocked as the “Farmers League” by football fans alike, Ligue 1 has often been the butt of the joke amongst other top European Leagues for its 1 horse title race every season. Ever since PSG completed its long-anticipated takeover in 2011, the Parisians have since won 7 Ligue 1 titles and 5 Coupe de France in the span of 9 years. It is safe to say that PSG have completely dominated the league and made it somewhat predictable and less interesting compared to rival leagues around Europe. With a team littered with superstars like Neymar and Mbappe, failing to win the league is a sackable offence and humiliation were sure to follow. As such, the league derives its competitive nature based on the race for top 4.

This season however tells a completely different story. After 24 games played, this pandemic riddled season has seen a different yet familiar leader. With PSG undergoing a poor start in the season, Lille and Lyon capitalized on this rare opportunity to move above them. With the former sitting on top of the table, much like they did 9 years ago (Ironically). Les Dogues are enjoying an impressive season under manager Christophe Galtier, boasting the joint-lowest losses in the league alongside Lyon with 2, while PSG accumulated 5 thus far.

Renato Sanches with Neymar (via Twitter @LOSC_EN)

Although the difference between PSG and Lille are only 3 points, Lille is showing no signs of slowing down as they are currently on an impressive 6 game winning run after disappointing against in their first game of the year. Paris Saint Germain on the other hand, had to oversee the departure of Thomas Tuchel rather harshly after an impressive Champions League run the season before. With injuries to key players like Keylor Navas and Bernat, alongside Neymar who has only played 11 games so far due to injuries, Pochettino may find his task harder than he had expected.

Lille’s Renaissance

Enough about the defending champions, let us talk about the current leaders (Let’s hope the table doesn’t change the moment I publish this). LOSC Lille have experienced the lot during the past 10 years. Having won the league in 2010/11 season under Rudi Garcia to Mid-table mediocrity with René Girard and Franck Passi to relegation battles under Marcelo Bielsa in 2017/18. Having just avoiding the drop that season thanks to the late introduction of manager Christophe Galtier, the former Saint-Etienne manager immediately made his mark and established a runner up finish in his first full season, followed by a top 4 Champions League qualification last season. As I type, Christophe Galtier have led the team to top spot, albeit with another half a season to go. Considering the roller coaster journey the club has been through, this moment must be well cherished and celebrated amongst Lille fans. Of course, this remarkable turnaround cannot be done without former Director of Football, Luis Campos.

Bargain and Bill

Luis Campos is currently unemployed after a change of board at LOSC Lille, having worked as their Football Director since leaving Monaco in 2017. The Portuguese is an incredibly shrewd businessman and have a knack of finding talents in obscure leagues. During the 2018/19 season which saw Lille acclaimed their highest position since winning the title in 2011, Luis Campos assembled the team for Glatier to work his magic.

Luis Campos thinking (probably about the writer) via RomaPress.net

The attacking trio that helped achieved such result included Nicolas Pepe, Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikone, who scored a total of 38 goals that season. The attacking trio were all brought in by Campos with a combined fee of €15.00m. Many other players scouted and bought by Campos went on to become important players for the club as well as being targeted by Europe’s elite. Some were sold for an immense profit that helped the club financially. Of the sales Luis Campos made, Selling Pepe was perhaps the greatest of all, as it generated a €70 million profit when he was sold to Arsenal for €80.00m. Rafael Leao’s €23.00m sale to AC Milan was also a massive economic success considering the young Portuguese was brought in from Sporting Lisbon on a free transfer to be a rotational option within the squad. The success of transfer activities motivated the club to pursue more of these deals with Campos making the final decisions on player transfers for his incredible eye for talent.

Attack Wins Games

Lille would start a game in a 4–4–2 formation that eventually transitioned to a 3–1–6 in possession. Of the front 6, it would include the two wingers and strikers moving inwards, alongside a midfielder and one of the wingbacks holding the width. They look to press aggressively with their wingers and strikers to win back the ball to cause a high turnover, resulting in goal scoring opportunities. Lille’s primary front four which consists of the 3 Jonathans (David, Bamba & Ikone) alongside veteran Burak Yilmaz all rank in the top 20 in the League for presses in the attacking third. Canadian Jonathan David ranks 1st in the League for attacking 3rd presses with 154. This demonstrates the high intensity and work rate required to play in the front 4 of Glatier’s pressing system.

Perhaps the most important player in Lille’s attacking phase is their primary creator in Jonathan Bamba. The Frenchman possesses great dribbling and passing abilities that ranks him amongst the best in the league. It is clear that Bamba is Lille’s most dangerous player when attacking as he is the player with the most attacking 3rd touches in the League. To put in context, PSG’s wonderkid Kylian Mbappe only has 614 touches in the attacking 3rd. The Frenchman’s ability to carry the ball with his dribbling is also another underrated quality of his. With 177 progressive carries and 61 carries into the final third, Bamba ranks not only the best within the squad but the League ahead of mercurial talents like Di Maria and Neymar. The quality ensures Lille is able to progress through from midfield to the attack in transition with relative ease.

Jonathan Bamba with a thumbs up (via Twitter @LOSC_EN)

In terms of chance creations, Bamba also tops his team in terms of SCA (Shot Creating Actions) with 75 and GCA (Goal Creating Actions) with 15. He currently recorded 8 assists with an xA (Expected Assists) of only 3.7, meaning he is exceeding expectations by creating 4.3 more openings than expected, also the league’s best. He also ranks the top in his key passes with 38 as well as passes into the penalty area with 37. These tells us that being Lille’s top assister, Bamba ensures his passes measure up alongside the best in the league, progressing the ball to the final third with precision and quality to create chances.

When it comes to goal scoring, veteran striker Burak Yilmaz currently has the most goals for the club with 9, followed by fellow compatriot Yusuf Yazici and the dynamic Jonathan David, both with 7 so far this season. The 35-year-old veteran came in as a free transfer from Besiktas last season. The Turkish captain was initially brought in as a mentor for the young strike force of David and Yazici. It turns out his leadership and experience has inspired the entire squad as well.

Despite his slow start, 21-year-old Jonathan David has now been the focal point in Lille’s attack with 5 goals in his last 5 appearances for Les Dogues. His npxG (Non-Penalty Expected Goals) Measure up as the club’s best with 5.5, which would suggest he has also exceeded his goal expectations with the current 7 under his belt. Yusuf Yazici on the other hand, is also undergoing an impressive season with the highest npxG+xA (Non-Penalty Expected Goals plus xG Assisted per 90 minutes) with 0.95. Meaning he is averaging almost a contribution towards goal every game he played. To put it in greater context, only PSG’s dynamic pairing of Mbappe and Neymar have a higher average of 1.00 and 0.99, respectively. Now that is amazing.

Yusuf Yazici approaching for a high five with nobody (via Twitter @LOSC_EN)

These players highlighted were just 4 of the more impressive attackers under Glatier this season. This does not discredit the work of their other forwards are putting in. Timothy Weah so far has started 3 games and has 3 goals to his name whereas Ikone, an ever present in the team is a very reliable attacker and also plays a vital role in terms of the team’s chance creation, taking some weight off Bamba’s shoulders.

Midfield Wins Battles

Lille’s system requires a midfield pivot that serves different roles to facilitate both the defence and the offense. A mainstay in that midfield is Benjamin Andre, who has started all the games he is available in. When Lille are in possession, Andre’s role in Glatier system is to be conservative and sometimes act as a third center back while the forward’s attack. This gives Lille more solidity in defence and also more men to defend potential counter attacks. The Frenchman leads the team and currently ranks 4th in tackles in Ligue 1 with 77. Of those tackles, 59 of them won back possession for the team to change the phase of the play and potentially instigate a counterattack. Moreover, he ranks the first in the league in terms of number of dribbles tackled, which highlights his impressive 1v1 abilities against the skilled wingers in the league. In midfield, Andre records the most middle 3rd pressures within the squad with a respectable success rate as well. Andre’s positioning and tactical intelligence is key to his side’s defensive solidity and is greatly appreciated by the manager. On top of his high numbers of tackles, he also records the highest number of interceptions within the squad. His defensive abilities rank him as one of Ligue 1’s best with the third highest tackles and interception combined, with 112.

Benjamin Andre is just as reliable in his defensive contributions as he is with his distribution. Only two other players completed more passes than Andre in the squad, Sven Botman and Jose Fonte (More on them later). The Frenchman records the highest passes into the final third amongst his teammates with 109 as well as 95 progressive passes. His distribution and creativity are an underrated quality of his as his passing stat suggests he is one of the more proactive passers in the squad. Being press resistant in the position he operates in is also a major reason he is seemingly undroppable for Les Douges. He currently has completed 167 passes under pressure, this could lead to players moving out of position to press Andre, which meant there is a vacant space Lille could exploit.

Paired alongside him the most times is Boubakary Soumare, whose performance has attracted interests from Manchester United. The box-to-box midfielder is having a stellar season with Lille, with his excellent ball carrying from midfield and progressive passing to set up chances. As mentioned, Andre currently ranks the first for key passes within the team with 109, Soumare is a close second with 107 and has completed 84 progressive passes. This highlights his impressive passing abilities, that has been crucial to Lille’s build-up play this season. Soumare is also a rugged defender with most of his tackles coming from the middle third of the pitch and carries the ball reasonably well from defence to attack. Soumare’s attacking flair and elegant movements compliments Benjamin Andre’s style of play, both of which has seemingly dominated the midfield, winning the battles for Lille.

Boubakary Soumare in action ( via Twitter @losclive)

Special mention has to be given to the Portuguese pair in Renato Sanches and Xeka. Both of which have done well when playing and Sanches does look to return to his best after tough spells in Munich and Swansea. Xeka may feel he deserves more playing time as he is one of the club’s most creative passers, but he certainly will have a bigger part to play in the second half of the season.

Defence Wins Titles

Perhaps the reason why Lille is currently sitting top of Ligue 1 is their defence. Lille primarily focuses their play with their two ball-playing center backs in Sven Botman and Jose Fonte. Both center backs are having stellar seasons for the club that has only conceded 15 goals thus far, with the lowest XGA (Expected Goals Against) in the league with the French outfit only expected to concede 17.5 goals this season. This is testament to the incredibly solid 4–4–2 mid-block system applied by the manager to reduce clear goal scoring opportunities. Botman, a 21-year-old center back only moved last season from Netherlands to replace the outgoing Gabriel and has already been linked to Liverpool, with his playing style and defensive capabilities drawing comparisons to Virgil Van Djik. The Dutchman is paired with captain Jose Fonte, who is currently 37 years old, (5th oldest in the League). The fact that he has started all the games this season with the defensive numbers he is putting is a testament to his fitness and quality.

The two center backs are key to how Lille likes to play their football, dictating play from deep. Botman and Fonte are currently ranked in the top 10 of completed passes in the league with a combined 2,717 passes between them. Both defenders don’t particular play the ball short either with their preference being medium to long passes (i.e., passes that ranges from 15 yards to over 30 yards). Sven Botman excels in his distribution having spent his early years developing with Ajax. Amongst defenders, he ranks 2nd in passes into the final third with 110. The Dutchman is proactive in his passes, immediately releasing balls when space is available, launching quick long balls to final third to instigate the quick transitions for likes of Ikone and Bamba to chase. Jose Fonte on the other hand, being the most experienced in the squad, boasts a fantastic 1v1 against dribblers, with the third highest tackle success rate in the league with 74.1%, winning 20 of his 27 attempted tackles. Both center backs are also capable of dominating the physical and aerial facets of the game. Both players claim more than 70% successful aerial duels with the Dutchman standing in 6’4, winning the 5th highest number of aerial duels in the league. Impressively, the 6’3 Portuguese skipper won 75% of his aerial duels, winning 60 in the process, which also ranks him amongst the best in the league this season. With a rich playing experience, Fonte can certainly help Botman in his development to reach his full potential.

Sven Botman appearing to levitate midair, this guy is not human (via Twitter @MirrorFootball)

Fullbacks are also crucial in Lille’s set up. In some cases, one full back would tuck in to become the makeshift center back in possession whereas the other will venture forward to join the attack. These flanks are normally occupied by Zeki Celik on the right and Domagoj Bradaric on the left. Zeki Celik is a Turkish right back who would normally be the more conservative of the pair, whereas Bradaric often have the license to roam forward to join the attack. The Turk boasts fasntatsic defensive qualities in his game. He is a reliable tackler with 50 so far this season and is an effective presser of the ball. Celik’s combined tackles and interception ranks him as the second highest in the squad with 65, demonstrating his defensive abilities well in a League with quick and creative wingers.

On the other flank, Domagoj Bradaric is another player having a great season for Les Douges. The left back is heavily involved in the built-up phase in Lille’s attack with his dribbling abilities that carries the ball from defence to attack. The full back currently ranks second in number of progressive carries with 94. He also managed 25 carries into the final third of the pitch.

Last but not least, Mike Maignan is having his best season at Lille between the sticks. The goalkeeper has been impressive with his distribution as a ball-playing goalkeeper with 69% pass completion rate which rates as one of the best in the league. Perhaps what makes Maignan the standout goalkeeper is that amongst goalkeepers who have played at least 20 league games so far this season, Maignan conceded the least number of goals with 15, as well as achieving the highest save percentage recorded with 78.8%, which is truly remarkable. The keeper’s PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) is +16.7, which means he has overachieved and saved an extra 1.7 goals for Lille. The 6’2 shot-stopper is currently recording 54.2% clean sheets, which is his career high. Should Maignan keep up his performances, the former PSG academy graduate could stake his claim as one of Europe’s elite goalkeepers in the near future.

Mike Maignan taking a goal kick ( via Twitter @losclive)

The future of Les Douges

Lille’s season is definitely not over. In truth, there are still 14 games to go, one of which is against PSG. The fact that Lille are in the conversation as realistic title favorites in the middle of the season, is a testament to Christophe Galtier’s men. No matter what happens at the end of the season, with the title in their hands or not, Lille should remain proud for their progress and achievement thus far, proving doubters wrong and giving PSG a proper challenge that we have not seen in recent years, not after Monaco surprised many with their golden generation. A team similarly assembled by Luis Campos, who has played his part in assembling this. The Ligue 1 is finally not a 1 horse title race and it can finally stake its claim as one of Europe’s watchable leagues.

As for the distant future, who knows if Lille could keep hold of this brilliant core of players. The departure of Luis Campos has made it even more complicated to plan, perhaps even harder to scout talents in lesser-known leagues. Nevertheless, this project has obtained the continuity it deserves, from a relegation threatened club 4 seasons ago to challenging for the title today. Lille have established itself sturdily as the locomotive of Ligue 1 which, for too many years, has been greatly missed.

Players hugging (via Twitter @losclive)

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Reference: https://fbref.com/en/

Twitter: @chunhang7

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Aspiring Football Analyst | More Vizzes on Twitter @chunhang7

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Chun Hang

Chun Hang

Aspiring Football Analyst | More Vizzes on Twitter @chunhang7

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