Last Tuesday, UNFP released their ballot for the 2014/15 Ligue 1 awards. The awards were:
- Coach of the Year
- Goalkeeper of the Year
- Young Player of the Year
- Player of the Year
The coach of the year award could be its own column but let’s just say that it’s an absolute crime that Leonardo Jardim isn’t nominated for that award with what he has done to keep Monaco in the top three in Ligue 1.
The big news from the announcements was that not one, not two, but three Paris Saint Germain players got nominated for the player of the season award.
The awards are voted on by the players and the coaches (which in of itself presents a problem because players and coaches don’t have the time to do research outside of remembering the one to two times they played that player) so in a way it shouldn’t be all that surprising that multiple PSG players got on it. PSG are going to win a third straight Ligue 1 title and they’re by far the biggest attraction in France.
But there’s a real argument to be had that realistically one player from PSG should be nominated. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has looked healthier and more like himself since returning from injury but the majority of his goals have been from the penalty spot.
Furthermore PSG have looked just as good if not better without Zlatan for the majority of the season and for the first time in the Zlatan era, PSG don’t need to run their attack through him as the main cog, a sign of the decline that Zlatan has exhibited this season and a shift away from him.
You could pick either one of Javier Pastore or Marco Verratti and it wouldn’t be a disservice to the other. Pastore has been a joy to watch since the turn of the calendar and his ability to pick out a throughball pass particularly from the midfield is one of the best things to watch in Ligue 1.
Verratti has been a rock this season for PSG in the midfield, particularly since Thiago Motta has been a much less influential part of PSG.
With all that being said, none of the three PSG players made it onto my Ligue 1 player of the year fake ballot. Let’s take a look:
- Alexandre Lacazette
- Max Gradel
- Dimitri Payet
- Nabil Fekir
As recently as mid February, this would’ve been an easy lock for who would’ve been number one. Lacazette was scoring goals left and right for Lyon while doing a very passable imitation of a young Thierry Henry as Lyon surged all the way to first place in Ligue 1 until Lacazette’s injury versus Metz dampened the team.
He hasn’t been the same since his return to injury and though his goal scoring has still been excellent (0.58 goals per 90 rate post-injury), there’s still a lack of spark in his game (not to mention the fact that three of the six goals post injury have been from the penalty spot).
The type of chutzpah that he exhibited in the first half of the season that took Europe by storm. His most recent game against Caen on Saturday was probably the closest we’ve seen to peak Lacazette as he was threatening on the ball and attracted four or five Caen players wherever he went.
In contrast Gradel has arguably been the best player in Ligue 1 since he returned from the African Cup of Nations. He’s been at the heartbeat of everything that Saint Etienne do going forward whether it’s with him and Roman Hamouma leading the counter attacks or little one-twos he plays with midfielders/full backs as they make overlapping runs.
Whether it’s a dribble attempt or a shot inside the box, the amount of things that Gradel does for Saint Etienne makes it seem like there are two Max Gradel’s on the pitch instead of one.
And Saint Etienne need that type of unpredictability and chaos because outside of Gradel, there’s no one else on the squad who could consistently do what Gradel does. Hamouma is the closest thing but he’s a playmaker at heart so he doesn’t strike fear into opponents in the same way.
Saint Etienne rank eleventh in shots per game, ninth in shots inside the penalty area and eighth in expected goals for. Without Gradel playing at the level he has played this season, I’d hate to imagine where Saint Etienne would be without it (especially considering that since Gradel’s return, Saint Etienne have accumulated the third most points in Ligue 1 this season).
There’s another way of visualising the amount of value that a player can bring offensively. Sam Gregory over at StatsBomb wrote about looking at ways to visualise how much value a player can bring through the metric Weighted Chance Created plus (wCC+).
It’s a take on baseball’s Weighted Runs Created plus (wRC+), which attempts to quantify a player’s total offensive value. There’s limitations to this, like Sam pointed out but it’s a nice way to look at how much better a player has been versus league average at that position.
Using that metric we can look at both Gradel and Lacazette and see how they both stack up:
Max Gradel’s wCC+ = 165.33
Alexandre Lacazette’s wCC+ = 143.46
So Gradel has brought 65.33% more value as an attacking player versus Lacazette who “only” has brought 43.46% more value above replacement.
It would be interesting to see how these numbers would’ve fared back in early February when Lacazette was at the peak of his powers while Gradel was only beginning his ascent.
There’s a real argument to be had that Gradel has had just as good a season as Alexandre Lacazette both in terms of statistical impact and importance to the team, and that Gradel should be the Ligue 1 player of the year winner instead of Lacazette despite the amount of fanfare that Lacazette has gotten in comparison to the very few acclaim that Gradel has received.
In the end I decided to put Lacazette ahead of Gradel because Lacazette has played over 600 more minutes than Gradel this season while maintaining relatively similar efficiency on offense.
And while Lacazette overall has more talent surrounding him, he’s been the one that’s stirred the drink and propelled Lyon into the Ligue 1 title race that until very recently was there’s for the taking.
The leap from “very good” to “great” as a team is an underrated thing while we tend to overrate the leap from “good/mediocre” to “very good”.
Lacazette when he was at his best made Lyon a special team to watch, the type of squash bucking side that you would love to watch week after week.
It’s that and his similar production versus Gradel despite having considerably more minutes played that gives Lacazette the slight edge over Gradel.
Payet and Fekir are a somewhat distant third and fourth but they’ve had great seasons in their own right. Fekir has emerged as one of the brightest young stars in France and he’s been the perfect robin to Lacazette’s batman.
Payet under Bielsa has returned to being at his playmaking best as he’s the league leader in chances created in Ligue 1 by a fair margin.
Payet has suffered from the collapse that Marseille exhibited that ultimately could see them not even finish in the three Champions League spots after entering April only two points back of first place.
Fekir has been better than Lacazette for the last few weeks, especially his performances versus Montpellier and Saint Etienne but whenever Lacazette hasn’t played and Fekir has had to lead the line with another Lyon player in place of Lacazette, the same imagination and inventiveness hasn’t been on display.
It’s a bit of a shame that three PSG players got voted in as nominees for Ligue 1’s POTY because the amount of talent the trio of Gradel/Payet/Fekir has shown this season should be recognised by nominations for the award.
Alexandre Lacazette is a worthy choice if he turns out to be the winner of the award but some very good nominees have gone by the wayside in place of star appeal, especially if one of the PSG players turn out to win Ligue 1’s POTY.