The quest for the Ligue 1 crown

Ligue 1 only has 12/13 games left to decide a domestic champion, something that in the past two years was as easy a question to answer as whether the sky was blue.

Paris Saint-Germain is the two time defending champions, a club that have won the last two French domestic titles by an average of 10.5 points. A club filled with stars amongst stars in Ligue 1 and Europe: Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marco Verratti and more.

 

This season was supposed to represent more of the same, a brisk walk in the park while the club focused on the Champions League (something that former sporting director Leonardo once said).

It’s been anything but that. For the first time since 2011-12, there’s a real possibility that Ligue 1’s top team will be from one of the other 19 clubs. Both Olympique Marseille and Olympique Lyonnais have had resurgent and in some cases, surprising seasons whether through the eccentricity of a manager or the rewarding of youth and exuberance.

A look into the three candidates for the Ligue 1 crown including stats of my own and title winning % projections via BSports:

Marseille

Pseudo expected goal ratio: 0.607 (second)
Shots on target rate: 0.584 (fourth)
Team ratings: 592.1 (third)
Projected points: 72.6 (third)
Winning %: 6.8%

It seems like it was only just yesterday that Marseille were the feel good story of Ligue 1. Marcelo Bielsa was accidentally sitting on a cup of coffee, Andre Pierre-Gignac was scoring goals for fun at an unsustainable rate, Andre Ayew was doing rabona goals and Marseille on a club level were scoring almost everything that moved.

I wrote about this a month ago when the scoring started to dry up:

How can we then explain that Marseille surge? Well again, when your conversion percentage during that five game stretch is ~50%, chances are that you’re likely to score a boatload of goals. Between week four and week ten, Marseille scored 20 open play goals when their ExPG data had them pegged at 13.5.

 

Is it possible that Bielsa had some sort of part in how Marseille went considerably above how the ExPG data predicted during that eight week stretch? Perhaps.

 

Marseille did have two managers last season so there was certainly an ample amount of turmoil, and there’s something to be said for having a manager who on a national team level favored attack minded football. But even if we accept that, Marseille’s attack has pretty much returned back to what the pseudo ExPG data predicted.

The offense has continued to stall and perhaps a more pressing issue is the fact that the club has started to show their flaws defensively. Rod Fanni and Jeremy Morel are a shaky center back pairing for a club wanting to win a league title.

Brice Dja Djédjé has had his issues at RB and for the symbiotic relationship that Alaixys Romao and Gianelli Imbula have at the defensive midfield, the 4-2-3-1 can often look like a 4-5-1 or even a 3-6-6 when one of the fullbacks bomb forward.

It also doesn’t help Marseille that their last two games against Rennes and Saint Etienne ended with Marseille giving up late equalizers, denying them 4 extra points that could have them tied with Lyon for first in Ligue 1.

Key fixtures: vs Lyon (March 4), vs PSG (April 4), at Bordeaux (April 12), vs Monaco (May 9), at Lille (May 16)

Will Marseille win? Probably not. BSports project their title winning % at just 6.8%. My projected points has them finishing 3. Their road form has been putrid this season. Marseille’s last win away from the Stade Veledrome was their 2-1 victory against Caen on October 4, which featured a late winner from Gignac.

Although their two biggest matches are at home, making up four points with two teams above is a tall task considering the disruption in the camp and their tepid away form.

Paris St. Germain

Pseudo expected goal ratio: 0.607 (first)
Shots on target rate: 0.584 (first)
Team ratings: 592.1 (second)
Projected points: 74.6 (second)
Winning %:
48.6%

It’s been quite the rollercoaster season for PSG. Their win against Toulouse on Saturday allowed them to briefly go top of the table for the first time all season. In comparison to recent years, they haven’t been the dominant club in Ligue 1 both from an all encompassing standpoint and statistical measures.

There have been well publicised in fighting between some of the stars on the club. We’ve seen Zlatan Ibrahimovic in an almost dictator like way tell PSG players to not speak with the media because in his words “I’m the boss”.

The quality of football has been sub standard as well in contrast to their title winning seasons. Their only real dominating performance in the league was against Saint Etienne early in the season when they put five past them (and Saint Etienne had a Europa League game the Thursday of that same week so fatigue played a part as well).

PSG love to monopolise possession but there have been numerous games where they create very little from it. Zlatan for a good majority post heel injury looked like a tall and marauding number ten, just willingly passing the ball and not doing much else. Cavani has just been a rudimentary striker this season considering the amount of chances he’s been afforded.

But this is still a good side who are slowly rounding back into shape. Though they only came away with a draw away against Lyon, we saw a more purposeful PSG side and Zlatan whether it was better conditioning or the bright lights at the Stade Gerland, played more and more like the Zlatan of old.

They’ve conceded only 19 goals this season, tied for first with Monaco. They’re tied with Lille for least amount of shots conceded per game and their pseudo expected goals against this season is the best in Ligue 1. The defense has always been stifling and the hints of a more commanding PSG is manifesting itself.

Key fixtures:  at Monaco (March 1), at Bordeaux (March 14), at Marseille (April 14), vs Lille (April 25), vs Reims (May 23).

Will PSG win? It’d be quite anticlimactic if I just said PSG have slowly awaken and will win the title. Fortunately for you, I don’t think PSG will win the title this season. Of course they could easily win it and no one would be shocked.

BSports has PSG’s chances of winning the league at 48.6%, which is the highest of the three teams in contention. Their statistical makeup is of a genuine title contender, previous seasons notwithstanding.

If PSG could be tied or even on top of Ligue 1 after the Marseille match, it’d be quite hard to see either Lyon or Marseille reclaim the top spot and win the league, especially with how easier their schedule is compared to the other two squads.

In some ways, you could compare PSG this year to Manchester City last season, when the club won the league despite being on top for only 15 days. If PSG are the Manchester City in this equation, then the Liverpool FC are…

Olympique Lyonnais

Pseudo expected goal ratio: 0.548 (fourth)
Shots on target rate: 0.626 (second)
Team ratings: 647.1 (first)
Projected points: 80.8 (first)
Winning %:
43.7%

It’d be a bit disingenuous to say that Lyon are the plucky underdogs this season given their illustrious history that as recently as 2010 had the club in the Champions League semi finals.

But even the most optimistic of Lyon fans couldn’t have expected this. The drop off since has been stark, with the club having to start over and rebuild through their magnificent academy.

The payoff has been huge. Top of the league through 25/26 weeks along with very good underlying data as well. It’s also helped that they’ve had Anthony Lopes stop nearly shot possible. Lopes’ SV% of 77.6% is the highest in Ligue 1 this season.

Under new manager Hubert Fournier, their young attacking talent has been given free reigns to ruin Ligue 1 defenses through vicious counter attacks based on speed and skill.

That’s dried up in recent weeks due to Alexandre Lacazette going down with a hamstring injury (though he returned on Sunday to play against Nantes), but Lyon held valiantly in his absence and are still two points up on PSG. And you can’t help but make comparisons to the Liverpool side of last season that did similar things:

Young manger with attacking ideologies? Check

A striker (Lacazette) having a wonderful season all around? Check

A support striker (Nabil Fekir) scoring at a near similar rate? Check

Young position-less attacker (Clinton N’Jie) who on occasion has been an stimulating spark plug? Check

A decent-good portion of the squad being from the domestic country of the league? Check

Key fixtures: at Lille (February 28), at Montpellier (March 08), at Marseille (March 14), vs Saint Etienne (April 18), vs Bordeaux (May 16)

Will Lyon win? Yes… well maybe. The next three weeks will be as big a three week stretch as Ligue 1 has seen this season. While Lille haven’t been close to what they were last season, they’re still formidable at home and can kill a game off defensively.

Montpellier have also had their share of famous victories, including the 2-1 victory against Marseille and the 4-0 win against Nantes in consecutive weeks. The clash with Marseille doesn’t need too much run down on the significance it has on the title race.

If Lyon could survive that three week stretch, we could conceivably see Lyon win their first Ligue 1 title since 2007-08.

Author Details

Mohamed

Ligue 1 analyst/writer for Back Page Football. Data is often incorporated. Ligue 1 is really fun, just give it a chance!

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