Les Underdogues – How Lille are threatening Parisian dominance

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This wasn’t always the lay of the land, however. That period of monopoly followed on from half a decade where five different sides lifted the title, as French football received a shot in the arm after Lyon lifted seven titles in succession during the naughties.

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For context, not since 1974 has there been five different winners in as many years in the English game, whilst the same hasn’t occurred in Italy since 1989, and it is yet to ever happen in Spain.

One of those sides was Lille who took home only their fourth Ligue Un title during the 2010/11 season, as Eden Hazard helped to carry a quietly talented crop of players to their first Championship crown in almost 60 years – I wonder whatever happened to him?

Of course, Hazard eventually moved to Chelsea in 2012 and went on to become one of the greatest players the Premier League has seen this century – winning two titles and the FA Cup, before departing for Real Madrid in 2019.

Lille haven’t touched silverware since that 2010/11 season (where they also won the French Cup), and cases like Eden Hazard have been one of the reasons why.

In the decade since, Les Dogues have said goodbye to the likes of Nicolas Pépé, Gabriel Magalhães, Victor Osimhen, Rafael Leão, Thiago Mendes, Sofiane Boufal, Yves Bissouma and Lucas Digne, making progress hard to come by.

During this time, Lille have finished everywhere from 2nd to 17th, appointed eight different managers and nearly suffered the ignominy of relegation during Marcelo Bielsa’s ill-fated spell in charge during 2017/18.

Whilst El Loco was hindered by the ever-changing landscape of the Lille first-team squad and boardroom, his replacement – former Saint-Étienne manager Christophe Galtier – has worked wonders at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

After steering the club to 17th following Bielsa’s sacking, Galtier transformed his side and led them to an unprecedented 2nd place finish in 2018/19, meaning Champions League football was headed to northern France for the first time in five years.

To do so, the diligent Frenchman brought in the shrewd additions of Jonathan Ikoné, Rafael Leão, Jonathan Bamba, Loïc Rémy and José Fonte for a combined fee of just £5.75m, whilst recouping over £50m on the likes of Kévin Malcuit, Ibrahim Amadou, Anwar El Ghazi and the aforementioned Bissouma.

They may have finished bottom of their Champions League group and 4th in last season’s Ligue Un standings, but the fact Galtier transformed what was a mess of a football club, into one of the country’s best, is absolutely staggering, and what they could achieve this term would cap it all off.

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Last summer, top scorer Osimhen and star centre-back Gabriel left the club for a total of £86m, with the combined £31m arrivals of young forward Jonathan David and Sven Botman brought in to replace them.

Despite this, however, with just three games to go, Lille sit aloft the Ligue Un table, a point ahead of PSG. Through all the upheaval, the moneyball, the financial crisis in the country, the wheeling and dealing, Lille have surmounted the most powerful team in all the land and are just three victories away from reclaiming the title.

How have they managed to so far resist the superpower of PSG, then? It starts with the Parisians themselves, as all is not well at the Parc de Prince.

Despite romping to yet another title last season and reaching their first ever Champions League Final, tensions between sporting director Leonardo and then manager Thomas Tuchel were always rising, with the club’s failings in the transfer window and a poor start to the season worsening the already sour mood at the club.

Their mammoth European run last term left little in the way of a summer break and it told, as the current Champions fell to Metz, Marseille and Monaco in the early season.

Off the pitch, the loss of talented youngster Tanguy Nianzu on a free transfer to Bayern Munich angered Tuchel, as did the club’s signing of Danilo Pereira in the wake of their failed pursuit of Antonio Rüdiger – Tuchel’s top target. The German publicly spoke of his discontent last October, which left his job hanging by a thread.

All of this culminated in PSG sitting third in the league behind Lyon and Lille come Christmas Day, with the club’s hierarchy taking the decision to fire the 47-year-old and bring Mauricio Pochettino back to the club.

Despite leading the side to the Champions League semi-finals, ‘Poch’s’ total of 19 points from his opening nine league games represented the worst start of any manager during the Qatari era, and the Argentine has since failed to kickstart Les Rouge et Bleu’s usual league dominance.

More importantly, however; Lille have simply been better this season, as Galtier has constructed a dynamic, hard-working and organised side who are well balanced with a mix of youth and invaluable experience.

The latter of those includes the aforementioned José Fonte, with the 37-year-old now skippering the side over two years after leaving a disastrous spell with West Ham. Benjamin André has been rock solid in the centre of the park, whilst summer arrival Burak Yılmaz has been a surprising revelation up front – even at the age of 35.

He has scored goals wherever he’s been, netting more than a goal every other game for his last five clubs, but they have all been spread across Turkey and China. His first foray into the western-European game has been a resounding success, though, as he has managed 13 goals in 25 league games so far this season – no wonder they call him ‘The King’.

These players have been well complemented by the fearless youth of Renato Sanches, Jonathan Ikoné, Boubakary Soumare, Domagaj Bradarić, Jonathan David, Sven Botman and Timothy Weah, with the likes of Yusuf Yazıcı, Luiz Araújo and Jonathan Bamba showing that they are beginning to hit their peak.

Their recruitment in recent years is what has truly led them to this position, however. They have demanded premium prices for the jewels in their crown, whilst replacing them for a small percentage of what they sold them for – and have stayed competitive.

The XI that took to the field in their crucial 1-0 win over PSG last month cost just £67.5m, compared to the mouthwatering £543m of their nouveau riche counterparts – that is simply staggering, and the perfect showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Of all the signings they have made, the two best ones haven’t been on the pitch. Galtier has proved to be a masterstroke in the dugout, but the work Football Director Luis Campos achieved during his three year spell at the club up until last December can’t be understated – with a sense of Déjà Vu around his performance.

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As mentioned earlier, the last side to beat PSG to the title was Monaco, where Campos again worked as a director between 2013 and 2016. He was responsible for eight of the typical starting XI that Les Monégasques used during their title-winning 2016/17 side, including the likes of Fabinho, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar.

The above players set Monaco back just £21m, but the club recouped over £145m when the trio were later sold. He bought into a sustainable ‘buy cheap, sell high’ system, and classed his club as a ‘good showcase’ for young stars. Much like at Lille, he won’t mind being used as a stepping stone – but he wants success to follow.

On the pitch, Galtier typically sets up in either a 4-4-2 or a shape more recognised as a 4-2-2-2, giving Les Dogues defensive solidity but also making them free-flowing in attack.

Starting on the defensive end, Lille have the best defensive record in the league having conceded just 22 goals in 35 games as well as facing the fewest shots on target in the league, whilst Mike Maignan sits atop the clean sheets tally with 19 – five ahead of the world-class Keylor Navas.

The defensive line is rigid and has the ability to sit in a mid, low or deep block to nullify the opposition, with the midfield and attacking lines high press helping to force their opponents into mistakes or to simply lump the ball up the pitch.

Fonte and Botman have formed a rock solid partnership in the back four, whilst André and Soumaré just ahead of them have helped to shield the back four terrifically. 

This level of structure has meant that, quite simply, Lille just don’t lose, with only Inter Milan suffering fewer than their three league defeats all season in Europe’s top five leagues – with none of those coming against their title rivals.

At the other end of the pitch, Galtier has been able to call upon the versatility and supreme consistency of the aforementioned Bamba, Ikoné, Yılmaz, Yazıcı, Araújo and David, with those six players netting 41 of Lille’s 59 goals this term.

The current jewel in the crown out of those is 21-year-old Jonathan David, who looks destined to be the next high-profile player headed onto the conveyor belt out of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Having signed from Gent in the summer for a club-record £24.3m fee, the Canadian began slowly in France, netting just once in his first eleven league games this season.

However, his form has picked up since the turn of the year and David has now scored nine in his last 15 games, including the pivotal winner in the club’s memorable 1-0 against PSG in April. Signed originally to be the centrepiece of Lille’s assault to requalify for the Champions League, he’s now helping his side all the way to the summit.

A terrific dribbler who is capable of playing as a striker or just off a pair, David has an ability to link up play and cause chaos with his movement, but is also a lethal finisher who is comfortable off either foot.

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With the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal already linked, he seems destined to follow in the footsteps of club legend Eden Hazard – the Losc faithful will just be hoping he can bring Le Championnat back home before he collides with superstardom.

Away from David, his name sakes Ikoné and Bamba have once again been terrific on the flanks this term, with Galtier giving them the license to roam inside and create space for the onrushing Zeki Çelik and Bradarić from full-back and open the opportunity for the wide players to interchange passes with the more technical players infield.

This adds a whole new dimension to Les Dogues’ attacking phase, and goes a way to explaining how they have outscored all but three teams in Ligue Un this term. 

To summarise; Lille are rock solid all over the pitch. They’re organised, disciplined and driven by teamwork in the backline, supported well by strong players in the spine of the team and blessed with an absolute phalanx of game winners and difference makers in the sharp end of the pitch.

All of this is held together by a meticulous, tactically elegant and overall world-class manager in Christophe Galtier, who has performed one of the most underappreciated rebuild jobs in modern football history. A lot has happened since Lille last brought home the title, and that can’t be forgotten.

Do yourself a favour, and watch the man himself react to his side’s memorable comeback victory over Lyon from the other week – pure box office.

@loscTHIS coach ❤️ #OLLOSC #DoguesJusquauBout #LOSC #Lille #OL #Lyon #Football #Ligue1UberEats♬ son original – LOSC

So long as they manage to match or better PSG’s results over the final three games of the campaign, we will have a new and unfancied king of French football.

Allez Les Dogues!

The Author

James Pendleton

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