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FEATURE | Lille’s mixed start raises more & more questions about their project & Marcelo Bielsa

Ah, where to begin with Lille’s last few weeks? With the transfer window closing earlier this month and the international break having just ended, Lille fans and Ligue 1 followers would have perhaps thought that this would be a period of calm for the Hauts-de-France club. Unfortunately, it was a bit more lively than they perhaps would have liked or expected, beginning with the final day of the transfer window.

Gérard Lopez’s LOSC completed much of their business early with some of the new, younger faces like Ponce and Pepé to reinforce their current squad, but the end of the summer window was marked by a clear-out of the squad. Frenchman Eric Bauthéac agreed the termination of his contract in Lille to move to the Brisbane Roar in Australia — a fairly uncommon destination for European footballers, with Marko Basa, Julian Palmieri and Lenny Nangis also leaving for nothing.

But, what left many in shock was when Lille had announced the finalization of Nicolas de Preville’s transfer to Bordeaux. Last season, he managed 14 goals in a weaker, struggling Lille team and started off this campaign scoring twice, and an unforgettable match against Strasbourg where he played in goal following Mike Maignan’s foolishness and Lille not being able to make any more substitutions. But allowing one of, if not, the key attacking element(s) to leave your club on the last day without a viable backup plan seems poorly managed.

Plus the uncertain explanation in the media has left fans dumbfounded. Lille were reportedly in need of funds, which is why they sold to Bordeaux. However, when speaking on Team Duga earlier in September, Rio Mavuba, who was ousted from Lille, said that he had been given the same explanation, but also that Marcelo Bielsa wanted to go with new players. This bolt in the blue seems to lack a clear explanation to the media and to the fans.

Before coming up against Les Girondins on Friday, Lille had taken only one point from their last three games which included matches against Caen, Strasbourg and Angers — teams that Lille should have managed points against. Briefly put, Lille needed a reaction against Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, Lille went into last weekend with a depleted squad with injuries including Thiago Mendes, while some players were rushed back, perhaps too soon, like Yassine Benzia and Ibrahim Amadou. Lille started off in a 4-2-3-1, with Thiago Maia deputising at left back. And unfortunately for him, the game did not start out as well as he would have liked.

After fifteen minutes of play he picked up a yellow for a tackle on Bordeaux winger Malcolm. It went from bad to worse, when he picked up a second yellow for a high foot to the face on the very same player soon after, reducing Lille to ten men. Admittedly, he was out of position for this match, but Maia showed a lack of discipline and control during the early stages of the game, and that potentially cost his team, which is unfortunate considering that he has showed encouraging signs in previous games.

The rest of the match included very few clear-cut chances. Les Dogues’ opportunities included a Nicolas Pepé shot in the early stages of the match and an Anwar El Ghazi half-volley – neither of which caused Benoît Costil much trouble. A slightly uninspired afternoon for Bielsa’s men following Maia’s marching orders.

As for Bordeaux, they may feel hard done by. With around an hour’s worth of play at a numerical advantage and a talented enough strikeforce, they could have gone home with the win. Bordeaux had two reasonably good chances. The first a blocked Nicolas de Préville shot, and the second was a well worked one-two between Cafu and Sankharé, putting the latter in a one-on-one with Mike Maignan, only to put it wide. Despite Lille’s valiant effort and determination to remain organized and fight on the pitch while being a man down, Bordeaux will regret not being able to put the game to bed.

Whilst Lille’s new sporting project is trying to move away from the boring football that was previously played, Bielsa can be rightfully criticised. Even if a point against Bordeaux is not the worst of results, questions can be asked about his player management. Although the explanation is slightly unclear (at the time of writing), De Preville’s departure raises many questions. Plus Bielsa’s many first half substitutions have left many curious and wondering what Lille’s game plan actually is.

While Bielsa has shaken things up significantly at Lille, many believed that he would have used the pre-season to revolutionise things faster than has been the case, in a similar vein to his success at Marseille. It is important to remember that the quality of the players and the context is not at all the same. Furthermore, while the fan’s impatience is understandable, Marseille’s results did not come immediately either.

With this group of players, there seems to be a learning curve. But, that does not mean that better results and play will not eventually come. Rio Mavuba summed it up best in his interview on Team Duga: Lille need time. The hard work and effort is there, and Marcelo Bielsa is satisfied with his players’ mentality and work ethic, so while Lille’s objective of finishing in the top five seems more and more unlikely, only time will yield better results on the pitch.

 


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