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Ligue 1 Review – Week 6

“If Ligue 1 looks better, it’s because Neymar has arrived, because Mbappé and Balotelli stayed, that Sneijder has come in, but it’s also because Malcom hasn’t left. This is a player who is going to make a mark in this league.” While one may quibble about the inclusion of Wesley Sneijder in the same breath as Kylian Mbappé and Neymar in terms of the excitement they can potentially bring to this nascent Ligue 1 season, no one who has seen Bordeaux’s young winger Malcom play in the last two months can have much of argument about his being listed among that set of more well-known talents. This is true even if the man who made that statement, Canal + pundit Pierre Ménes, is, like many of his counterparts on these shores, prone to hyperbole.

On the scoresheet for the third time in four matches on Friday evening as Bordeaux continued their rise up the table with a 1-0 win at Toulouse, Malcom has undoubtedly been a revelation in the current campaign. Bordeaux had struggled to some degree to begin this season, highlighted by what many had seen as insufficient business in the transfer window and a frustrating Europa League exit to Hungarian side Videoton before Ligue 1 had even kicked off. Since the start of their top-flight campaign, however, Jocelyn Gourvennec’s charges have often played inspired football, and are one of just two unbeaten sides remaining in France’s top flight. Now sitting only one point off of Saint-Étienne in third, much of that inspiration has come from Malcom, whose goal Friday was a driven, intelligent effort to break open what had been a match in which anything beyond a scoreless draw seemed unlikely.

The goal, impressive though it was, hardly ranks among the best of Malcom’s career, nor even the best of the current season (see his jaw-dropping equaliser against Lyon), but it does provide, in microcosm, a good catalogue of how his abilities have turned him into a bona fide match-winner. The little Brazilian was deep in his own half, with Bordeaux mired in a typically claustrophobic Derby de la Garonne against regional rivals Toulouse, hardly in a threatening position.

As the hosts lost possession, Jérémy Toulalan sent Danish midfielder Lukas Lerager on his was with a simple pass and Bordeaux were off on the counter. Looking up, the Dane saw Malcom flying up the wing, his acceleration and pace on full display, but his pass was mediocre, behind the Brazilian and perhaps wider than he would’ve wanted as well.

Despite being in a less than ideal position upon receiving the ball, it mattered not to Malcom, who spotted the infield run of right-back Youssouf Sabaly. Following the ball into central midfield, Malcom lurked on the edge of the area as François Kamano feinted with the ball at his feet.

Seeing the Brazilian free in space, the former Bastia winger laid the ball back to Malcom, whose first-time shot arced across Alban Lafont before going in off the bar. In this sequence, Malcom at once demonstrated his pace, his vision, his intelligence of movement, and his finishing, hinting at the complete player he appears to be rapidly becoming.

The former three were always in evidence during his time at Corinthians, but he never was a prolific goal-scorer in a side that also featured Jadson and Vágner Love. His move from São Paulo (now seeming a snip at a rumoured €5m) had him billed as more of a player given to moments of brilliance, but not necessarily capable of taking charge of matches consistently.

Of course, part of that was down to his age, as he was just eighteen when he moved to France, but few expected much of the young winger besides the odd brilliant goal. This season, though, that seems to be on the verge of changing, the product of not only a player happy in his situation and driven to improve but also of a salient, and somewhat surprising decision by his manager.

While his attacking qualities have never been in doubt, there is also little argument to be made that Malcom had never had his strengths catered to tactically. Following on from that, Bordeaux have this season made a slight tactical shift to allow Malcom not only to get into more promising goal-scoring situations, but also to function as the team’s creative fulcrum. The team still plays the same 4-3-3 that saw them rise up the table in the second half of last season, but Gourvennec’s integration of new players has done much to boost Malcom’s ability to affect a match playing as an inverted winger. Last year, in that same 4-3-3, much of the creative duties currently falling to Malcom were often the province of the young Argentine midfielder Valentín Vada, who was nominally a box-to-box midfielder but generally played in the areas one would normally associate with a more orthodox number ten.

Despite Vada’s gifts, he is the type of player who has more success on the ball and in playing one-touch football than in picking out teammates across further distances. To that end, despite a decent campaign last year, he has been benched this season, often for Lerager. The Dane is undoubtedly a more prosaic presence, but his inclusion gives Malcom a necessarily freer role in attack, and more space into which to run. He has already responded in kind with three assists, a figure which sees him well on pace to eclipse the four he recorded last year, showing he is ready to assume the pressure of being the team’s focal point in attack both as a creative presence and a goal-scorer.

In addition to his electric presence on the pitch, Malcom has also been a boon to his team off it as well. Bordeaux’s record with Brazilian players in the recent past has been decidedly mixed, perhaps save now-Galatasaray right-back Mariano. Despite centre back Pablo never doing much to settle at the club, Les Girondins nevertheless added both Jonathan Cafu, from Ludogorets, and Otávio, from Atlético Paranaense, this summer. Neither player is lacking in experience, with Cafu having delivered a strong performance in last year’s Champions’ league, but Malcom has taken a lead role in helping the pair settle, according to Gourvennec.

“You just need to see him every day. He is still just as joyous and galvanising for the squad as ever. He has even been acting as a translator for his new Brazilian team-mates. He is not at all affected by everything that is being said. Even if he is still young, he is also very mature.” That maturity, combined with his patent talents on the pitch, and a system tailored to his playing style, have made him undoubtedly one of the league’s most impressive prospects, a complete package both in his play and his character.

Linked with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in January, more concrete interest arose this summer from Germany. Both Borussia Dortmund, in letting go of Ousmane Dembélé, and Wolfsburg were in hot pursuit of the player’s signature, but Bordeaux rebuffed all suitors. As Ménes rightly mentions, he has stayed and will do much to improve the league, as well as his own stock given a guaranteed place in the eleven.

Looking back now on what seemed a poor start to the season for Bordeaux, one can see a potentially huge silver lining, as the team, without extra European matches, can focus on the league, perhaps with the potential to be this year’s Nice as a surprise package. A massive matchup against Paris Saint-Germain Saturday week will be a truer measure of the club’s potential than their foes in the early going, but if the season’s opening stages are anything by which to go, Bordeaux, with Malcom at the fore, will be well worth watching.

 

1 | Last season, Metz should have been relegated. They finished with the most goals conceded (72) and the worst goal difference (-33) but a breakout campaign from Ismaila Sarr and the goals of winter signing Cheick Diabaté kept them up. Having lost both players over the summer, Metz started the year with five straight defeats, however, a surprise 1-0 win at previously undefeated Angers on Sunday afternoon deservedly gave them their first points of the campaign.

To start with, Metz’s attempts to replace their talismans fell worryingly short. New signings Nolan Roux and Emmanuel Rivière are renowned for their wayward finishing and seemed barely able to fill Diabaté’s shoes between them. Although this may yet prove to be the case in the long run, Rivière netted on his debut, and should have had another, before PSG ran out 5-1 winners last week, a game Metz contested for longer than the score suggests, whilst Roux’s header snatched the points from Angers on Sunday afternoon.

Although the difference at the Stade Raymond Kopa was, in truth, Togolese winger Mathieu Dossevi. Dossevi signed in the final few days of the window from Standard Liege were his form had dipped in recent months but over the last two seasons has proven his pace, trickery and vision can prove to be match winning. The waspish Dossevi was a nuisance all game while his cross set up Roux’s winning header here after his persistence allowed Riviere to equalise last week. Whether Philippe Hinschberger’s men will have enough to survive the season is still very much uncertain, but with Dossevi, there is certainly cause for optimism.

2 | When Marcelo Bielsa arrived in Lille this summer, the feeling that his tenure would be either glorious or disastrous, with no middle ground, was difficult to avoid. After a 1-0 loss at Guingamp amounted to Lille’s third defeat in five, scoring just once in that time, LOSC are closer to disaster than glory. In typical style, Bielsa’s fledgling Lille reign has been littered with the bizarre. Understandably El Loco is trying to build a squad suited to his specific requirements but his ruthless attitude in doing so has oddly left one of Ligue 1’s best goalkeepers, Vincent Enyeama, exiled, sanctioned the sale of Lille’s premier forward, Nicolas de Préville, to a direct top 6 rival in Bordeaux while the battling midfielder Xeka left for Dijon despite some influential displays after signing from Braga at Christmas.

This coupled with some odd tactical moves such as Brazilian midfielder Thiago Maia’s deployment at left-back against Bordeaux, who looked lost and was subsequently sent off, and putting the 5’9 de Preville in goal with all subs used and keeper Mike Maignan sent off at Strasbourg, amounts to a hint of chaos. The most confusing aspect of Bielsa’s admittedly short spell so far is that his Lille side have been infuriatingly dull.

The high-octane, gung-ho football of his season at Marseille has been replaced by a blunt, disjointed outfit lacking in flare. Lille are just 6 games into what the club hope will be a long term appointment and a disparate group of players need time to coalesce but, given his track record, it may not take much more for the eccentric Bielsa to have other ideas.

3 | Until last week’s defeats at Nice it seemed as if Monaco, although weakened by the departures of Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva and Tiemoué Bakayoko, they were able to cope just fine with their losses after some imperious Ligue 1 displays to start the year. However, the 4-0 mauling at the Allianz Riviera showed that, although they may still be an effective talented unit, they won’t be able to counter punch as powerfully or as often in their current guise which has encouraged Leonardo Jardim to adjust Monaco’s style this week.

The creditable 1-1 draw at RB Leipzig this week saw marauding yet flakey full back Djibril Sidibé move forward into a 5-man midfield, joined by Youri Tielemans, leaving Radamel Falcao on his own in attack. This is a setup Monaco will look to employ repeatedly this year for sterner tests against better sides and although some reigning in is a little disappointing, this is a prudent switch that suits their squad. Tielemans and Moutinho’s skill-sets both benefit from a 3-man central midfield, Falcao remains adept at leading the line on his own while moving Sidibé forward plays to his strengths and affords Jardim a little more solidarity on the flanks. They may not overwhelm Champions’ League teams this year but Jardim and Monaco remain a threat.

Results: PSG 2-0 Lyon, Monaco 3-0 Strasbourg, Dijon 0-1 St Étienne, Toulouse 0-1 Bordeaux, Amiens 0-2 Marseille, Nantes 1-0 Caen, Rennes 0-1 Nice, Guingamp 0-1 Lille, Angers 0-1 Metz, Troyes 0-1 Montpellier.

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