and return with their Ligue 1 talking points column for the first time in 2017.
1 | Gourcuff’s Hesitation
The departure of Paul-Georges Ntep to Wolfsburg was a disappointment, to be sure, but fans of Rennes must be at least a little worried after seeing the way that manager Christian Gourcuff set up his team for Saturday’s visit by Paris Saint-Germain. When the club released the list of eleven players set to start ahead of the match, there was much general confusion, as he seemed to have named three central defensive midfielders in Sanjin Prcic, Gelson Fernandes and Benjamin André.
Knowing full well Gourcuff’s stubborn adherence to his favoured 4-4-1-1, theories and hypotheticals were being bandied about, ranging from Prcic being played wide on the right to a 3-5-1-1 with Romain Danzé pushed forward into midfield.
It turned out that Fernandes ended up being used wide, and to no great effect. The Swiss international has formed a decent partnership with André in central midfield, but he lacks the pace and dynamism to be effective going forward in a wider role. If Gourcuff had sought to utilise the veteran for his defensive capabilities, as one would surmise, that theory was promptly undone by the performance of Julian Draxler, who wasted no time endearing himself to PSG’s fans by netting the match’s solitary goal.
Gourcuff did remove Fernandes for Adama Diakhaby with 30 minutes to play, with Rennes looking immediately brighter. It is understandable to affect caution against the champions, but playing at home, Gourcuff should have shown more ambition from the off; Adrien Hunou and Pedro Henrique were also options. Hopefully for Rennes’ supporters, this caution was merely a matter of the opposition, and will not continue going forward, given both the clubs’ ambitions and the potential of the youngsters. – E.D.
2 | Sébastien Corchia may have outgrown Lille
Lille have had a turbulent 18 months. Should Marcelo Bielsa be appointed, Friday night’s 1-1 draw with ASSE is rumoured to be interim boss Patrick Collot’s last game in charge. He would be their fifth head coach in less than two years. René Girard’s reign faltered and petered out at the end of the 2014/15 season, Hervé Renard’s dire spell at the helm came to nothing and Frédéric Antonetti was unable to maintain any sort of presentable form without the mercurial Sofiane Boufal.
The only consistently excellent (or even decent) performer, Boufal aside, during this period has been full-back Sébastien Corchia. It is both a testament to the right-back’s ability and the lacklustre LOSC attack that he has often been their most potent offensive weapon. His crossing highlights reel would resemble some of David Beckham’s early work, with the pace and whip he provides that teases forwards and frightens defenders. Beckham is also an influence Corchia draws on for another his weapons; the dead ball, Bastia being his latest victim in this regard back in October.
Having received a call up from Didier Deschamps and continuing to display the technical ability and defensive intensity that make him such an effective outlet, it all seems to suggest that he may be starting to outgrow Lille in their current state.
The 27 year old’s quality is standing out a mile in the vast majority of the Northern club’s outings this season. It is unlikely that he will leave in January but a summer move to a bigger club should be in the offing in a bid to develop his career and realise the potential he possess. – A.W.
3 | Norman Conquest
Away from home, Patrice Garande’s Caen have been the worst team in the league, earning just a solitary point in a scoreless draw against Bordeaux. At home, though, the club have been decent enough, winning six of ten matches and drawing another two. The divide in form has been the primary reason for the club’s relegation worries, as failure to record much on the road has left the club just a point above relegation, albeit with a game in hand. Those road worries loomed large ahead of Sunday’s visit from Lyon; after hosting Les Gones, the club’s next three matches are against relegation rivals, including daunting trips to Nantes and Bastia.
Even with Caen playing at home, though, Lyon were a daunting proposition, having shaken off the absence of Rachid Ghezzal against Montpellier in the Coupe de France to win 5-0. Lyon started the stronger, but an early own goal from Maxwel Cornet gave Caen an unexpected lead, and Garande’s charges were quick to build on it, with Ivan Santini converting a penalty.
The team also forced Lyon ‘keeper Anthony Lopes into several fine saves, but what stood out more than Caen’s improved attacking play was the way the hosts imposed themselves physically, committing 26 fouls in the 3-2 win. Lyon responded in kind with 21, but several of the visitors’ younger players, most notably Nabil Fékir, looked visibly frustrated with Caen’s approach. It is never pretty to see a team take this route, but needs must when facing relegation, making the match a testament to Garande’s methods. – E.D.
4 | Balance is Key for Monaco
20 Ligue 1 games, 60 goals. A ratio of exactly three goals a game this deep in a league campaign is impressive anywhere on the continent but in France, where goals are scarce and those that regularly score them rarer still, it is an especially sizeable feat. Leonardo Jardim’s charges put Marseille to the sword for the second time this season, again putting four past Rudi Garcia’s men.
A prodigious lob (assuming you think he meant it) from Lemar, a classic Falcao breakaway and dink and two intelligent runs from Bernardo Silva continued to highlight that Monaco have goals, and quality, in all areas. So much so that 25 million Euro man João Moutinho cannot get near the first team.
But what continues to impress about the way in which Jardim sets up Les Monegasques is the finely tuned balance of his 4-4-2. The wide areas are where this is particularly prevent, Lemar and Silva work superbly in tandem on the flanks, attacking together and covering together, both men offering similar threats and plying their trades directly in parallel to one another.
The same can be said for the full-backs; Djibril Sidibé continues to go from strength to strength (he himself could have had a brace at the Vélodrome) and much like Lille’s Corchia is a genuine attacking threat with Almamy Touré posing a similar problem from the right, if a little less dynamic. Monaco are not just in form, they are a wonderfully designed and extremely effective footballing unit. Manchester City and the rest of Ligue 1 should be very worried. – A.W.
5 | Nice Guys Finished
Suffering from injuries to Remi Walter, Valentin Eysseric and Younes Belhanda, and with Jean Michael Seri at the Africa Cup of Nations, Nice put out their strongest possible side on Sunday against Metz, but were unable to record a win, even with their best eleven. Nice persisted with three at the back, but this time in a 3-4-3 with Dalbert and Arnaud Souquet as wing-backs.
Ricardo Pereira was pushed even further forward, used as winger opposite Arnaud Lusamba as Alassane Pléa played as a lone striker. The changes still allowed Nice to dominate possession, but that was only to be expected against a Metz side who are joint-bottom in the division in that regard. What it limited, though, was an auxiliary goal-scoring threat alongside Pléa.
Normally, the former Lyon man plays in close proximity to Mario Balotelli, cutting in from the wing, or to Younes Belhanda, who plays almost as a support striker, the wingbacks providing the width. However, in this regard, Nice failed miserably, as Lusamaba too often tucked inside, forcing Dalbert further forward.
On the opposite flank, Pereira did manage to stretch play, but Souquet sat deeper, leaving Pléa woefully isolated from the kind of link-up play, to which he is accustomed. In midfield, with Renaud Cohade dropping deep to support Chris Philipps and Fallou Diagne, Nice were then summarily outnumbered, meaning that even in preserving the amount of time that they were on the ball, their potency was definitely lacking.
Mario Balotelli and the underrated Eysseric are set to return soon, as is Walter, and if Nice are going to continue their title pursuit, a return to the team’s early 3-5-2 is imperative for Favre, who was no doubt under the spell of wanting to put out the most talented set of players. – E.D.
6 | Sala Salvation for Nantes?
Goals have been the issue at the Stade de la Beaujoire for a while. Only a hapless Troyes have been outscored in the previous two seasons by Nantes and every attempt to add a little more ruthlessness and potency to their attack has failed miserably under both Michel der Zakarian and René Girard.
Yacine Bammou has proved he cannot be trusted with the burden, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson return was celebrate with much fanfare but continues to strike and Mariusz Stepinski has not proved to be as prolific as had been hoped. However, with Sergio Conceição has come a little more consistency as a settled first choice 11 seems to be emerging and this has benefitted the remaining striker, Emiliano Sala.
Sala has played 90 minutes in all of Conceição fixtures so far, scoring three times and providing a solid focal point for the attack, performing well all round. The confidence shown in him by his new boss has allowed Sala to settle into more of a rhythm after be a afforded an extended run in the side.
The 6-0 loss to Lyon that saw Girard moved on has been the only game that he has missed, aside from a suspension, since September and the sharpness he showed in stealing between TFC centre backs to head in Les Canaris’ winner at Toulouse this weekend (his 7th of the year) has come as a direct result of that extended run in the 11. Nantes may have found a solution to their striking issues from within. – A.W.
7 | Lorient Changes Successful, Again
Things looked bleak for Lorient after going behind at home to Guingamp, as Les Merlus were set to gift their Breton rivals a first road win since October. Yannis Salibur’s instinctive finish separated the two sides but despite dominating possession and creating a host of chances, the hosts lacked a cutting edge in the absence of Benjamin Moukandjo.
However, as he had at the weekend, manager Bernard Casoni was once again at the ready with attack-minded changes. And, just as it had against Nice in the Coupe de France, the former Bastia manager’s bravery and tactical nous were duly rewarded.
Defensive midfielder Wesley Lautoa was removed, shifting the team’s approach from a possession-based 4-3-3 to a more dynamic 4-2-3-1. His replacement, winger Romain Philippoteaux, delivered a fine cross for Majeed Waris to head in the equaliser, and Lorient were on the prowl, with Guingamp responding in kind by bringing on Nill de Pauw for Étienne Didot, but to no avail.
Lorient cut Guingamp to ribbons, and even if the final scoreline might be a bit generous, the hosts, as they had in the cup, were similarly deserving of three points. French football has never been a place known for its attack-mindedness, but Casoni has done his best to change that, making the best of a talented group that lacked focus. Lorient may still be firmly in the relegation zone, but their willingness to play for the win under their new manager will be key if they do survive. – E.D.
8 | Angers have a tough month ahead
January is going to be a long month for Angers. Absences due to long term knee issues for first choice keeper Alexandre Letellier, full-back Yoann Andreu and forward Billy Ketkeophomphone will this month be supplemented by the loss of top scorer Famara Diedhiou, premier winger Karl Toko-Ekambi, breakthrough star Nicolas Pépé and talismanic captain Cheikh Ndoye to the Africa Cup of Nations.
The AFCON might have come at a disastrous time for Moulin’s men as their form before Christmas was worrisome, moving from playing well and not getting good results to playing poorly and still not getting good results.
They are at their lowest ebb since they won promotion back to Ligue 1 at the end of 2014/15 and with huge games against fellow strugglers Metz and the out of form Toulouse coming up before the African competition is over, they could lose out on some crucial points in what is now a bid to stay in the division having slipped into the relegation play-off spot despite a creditable point from the visit of Bordeaux this weekend.
Moulin has made a bid to reinforce his creaking attack, but it remains to be seen if the likes of the inexperienced Jonathan Bamba and the less than prolific Kevin Berigaud (9 goals in 71 Ligue 1 games for Montpellier) will be enough to plug the gaps. – A.W.
9 | Hantz Inspires Respect
After a thoroughly upsetting week for Montpellier manager Frédéric Hantz, owing to his war of words with owner Louis Nicollin, the club faced Dijon at home and thinks looked far from rosy. Dijon were missing Fouad Chafik and Mehdi Abeid due to the Africa Cup of Nations, but have been a consistently dangerous opponent, recording wins over Lyon, Rennes and Toulouse.
Boasting the league’s sixth-best attack, Dijon have been the most impressive of the promoted sides, and looked set to wreak havoc on a Montpellier side reeling from injuries, loan departures and their own AFCON absentees.
Montpellier started the match with just four outfield players on the bench, one of whom, Alexandre Llovet, was an academy product with just eight minutes of league play under his belt. Things looked at their worst when Laurent Pionnier fumbled a long ball over the top to Julio Tavares, allowing the Cape Verdean international to round him and tap in to give the visitors the lead after having spurned several earlier chances.
Montpellier responded, however, with a command display in the second half, punctuated by a sublime goal from Jerôme Roussillon. It was the kind of reply Hantz would have been eager to accept, and says a fair bit about the players’ perception of Nicollin’s comments. In a none-too-subtle way, the squad acknowledged their frustrations with the owner’s baiting of the manager and laid down an impressive statement of intent as regards Hantz’s ability. – E.D.
10 | Nancy’s squad continues to be the star but Issiar Dia’s importance continues to grow…
Angel Correa is Ligue 1’s tinkerman. Nancy’s Uruguayan coach has incessantly rotated his side in recent months utilising the depth he is able to call upon, in what is an evenly balanced squad with few stars, to good effect. Having started the season terribly, ASNL are now up to 11th having lost just twice in 15 games (away at OM and Monaco).
However, as the year drew to a close two men did emerge as important enough to become immune to Correa’s seemingly ubiquitous rotation policy. Clément Lenglet played 90 minutes in all but one game this season (for which he was suspended) and his calm, cultured, effective defending at centre back made him crucial to Correa’s plans.
However, Lenglet was sold to Sevilla over the break meaning much of his responsibility as a leader and a talisman now falls to the second of those players. Senegalese forward Issiar Dia had to fight to even earn a contract at Nancy this summer, training with the team for a long period before Correa was convinced to take a chance on him after six months in the Middle East following an intermittent run at GFC Ajaccio in the first half of the year.
Nevertheless, this season Dia has been a revelation. His trickery, pace and willingness to take on defenders has been a valuable outlet for Nancy in their increasingly defensive performances. Dia’s winner in Saturday night’s clash with Bastia was his third goal of the season. With Lenglet departed, Correa will need him to accelerate that tally and maintain his form if ASNL are to continue their excellent form. – A.W.
Team of the Week: Maxime Dupé, FC Nantes; Thomas Meunier, Paris Saint-Germain, Mathieu Peybernes, FC Lorient, Cedric Varrault, Dijon FCO, Jerome Roussillon, Montpellier HSC; Bernardo Silva, AS Monaco, Marco Verratti, Paris Saint-Germain, Renaud Cohade, FC Metz, Julian Draxler, Paris Saint-Germain; Alexandre Lacazette, Olympique Lyonnais, Ivan Santini, SM Caen.
Goal of the Week: Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco.