How do you make a team full of “superstars”, one that is bank-rolled by a gulf state, finish second in a one-horse race? We are of course talking about Ligue 1’s surprising (or perhaps not so surprising) photo finish.
Well, the answer to this question contains two simple parts; Paris Saint Germain faltered while Lille, a plucky outsider, performed well beyond expectation. Given PSG’s decade of dominance, few punters would have anticipated that Lille were about to claim their first title since Eden Hazard was gracing Stade Pierre-Mauroy. And so, we are going to explore the latter here then worry about the former later.
The real shame here is that the vultures are already circling and picking at the club.
Following the unsuccessful appointment and abrupt departure of Marcelo Bielsa in December 2017, Christophe Galtier took charge of a club in turmoil. Frankly, Lille were looking down the barrel of relegation. Les Dogues fought hard to stay up, finishing seventeenth and safe in Galtier’s first half-season in charge, and their fortunes have been on an upward trajectory ever since. In his first two (full) seasons, he has managed to qualify for Europe as Lille admirably finished second in 2018-2019 and then fourth in a season ravaged by COVID. Sadly, Galtier left the club in May, ending on a high as they say.
A key driver of this rapid improvement, and ultimately this title win, has been the work of transfer guru Luis Campos (who also left the club, back in December). The recruitment policy at Lille has been highly successful since Galtier and Campos got a full transfer window together in 2018. It is no wonder that this is a model that clubs across Europe are seeking to copy, with many of them gunning straight for the source and chasing the signature of Campos for themselves. Faced with losing Yves Bissouma and Kévin Malcuit for a combined €15m in the summer of 2018, Campos brought in future title winners Jonathan Ikoné (now linked to Dortmund), Zeki Çelik (linked with Tottenham) from the obscurity of the Turkish second division, Jonathan Bamba and José Fonte as well as Rafael Leão for less than €9m combined. This feat was repeated the following year after the sales of Nicolas Pépé for €72m, Leão for €15m and Thiago Mendes for €25m who were replaced by Victor Osimhen for €22.4 and Renato Sanches (linked with Roma) for €20m. Good business that.
One final roll of the transfer dice provided the finishing touches for Lille’s title winning squad, adding real depth with options off the bench for each position. While Osimhen was sold a year after joining for an eye-watering €70m and Gabriel followed Pépé to Arsenal for €26m, the incoming star of the show came on a free. For Lille, the deal of this year is without doubt the signing of Turkish striker Burak Yilmaz from Besiktas. Despite never having played outside of his native land, Yilmaz has hit the ground running in France. Alongside this, the targeted recruitment of Sven Botman (linked with Liverpool) to step into the void left behind by Gabriel, and Jonathan David to take over from Osimhen ensured that there was no drop off between seasons.
Even though this is a team without the obvious quality of PSG, or even Lyon with Memphis Depay and Houssem Aouar, it includes players from a mix of backgrounds who blend together perfectly in a fully functional squad. At the forefront, you have the three dynamic Jonathans – Bamba, David and Ikoke – adding pace, skill and purpose to every attack. While their youth may be seen as a vulnerability, the squad is strengthened and solidified given the age of others like Yilmaz and their highly experienced captain, José Fonte.
Almost exclusively throughout the season, Galtier has set his team up in a classic 4-4-2 formation, refusing to be enticed by seemingly more tactical set-ups with either three or five at the back. Galtier’s 4-4-2 was simple; it relied on hard work, pressing and fight. Results certainly showed this heart when it mattered most with a 1-0 win away at PSG in April and a comeback from being 2-nil down against fellow title challengers Lyon (a crucial away win with a Yilmaz eighty-five-minute winner making it six wins in Lille’s final eight games).
At Lille, there has been a real focus on building outwards from their own goal and being defensively solid – putting the needs of the team before the desires of individual players. To pinch a phrase from the NFL: ‘offence wins games, but defense wins championships’. On the pitch, this has been played out with imposing centre-backs in Botman and Fonte, Çelik at right-back and the previously neglected Reinildo as left-back. Positioned in front of the highly rated Mike Maignan (now moving to AC Milan), this group formed the stingiest defence in Ligue 1. This was in no way a Jose Mourinho form of defence; it was modern and highly organized, and it would be remiss of me to not mention the relentless pressing work done by those further up the pitch.
The middle the ballpark often featured the experienced and ever-present Benjamin Andre alongside technical ball-carrying players like Boubakary Soumaré (linked with Leicester) or the metronomic Sanches depending on who the opposition faced. But it was at the business end of the pitch where Yilmaz made the difference when it mattered most. Supported by the pace and directness of the three Jonos, Yilmaz netted six goals in the final five matches of the season, including a crucial penalty in the title decider. Although, in the second half of the season, David can stake a real claim to being the player of the season, scoring eleven goals since the fireworks burst above the Eiffel Tower.
For the final game against Angers, when it was all in the balance, Galtier made a number of surprise changes to his usual line-up – most notably the decision to drop Bamba and Ikone to increase the team’s physicality. One of the replacements was Sanches who provided a determined performance which would shock any Swansea or Bayern fans who watched his ill-fated loan spells. The skill on display in assisting the opening goal alone is enough to prove that Galtier made the right choices that day.
Yet, as the brackets above show, the real shame here is that the vultures are already circling and picking at the club. Faced with a rebuild potentially greater than Monaco in 2017, it will be fascinating to see what happens next season with a new manager, a new director of football and somewhere around five new starting players. But there is one thing that is for sure, this largely unknown assortment of players will be long remembered as champions in the northern corner of France.