Top flight football is back, with France’s Ligue 1 being the first major European league to get underway. Although the talk of the league is all about Neymar’s transfer to PSG and Kylian Mbappe’s potential departure from Monaco, there are several Ligue 1 sides that are in for interesting and exciting seasons.
Two of those teams are Lille and Nantes, who met in the capital of northern France on Saturday. Both clubs feature new managers with celebrated resumes; Marcelo Bielsa has returned to Ligue 1 after coaching at Marseille two seasons ago and has brought his exciting brand of football to Lille, while the architect behind the most unlikely Premier League title in history, Claudio Ranieri, will attempt a similar unlikely rise at Nantes.
- The systems Bielsa and Ranieri are known for were on full display from the opening kickoff. Lille lined up in an adventurous 3-4-3, which looked more like a 5-4-1 in defense but offered loads of width when they had the ball, while Nantes sat back in a tight 4-4-2 and attacked in the same shape, using their two forwards as outlets.
- Bielsa’s tactics were bright and even against an extremely defensive-minded opponent, Lille managed to breakdown Nantes on several occasions through a variety of attacking avenues. Lille played out from the back all game with a three-man backline anchored by Ibrahim Amadou, who is in the process of being converted from a holding midfielder to a centerback. Amadou sat deepest and offered the option of playing long balls to the wings when Nantes closed off the midfield, but it was the Paraguayan defender Junior Alonso, who was extremely impressive in this game, who brought the ball into the midfield most often, either by making passes to Thiago Mendes in midfield or driving forward with the ball himself.
- After making a good profit last season from the sales of Sofiane Boufal (€18.7 million to Southampton) and Djibril Sidibe (€15 million to Monaco), Lille’s owner reinvested heavily this summer. With a hefty sum to spend, Bielsa raided the Brazilian Serie A this summer, spending a combined €33.5 million on midfielder Thiago Maia from Santos and winger Luiz Araujo and defensive midfielder Thiago Mendes from Sao Paulo.
- Araujo, combined with Nicolas de Preville, whose spent last season on loan and Lille and made a permanent move this season, and last season’s most expensive buy Anwar El Ghazi, made up Lille’s new attacking triumphant. De Preville was Lille’s only goal scorer for most of last season, knocking in a team-high 14 goals despite not having a lot of service or a very fluent system. With Bielsa in charge, de Preville now has great playmakers on either side of him and a system that gives him several ways of getting service. He pressed well against Nantes, which will be necessary with two flair players on the wings rather than workhorses, but de Preville’s efforts weren’t wasted and he was rewarded with a penalty chance in the 67th minute, which he buried for Lille’s second goal.
- Araujo was exciting to watch, offering pace and creativity down the left while also coming into a more central role to help in the build up. In transition it seemed all three Lille forwards had the freedom to drift centrally to pick up the ball while the fullbacks charged up the field to provide width. Such a system isn’t unlike what Chelsea, Arsenal and even Tottenham used last season, with creative players like Hazard, Ozil and Eriksen given the license to operate in the half-spaces while the wingbacks give them an outlet on the touchline. Araujo seems like he can thrive in that role, as does El Ghazi, whose trickery on the ball in and around the penalty area had Lille on the cup of goals on a few occasions.
- With Nantes, you can clearly see the outline Ranieri is using, and it’s the same system he used at Leicester. You have to squint a lot harder, though, to match the players he has to the roles he has given them. Emiliano Sala is the clear target man, but Edgar Ie and Junior Alonso beat him on the majority of aerial duels. Abdoulaye Toure was the defensive-minded CM, but even though he made a number of tackles, he wasn’t covering the kind of ground that N’Golo Kante did for Ranieri. Valentin Rongier looked OK, but they will need more playmaking from him for the system to work.
- The biggest weakness for Nantes in this game was their wide midfielders. Lille had a winger and a wingback on either side of the pitch, which would give them a numbers advantage against most defenses, but Ranieri’s 4-4-2 should be able to handle it, in theory, with the full backs taking the wingers and the wide midfielders marking Lille’s wingbacks. Instead, Jules Iloki and Alexander Kacaniklic didn’t provided their fullbacks enough support, and there were a number of occasions when they completely abandoned their flank, opening up space for Lille to attack.
- Lille’s Yassine Benzia was a big reason for this. In possession, Bielsa’s 3-4-3 is not only spread open in terms of width, but the formation is also stretched vertically, creating a wide diamond in midfield. In this setup, LWBs Fode Toure and Rominigue Kouame and RWB Kevin Malcuit were the wide attackers, Thiago Mendes was the holding midfielder and Benzia was at the tip of the diamond, playing as a 10 and often as a second striker. Benzia was free to receive the ball close to the Nantes defensive line, which allowed the rest of Lille’s attack to move toward him and to exchange little passes in Nantes’ half. He’d drift to either side to create an overload and play triangular passes with the wingers and fullbacks to great effect, and he looked really smooth on the ball.
- Nantes were not able to press effectively in a 4-4-2 because of Lille’s three central defenders. Without either the wide midfielders or the two central midfielders ever committing to press Lille’s backline, the trio of Ie, Alonso and Amadou were able to play keep away all afternoon like so.
- Rather than giving his two strikers assistance, Ranieri instead chose to have Nakoulma drop off and man mark Thiago Mendes to prevent him from picking up the ball and distributing it at will once Nantes’ forwards were out of the play. It didn’t really work, and with Abdoulaye Toure being asked to mark Benzia, thus dragging him away from Nantes’ defensive line in midfield, Mendes ran the game no matter what Ranieri asked his forwards to do defensively.
- While Araujo and El Ghazi played great games, the real stars of the show were the wingbacks, and that is likely to be the case all season under Bielsa. Although LWB Fode Toure was substituted at halftime, he didn’t do anything particularly egregious in the first half to deserve a quick hook. However, it must be said that fellow 20-year-old Rominigue Kouame made a much larger impact once he was subbed on. Kouame took a couple of players on when charging up the pitch, made a couple of brilliant turns and played an inch-perfect cross to the feet of El Ghazi for Lille’s third goal.
- On the other side, Malcuit, who was signed for €9 million from Saint-Etienne this summer, was brilliant. He looked so comfortable getting forward and joining the attack while offering enough steal when in defense to be categorized as something more complete than a wingback. It was also Malcuit’s fantastic footwork that earned Lille’s penalty, as he stopped on a dime and drew the foul on Nantes’ CB Nicolas Pallois, who had committed himself to the challenge way to early. Malcuit on the right and a combination of Toure and Kouame on the left should all be in for big seasons.
- Nantes only had a couple of real chances throughout the game. Their first came off of high pressure on El Ghazi, who was trying to dance around the defenders near his own corner flag. Nantes created a turnover and the ball found its way to Abdoulaye Toure, who produced a great strike with his laces on the volley, only for Lille’s keeper Mike Maignan push it onto the bar. Nakoulma had a great opportunity to head home the rebound, but somehow put the ball wide from point blank range.
- Nantes also had a great bit of football in the second half that was basically an out of body experience for them based on how they played the rest of the game. Despite thumping long balls forward all game (mostly unsuccessfully, I might add), Nantes put together a string of three quick one-touch passes between Rongier, Sala and Nakoulma, but Maignan once again made a fantastic save on Rongier’s chip attempt.
- Thiago Mendes played a really nice game at CDM. At 25, he might not have the best shot at stepping up to a much bigger club if he ever wants to move on from Lille, but it is clear that he has the talent to play in Europe and this was a really nice find from Lille to bring him over. He had the second most passes on the team at 64 and he was a rock in the middle of the pitch defensively. I’m not sure why Nantes gave him so much time on the ball, because he picked a number of gorgeous long balls and could also fire in a direct forward pass in transition. He might not be a prospect, but Mendes is certainly a newcomer to watch in Ligue 1 this season.
- Junior Alonso was the man of the match for me. His outside of the box strike in the 48th minute was Lille’s opening goal of the season and his overall offensive contributions were brilliant. He had the most passes in the game at 77, which is impressive from the LCB position, and his range of passing was impressive. Even more so was Alonso’s willingness and ability to drive forward with the ball himself when his passing options were covered. He’d run at the defense, draw a defender and then play a delicate short pass to spring an attack. The Paraguayan only made 10 starts in his first season in Europe last season, but his skillset is clearly a perfect fit for Bielsa’s system, and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t one of the first names on the team sheet all season.