Amongst the household names of Marseille, Lyon and PSG at the top of the Ligue 1 table sit Lille in 2nd. Now, Lille aren’t some ambitious pub team as they’ve been a staple of French football for over 100 years but how have they bounced back from a 17th place finish last year to title contenders this time round?
Bielsa’ Reign of Terror
Lille have been a club used to success over the last few decades. Several Champions League qualifying campaigns in 2005 and 2006 heralded back to the illustrious side of the late 1940s and 1950s and this all came to a climax when they won their first Ligue 1 title in over 60 years in 2011. A fantastic team spearheaded by Moussa Sow, Gervinho and a young Eden Hazard took advantage of an extremely open French top division which saw four different teams finish top between 2008 and 2012. This was all before PSG’s QSi funded dominance spoiled the game for the rest of the league, but even in defiance of this Lille have always been in and around the top six with Claude Puel and Rudi Garcia bringing glory to the North of France in recent years.
Therefore, you can imagine the fans’ shock when Marcelo Bielsa, this famous manager who was supposed to return them to the summit of French football after a poor 2016/17 campaign, almost set them up for relegation. Bielsa arrived in Lille off the back of a two-day stint at Lazio which he controversially cut short after the club hadn’t met his transfer requests. This slightly sums up the Argentine; even though he has a fantastic footballing mind, which Pep Guardiola has cited as a major influence, he often falls out with his clubs’ hierarchy and as a result has only taken charge of over 100 games at a club once.
He only managed 19 at Lille which set up a disastrous campaign that almost saw them relegated for the first time since 1997.
Enter: Christophe Galtier
The ex-Saint-Etienne man took over the club just before the end of 2017 when the club had just five wins from 21 games, leaving Galtier just 17 games to save the team lingering just above the relegation places.
Galtier was once the longest-serving manager in Ligue 1 after eight years at Saint-Etienne and while he showed his experience in keeping the club in the league despite the horrific state of the team he was handed, it wasn’t love at first sight. The team didn’t go on some miraculous run of ten consecutive wins but rather it was a slog right up until the second last day.
Lille only finished one point above 18th placed Toulouse and were thrashed 5-0 on the final day of the season, bringing an end to what was such a horrific year for the club; their lowest league ranking for almost twenty years. Galtier was almost given the boot as there was little sign of revolution happening under the Frenchman, but the club have been rewarded for their loyalty with a fantastic campaign so far.
Definite contract extension for #Lille manager Christophe Galtier to beyond 2019! Till 2021, and coming straight out of the man himself.
— Diana Yeow (@dy158) December 9, 2018
In his first year in charge Galtier was relying on the likes of Ezequiel Ponce, Yassine Benzia and Junior Alonso to kickstart his style of play but that just wasn’t going to work with this below average group of players. This meant that the summer transfer window was such a crucial period for Galtier but the quality he brought in for the price has been amazing.
Jonathan Ikone was signed for just under £5m from PSG while Jonathan Bamba joined on a free, having played under Galtier at Saint-Etienne. These two signings were both pretty under the radar but have turned into two thirds of one of Europe’s best front-three. Alongside Nicolas Pepe they have contributed to almost thirty goals this season and have been the driving force for this Lille side who have shot right up to 2nd. The rapid offensive play of the trio has devastated teams like Marseille (3-0), Saint-Etienne (3-1) and Rennes (3-1) with few teams being able to quell the onslaughts of the three young attacking-midfielders.
11 – Best African scorers in the Top 5 European Leagues this season:
🇨🇮 Nicolas Pepe – 11 goals
🇬🇦 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 10 ⚽️
🇪🇬 Mohamed Salah – 10 ⚽️
🇿🇦 Lebo Mothiba – 8 ⚽️
🇬🇳 François Kamano – 8 ⚽️
🇹🇳 Wahbi Khazri – 8 ⚽️
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) December 10, 2018
They have had a few players sit just in front of them with Lebo Mothiba playing the first few matches of the season before leaving for Strasbourg; the South African seemed the best player for this system as his pace and finishing made him such a spearhead for the side. The replacements have tried to match his quality but have ultimately failed with Loic Remy and Rui Fonte too lackadaisical to keep up with play. The young Portuguese striker Rafael Leao has shown promise and would finish off this four-pronged offensive unit of young European talent well but his season has been scuppered by injury so far, prohibiting him from a long run in the team. This central striker position will have to be one addressed over the January transfer window but judging by Galtier’s track record so far, Lille fans should be expecting another gem through their doors over the next few weeks.
So many players left in the Summer like Yves Bissouma and Kevin Malcuit but they have been replaced expertly by the young Zeki Celik at right-back and Xeka who has drastically improved this year in defensive midfield. Hardly any of Galtier’s signings have disappointed and this new band of players have been a breath of fresh air for this Lille side who are currently reaping the rewards at the top end of the table.
Few would have predicted Lille to bounce back in such dramatic fashion to the dizzy heights of Ligue 1’s Champions League places but they absolutely deserve it after a calculated managerial appointment in Galtier. Bielsa was supposed to be the man to guide them onto a new footballing chapter but his traits of inconsistency and unprofessionalism reared their heads again (watch out, Leeds fans) and most fans will probably be pretty happy with the direction the club is going in. The team needed a leader, someone who could redesign the club without hesitancy and that’s what they got in Galtier. They are on track to sit 2nd over Christmas which is such an amazing feat after the troubles of last year and no expense should be spared in the praise of Christophe Galtier. You can find our betting tips for all the French Ligue 1 matches here.
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