While Ligue 1 doesn’t possess the same competitiveness throughout the league like the Premier League or even the Bundesliga, it is a gold mine in terms of young talent. It’s what makes the French top division so enjoyable, potentially seeing the next generation of talent come through before they earn big money moves. I will focus on a lot of players from Ligue 1 throughout the season, but first, let’s look at my predictions for the 2019/20 season.
Outside Shout – Montpellier
The 2011/12 Ligue 1 winners are far from that success at the moment, but this season could be a big step to at least fighting for those Champions League places. With Lille weakened after the sales of Mendes and Pepe, and Lyon under new management, this could be the season where Montpellier finally return to European football.
This is surprising considering just how close they were to relegation. In the 16/17 season, Montpellier finished 15th, only 3 points above the relegation zone. Head-coach Frédéric Hantz was sacked midway through the season and replaced by Jean-Louis Gasset. However, he was not given the job permanently. Gasset was only seen as a stop-gap, to steady the ship for the next coach. That coach was Michel Der Zakarian, a manager who spent ten years of his playing career with Montpellier, playing over 200 games for the club. Zakarian was appointed after mutually terminating his contract at Reims. From the outside looking in, this appointment does seem mostly sentimental, something we’re seeing more of when mid-table clubs appoint their next managers.
It is hard to argue that Montpellier haven’t improved since their relegation scare. During Zakarian first season in charge, they finished 10th, a respectable finish. However, it was last season where everything seemed to click. Laborde and Delort were fantastic additions upfront, adding physicality and a real aerial threat for next to nothing. Their signings allowed Zakarian to deploy a direct style. Last season, they averaged less than 50% possession per game but were in the top 3 for aerial duels. Their attacking approach was to get the ball to Delort and Laborde as quick as possible, through goal kicks or the centre-halves. Zakarian is fully aware of the lack of attacking quality in midfield, so instead used the dynamism of the full-backs and the creativity of Morret to drive the attack. Their ugly yet effective brand of football was essential in an impressive 6th place finish.Embed from Getty Images
La Paillade are fully aware of how to take advantage of the transfer market, selling Mbenza, Lecombe, Aguilar and Skhiri for £36 million, while only spending £18 million and new arrivals. Those arrivals included Teji Savanier, the best midfielder in Ligue 1 last season, Andy Delort on a permanent deal, Jordan Ferri and Arnaud Souquet. Savanier’s signing was a stroke of genius. While on the older side, he will give more creativity from midfield, to ensure those 15 draws from last season drop substantially.
Similar to La Liga preview, I am not expecting Montpellier to challenge for Ligue 1, but a top-four place isn’t being unrealistic. Lyon, Monaco, Marseille and Lille all look weaker compared to last season. Montpellier have improved, and this is their best chance to get into the most desirable position in the league.
Over-achievers – Monaco
It’s insane just how quickly Monaco have fallen from their surprising title win in 2017. The constant sales of their best players and replacing them with young players is hazardous. The club expected Jardim to work with over 10 new arrivals while losing a solid midfield of Fabinho and Moutinho and two forwards in Balde and Lemar. Their output was difficult to replace with young talent.
Looking at their signings from last season, some of them were good. Golovin was wanted by a lot of Europe’s elite after his impressive World Cup performances. Beni Hendrichs was excellent for Bayer Leverkusen, and it was a sensible move for the price. However, some of the new arrivals did make very little sense. They spent over £30 million on Chadli and Geubbels. The former was extremely lacklustre during his last season with West Brom, and the latter hadn’t played for Lyon’s first time yet and only went on to play 7 minutes in Ligue 1. Jardim left near the beginning of the season due to the club’s incompetence, being replaced by Thierry Henry. The Arsenal legend’s time at the club can best be described as out of his depth. The stupidity in Monaco appointing him and the arrogance of Henry in believing he could succeed without any previous experience is laughable. He failed in spectacular fashion, which lead Jardim returning once again and guiding Monaco to safety.Embed from Getty Images
Monaco admitted they shouldn’t have put Jardim in such an awkward position regarding the signings. They have resolved those issues by bringing in more experienced players in Ben-Yedder, Slimani, Aguilar and Maripan to blend with their younger players. When you add that with Onyekuru and Lecombe, you have clear improvements all over the pitch. Ben-Yedder is such an excellent addition to the side. His lethal finishing made him one of the best forwards last season. Spending £35 million on a 28-year-old is a lot, but his reliance on movement and good shot locations mean he should age better than most forwards.
Do I expect Monaco to be good this season? I doubt it. Their midfield options are weak, and the lack of creativity worries me. You look at that team, and it’s difficult to pinpoint who starts every week. Yet, Jardim is still a good manager, and I trust he should get enough out of the players at his disposal to at least fight for the Champions League spots.
Under-achievers – Nice
Nice’s 16/17 season was peak Favre. Dynamic full-backs experienced central defenders and a reliance on star power upfront to carry the attack. That season, they defied expectations and finished 3rd, ahead of Lyon and Marseille. However, the following season wasn’t nearly as impressive. European football took a significant toll on the squad and only managed to win 4 in their first 14 games. Losing both of their full-backs and the Seri’s drop in form had a massive impact and resulted in a significant decline from that impressive 3rd place finish.
With Favre understandably departing the club to join Borussia Dortmund, Nice decided to make a riskier appointment and brought in Patrick Viera. The former Arsenal midfielder had an auspicious time in the MLS with NYFC, and many clubs seemed to want Viera based on the name alone. However, no one knew how good he would be in a better league.Embed from Getty Images
Viera’s first season in charge was fortunate to put it politely. They finished in a respectable 7th, but when you look at their issues, it makes you wonder how they even managed to finish that high. They only managed to score 30 goals, the 3rd worst in the division and only better than 2 relegated sides. The loss of Plea was huge, and Balotelli’s form dropped off a cliff, as per usual. Saint-Maximin was their top scorer, a player known for his lack of end product. While they did overperform massively in defence, that attack needed to be addressed if Nice wanted to avoid finishing in the bottom half of the table.
They have attempted to resolve their issues through the transfer market, with Dolberg arriving from Ajax. Dolberg, like Nice, hasn’t been at his best since 2016/17 but he’s still only 21. He does lack the technical ability to hold up the ball effectively, but if you can create enough chances, you can get plenty of goals out of him. Nice are currently close to signing Lorient winger Alexis-Claude Maurice. He is extremely young, but what from I’ve heard, he does have the potential to reach the same levels as the likes of Thomas Lemar or Nicolas Pepe.
When adding that to the promising form Cyprien has shown at the start of the season, Nice could really be a threat in the upcoming season.
So why are they, my potential under-achievers? Simply because of that possibility, this might not work out. Nice are relying heavily on two young players to produce now, and there are plenty of examples that simply hasn’t worked out (Monaco being the most obvious). I hope for the sake of their players, they have a good season, but I have my doubts.
Best Transfer – Abdou Diallo
Joachim Andersen, Teji Savanier, Timothy Weah and Idrissa Gueye are all great signings to choose from, but my pick goes to Abdou Diallo. Dortmund’s sale of the Frenchman and the arrival of Hummels was one of the strangest moments of the window. The deal would have made more sense if they actually earned more of a profit than they did. They bought Diallo last season for just under £30 million and sold him for the same amount. However, Dortmund’s loss is Paris’s gain.Embed from Getty Images
Last season, Lucien Favre had 3 promising centre-backs to choose out of Akanji, Zagadou and Diallo, and the latter is by far the best. Diallo is not only a fantastic centre-back but managed to fit in perfectly at left-back, still amassing huge dribble numbers. He reads the game well for his age and possesses the speed and strength to play in an elite side. His ability in the air isn’t great, arguably one of the reasons Dortmund were willing to let him go. Yet, Diallo is an improvement over who Paris have. With Thiago Silva ageing, they needed to nail this signing, and they have.
Potential Flop – Renato Sanches
Lille have lost a lot this season. Not only did they sell their best player in Nicolas Pepe, but the sales of Rafael Leao and Thiago Mendes were massive loses. Mendes was a vital cog in that midfield, adding a lot in terms of defensive work and creativity but selling to a rival made it even worse. Leao made sense considering Milan’s colossal offer, but a potential star has been let go a year too early. It made this summer essential in keeping Lille competitive, with so many areas to fix.
While Yazici was very close to being here, as soon as I saw a fee agreed for Renato Sanches, there was no doubt he would find himself on this list. It was slightly unfair for Sanches to be painted as the next future superstar after his impressive Euro 2016 performances, which earned him a £35 million to Bayern. However, the former Benfica midfielder has had a torrid time since his move to Germany. His game time under Ancelotti was minimal, and after an odd yet disappointing loan move to Swansea, his future at the Bavarians looked extremely daunting.Embed from Getty Images
After another season of barely appearing for Bayern, Lille decided to take a punt on the young Portuguese midfielder. There is still clearly talent in Sanches, but it’s strange that after 4 years of playing two of the top five leagues, his sample size is still relatively small. Taking away international football and his time at Benfica, he has only played 2230 minutes since joining Bayern Munich, that’s fewer minutes than Nicolas Pepe played last season. He is a young player who has lacked substantial game time in the past 3 years and possibly having attitude problems, as his time at Swansea showed. This is arguably Lille’s most prominent risk of the summer. There is a lot of pressure on Sanches to be half the play he was predicted to be. If he fails to have an impact in another league, I fear his career could be over before it ever had a chance to begin.