Predictions for Ligue 1 – 19/20

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Manchester United’s Baffling Transfer Policy

In a recent post, I discussed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and why I think he was United’s best signing of the past decade. His towering presence arrived after multiple summers of underwhelming arrivals that showed how United were without a cohesive plan in how they wanted to recruit. They were obsessed with bringing back success as quickly as possible without any regards to sustaining it. Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City all had long term visions and have succeeded in bringing their respected clubs into the spotlight across Europe. United needed a plan, and people who knew how to execute it.

This summer was planned to be the departure from those shirt-selling superstars and a push to bring in players who could execute the system that Solsjkaer wanted to deploy. There was an emphasis primarily on British/Irish players, young guys with previous experience playing in England. It explains the signings of Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the strong links to Harry Maguire and Sean Longstaff. This approach does make a lot of sense for United. The Red Devils have had high profile flops in Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Alexis Sanchez and the club wanted to move towards players with lower wages and a desire to play for arguably the biggest club in England. Young British talent have been everywhere for the past couple of years, and it is clear there are some very talented players. The under-20 side who won the World Cup, Chelsea’s youth teams over the past couple of years and the most apparent reason for this policy, Jadon Sancho’s success at Dortmund. The club does not want to have the same problems they have had with Sanchez, high wages no one else is crazy enough to pay and get players who could add something to the side while possessing resell value.

As expected, I have a massive problem with this. The approach is admirable, but the execution is terrible at the moment. I still really like the signing of Dan James, and while he won’t be a starter, he has something to offer the team and didn’t cost a tremendous amount of money. Wan-Bissaka is another who I have no problem with. The England Under-21 full back was an obvious signing, and the fee is reasonable for the best defensive prospect in Europe. But the other recent links to the club make no sense from a financial point of view, an essential factor for Manchester United. I cannot emphasise this enough, but the top 6 clubs should never deal with the mid-table clubs, like Leicester, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Everton. You are guaranteed to be overcharged for players and are forced to pay the British premium. You could easily find better deals elsewhere or from clubs in the Championship. United only seem to be going for the most well known British players, instead of attempted to go under the radar. Why not take risks on guys like Kalvin Phillips, Philip Billing, Reece James or Matt Grimes. Football is a sport that has a history of rooting for the underdogs, and while seeing a £50m player perform is satisfying, it’s also expected. Seeing any low-cost player arrive with no fan fair and become an essential first team player is still a great site, similar to how Robertson, Alli, and Gomez have become vital to their teams.

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This recruitment of young Britsh players seemed to be the priority this summer, yet United have found themselves in the hunt of a big money signing, predominantly Bruno Fernandes. This is a player that United should avoid. I do think Fernandes is an excellent player and had a fantastic season in 18/19, contributing to 33 goals in just as many games. He’s a fantastic creator and is never afraid to take risks in the hunt for goals. I have reservations on the Portuguese international, the first being Liga NOS. Like the Eredivisie, Liga NOS has had a reputation of being a flip of a coin. You could get a player who could become one of the best players in his position, similar to Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo or Deco, or get a player who isn’t good enough for a top 5 league, like Jackson Martinez, Nani or Renato Sanches. You have to take their form with a pinch of salt. If Jonas and Bast Dost can be the best goal scorers in the league, there is a definite talent gap. The idea of United spending up to £60 million on a player, when they are rumoured to only have £100 million to spend is insane. This would only seem likely if United managed to sell a lot of assets, but that isn’t happening. I can only see Fernandes coming in if Pogba was to be sold, but that would be a massive downgrade. Pogba has been fantastic during his United career and still has a lot more to give, while I look at Fernandes and think that could be his best output. This is just another example of United failing to see the promise in players. Fernandes was absolutely superb before his move to Sporting. Why the club only sign players when they have had headline seasons is baffling. They should be signing players before their actual value is discovered.

Bruno Fernandes has dominated the summer window, but another player who has been heavily linked to the club is Wissam Ben Yedder. The Frenchman has been one of the best forwards in La Liga with his clinical finishing and solid hold up, highlighting him as a potential replacement for the outgoing Romelu Lukaku. Ben Yedder has been one of my favourite strikers in La Liga since his arrival, but this another move I would recommend United making. Ben Yedder is 28 and would cost United up to £35 million, a lot for a player without any resell value.

Signing younger players is very important for United at the moment. It’s clear that their chances of returning to dominance is not happening while Liverpool and Manchester City are at the top. They need to make long term investments to ensure they will eventually reach the same level as their rivals. Signing players in the profile of Ben Yedder work when your club are on the brink of success and just need that push. This has been done throughout the Premier League era. It began with Eric Cantona becoming the figure of Ferguson’s early success, to Claude Makalele joining Chelsea to start their dominance in the mid-2000s and most recently David Luiz returned to Chelsea and pushed to win a league title. If United managed to sign Ben Yedder, he would be a success, but the club would arguably waste his best years in football. If United were closer to their rivals, this would be a must signing.

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While bringing in players is a priority in pushing United to the next level, it is so vital they finally get rid of a lot of the dead weight in the squad. Six players need to leave the club ASAP, and that isn’t even considering the potential departures of Pogba and De Gea, two of United’s most important players. When you look at the team that City were before Pep’s first title-winning season, the difference in quality is frightening. City went out and fixed all of their problems quickly while letting their senior players out of the club. Selling Fellaini back in January was the right move. He was the representation of the darker years of Manchester United in the Premier League era and felt like a step in the right direction by selling him. The same needs to be done to the likes of Jones, Smalling and Darmian, players who cannot offer enough in the long term for the club and their exit could finally signal the transition into a new United, a team which focuses on building a team, something that has been lost since Ronaldo’s departure.