Caen You Believe It
It seems like ages ago, but at the midway point of last season, Caen were a team that looked under real threat of relegation. It wasn't a huge surprise, as Caen have had a pretty volatile history in terms of being able to stay up in Ligue 1. In their last 15 completed seasons, they've only been in the top flight in France for six of them. After 19 games last season, Caen were dead last in Ligue 1 with only 15 points. The three teams that got relegated last season in Ligue 1 were at least four points ahead of Caen at that point, and they looked like a sunk cost.
From that point to now, they've accumulated 43 points through 25 games, a points per game pace of 1.72. Over a full uninterrupted season that would amount to around a 65-66 point side. That's been good enough in two of the past six seasons to secure a Champions League spot. It's quite remarkable just how successful Caen have been over the last 25 games. In ways it's reminiscent of Leicester's rise in the English Premier League, but for a longer span of time. During their extended surge they've beaten the likes of Saint Etienne and Marseille, the latter of which was one of the best games in European football last season. Their expected points total last season was 47.7, which suggests that their total output of 46 was more or less what they should've expected.
The way Caen set up tactically is pretty interesting and at times can lead towards insanity. In an age where the double pivot is the go-to formation, Caen don't play with a two man holding midfield and instead play some form of 4-1-4-1 formation. It's built on counter attacking at will and very quick transitions, creating structural chaos. In many ways their playing style is the equivalent of say Crystal Palace or even Hoffenheim during the past couple of seasons, just with considerably less talent:
Despite the 4-0 loss versus Lyon, they went toe-to-toe and were hard done by Nabil Fekir's best impersonation of Lionel Messi. The degree to which how far back Caen sit back and try to make do with quick bursts is quite astounding. Caen through six games this season are last with 39.6% possession and have conceded the 2nd most final third passes in Ligue 1. Last season Caen ranked 2nd last in possession as well. In terms of pressing, Caen ranked in the bottom three in France last season and that hasn't deviated much this season as well.
Perhaps the biggest worry for a club like Caen is that the degree to which they sit back and defend deep could eventually bite them in the butt. They truly only have one style of play and at some point teams in France will start to figure that out. The likes of PSG, Marseille and at times Lyon are the type of clubs that can pick apart a defense that deep. On a much much much larger scale, that's sort of happened to Borussia Dortmund during the latter stages of the Jurgen Klopp era. Teams slowly started to figure out the flaws of incessant gengenpressing without a true Plan B and counteracted it (mind you they were also very unlucky in terms of both health and statistically but that's already been discussed ).
For now though Caen won't have to worry about how one dimensional they are because they've started to become better defensively. Caen last season were awful in that area, ranking in the bottom three in expected goals conceded at 51.5. This season, they rank 5th. Though they've given up the 2nd most final third passes, that hasn't led to too much shots in dangerous areas. It has taken Caen opponents on average 35.7 final third passes to register a danger zone shot (shots coming from the central area), which ranks 4th in Ligue 1. PSG, Rennes and Angers are the three clubs ahead of them; teams that are very compact defensively.
Even going forward, Caen have been better than they were last season. Their expected goals per game has gone from middle of the pack to the top 5-6, Caen rank 6th in both big chances created and danger zone shots created and this is being done despite a goals/shots on target conversion rate that is 13th in Ligue 1. Last season, Caen had the 4th highest conversion in Ligue 1.
Despite the clear progress that has come for Caen this season, according to the expected points tally I have for Ligue 1, Caen have overachieved by 4.12 points this season, the highest in Ligue 1. This could be due to the fact that Caen have a PDO of 93.4. I tried looking at different other regressions for Caen and they came out much more favorably for them, suggesting that their talent level so far is of a 9-10 point team. Mind you it's still over-performing their current total of 12 points but not to such a high degree.
The good news for Caen this season is that they've cushioned the departures of N'golo Kante (Leicester), Thomas Lemar (Monaco) and Lenny Nangis (Lille) really well so far, probably better than expected. They also were the beneficiary of productive loan acquisitions in Emiliano Sala and Nicolas Benezet, and they've gone to Nantes and Guingamp respectively. For a club as small as Caen and without much in the way of money, being able to get by in house is key to survival.
It also helps that there's some form of core to lean on. Julian Feret is still a very classy playmaker even if he's on the wrong side of 30. Herve Bazile is an underrated winger who's in his prime years and Damien da Silva is dependable to suck up close to 3000 minutes at CB. Caen did make one big signing this summer, and that was for Andy Delort from Wigan. Through six games this season, he's been a perfect fit for them producing at a clip of 4.5 shots per 90, a non penalty goal rate of 0.33 with an expected goals output of 0.41 per 90. He's quick and can run through the channels, which plays right into how Caen play with the quick hitting passing.
It also helps that he has a rocket of a right foot. It was his goal that stood as the game winner versus Marseille in their 1-0 season opening win. Delort's goal scoring record outside his 2013/14 season with Tours in Ligue 2 has been uninspiring, but perhaps this is the club that extracts the best out of him in a Riyad Mahrez like fashion.
Caen are evolving from a fun novelty act into a more sustainable version of that, but without losing the charm that makes them a very entertaining team to watch for the neutrals. In many ways, they're the antithesis of the ethos that some people think of when it comes to Ligue 1. They're super quick on the counter and even with the progress defensively, they still give off the feel of a "bend but don't break" defense which doesn't exist too often in Ligue 1. There's genuine talent at the club and who knows just how good Andy Delort could be this season. Of course there's the dreaded small sample size alert hovering around success stories like Caen, and it's totally fair. We've seen so many fairytale stories that have gone awry that it should be taken with some form of salt.
But it shouldn't be out of the question that Caen could finish around 9th-11th this season. The field in Ligue 1 is pretty uninspiring once you get past the top 6-8 clubs. Montpellier look awful so far, Bastia are shooting fireballs out of their behinds (60% G/SoT rate!!!), Nantes can't create offense to save their lives and two of the three promoted teams from last season look like a safe bet to return back to Ligue 2. Assuming Caen don't get bit by injury luck, a mid table finish is possible if their underlying data continues to hover around a decent level.
One of the best stories going in France, Caen are a fun alternative to the likes of Nantes and Rennes who play slow, methodical football. Variety is the spice of life, and Caen have certainly added a few doses of that in Ligue 1.
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