The Race for the Top 3: Ligue 1's Frenzied Situation
Over a third of the season has passed in Ligue 1 and so far we know a couple of things. One, PSG are far and away the best team in France which we kind of already knew going into this season. Two, Lyon aren't the title challengers that some people had hoped for (which I said in my season preview). Even with the injuries piling up and some perplexing results domestically, there's a good argument to be had that they'll still end up being the second best team in Ligue 1.
Outside of that, it's straight madness. Five points separate 2nd from 9th and seven points separate 2nd from 13th. Angers are somehow in the top five, Statsbomb endorsed Caen are 3rd, Monaco have slowly risen from their borderline farcical beginnings defensively and Marseille are in lower through some banter like unluckiness. Let's take a look at the Contenders and Pretenders.
Third Place, Caen: The Continued Uprising
I've said a lot about this team already so I won't continue to beat a dead horse to the ground. Caen have been damn good through 14 games and it would be amazing if in two years they went from a sure-fire relegation candidate to sneaking into the top three. A few things to worry about: their schedule has been kind to say the least as they've had the 2nd easiest schedule in Ligue 1 according to expected goals with their opposition being 5.5% easier than average.
Also, this is a small club and if injuries start to really pile up, I'm afraid of their performances dropping back to levels resembling last year. A bigger team in comparison to Caen, but Southampton two years ago were heading into the holidays with good underlying numbers and injuries ravaged them and they fell off the pace. Unlike some of the teams below them though, Caen look to be for the most part sustainably good and if they get through the rest of the first half of this season with their underlying numbers in the ~56-57% range and a relatively healthy squad, maybe miracles do happen.
Fourth Place, Nice: Pretenders to the Throne
I have to say that since I wrote about Nice's ridiculous goals/shots on target rate, they have raised their shot ratio numbers up to a point where a 6th-8th place finish isn't impossible. They're still converting at a ~45% clip which is preposterous but they rank 9th in expected goal ratio, 3rd in Team Rating (basically SoT ratio + PDO but heavily slanted on SoTR) and 2nd in expected points with 26.9 (my suspicion on their high expected points tally is that since their PDO is at 111.4, it's projecting their expected points to be probably around 3-4 points above their probable talent level).
One thing to keep note, 44% of their shots have hit the target this season which is tied with PSG for the highest percentage in Ligue 1. Among other things, it's stuff like this that show the regression of Nice will happen but maybe their finishing spot is 8th instead of 10-11th a few weeks ago.
Fifth Place, Angers: Defensive Solidarity and not Much Else
Another shock alongside Caen are Angers who themselves have survived player departures in the summer and are hovering around the top three. Their defense has been remarkable for a club promoted, ranking in the top five in expected goals against, top 10 in danger zone shots conceded. 14 games is a decent enough sample size that I can say that Angers have an above average defense though it's helped that their schedule has been the easiest in Ligue 1. Their biggest problem is they can't create enough offense to supplement a better than expected defense. Only Rennes from 2007-08 over the last 10 seasons got into the top three with a season goal total of 38 or less goals and unless Angers start converting above their current expected goal per game output of 1.08, they'll start sinking back into the abyss known as mid-table.
Sixth Place, Monaco: Defense? What Defense?
Another team that has slowly but surely started to change since I wrote about them. This is a very talented offensive side who have been shambolic at times defensively though perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They've only given up an expected goal rating of 2.71 over their last three games and 10 shots in the danger zone, production more aligned with what we would expect from them. Perhaps Monaco have finally found something to work with and their matchup with Marseille this Sunday will show us whether their improvement defensively was just a small sample size mirage. And hey if it really was a mirage, they're one of the few teams in Ligue 1 who could spend money in January to try and fix those issues.
Seventh Place, Saint Etienne: The Perennial yet Declining Underdogs
There have been some decent Saint Etienne sides that have been unfortunate to not sneak into the top three. The 2012-13 side that featured Pierre Emerick Aubameyang finished only five points back of Lyon with 62 points. The next two seasons saw ASSE get 69 points but finished two points back each time of 3rd place (the 13-14 season in particular was rough because Monaco overperformed their probable talent level by ~12 points while Saint Etienne didn't even though they had better numbers than Monaco). I'd even go as far to say any of the past three ASSE sides would be favorites to finish third this season, another example as to just how unlucky football can be when it comes to peaking at the wrong time.
The problem for Saint Etienne this season is that this is probably the weakest team they've had since 2011-12 and the competition isn't bad enough to compensate. For one, they lost their best striker in Robert Beric for the season with a knee injury, they're statistically on pace to be the worst ASSE side in the last four years and two trends are worrying me. The first trend is that their defense has declined. The mantra of Saint Etienne under Christophe Galtier is their defense will be the backbone to potential Champions League qualification. Last year through 14 games Saint Etienne had an expected goal against of 13.62 which was 2nd in Ligue 1; this season it's at 20.2 which ranks 13th.
Another trend is they've quite frankly sucked when played against any decent competition. They've had the 7th easiest strength of schedule and against Caen, PSG, Lyon and Marseille; Saint Etienne have posted numbers more aligned with bottom feeder clubs . In those four games:
- Saint Etienne have been out shot 42-66 in total shots
- Saint Etienne have been out shot 14-31 in terms of shots on target
- Saint Etienne have been out chanced with a 3.14-10.23 xG differential.
If you include their 4-1 loss to Nice as well, those numbers get even worse. Point is: I don't think this Saint Etienne incarnation is good, the injuries to their defense core has weakened what was already a declining defense and Stephane Ruffier isn't good enough to make up for that. Combine that with quite frankly average attacking talent and the increasing evidence that they're outmatched against teams at their level or higher and this season has all the makings of a mid table finish.
Eight Place, Rennes: Where Art Thou Gourcuff
In one of the biggest shockers this season, Yoann Gourcuff's debut with Rennes will have to wait until 2016 because he's injured, Paul Georges Ntep has only played 424 league minutes this season, their big loanee signing in Juan Quintero from Porto has been a bit part of their squad and what's left of Rennes is probably another mid-table finish.
Ninth Place: Lorient...
Ha! Good joke, but no.
Twelfth Place, Marseille: Perception doesn't Meet Reality
Let's play a game, shall we. I'll give you two unnamed teams and you'll have to guess which team is which. To make this exercise fair, both teams are from Ligue 1 and Team A is from last season while Team B is from this season. The numbers used here are from the first 14 games of last season and this.
||Expected Goal Differential
||Shots on Target Differential
||Total Shot Differential
*Plays Jeopardy theme*
So all right, here are the unnamed teams. Team A is... 2014-15 Marseille. This shouldn't be too big a surprise though I would assume PSG was everyone's first guess. After all, Marseille led Ligue 1 for the majority of the first 19 games last season playing an intoxicating high pressing game under Marcelo Bielsa. So who exactly are Team B. Well ladies and Gentleman it is...
Here's the point. It is obvious to everyone (including yours truly who happens to support Marseille) that this Marseille side isn't as good as they were last season when they were posting numbers that were title contending worthy. I mean, nearly everyone who played regular minutes for Marseille last season left in the summer and what's left is a very young mishmash team that even lost Bielsa after the opening game when he quit. Marseille's offense this year is a far cry from last year's club that led Ligue 1 with an xG for output of 31.08 after 14 games.
But 12th isn't a fair reflection of how their play has been this season. They're posting numbers that should regularly have them either be in the top 3 or just sniffing around it. Their talent level this year using various metrics has them as a 23-24 point team instead of 18, which would have them on the heels of the two CL spots. Particularly against Caen/Angers/Lorient, Marseille have been terribly unlucky:
- Against Caen on Opening day: 18-8 shot advantage, 2.3-1.1 xG advantage: lose 1-0
- Against Angers on Sept 25: 18-7 shot advantage, 1.82-0.46 xG advantage, lose 2-1
- Against Lorient on Oct 18: 21-6 shot advantage, 1.4-0.75 xG advantage, draw 1-1
That's 8 points lost right there. Of course you could do this exercise with a number of teams and say similar things but a 57-21 shot advantage and only gaining a solitary point is rather ridiculous.
I think Marseille are still a good side and they're defensively better than they were last year in both shot suppression and suppressing quality of chances. Steve Mandanda is aging and resembling an expensive average goalkeeper, which is a problem. Michy Batshuayi has been very good this year but there are games where he's been lacking the type of service that he needs to be effective. Remy Cabella has been below average at times and at other times just terrible and Marseille have dearly missed Payet's chance creation from the #10 position. Even acknowledging those issues, this team will turn it around and be in the hunt for the European spots because even the most unluckiest of teams usually find some type of bounce back within the season if their resume is good enough (*Cough 14-15 Dortmund/15-16 Juventus/15-16 Gladbach Cough*)
As of this moment, it is tough to know who finishes third and hell, maybe my faith in Lyon being the 2nd best team in France will be unwarranted soon and another CL spot is opened up. Every team has either a big flaw or dug a potentially deep enough hole that their season can't be saved. Your guess to who finishes 3rd and possibly 2nd in Ligue 1 at seasons' end is as good as mine, which shows just how chaotic France has been this season outside the all conquering PSG.