Ligue 1's Tale of the Tape
A glance at the Ligue 1 table and you might notice some surprises at the top of the table. Nice are first with a sparkling GD of +13. Toulouse are 4th and since Pascal Dupraz took over late last season they’ve had the statistical profile of an above average side. PSG are meandering in a way that’s not been seen since segments of the 2014-15 season while Lyon have looked dominant at times yet find themselves with only 13 points in 10 games.
In comparison to the cakewalk that was Ligue 1 last season, this season has been much more parity driven. While the logical conclusion is still PSG winning the title, the roadmap to that destination could be much bumpier than some expected. This is good news for a league that’s gained a reputation for being PSG’s playhouse. With that in mind, let’s look at how some of the bigger teams France have fared so far.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and a Lucien Favre led team overperforming relative to expected goal models. He did it multiple times with Gladbach and now he’s doing it with an odd squad at Nice, who models project to finish in the final CL spot; something no one would’ve expected coming into the season.
It’s quite amusing to see Nice overachieve in a completely different way compared to last year. Last year, Nice managed it in attack with Hatem Ben Arfa and Valerie Germain going on conversion benders and Ben Arfa in particular having by far the best season of his career. This year, they’re doing the opposite by having a save percentage over 80%. With the league having a defensive reputation, it’s not totally surprising to see teams conjure up such 10 game splits. Between 2009-14 alone, nearly 20 teams had 10 game splits of above 80% shot stopping. This isn’t to say it will last though, because the likelihood is that it won't.
Also, another thing that seems unsustainable is Mario Balotelli. And not because what Balotelli is doing isn’t well, because it is. He’s shooting over 5 times per 90 and several of them from good areas. It’s just that it’s been over three years since we saw this version of Balotelli: the shot hungry mercenary who scores enough goals to warrant the amount he attempts. Nice did rehabilitate Ben Arfa last year so I guess maybe something’s in the water over in the French Riviera for once football prodigys trying to reclaim their careers.
There is plenty of good stuff elsewhere in the team too. Their midfield trio has continued to be excellent despite the loss of Namplays Mendy, Ricardo Pereira is one of Ligue 1’s best full/wing backs, and Alassane Plea has emerged from the shadows as one of Ligue 1’s better attacking players. I wrote about Plea last season and while I did like him, my fear with him was how he would cope without the assistance that his departed attacking partners gave him. So far, he’s been awesome and quelled any such fears of potential snags. Another good thing for the team is while they allow a crap ton of shots, they have among the lowest quality per shot in the league.
Personally I’m still not totally convinced that Nice will finish in the top three, probably because I’m still clinging to the belief that a fully functional Lyon side will return sooner rather than later. But an eight-point gap over 4th place Toulouse and double Lyon’s current total leaves some room for error, and perhaps enough to sneak into the Champions League.
Here are two things about Monaco so far this season:
- They are unquestionably in a better place currently than they were at any point last year. At this time last year, they were a team trying to incorporate a more proactive pressing style that basically just exposed how old and slow their backline was. Their stable of attacking players now is exciting, all their underlying numbers are considerably improved and they have the look of a team that will finish somewhere in the top three.
- They have super high goals/SoT rate of over 50% that has assisted their sky-high GD of +15. No team can ever maintain such a beneficial conversion bump throughout the season and there will be an eventual regression to the mean. While they did beat PSG, they also have been stomped by both Nice and Toulouse which doesn’t exactly scream of a genuine title contender
Fundamentally, PSG are not broken, yet are obviously not quite as dominant as they were last year. That’s in part due to the rest of the league providing stiffer competition. They’re still the most talented team in the league, they create on average more high quality chances than anyone else and so far all their conversion rates on both ends skew quite favorably. While it is amusing to see them 6 points behind the top of the table, two years ago the same thing happened when Marseille built up a similar lead. In the long run this is still PSG’s league to lose.
There are some signs however that it’s not clicking yet. While nine times out of ten they defeat Marseille last Sunday with the type of shots they created, last year these were the type of matches that PSG would kill off. There were still noticeable problems with how PSG attacked space in behind OM:
Moreover, some of the ways they have tried to redistribute goals in the wake of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure is suspect to say the least. Ben Arfa was good last year but it was an anomaly compared to the rest of his career. Jese produced very nicely in spot minutes in Madrid, but he played on a super team mainly as a sub which we know has a big boost on attacking performance. When those are your two biggest acquisitions in attack, it’s no wonder that the ceiling is lowered.
Again, this is still the best team in the league, and nothing statistically screams that PSG will be usurped even with the acknowledgment that there’s slightly more fragility within them.
They were my pick in preseason to give PSG their hardest test this season and through the first few weeks, they looked exactly as advertised. Alexandre Lacazette was scoring goals for fun while Nabil Fekir looked good coming back in his first full season since his knee injury. Then injuries happened, a switch to a back 3/5 formation occurred and Lyon haven’t been the same since.
It must be said; Lyon aren’t anywhere near as bad as the league table suggests. In fact, all their shot numbers suggest that they should be considerably higher up the table than currently present. They’re actually 1st or 2nd in regular shot numbers and expected goal numbers but the rub comes in where their conversion rates on both sides are considerably below average, particularly their save% at a brisk 61%. They just lost to Guingamp 3-1 despite only giving up 6 shots, albeit they were high quality opportunities. Variance has not gone their way.
There is also a developing trend going on with Lyon though and it’s this: When they play a 4-3-3, they look considerably better visually in terms of fluidity and the ability to progress the ball into dangerous areas (their performance versus Caen being the best example). When they play that hybrid back 3/5, it’s considerably jaggier. Their performance in the CL against Sevilla was an example of that and slowly but surely, it’s starting to show statistically as well (albeit there’s a legitimate caveat in terms of sample size).
Now here’s some good news: Almost everyone relevant to the team is healthy, and we saw during the first few games this season that a healthy firing Lyon side playing a 4-3-3 has the best attack going, spearheaded by arguably Ligue 1’s best striker in Alexandre Lacazette. Anthony Lopes should eventually stop shots at a higher proficiency considering his performances over the past two seasons and while they did play an easy schedule, they should still have enough to eke out Champions League qualification.
But there’s a very real chance Lyon missed a golden opportunity at producing a genuine title challenge. Again, their schedule has been quite favourable as they haven’t played PSG or Monaco or even Toulouse yet. Plus; at this time last season it could very well be argued that Caen were the 2nd best team in Ligue 1, which said a lot about the strength of the league without PSG. This isn’t the case now but having to make up a 13-point gap at the top and 7-point gap for the final CL spot will be quite hard to do in a beefed up league this time around.
Pascal Dupraz has been Toulouse manager for 20 games. Not the greatest sample size I'll grant you but this is how Toulouse have done since then:
- TSR% of 53.3%
- SoTR% of 62%
- Big Chance% of 73.1%
- Only Nice (48 points), PSG (43 points) and Monaco (37 points) have secured more points than Toulouse (36) over the same time span
Translation: Toulouse are probably good? After years of searching, they stumbled upon a teenager in goal who can actually stop shots proficiently, while Martin Braithwaite has shown so far that he doesn’t have two cinder blocks masquerading as feet, and not before time:
||Non Penalty Shot P90
||Non Penalty Conv%
Who knows how long this will last? While Toulouse have some genuine talent including a entertaining Swiss army knife midfielder in Oscar Trejo, like a lot of Ligue 1 sides depth is an issue. The potential downgrade from Braithwaite to someone like Ola Toivonen is severe and if history is any indication, even when healthy Braithwaite will probably stop converting shots to goals at this rate. But I like this team, their performance versus Monaco was super impressive (not least of which Braithwaite’s work) and if health is on their side, there’s no reasons why they can’t give it a go for a top six finish.