It’s kind of odd to write a season preview where PSG aren’t the defending champions. A lot of things had to fall in place for this to happen, mainly a certain Principality side scoring at a rate that we’ve almost never seen in the near decade’s worth of Opta data accumulated, but here we are, with Monaco having finally ended the stranglehold that PSG had for the past few seasons. They’ve fittingly spent the summer getting English teams to spend exorbitant amounts of money on their players, while the Kylian Mbappe saga rolls into August.

This season has the makings of something very interesting, in a somewhat similar way to how Premier League was looking like going into last season. While I don’t think there’s going to be a title race happening in France (unless Monaco have found the secret sauce to replicate their conversion rate, the likelihood of that being the case is zero), the other two Champions League spots could feature as much as five teams fighting for it. The five teams in question are:

  • Nice
  • Monaco
  • Lyon
  • Marseille
  • Bordeaux

I can’t remember the last time Ligue 1 had potentially six teams (PSG, obviously) go into a season where the idea of making the Champions League was at the very least not preposterous. Monaco and Lyon are probably in the boat where making the Champions League is their target, and anything else is disappointing. Marseille are itching to get themselves back into the top three for the first time since 2012-13, and have spent decent amounts of money in the process (who they’ve spent it on is a whole other story). Nice and Bordeaux would like to make the top 3, but getting into the Europa League wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.

So this is going to be your Ligue 1 Season Preview fix for the upcoming 2017-18 season; where the five teams mentioned above get dissected along with three players to watch for during the season, and an overall wrap up on what could be an exciting season in Ligue 1.

5 into 2 won’t go:

Monaco

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Monaco spent their summer selling their players for a shit ton of cash. Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Bernardo Silva left for ridiculous sums, and there’s still a chance of Kylian Mbappe leaving for a world record fee over the next few weeks. What Monaco have done is straight out of the Football Manager playbook: overachieve during the season and let the bids pile on for players on the squad.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be had for Monaco is that despite the departures, there’s still a lot of talent here, including Boschilla who produced great in the limited number of minutes he had in the league last year for all that it is fair to wonder how he’ll do after coming back from an ACL injury. Allan Saint-Maxamin could be good, and the fact he wasn’t utterly rudderless at Bastia is a good sign (he is the poster boy for fine tuning shot locations among wide forwards). Thomas Lemar is still there, and he could improve with more responsibilities too. Youri Tielemans is the perfect kind of player for Monaco to buy and potentially sell off for 3x the price.

If Mbappe stays, Monaco should still finish no worse than 3rd. Things get considerably more dicey if he does leave during the window.

Nice

It’s our old friend Lucien Favre, who once again told expected goal models to go kick rocks as he led Nice to a surprising 3rd place finish last season. They were aesthetically pleasing and featured one of Ligue 1’s best strikers (when healthy) in Alassane Plea, a surprisingly frisky Mario Balotelli, one of the better creative midfielders in Jean Micheal Seri, exciting fullbacks and more. And it wouldn’t be a Favre led club if they didn’t massively overachieve relative to what models projected them based on xG or even basic shot metrics.

There’s still some things to like about Nice going into this season: Seri is at the peak of his powers as a midfielder and despite massive amount of rumors, he’s still at the club. Plea is also embarking on his prime years, though after a second major knee injury, it’s fair to wonder how bad his knees are and whether he could crack 2000+ minutes in a season again. Wylian Cyprien is a big time talent, though he also has major questions since he’s returning from a torn ACL. Nice won’t have Ricardo Pereira, as he’s back at Porto after a widely successful two-year loan spell in France. Dalbert could also be gone if the rumors of Inter sniffing him out turn out to be true. Not having one of the best fullback combos is a big blow for the club.

Going into last season, I thought that Nice would struggle quite heavily and finish in mid-table. While I don’t think that’ll happen this time if Seri stays, I would still be shocked if they finish in the top 3 for a second straight season. But hey, Favre’s consistently told shot metrics to piss off in the past, so I could be wrong again.

Lyon:

Alexandre Lacazette is finally gone after summers of rumors, they sold one of the great young midfielders in Europe to Bayern in Corentin Tolisso, and veterans like Mathieu Valbuena and Maxime Gonalons are gone too. In their place are several high upside bets like Bertrand Traore, Mariano Diaz and Ferland Mendy, to go along with some players who are much closer.

Lyon are starting in a worse off position than at the same time last year, but they still have Memphis Depay and Nabil Fekir who are two of the best attackers in Ligue 1. If one of Traore or Diaz hit, you got yourself a very dynamic attack that could hold its own with anyone outside PSG. I’m not a big fan of their manager Bruno Genesio, but there’s still enough parts remaining to be cautiously optimistic.

Marseille:

If gambling is your thing, you’ve probably noticed that Marseille in some places have the third best odds to make the top 3 in France. Name cache + new owners + money spent in the summer + top 5 finish last year; those variables in some form explain the odds trickling out in the way that they have.

The argument in favor for Marseille doing well this season goes as follow:

  • Dimitri Payet will be there for a full season, and the Veledrome was where he arguably had his best season in 2014-15
  • Florian Thauvin had his best season as a pro last season, and unlike Hatem Ben Arfa in 2015-16, he’s only 24 so he has a better chance of replicating that form once again
  • Rudi Garcia will also be there for the start of the season, and the upgrade to him from Franck Passi is real.

Even with all those things taken into consideration, I’m very skeptical of what the club looks like. Dimitri Payet is 30 years old and there’s a good chance Marseille already had his best year as a player in 2014-15. Valere Germain is a nice enough forward although he’s turning 28. Luis Gustavo is 30, Adil Rami is turning 32 in December, Patrice Evra is 36. Marseille have created a squad where they are relying on a lot of old players doing the job for them, with youngsters like Morgan Sanson and Maxime Lopez giving them the young dynamism as a supplement. It’s not the greatest way of spending resources.

Bordeaux

I’m not saying that this will definitely be the case, but there’s a chance that Alexandre Mendy becomes one of the best value plays of the summer window across Europe. One thing to monitor with Mendy is that 47% of his minutes last season came as a sub which puts his monster shot and xG numbers into some question. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Michy Batshuayi’s first year at Marseille when he was second in command behind Andre Pierre Gignac. But even if (and probably when) his numbers take a hit, 700K for potentially a solid striker at age 23 is marvelous stuff.

I quite like this team. I liked them last year to possibly finish in the top 4, and their second half run that was influenced by changes in the makeup of their squad showed the potential that they had. Assuming reasonable health, they have the fire power to contend with players like Mendy, Francois Kamano, Diego Rolan, Gaetan Laborde. Recent history in Ligue 1 suggests that a team like Bordeaux will have it hard to finish in the top 3 unless something goes right for them (overperformance, one of their young players make the leap), but Nice did it last season and of all the teams to make a shock top 3 finish, Bordeaux probably have the squad best equipped to do so.

Bonus: Lille

I wouldn’t be doing my job here if I didn’t mention Lille, who are embarking on one of the great projects in European football. They’re bankrolled by new owner Gerard Lopez (who nearly became Marseille’s owner) who has lots of money and owns a Formula 1 team. They brought over Luis Campos, who’s the new sporting director and helped get talents like Bernardo Silva and Tiemoué Bakayoko to Monaco, and the club have spent the summer spending ~£30M on Brazilian talent. Perhaps the real story though is them hiring Marcelo Bielsa as their manager. Bielsa’s record is well known; a genius who makes teams considerably better initially, but burns bridges and leaves his clubs in a blaze of glory. Considering how much input he’s having here, this might be the one place where he doesn’t set the place on fire by year two.

It’s such a weird squad that they have currently but one that has potential to do something of note. No European football is a bonus, and Marseille in 2014-15 nearly made the top 3 that year because of that advantage. There is attacking talent there with the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Anwar El Ghazi, Nicolas De Preville. If the Brazilian contingent of Thiago Maia, Thiago Mendes and Luiz Araujo work out in some form, you’ve got the makings of something really cool happening. All things being equal, this team need a bunch of things to go their way for them to finish in the top 3 this year, and the club themselves have targeted 2018-19 as the season to finish in the CL. But exciting times are happening there, and you should make out some time in your schedule for potential Bielsa madness (both good and bad).

Three Players to Watch:

Yann Karamoh:

You don’t find a lot of 18-year-old players who finish in the top 25 in a good league when it comes to xG contribution, especially when said player is reportedly available to be had at ~€10M. Karamoh wasn’t Mbappe or Ousmane Dembele; the type of supernova talent that made big clubs take notice with their wallets, but he produced decently enough on a below average side at Caen.

His contract runs out next year and there’s almost zero chance Caen don’t cash in on a transfer fee for him in some shape or form, whether it be now or having him sign a deal with an agreement for him to leave at a future transfer window. Regardless, the kid’s promising and it would be interesting if he did move up the division to a team like Monaco, who do have a track record of playing young players recently. He could be the next one in a long line of exciting French talents

Allan Saint-Maxamin:

I have a working theory with attacking players who play for Bastia: If you can at least not be awful, you’re probably going to grade out as a decent Ligue 1 player, and perhaps even better than that. Over the past few years, the list has been growing:

  • Florian Thauvin
  • Ryad Boudebouz
  • Anthony Modeste
  • Francois Kamano
  • Wahbi Khazri
  • Giovanni Sio
  • Claudio Beauvue

On raw ability alone, Saint-Maxamin oozes potential. He’s got speed to burn, can dribble past anyone, and has great hair. His numbers weren’t great last year, in fact they were quite grizzly. But Bastia were terrible last year and have been bad for a while, so he could easily have just been in a bad situation for himself. Plus, at least for now he looks to be sticking with Monaco for the season and with some of the departures, he stands to get some minutes. With talented teammates and a good manager, perhaps he might create more of these opportunities on a regular basis.

Francois Kamano:

Perhaps the most intriguing of the three mentioned. Kamano took a lot of shots last season, especially from open play. In fact, the only wide players per 90 minutes to take more shots than him who played at least 900 minutes were Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria. Unlike Memphis, whose overall statistical profile ranks him among the elite attackers in Europe, Kamano isn’t close to that. It’s not to say that he’s bad per se. His overall shot contribution (shots + key passes) rank him in the top 20 in France. Expected Goals + Assists rank him decently enough in the top 25-30 as well. He’s a fine winger who’s still young at 21 years old and probably is about two or so years from his peak.

Very much like Adam Ounas, who caught the eye well enough to land a transfer to Napoli, shot locations are what’s keeping him from getting to that next level. Simply put, Kamano takes a lot of bad shots, which hinders his overall impact as a player

In some ways, it’s a bit reminiscent of Memphis Depay before his half season resurgence with Lyon, albeit Kamano is not nearly as all encompassing a force as Depay was at PSV. As it turned out, playing with a lot of talented attacking players was the best thing to happen for Depay, and since Bordeaux have some nice pieces in their squad, maybe Kamano could cut out some of these low-quality shots from his repertoire.

There’s potentially a very nice player here; not necessarily a world-beater, but one that could attract a serious offer from a bigger club in a future transfer window.

Final Thoughts:

2017-18 has the promise of being a fun season in Ligue 1. There’s not going to be a title race, especially if the rumors of Neymar going to PSG become finalized. However, everything below could be lots of fun: Bielsa’s back, we get a full year of Memphis + Fekir, the retirement home at Marseille trying to buck father time, the kids at Monaco that still remain.

Ligue 1 has become an attractive league over the past few years because of the volume of exciting young talents that are present and getting significant minutes, and this season doesn’t seem to be any different. Players like Houssem Aouar at Lyon, Martin Terrier at Lille, and Marcus Thuram at Guingamp could all shine and become bonafide prospects. And then there’s talents like Maxime Lopez at Marseille, who’s only 19 years old but already looks like a genuine talent and could become a dynamite creative midfielder in the not too distant future. The faith in youngster’s to make mistakes and grow from them is perhaps the greatest calling card that the league has.

Find time in your schedule. Big talents of the future reside within and even if you just want to watch world stars doing their thing PSG have you covered there. It’s should be a good one.

Top 6 Prediction

  1. PSG
  2. Monaco
  3. Lyon
  4. Bordeaux
  5. Marseille
  6. Lille

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