The Big 5 After 5: Ligue 1
Ligue 1 was the first of the big five European leagues to get its 2020-21 season underway. Five matchdays in, let’s look at four interesting things from the early running in France.
Rennes Lead The Way
Rennes are the early leaders after taking four wins and a draw from their opening set of fixtures. Their underlying numbers also look promising, continuing the trend from the second half of last season’s abruptly shortened championship, when they had the second best metrics in the division behind Paris Saint-Germain.
Then, a switch to a more proactive defensive approach, albeit still a pretty average one in the overall context of the league, yielded dividends at both ends of the pitch. Rennes began to create a higher number of better quality shots whilst conceding a lower number of worse quality ones. They became much more adept at creating opportunities in transitional phases of play, and leaned less on crosses as a means of entering the penalty area.
Those same broad stylistic traits seem to have carried into the early running of 2020-21, and their position atop the table is reflective of a smart club seemingly on the up. They won the Coupe de France in 2018-19, and last season’s third-place finish means that this time around they will compete in the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Paris Saint-Germain: Still Good
Paris Saint-Germain started the season poorly with consecutive 1-0 defeats to Lens and Marseille, a pair of results that predictably produced rumblings over the future of head coach Thomas Tuchel and talks of potential dressing room unrest. They’ve since recorded three straight wins without conceding, and their metrics suggest all is well.
PSG have taken 66% of the shots in their matches and accumulated nearly 73% of the expected goals. They were genuinely bad against Lens in their opener, mainly because they were missing a bunch of key players including Ángel Di Maria, Kylian Mbappé, Marquinhos and Neymar, but they’ve otherwise been their normal dominant selves.
As much as everyone would love to see a tighter title race, there is scant evidence of any kind of downturn or easing on their part. Even if a team like Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Monaco or Rennes does improve significantly, PSG were so insanely far ahead of the rest last season that even a slight easing in their output would still likely make them comfortable champions.
A Great Start for Lens
Newly promoted Lens have so far not looked at all out of place in the top flight. Three wins and a draw from their first five fixtures have them up in the top six, and their metrics look even better. They’ve taken a 63% share of the shots in their matches, and have carried an xG difference of +6.43 through these early weeks of the campaign, second only to PSG.
Realistically, they aren’t going to maintain those numbers through the entire season, but it is a great start, and there is much to like in their approach. The new arrivals also seem to be producing. Gaël Kakuta is enjoying himself as one of two attacking midfielders in their 3-4-2-1 system, while Ignatius Ganago already has four goals (from 3.75 xG) on the board.
Facundo Medina has replicated the bold ball-carrying and impressive passing range that saw him stand out at Talleres de Córdoba last season.
The underlying numbers also suggest that Lorient, who came up ahead of Lens as Ligue 2 champions, have been better than results to date might indicate. The two promoted teams have avoided a direct return to the second tier in each of the last two Ligue 1 seasons. That run might just continue through 2020-21.
Bamba Finally Gets His Goal
After 12 non-penalty goals in 2018-19, Lille’s Jonathan Bamba failed to register a single goal from 44 shots last season -- the highest non-scoring tally in the league.
There was a bit of finishing variance involved there, but there was also a notable decline in the value of his shot locations in a post-Nicolas-Pépé world. The average quality reduced from 0.11 xG/shot in 2018-19 down to 0.06 xG/shot in 2019-20.
But things seem to be looking up for Bamba this time around. He scored with his first shot of the new campaign in the opening day draw against Rennes, and added another in the 1-0 win away at Reims that followed it.
Lille have rebuilt their attack again this year following the big-money departure of Victor Osimhen to Napoli, and the changes seem to be to Bamba’s liking. The sample size is way too low to extrapolate too much from it, but the early signs are promising for a return to his output of two seasons past.