We go to France next in our mid-season reviews of the major European leagues, where the title race is far from the foregone conclusion it has been in recent seasons, and with some surprise packages providing entertaining support acts along the way.
Just once in the last eight seasons - Monaco in 2016/17 - has the Ligue 1 title not been won by PSG. The Parisian’s grip on French football has not just come in the form of league titles, it’s also been the processional inevitability and comprehensive margin of victory that observers have become all too used to in recent seasons.
Not this season. Mesdames et messieurs, we have ourselves a title race.
We’ll start with the holders. PSG began their title defence with defeats in the opening two rounds of the season, the first time they’d done so since 1984/85. A curtain-raising defeat to newly promoted Lens was still a shock despite several enforced absences due to positive Covid-19 tests or isolation, including the pair of Mbappé and Neymar. The following 1-0 loss to Marseille in Le Classique was the equivalent of using sandpaper to rub salt into the wound.
The subsequent eight-game winning streak, scoring 26 and conceding 1, that followed suggested on a surface-level that Les Rouge et Bleu were back on course and their period of plain sailing was to continue, but that wasn't to be the case. Hints at a downturn in performance turned into nudges, and then nudges turned into sharp elbows to the ribs as the team’s attacking output drifted away. A run of three wins in seven games saw the end of Thomas Tuchel's managerial reign.
Whilst their attack only cooled in more recent games, there had always been warning signs on the defensive end that all was not well, despite conceding the fewest goals in the league at the midway point. It’s thanks to a combination of poor finishing from their opponents as well as consistently good goalkeeping from Keylor Navas that PSG have so far retained the best goals against record in the league because by xG, they are far from the most watertight defensively, conceding chances worth 23.4 xG, only the seventh-best record in the division. This is where the most obvious improvements can be made for the incoming Mauricio Pochettino.
It’s the team at the top of the xG conceded ranking that also tops the league table as things stand. Lille have the lowest expected goals conceded and have indeed conceded only one more goal than PSG – a defensive record that has helped them to lose just two games in 22 this league season.
It’s a clichéd blend of youth and experience in the centre of defence providing the sturdy foundation for Lille’s title charge to sit on. The now 37-year-old José Fonte partners the highly-rated Sven Botman, freshly graduated from the Ajax academy, and both are screened by the busy Benjamin Andre in central midfield, who leads the league in tackles + interceptions.
It’s a highly effective partnership that Fonte and Botman share, with each excelling in different areas on the game – Botman providing the progressive outlet in buildup, playing the second-most passes from open play in Ligue Un, whilst Fonte sticks to putting his body on the line in front of goal, ranking joint-first in the league for blocks made per shot conceded. This willingness to keep the goalkeeper's gloves clean at any cost has helped Lille to concede the joint-fewest Clear Shots in all of Ligue 1 – shots with just the goalkeeper between ball and goal - rarely allowing their opponents a straightforward view of the goal.
Organised in the defensive phase, they’re equally well-drilled in the defensive transition, running an effective counterpress high up the pitch to prevent the opposition from hurting them with space in behind, resulting in a league-low return for shots conceded on the counter attack.
2nd placed Lyon currently have the best underlying numbers in the league and lead the pack by expected goal difference. It's mostly due to massively upgrading their attack that they've been able to push themselves into title contention: compared to last season, they’ve added 3.5 Shots per game to their output, and are also taking those shots from better locations, resulting in a 0.8 xG per game upgrade on their final third output.
Manager Rudi Garcia, a Ligue 1 title winner with Lille in 2010/11, took Lyon to the Champions League semi-finals in 2020 despite a 7th-placed finish in the league, and has managed to translate that European success into domestic form in this campaign.
Despite playing as the centre-forward, Memphis Depay has been the team’s leading creative outlet, laying on the chances for wide players Karl Toko Ekambi and Tino Kadewere rather than providing the main goal threat himself. Depay ranks second only to Ángel Di María for xG assisted per 90 in Ligue 1. Toko Ekambi and Kadewere are the willing recipients off the left and right flank respectively, with both having the second and third highest xG per 90 respectively in the league.
It isn't just their cohesive and potent attack that's giving Lyon a very credible chance at winning their first title since 2008 though, it's the balance they've found between that and a very competent defence. Les Gones have the best xG per shot conceded and it’s largely down to allowing just six(!) shots within their six-yard box all season.
AS Monaco are well in the race as well, just six points behind leaders Lille, and their on-pitch process appears to back that up, having the third-best xG Difference in the league. Goalkeeping issues have held them back so far - Benjamin Lecomte had the worst Shot Stopping % (Save% - xSave %) in the division before breaking his hand, and replacement Vito Mannone fared almost equally poorly. The result is that Monaco have conceded 27 non-penalty goals from 18.8 xG, though it’s also only fair to point out that this has been counter-balanced by some overperformance on the attacking end. Their attack has been powered by a sizeable output from set plays with 14 goals a full six goals clear of the next best team in this phase. Centre backs Guillermo Maripán and Axel Diassi have netted seven goals between them up to now, with Maripán, at 0.44, currently enjoying a better goals per 90 rate than Neymar.
Elsewhere, there are two surprise packages sat in the top half - Metz and Lens. Metz finished 15th last season following promotion but are already sat on the same points tally they finished last season’s curtailed renewal with, on 34 points from 22 games this campaign. There’s been some overperformance at both ends of the pitch for Les Grenats, but there are also some clear signs they have improved on their 2019/20 showing. Their xG per shot against of 0.08 is only marginally bettered by Lyon and Lille, and they’re keeping this down by preventing their opponents from shooting from close range as often as possible – the average Shot Distance by their opponents of 18 metres is the second-furthest in the league.
Lens are interesting for two reasons: that they’re newly promoted and that their underlying numbers are actually legit – they have the sixth-best expected goal difference. Franck Haise’s side are running a highly effective defence and are one of the most disruptive sides in the league in their own defensive third, preventing their opponents from moving the ball close to their goal. Lens have conceded the second-fewest passes inside their own penalty area and second-fewest passes within 20m of their goal.
Their organised block stops the opposition from having any meaningful possession in areas that threaten their goal. Towards the bottom, Dijon find themselves 19th in the table despite having conceded the joint-ninth fewest goals with 31. How? Because they’ve scored just 15 times. Things could be even worse too, given the quite mysterious misfiring of their opponents in front of goal, whilst there’s nothing in fellow strugglers Nîmes underlying numbers to suggest they might pull off an equally dramatic escape.
There are genuine threats to PSG’s title defence this campaign and from multiple directions. Pochettino will need to have an immediate impact on his Parisians if they’re to retain yet another Ligue 1 victory.