The new Ligue 1 season starts tonight (!), and while most of the attention is focused on the capital I say “PSG, schmee-ess-gee”. There are several more interesting stories to follow in the coming season, and here are four that I found it easiest to write about.
Life on Mars: Marseille
Marseille, both the town and the football team, were not put on this earth to make sense. But even by their own bonkers standards last season was pretty weird. Most analysts backed them to retain their league title, and at the very least be challenging for it during the run in. I don’t think anyone predicted what actually happened: the club’s form going off the end of a cliff, Didier Deschamps losing the will to try anything to stem the bleeding and all but losing the will to live on the sidelines despite an absurdly flukey run to the Champions League quarter finals where, playing at the level of a pub team, they were dismissed by Bayern Munich. André Ayew’s development stagnated, new signing Jérémy Morel had a tough introduction, and amazingly, the always reliable Benoit Cheyrou had an absolute shocker of a season.
Coach Elie Baup has taken a lot of flak before the season has even begun, most of it related to his less than stellar managerial record to date. His perceived deficiencies notwithstanding, it’s all but inconceivable that a talented squad can play quite as badly again, but at the same time it is hard to escape the conclusion that OM’s season rests on the form and fitness of Loïc Remy. Capable of providing width, dragging defenders all over the inside-forward channels, being a target man, poking in half-chances from close in or smacking them in from 25 metres out, Marseille’s one international-class forward will have to play out of his skin to keep his team competitive. Don’t be surprised if he manages to head in one of his own crosses this season.
The one-man formation: Bordeaux
Mariano was probably the signing of the last winter transfer window. His presence permitted Bordeaux to switch to a system with wing-backs and the team jumped from 10th in January to fifth (and a Europa League place) by the season’s end, losing just three games in the process. The juxtaposition between their performances with a back three and a back four was noticeable, to say the least.
The squad is fairly thin, so an injury to a key player (particularly the two wingbacks, Nguemo and Plasil, a quartet that forms the engine of the team) would give them a serious headache, but if they can stay fit then another tilt at a European place is not out of the question. In pre-season Francis Gillot has also introduced a 4-2-3-1, but the overall effect will be the same: one of the defensive midfielders will drop back and Mariano and Trémoulinas will be encouraged to do what they do best and attack. If Bordeaux begin the new season anywhere near the level at which they ended the last one (performances that earned them six straight wins), and start demonstrating an ability to break down defensive teams more easily, then a progressive campaign in the league and some success in the cups is on the cards.
Coping with loss: Valenciennes and Nice
Over the last few years some of the best football in France can be found in a small town down the road from Lille: Valenciennes. Their progressive play earned former coach Philippe Montanier a shot at taking over Real Sociedad, and successor Daniel Sanchez has kept things going with a similar style, all quick passes and smooth counter-attacks. But with Carlos Sanchez leaving on a free and Renaud Cohade moving to St Etienne, a key part of the Valenciennes engine has been lost. It will be very interesting to see if Foued Kadir and Gaël Danic will be able to create as many chances now that the men responsible for winning the ball back (Sanchez) and providing them with it in space high up the pitch (Cohade) are gone.
Nice have also lost a key man, arguably the single most decisive player for any club in the division: Anthony Mounier. Acquired for a scandalously low price by Montpelier, his incisive running and ability to create chance after chance will be terribly missed at Nice. Unlike Valenciennes, however, Nice have moved quickly to replace the men who are leaving. The excellent David Ospina was expected to leave (and may yet do so) but Nice brought in France’s under-21 goalkeeper Joris Delle, an excellent piece of business and probably a good move for the player too who was bound to leave Metz even before they were relegated the National. Dario Cvitanich is probably an upgrade on the Abu Dhabi-bound Eric Mouloungui. The hardest job of all, replacing Mounier, falls on Eric Bauthéac who has joined after a solid first season in Ligue 1 at Dijon.
Awesome twosome: Romain Hamouma and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
At the start of last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was an inconsistent but talented forward who had yet to really make a mark. He’s now a star, the poster boy of the 2012 Cup of Nations and the man whose goals propelled St Etienne to 7th place, their highest finish in five years.
This season the resident Neymar impersonator of Ligue 1 should be able to increase his tally, with Romain Hamouma added to the mix. Hamouma has been linked with just about every team in Ligue 1 over the last year after his impressive first season at Caen, and if the two can create an effective partnership quickly then expect lots of goals.
Sainté have now had several very good transfer windows in succession and the combination of smart acquisitions and a productive youth system means Christophe Galtier has a strong team that, with a little luck, could be capable of finishing the season ahead of rivals Lyon for the first time in twenty years.