Sunday’s Ligue 1 showdown sees the most exciting finish to the French season for almost 20 years, with three clubs still in with a chance of being crowned Ligue 1 champions: Lille, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco.
PSG have picked up seven of the last eight championships since the Qatari takeover in 2011 saw the club able to spend hundreds of millions on some of the world’s best players, like Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. But now there could be a new champion.
Few would have predicted that Lille could ever win another title when Christophe Galtier took over as head coach with the club in crisis at the halfway point of the 2017-18 season. But their rise has been full of drama and this season they beat PSG on April 3 to start a run of five wins in seven games which has propelled them to the brink of glory.
While third-placed Monaco (who take on Lens) are three points off the top and would need this weekend’s results to go their way (and at least a six-goal swing in goal difference), there’s just one point separating the top two. A win for Lille against Angers would secure their fourth title — their first since 2011 — as PSG travel to Brest. But how did Lille get here?
Galtier’s ‘team before anything’ philosophy
A dependable defensive midfielder/defender as a player, the Marseille-born Galtier set off on his coaching career as an assistant, following his respected compatriot Alain Perrin as far afield as the UAE and Portsmouth abroad, and with Sochaux and Lyon in France.
Having served his coaching apprenticeship, Galtier got his chance to take over Saint-Etienne in 2009 and stayed in charge for eight years. During this remarkable spell, he initially steered the club clear of relegation before stabilising their place in the fight for European spots (he took them to fourth in 2013-14 and picked up a Coupe de la Ligue the year before).
Galtier has had a similar galvanising effect on Lille. Arriving in difficult circumstances in December 2017, with the club looking likely to be relegated, he replaced the effervescent Marcelo Bielsa and kept the struggling team up with three successive victories against Metz, Toulouse, and Dijon to end in 17th. Then they shot up the table the following year to qualify for the Champions League by finishing second.
The 54-year-old has instilled the same principles at Lille as he did at Saint-Etienne. A firm believer in the collective ahead of the individual, Galtier has brought a strong work ethic and a clear organisational structure, anchored in a solid defensive shape. This “team before anything” approach is always evident in a Galtier side. If every player understands the entirety of what his role entails and is conscious of his responsibilities, his team becomes hard to break down.
As well as having conceded the fewest goals in Ligue 1 this season (22), Lille have been at the receiving end of the fewest shots. This is not just down to an excellent goalkeeper, Mike Maignan (who won his first full cap for Les Bleus last year), and the much-lauded central defensive partnership of Jose Fonte and Sven Botman. As with any well-functioning side, the defensive work starts with the forward players.
Lille’s collective approach is highlighted by their impressive pressing game. The team communicates well over when and how to press and, while this is not unique to Lille, every player seems to know their role. Once the pressing has eradicated an opponent’s passing options, Lille’s centre-backs are expert at winning the long ball duels or picking up possession from a knockdown.
Galtier might not be among the most media-friendly managers around — he doesn’t seem too worried about charming journalists or engineering his own “brand” — but he enjoys the total loyalty of his players and his messages hit home.
An incredible transfer policy
When Galtier first arrived, Lille were under a transfer ban. The French football financial regulatory body (DNCG) had stopped the club from signing players in the 2018 January window and things over the next few years would prove to be incredibly complicated from a financial perspective. Gerard Lopez, the former owner of the Lotus F1 Team, had taken over as Lille’s majority shareholder that January and borrowed a reported €225m from American creditors Elliott Management and JP Morgan, which ensured the transfer budget for Lille was tight.
But, with a first full summer of recruitment ahead of them, Galtier and sporting director Luis Campos did wonders. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise as renowned transfer guru Campos had laid the foundations for Monaco’s sensational Ligue 1 title win in 2017 before he left for Lille. Credited with bringing in Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Benjamin Mendy (who would all go on to leave Monaco for massive transfer fees), Campos used his nous in the market to let midfielder Yves Bissouma depart for Brighton for around €8m and full-back Kevin Malcuit to Napoli for €7m, but then signed Jonathan Ikone, Zeki Celik, Rafael Leao, Jonathan Bamba and Fonte for less than €9m combined.
The key aspects for Galtier are not so much a player’s name or reputation, but rather his ability to carry out the work performed on the training ground into game situations, as well as an absolute commitment to his system and philosophy. Lille finished second in 2018-19, with these players all having a key role, but the financial issues were still prominent and the club were forced into letting Nicolas Pepe move to Arsenal for €72m, Leao to AC Milan for €15m and Thiago Mendes to Lyon for €25m to balance the books.
Again, Campos and Galtier worked miracles by bringing in Nigeria striker Victor Osimhen for €22.4m from RSC Charleroi and former Golden Boy Renato Sanches for €20m from Bayern. A fourth-place finish (one point off third-place Rennes) in 2019-20 was a success given everything happening off the pitch but then Osimhen was offloaded to Napoli for €70m and star centre-back Gabriel to Arsenal for €26m. The same old cycle repeated.
New arrivals bed in quickly
Incredibly, Lille continue to find success in the transfer market. This season the performances of Turkish centre-forward Burak Yilmaz have left a lot of observers dumbfounded. The 35-year-old has had a remarkable career in Turkish football — he’d played for all three Istanbul giants and scored into double figures in the league in nine seasons (including 33 in 2011-12 for Trabzonspor) — but few predicted that after a free transfer from Besiktas he would end up scoring 17 goals. Yilmaz has led the line well for Lille and has also proved useful as a hold-up player, setting up midfield runners or his striking partner with neat lay-offs and flicks.
Osimhen’s replacement, Jonathan David (€27m from Gent) struggled at first to find his rhythm in the physical French league, but he has 12 goals now. With his pace and inclination to run in behind, he’s proved a fine complement to Yilmaz.
Young Dutch centre-back Botman — who arrived for €8m from Ajax in the summer to replace Gabriel — has received accolades for his outstanding individual defensive displays as well as for his well-functioning partnership with Fonte. Botman is not only strong in the air, but is also a fine passer of the ball from the left-side of defence, comes out on top from most duels and is rarely beaten for pace when caught high up the pitch.
The spine of the team is excellent
This season, in goal, Maignan has saved an impressive 81% of shots this season (top in Ligue 1) while he has also proven to be a safe passer of the ball (86% accuracy). Botman and Fonte as the central defensive duo have impressed, while Turkish right-back Celik has also performed brilliantly. In his third season for Lille after arriving under the radar from Turkish side Istanbulspor for €2m in 2018, Celik has been a constant threat down the right side, often creating overloads and hitting precise crosses into the box. The 24-year-old’s willingness to push up the pitch has also been fundamental to the functioning of the high pressing game.
Perhaps the most influential player for Lille has been 22-year-old defensive midfielder Boubakary Soumare — a free transfer from PSG’s youth side in 2017. His industry, ball-winning and carrying skills, have been paramount. After a slow start to the season, Soumare has had more of an impact as the weeks have progressed and the France U21 international is on the summer shortlist of many elite European clubs, with sources telling ESPN that Leicester City are close to completing a €25m deal for him.
Bamba has also been in spectacular form this season. His playmaking skills and trickery when cutting in from the left on his right foot, combined with his ability to finish from outside the box, have been one of their main attacking weapons. One of the most-fouled players in Ligue 1, Bamba often ties up multiple opponents to create valuable space elsewhere in attack. His eager and intense style also makes him highly useful at his pressing duties.
Galtier has also mastered the art of getting the most of out of his fringe players. Yusuf Yazici in particular has regularly been brought on from the bench to change a game that’s gone stale. With his dribbling and pace (as well as goal scoring exploits: he scored two hat-tricks in the Europa League) he can break a set pattern and offers more unpredictability. United States international Timothy Weah has also made progress during the past season and can make a real impact, while Jonathan Ikone may not have found the consistency one would have expected but has been a vital part of this team effort.
Some praise should also be directed towards the Lille fitness staff. Considering their demanding, energetic style of football, Lille have performed with consistency across the entire season, hardly experiencing any dips in form, and often making late rallies towards the end of the games when fatigue sets in. Most of the players have also looked sharp and in prime physical condition throughout.
Clinching the title on Sunday would be huge and they just need a win against Angers to do so. After that, Lille face more uncertainty. In December 2020, Lopez and Campos left the club when it was sold to Callisto Sporting, a subsidiary of Luxembourg-based investment fund Merlyn Partners.
Former PSG sporting director and president of Rennes Olivier Letang replaced Marc Ingla as CEO and they still owe €123m of their debt. The COVID-19 pandemic and global economic situation hasn’t helped, nor did the the collapse of Mediapro’s four-year TV rights deal with the LFP, which was worth more than €3 billion.
Galtier stayed, but sources told ESPN’s Julien Laurens that he could walk away this summer, with former Dortmund boss Lucien Favre or ex-PSG and France manager Laurent Blanc potentially lined up to replace him at Lille. A new chapter in England, or a less complex role at Nice or Lyon may await. But for now, he and the club should be incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved amid adversity.