So far this season, Toulouse, St. Etienne, Rennes and now newly promoted Brest have led Ligue 1 as the traditional powers struggle. With Lyon in the wrong half of the table and champions Marseille off the pace, what has happened in France?
It wasn’t long ago that you didn’t need to ask who was top of the French league. For most of the last decade, France has been successfully promoting itself as the world’s most predictable league – in terms of the title race at least. It’s also true that for most of the last decade France has had the leading contender for the award for the world’s most incompetent international coach.
Now France seems to be trying to make up for lost time. Lyon are sitting in the bottom half of the table, as they have been for pretty much the entire season, and Laurent Blanc is reminding the French public what it’s like to have a coach with a degree of interpersonal skill. And the top of the league has been occupied by some of the most unlikely of candidates. First Toulouse took the lead, before St. Etienne went top for the first time in 30 years. Then Rennes went one better, rising above Les Verts to the top of Ligue 1 for the first time in 40 years. Now it’s the turn of Brest. The newly promoted side have climbed to the top with a superb run of form that has seen them beat the likes of Bordeaux and St. Etienne, and they employ an effective 4-5-1 formation which has enabled them to climb the league swiftly.
But first place seems to be a false dawn for all of its occupants so far this season, as they have taken it in turn to top the standings briefly before quickly losing their grip. Brest are perhaps the biggest surprise of all this season, having been promoted last year, and they went top first with a win over Bordeaux and then with a home victory over St. Etienne. The Breton outfit then saw an eight game unbeaten run ended by Lille last weekend, and now hold a narrow lead over Rennes and P.S.G.
But now things might be about to get more interesting. The teams rising through the league to take the next ride on the Ligue 1 leaders’ merry-go-round are the likes of P.S.G and champions Marseille, who met last weekend (PSG won 2-1). These are the sides most likely to contest the title race as the season progresses – and Bordeaux and Lyon if either can discover some semblance of form.
The success story of the season has the been the triumph of the collective of the individual. Coaches such as Frederic Antonetti at Rennes and Christophe Galtier have forged teams which perform better than the sum of their parts would suggest them capable of. It is their ability to create excellent teams revolving around talented young stars such as Blaise Matuidi, Yann M’Vila and Dimitri Payet which has enabled these sides to dominate the French league so far this term.
Lyon seemed to have turned a corner as they tried to arrest their sudden decline, before a 1-1 draw with Arles-Avignon a fortnight ago halted their rise. Coach Claude Puel is walking the tightest of ropes, and the likelihood is that he will be gone by the end of the season. With Bordeaux struggling to make the same impact that they have in recent years without influential ex-coach Blanc, Marseille are the likeliest contenders for the Ligue 1 crown this year, and they sit just three points off the top, as Ligue 1’s unlikely boys look nervously over their shoulder. It’s been a fun start to the season, but Deschamps men may soon be about to spoil the party.