PSG dominate French football and, as a result, Ligue 1 is uncompetitive. At least, that’s the narrative driven by social media. It’s true that PSG have won seven of the last nine titles and, although they are not reigning champions, they have no real contenders this season. However, Ligue 1 is a league like no other. Its weakest teams are its strongest asset, as we are seeing again this season.
There is an obvious resource gap between the top and bottom clubs – PSG’s budget of €500m for this season dwarfs the €20m newly promoted Clermont can spend – yet Ligue 1’s supposed lack of competition can be partly explained by competitiveness further down the division. Of the 20-team major European top flights last season, the gap between the bottom three and the top four was narrowest in France at 36 points. That competitiveness across the league, which saw relegation-threatened Metz beat Champions League favourites Nice this weekend, often allows PSG to get away at the top. PSG can push ahead as the clubs below them take points off each other.
Sixteen games into the season, just 11 points separate Strasbourg in sixth and bottom club Saint-Étienne. The two sides who failed to win any of their first 11 fixtures this season, Brest and Saint-Étienne, were in the top five earlier this week. As it stands, it would not be a surprise to see anyone from the bottom half of the table, bar champions Lille who sit 12th (but top of their Champions League group), finish in the bottom three.
Despite just one loss in five games – to PSG – St Étienne are still bottom but boast two of the league’s standout players so far. England Under-21 goalkeeper Etienne Green again displayed his lightning-quick reactions in making a handful of world-class saves against PSG at the weekend, and forward Wahbi Khazri ended France’s goal of the season competition last month by scoring from 70 yards at Metz. Claude Puel, reportedly barely surviving the sack of late, owes his continued employment to an explosive late comeback to beat Clermont 3-2. As St-Étienne proved in an unfortunate loss to PSG thanks to a debatable red card, they are more than a handful for Ligue 1’s leading clubs.
Brest finished 17th last season yet they are currently on a run of five straight wins. Graceful young playmaker Romain Faivre, forward Franck Honorat and attacking midfielder Jérémy Le Douaron – a third division player not long ago – have finally clicked. They routed Monaco on a riotous afternoon at the pokey Stade Francis-Le Blé and obliterated Franck Haise’s much-lauded Lens side 4-0 between impressive away wins at Bordeaux and Lorient.
On paper, Reims are the weakest side in the division, with much of their experienced core sold or injured. Yet manager Óscar García has somehow made what is often little more than a youth side competitive. Of the starters that beat Clermont at the weekend, aside from wily veteran defender Yunis Abdlehamid and left-back Ghislain Konan, every outfield player was 23 or under. Their top scorer this season is 19-year-old centre-forward Hugo Ekitike, who hit a late winner on Wednesday as they beat Lyon in their own empty stadium.
Ligue 1 is a very difficult division to predict. Neither of the newly promoted teams – Troyes and Clermont – are in the relegation zone. Troyes are 15th even though their vibrant young coach Laurent Batlles is working with what is effectively a Ligue 2 team. Meanwhile, Clermont continue to bring joy to Ligue 1. They have deserved more from some narrow defeats to Nice, Marseille, St-Étienne and Reims.
Lorient were in the top six for most of 2021 but a lack of goals from Terem Moffi and five straight defeats have led to them slipping down the table. On the other hand, Metz have found some gumption and avoided defeat in four of their last five games after losing six of their previous seven.
This group of teams has plenty of burgeoning talent and they adopt a variety of styles – from Clermont’s attacking and technical 4-3-3, to Troyes’ powerful yet versatile 3-6-1. The teams in the bottom half of the table regularly steal points from the top sides, making French football far more competitive than is widely accepted. For example, Nice’s four defeats this season have come against Metz, Troyes, Lorient and Montpellier.
French clubs’ historical European record is often used as evidence that Ligue 1 teams cannot match the standard of their peers in the other big five leagues. However, Ligue 1 clubs harbour genuine hopes of winning all three European competitions this season. PSG boast the world’s greatest attacking trident; Lyon have won all five of their group games in the Europa League; and Rennes, Ligue 1’s surprise package, topped a tricky Europa Conference League group that includes Tottenham.
Ligue 1’s even nature often means upstart teams can qualify for Europe, but one of the league’s greatest facets indirectly proves a flaw. Standout young players, who are produced so relentlessly in Ligue 1, are often picked off over the summer leaving teams without the experience and depth they need to balance European and domestic commitments. Nevertheless, France matches Italy and beats Germany in terms of their number of European finalists in the last six seasons.
The perception of PSG domination and Ligue 1 being best as a proving ground for young prospects may permeate into the upper reaches of the French game. Didier Deschamps’ national team responded to a weak showing at Euro 2020 by winning the Nations League, but his squad remains unbalanced and patchy in terms of depth. Ligue 1 has the answer.
Only four home-based players appeared during the Nations League finals in October and domestic options have long been overlooked. Striker Gaëtan Laborde of Rennes, Montpellier’s midfield creator Téji Savanier and Lens wing-back Jonathan Clauss are increasingly jarring omissions from Deschamps’ squad announcements. While Deschamps has often achieved spectacular results by prioritising group harmony, more established but less deserving players take preference. Laborde’s physicality, Savanier’s vision and Clauss’ deliveries would all have been useful at Euro 2020. Adrien Rabiot, Anthony Martial, Leo Dubois and Presnel Kimpembe, among others, may not be so fortunate under another coach.
PSG should win Ligue 1 comfortably but, having failed to truly convince in any of their league games so far, it will be more down to luck than it may appear. Nice, still in the early stages of Christophe Galtier’s reign, Jorge Sampaoli’s gung-ho but oddly defensively sound Marseille, an inconsistent Lyon and a stretched Monaco have all been held back by Ligue 1’s greatest flaw and its biggest strength. It is football’s most competitive, uncompetitive division.
Bordeaux are in freefall, their humiliating 5-2 loss at Strasbourg on Wednesday just their latest setback in a tumultuous 2021. They have only won one of their last 10 games and now sit 18th in Ligue 1. Despite Gérard Lopez’s takeover this summer, he is already looking for new investors with the prospect of major January reinforcements wearing thin. A host of summer signings have largely proved to be flops. In a fiercely competitive league, relegation is a real prospect for the 2009 champions.
PSG and Nice, Ligue 1’s most likely top two come the end of the season, met in Paris on Wednesday night. With Neymar out for several weeks with an ankle injury, Mauricio Pochettino adjusted his front three. Ángel Di María was added on the right, with Lionel Messi moving more central and Kylian Mbappé to the left. It will be interesting to see if this shift provides the required balance long-term, but early results are not promising after a drab 0-0 draw. It could have been worse for PSG had Kasper Dolberg not headed against the post from point-blank range.