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The French Soccer Spa

After two seasons adrift, Radamel Falcao is back to doing what he does best: scoring goals. The Monaco striker is the latest in a line of attacking players who find playing in France’s Ligue 1 to be a rejuvenating experience.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Over the past few years, France’s Ligue 1 has turned into a restorative experience for attacking players. A French Soccer Spa, if you will. But at this spa, you won’t be getting a massage or skin care treatments, you’ll get goals, lots and lots of goals. Players come to the French Soccer Spa after being worn down by other leagues, especially the Premier League.

Radamel Falcao checked into the spa’s Monaco branch this summer, after disappointing stints at Manchester United and Chelsea. In a season that few predicted, they’re top of the table in a league that has been dominated the past four years by Paris Saint-Germain. In five years, Monaco has gone from relegation in 2011 to having the most prolific attack in Europe with 82 goals in Ligue 1.

So far this season, Falcao has scored 24 goals and has four assists in 30 appearances across all competitions for Monaco. By comparison, in 36 total appearances for both Manchester United and Chelsea, he notched only five goals and four assists.

A key factor to Falcao’s success this season is Monaco’s use of a two-striker formation, a system he played in at Atletico Madrid during his 28-goal 2013 season. At Monaco, Falcao and Valère Germain have combined for 35 goals, and have shown a natural chemistry on the pitch. “We haven’t had to work on our understanding much, it came about very naturally. The coach paired us up at the start of the season and it clicked straight away,” Germain said in January.

Monaco allows Falcao to do what he’s good at — clinically finish chances — and not worry about much else — tracking back. One of the reasons Falcao had a rough time at Chelsea playing for José Mourinho was because he wasn’t able to defend the way his manager expects his strikers to. He doesn’t have that kind of responsibility at Moncao.

Monaco’s 4–4–2 features a young midfield (Fabinho is the team’s oldest first-choice midfielder at 23) with a high work rate. Central midfielders Fabinho and Tiemoué Bakayoko win and keep possession, while its wide mids Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva push forward and create chances. Out of their 266 chances in league play, 111 have been created by Monaco’s midfield alone. In Leonardo Jardim’s system, fullbacks also are given freedom to push up the field and with so many players in the final third, all Falcao has to worry about is putting the ball in the back of net.

Falcao isn’t the only former Premier League player to find rejuvenation in France. Last season, Hatem Ben Arfa scored 17 goals and had six assists for Nice, after a tumultuous spell with Newcastle United and Hull. During his time in England, where he scored only 13 goals and had 11 assists in 81 appearances.

Ben Arfa said his time at Newcastle was the lowest point of his career. “I had the feeling of being locked in a dark room without a door, or in an endless tunnel. I saw hell and especially no solution to my problems,” he said. “At that time, I was wrong, I did not see any light. I was a prisoner. I told myself every day to not let go. I tried to convince myself that the light was coming back, I was going to find the right path.”

The Frenchman’s rough experience in England was largely due clashes with Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, who said Ben Arfa became “problematic” and “impossible” to manage last year.

Everything changed once he arrived at Nice, where he and then-manager Claude Puel (who is now in charge of Southampton in the Premier League) formed a father-son relationship. Puel knew that for Ben Arfa to succeed, he needed to feel important. “He dares to attempt extraordinary runs but he can not express his potential if he doesn’t feel supported or play regularly,” he told Sky Sports.

At Newcastle, Ben Arfa was frequently dropped from the first team. At Nice he was allowed to make mistakes. With the support of his manager and consistent game time, Ben Arfa excelled, completing the most dribbles in Europe’s top five leagues.

Unfortunately for Ben Arfa, he’s struggled to recreate last season’s performances after moving to PSG. He hasn’t seen frequent game time, but he opted to stay with the club he’s dreamed of playing for since he was a child despite loan interest from several clubs during the winter transfer window.

Ligue 1 isn’t as intense as the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga. It’s not as technical as Spain’s La Liga and it’s not quite as defensive-minded as Italy’s Serie A. It features a combination of technical ability and athleticism, and is a fertile ground for developing talent. But besides tactics and styles, players in Ligue 1 deal with less media scrutiny. You can come to the French Soccer Spa to relax and just be yourself.

“Because it’s not quite that same spotlight that the Premier League has where everything is so scrutinized … you get time to be yourself and you can have some bad games,” England-based freelance soccer journalist Andrew Gibney told me. “Here [England] when Ben Arfa was bad, there were 5–6 articles why he was bad — Is this the end of Ben Arfa?’ There was a spell at Nice where he had a bit of a rough spell and wasn’t playing so great, but you never heard about that. He was allowed to be himself.”

Others have enjoyed taking the French footballing waters. Mario Balotelli checked in after a few lost seasons for Liverpool and AC Milan, managing only four goals in 66 league appearances for both clubs. He began the 2016–17 season scoring six goals across all competitions for Nice but, has dropped off recently, not scoring since January 29.

After an OK season with Manchester United, Ángel Di María arrived at the spa last season and scored 10 goals and had 24 assists, which was virtually identical to his 2014 season at Real Madrid, when he landed in UEFA’s Team of the Year.

The latest former Manchester United player finding new life in France is Memphis Depay. Since joining Lyon in January, he’s scored three goals, notched two assists, and created 14 chances in just seven appearances, which include a two-goal, one-assist performance against Metz.

It took him a few games to adjust to his new teammates, but if Depay keeps his recent form, he could be in a similar situation to Falcao, who’s leading the charge as Monaco tries to win its first Ligue 1 title since 2000. With all the success his former teammates are having in France, maybe Wayne Rooney should try the Brie.