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Ligue 1 Season Review: Good Things Come in Lille Packages

Paris Saint-Germain’s extravagance fell flat in the face of Lille’s youthful exuberance in an entertaining and unpredictable French title race

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Few would have pegged Lille to stave off Paris Saint-Germain for the League 1 title. Here’s the best from the 2020-21 French season:

Player of the Year: Burak Yilmaz, Lille

Just as in Spain, where Luis Suárez’s goal on the final day of the season led Atlético Madrid to glory, a veteran gunslinger stepped up when his team needed him most. On the final day of the Ligue 1 calendar, Lille faced Angers, needing a win to claim the championship ahead of Paris Saint-Germain. Leading 1-0, they earned a penalty on the stroke of halftime and Yilmaz, just as he had done all season, provided the decisive flourish. His goal, the last kick of the opening period and his 16th of the season, ended up being the one that won the title. It was the 277th goal of his nomadic and hugely successful career, and there cannot have been many more important than this. Along the road to this triumph, his strikes have ranged from the businesslike to the spectacular—see, for example, his masterpiece of a free kick in April’s crucial 3-2 win at Lyon—but whatever form his finishing took, it was routinely lethal.

Spirit of the Year: Kevin Volland, Monaco

Defending champion PSG had already lost twice by the time they faced Monaco last November. Their situation only worsened after losing 3-2 in a thrilling, open game. It was one thing to be defeated by a team that did nothing but defend, and another to be beaten by a team that came out to play them. Volland, who scored twice, was one of the architects of PSG’s downfall. His swagger was a defining feature of Monaco’s campaign as they earned France’s final Champions League spot under the revitalized Niko Kovac. His fearlessness was typical of the chasing pack of teams who pursued PSG all season, and his style will rightly grace a European competition a few months from now.

Manager of the Year: Christophe Galtier, Lille

He left as soon as the season finished, but his work at the club was a chapter completed. When he arrived four years ago, his first task was to rescue Lille from relegation, which he did by a single point; the following season, he took them to second place in the league. This season, he led them to a remarkable triumph. In doing so, he managed a perfect blend of youth and experience—illustrated nowhere better than by his superb forward line of 21-year old Jonathan David and the elder statesman Yilmaz, both of whom were on target in Lille’s title-clinching win. Among others, Galtier also provided room for Renato Sanches, still only 23 but a talent on whom far too many observers had already given up. His man management and tactical nous make him an excellent target for any club with even a reasonable amount of resources. Whoever ends up with him will have made a premium signing.

Game of the Year: Lorient 3, Paris Saint-Germain 2

This game was so instant a classic that they should have been screening it in open-air cinemas straight after the final whistle. It requires an extended look because it was, in many ways, the entire Ligue 1 season in microcosm: Lorient’s approach typified the attitude that teams deployed against PSG, one where they finally lost any fear and attacked the wealthy giants with a rare fury. The first thing Lorient did, signaling their intention to claim territory where they could, was to thrash the ball deep into PSG’s half from kickoff, so that PSG would have to restart the game from near their own corner flag, and so that Lorient could press them aggressively as they did so. The message was clear: Wherever possible, Lorient would not be pushed backward.

The numbers in this game tell much of the story. Though PSG dominated possession with 65 percent of the ball, Lorient—who had lost their previous 10 games against the reigning league champions—made their moments count. They broke forward with intensity, winning almost as many corners as PSG—seven to nine—and unlike PSG, they scored all their goals from open play, each of them progressively more thrilling. PSG, for all their riches in attack, had to rely upon two penalties from Neymar—both of which were won at the expense of right-back Houboulang Mendes, who was too often bewildered by the fast footwork of PSG’s superstar forwards—while Kylian Mbappé was kept scoreless.

Lorient’s first goal came from a common problem for PSG all year: a lack of authority in central defense whenever Marquinhos was missing from the starting lineup. Thilo Kehrer and Presnel Kimpembe failed to clear their lines and Lorient captain Laurent Abergel took gleeful advantage, floating a gorgeous strike beyond the clutches of Sergio Rico. Neymar’s two penalties seemed to have put PSG ahead to stay until Yoane Wissa found the net after a brilliant one-two with 10 minutes left, and with the scores level, Terem Moffi strode forward from his own half to score Lorient’s winner in the 90th minute. It was a shock result in one sense—Lorient’s first victory over PSG in 10 years—but in another sense, it was entirely in keeping with this wild and utterly untameable season.

Biggest Surprise: Lens

The newly promoted side, who finished second in Ligue 2’s truncated season last year, came in seventh in Ligue 1, 15 points above Lorient, who had pipped them to the Ligue 2 title last year. Lens set the tone for their Ligue 1 return with a 1-0 victory in their second league game over a much-depleted PSG and at one point looked as if they might even qualify for the Europa Conference League. That they did not may yet prove to be a blessing—the burden of extra fixtures might have placed undue pressure on their squad. One stand-out performer from that squad was Gaël Kakuta, the former prodigy on loan from Amiens who has fought back from the derailment of his career at Chelsea through injury and whose excellent showing this year has apparently attracted the interest of some Premier League teams. At 29 years of age, having scored 11 times in 35 league games, Kakuta still has plenty to offer at the top level in France or elsewhere.

Biggest Disappointment: Marseille

They began the season with confidence and then fell away disastrously with a very poor stretch of games in December and January, during which they lost in the league to Lens, Rennes, Nîmes, and Angers and dropped points in a goalless draw against Dijon, who would end up bottom of the table. That was a grim enough passage of matches, but worse was to follow. André Villas-Boas, who had already stated his desire to leave the club when his contract was up at the end of the season, fell out with the board over its transfer business. He criticized them in a manner so severe and so public that it made his position untenable, and he was duly sacked. Around the same time, Marseille’s ultras demonstrated their anger with the running of the club by storming its training ground.

Given the surrounding unrest, it is probably unsurprising that Marseille finally found itself in fifth place in the table, a full 16 points behind fourth-placed Lyon. Arkadiusz Milik performed well following his signing on loan from Napoli, getting nine goals in 15 league games, but the team lacked the production it needed elsewhere. This will be a summer of some upheaval, with several departures; most notably, Florian Thauvin, who is going to Mexico to join Tigres. Jorge Sampaoli has plenty of work to do to restore Marseille’s stability and competitive spirit. Thankfully, with his CV, he has as good a chance as anyone.

Biggest Question This Summer

How much of the band can Lille keep together? They have already lost Galtier and their goalkeeper Mike Maignan, with the France international signing a deal with AC Milan to replace the outgoing Gianluigi Donnarumma. Boubakary Soumaré, their brilliant young midfielder, looks to be on his way to Leicester City. The price of footballing success is the vigorous attention of wealthier clubs, and there will doubtless also be a great deal of interest in Sanches, David, and defender Sven Botman. It is sad that the breakup of fine teams seems inevitable, but in at least a couple of cases, it might be good for these players to stay another year at a club where they are more likely to get a good stretch of playing time. From a pragmatic and a romantic point of view, it would be interesting to see what Lille’s youngsters, their confidence freshly fuelled by this victory, could do on the Champions League stage.