Christophe Galtier’s reputation in France isn’t quite on par with that of Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce, that of being an overly negative, needs-must type, but neither has he ever shown much interest in attacking football. His teams at Saint-Étienne, who he regularly guided to the European places despite limited resources and key players departing were decidedly prosaic, often deployed in a 4-3-3 with full-backs who rarely made it forward. It was more of the same last season after he supplanted Marcelo Bielsa, but there were brief uses of the sort of 4-2-3-1 that Galtier deployed on Saturday evening against a Rennes side who have spent heavily of late, eclipsing Lille as the league’s current ambitious outsiders after the opening day.
Even as the formation with which Galtier has started the season contains shadows of the familiar, likewise the playing personnel (only summer signings Jonathan Bamba and Zeki Çelik were making their debuts for Lille), the verve with which they played was truly remarkable. Nicolas Pépé cut a forlorn figure under Bielsa as striker last season, but the January return from loan of Lebo Mothiba gave Les Dogues a physical focal point around which to build, seeing the former Angers man thrive instead as right-sided inverted winger, scoring nine goals and assisting on a further five. One wondered at that juncture what the team might have been, had Galtier been afforded more space by having a similarly talented complement on the opposite flank, as the frustrating Luiz Araújo was often preferred on the left.
Now, in Bamba, Pépé has a player quite similar to himself in being not only pacy, direct and good on the ball, but also offers a scoring threat and is able to fit in comfortably on either flank. Yassine Benzia also looks a player reborn under Galtier, three years on from signing for the club. Touted as a striker while coming through at Lyon, and even earning some comparisons to Karim Benzema, he struggled there and in Lille, misused as a wide player or as a second striker. Now, he is deployed behind Mothiba as a deep-lying No 10, rather than just off the big South African and is impressing not as a goalscoring threat but as the team’s creative hub.
Indeed, Lille’s tactics sometimes looked more of a 4-2-1-3 than a 4-2-3-1, with Pépé and Bamba playing narrowly, but the hosts still impressed with a range of quick, one-touch passing, much of it under the aegis of the former Lyon man. Benzia only recorded one assist on the night, but was integral in the other two goals as well, playing a perfectly weighted ball to Çelik before the right-back’s cross to Mothiba and setting up Pépé, who found Bamba cutting inside to cap a brilliantly executed counter-attack. Were it not for a string of saves from Thomas Koubek in the first half, as well as the odd poor first touch from Bamba and Pépé, Benzia’s vision no doubt would have resulted in even more goals.
Midfield looked invigorated as well, despite the departure of last year’s breakout player Yves Bissouma to Brighton. Xeka, returned from his loan spell at Dijon, was culpable in Rennes’ opener, but recovered well to deliver an impressive performance, his work-rate being instrumental in disrupting many of Rennes’ forays forward. Thiago Mendes was less impressive alongside him, but as at many of Galtier’s previous sides, their hard-work was integral in allowing the attacking quartet the freedom necessary to operate at their best.
Xeka and Bamba are two of the key changes to the current edition of Lille, but perhaps the arrival who can be most influential is also the most unexpected in that regard. Turkish right-back Çelik was hugely impressive, considering he wasn’t even likely to start until last week’s departure of Kévin Malcuit to Napoli. Quick, intelligent and with a wiry strength that belies his small frame, his burgeoning chemistry with Pépé looks well-placed to allow Lille to play with width in attack even as their wingers cut inside. Çelik will surely face sterner challenges than an exceptionally sloppy Ismaïla Sarr in the league this season, but he is off to a flying start and looks a smart buy, no small matter given the club’s tenuous financial situation.
In defence youngster Kouadio-Yves Dabila lined up alongside captain Adam Soumaoro, a surprising choice given the experience of Edgar Iéon the bench. José Fonte will undoubtedly partner Soumaoromore frequently once fit, but the early signs for Dabila, who also featured on a handful of occasions last season, have drawn comparisons to another Galtier protégé, Kurt Zouma. Galtier has earned plenty of plaudits for doing well under penurious financial circumstances and playing sound defensive football, but is an underrated developer of young talent, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Allan Saint-Maximin and Malcuit all having blossomed under his auspices, meaning that many of these young players could make significant strides this season, something which was unlikely in last year’s relegation scrap.
One would, of course do well to remember that Lille started last season with a sizzling win over Nantes under Bielsa before things went belly-up and that Rennes, whilst their slow-footed midfield provided in some ways an ideal opponent, despite having finished in the European places last season. Galtier, though, is no Bielsa; he knows Ligue 1 well and striking the right balance between defence and attack is unlikely to elude him. However, a trip to Monaco on Saturday looms large, Lille have already proven that despite decidedly one-way traffic in this summer’s transfer market, they could yet turn into of the current season’s surprise packages.
Ligue 1 talking points
• Although PSG have yet to make a marquee addition this summer, the club is finally starting to evolve. Thomas Tuchel appears to be the innovative and relatable coach that Paris’ cluster of stars has long needed. Experimenting with three centre backs in preseason, singing his initiation song (Happy by Pharrell) at the Trophée des Champions post-match presser and substituting Neymar for the first time in his PSG career with 10 minutes to play in the simple 3-0 win over Caen on Sunday may seem like small steps, but the Parc des Princes already has a much more relaxed and vibrant feel to it. This is potentially crucial for a long cliquey, ego-driven dressing room in much need of a refresh and some authority.
• Goals were a feature of the opening weekend. Seven of the 33 came at Stade Raymond Kopa as promoted Nîmes came from 3-1 down to win 4-3 with a trio of strikes in the final 15 minutes in overcoming a shaky looking Angers, despite Florian Miguel’s dismissal. Ligue 2’s top scorers last term, ‘The Crocodiles’ have retained 41-goal forward pair Umut Bozok and Rachid Alioui despite transfer interest, but Bernard Blaquart’s side proved they have goals throughout the team as Clément Depres’ double rounded off what could be a crucial early victory over a direct relegation rival.
• Patrick Vieira’s reign at Nice opened with a meek home loss to the second promoted side, Stade de Reims. Les Aiglons have been decimated over the summer, losing midfield lynchpin Jean Michaël Seri, 16-goal Alassane Pléa and likely Mario Balotelli who was left out on Saturday night,with his move to Marseille still up in the air. Minus much of last season’s attacking might, Vieira’s charges were unable to pick apart the Ligue 2 champions despite having nearly the whole 90 minutes to do so; Moussa Doumbia’s winner coming after just two minutes. The former Arsenal man will need time, patience and investment if he is to have a shot at eventually matching Favre’s sizeable achievements.