A mishit shot from Gervinho was enough for Lille to beat Sochaux 1-0 on 18 May 2011 and secure their first league title in 57 years. There was pandemonium at the ageing Stade Metropole as a side containing Eden Hazard, Moussa Sow, Yohan Cabaye, Adil Rami and Mathieu Debuchy won the Ligue 1 title with two games to spare. They also lifted the Coupe de France that season, beating PSG in the final thanks to a last-minute winner. Nine years and several disasters later, Lille are still waiting for another trophy. This could be the season they make an unexpected charge for the title.
Having delivered the club to such success and a futuristic new stadium, their outspoken president Michel Seydoux sold up to Luxembourgian businessman Gérard Lopez in 2017. Lopez quickly restructured the club’s management, recruiting Marc Ingla from Barcelona to work as a general manager and, crucially, bringing in Luis Campos as sporting director after he left Monaco.
The club’s first full season under Lopez did not go to plan. Marcelo Bielsa took over as manager in the summer and was gone by Christmas with Lille in the relegation zone. His heart never seemed truly in it. Christophe Galtier was parachuted in to stabilise a team that had been drastically and haphazardly overhauled by Bielsa. By the time El Loco had left, 27-year-old Kévin Malcuit was the club’s most senior outfield player. Bielsa had clashed with Ingla and Campos on recruitment, but Galtier’s affable and agreeable approach proved a more harmonious match.
The team desperately needed some experience, which arrived in the shape of Portugal centre-back José Fonte, the nomadic (and since departed) striker Loïc Rémy, and midfielder Benjamin André, a stalwart of Ligue 1. Fonte will be familiar to Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham fans after a decade in the Premier League. He struggled in his final season in England but is more suited to the slower, more attritional French game. Now 36, Fonte has marshalled an inexperienced defence expertly, helping to bring through players such as Gabriel Magalhães, who made a £27m move to Arsenal in the summer. André has added presence, bite and intelligence in midfield and, in attack, Rémy – who has now been replaced by 35-year-old Turkish finisher Burak Yilmaz – completed the team’s more wizened spine. These experienced players have cajoled and coached their more youthful colleagues through difficult moments.
Lille’s blend of youth and experience is reminiscent of how Monaco operated under Leonardo Jardim when they won the title in 2017, with the backbone of Kamil Glik, João Moutinho and Radamel Falcao adding knowhow alongside their young teammates. Having pioneered the intelligent and cost-effective recruitment policy that helped propel Monaco to the Ligue 1 title, Champions League successes and huge transfer profits, Campos has continued his work in northern France. Lille now sign cut-price players from relative footballing backwaters such as Ligue 2, Belgium, Portugal (outside the big three) and, Campos’s new favourite market, Turkey.
Campos once explained that he was “absolutely seduced by the recruitment of players from €0-3m or from €3-6m – players who will be worth much more in the future.” It shows. Lille managed to sign full-back Zeki Çelik, goalkeeper Mike Maignan (the best keeper in Ligue 1), forward Jonathan Bamba and Gabriel’s impressive replacement Sven Botman for just over £10m. In fact, the entire team that started their 1-1 draw at Nice on Sunday cost just £55m, with Renato Sanches accounting for £18m of that alone.
Lille are an all-action, dynamic, free-wheeling juggernaut under Gaultier. Their aggressive 4-2-2-2 gives Bamba, the waspish Brazilian attacker Luiz Araújo and creator Jonathan Ikoné a great deal of attacking licence and breeds space for what is often an old-fashioned front two. This gung-ho system is held together by the mobility and intelligence of André and Sanches, who has been born again under Galtier.
Sanches won Fifa’s Golden Boy award in 2016 after starring for Portugal in the European Championship that summer, but he looked out of his depth after signing for Bayern Munich and even struggled while on loan at Swansea. He has come a long way since that catastrophic spell in Wales and says he has grown up a lot, as his consistently mature performances in the Lille midfield over the last two years underline. Now 23, he is the fulcrum of this Lille team, accepting both creative and defensive responsibilities in a young side.
Although other inexperienced sides have struggled to balance domestic and European commitments – as Champions League debutants Rennes underlined with a shock home defeat to Angers on Friday night – Lille seem to be ready for the hectic season ahead. Competition is rife across a deep squad. Their impressive 4-1 win at Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday was achieved without Sanches, André, Araujo, Yilmaz and Celik.
Dynamic midfielder Boubakary Soumaré, who has been linked with moves to Liverpool, Real Madrid and both Milan clubs, joined the bullish yet technical Xeka to dominate central midfield in André and Sanches’ stead. Ikoné, no longer guaranteed a place thanks to the match-winning form of Araujo, provided the creative spark and helped Yusuf Yazici – another Turk – score a joyous hat-trick.
The only signing not exceeding expectations is the biggest. Canadian striker, and £30m club record addition, Jonathan David joined from Belgian club Gent in the summer. Despite his impressive record in the Pro League – he scored 26 goals and set up 27 more in the league last season – the 20-year-old striker is yet to score for Lille. Galtier decided to rest/drop his marquee arrival for the first time on Sunday.
David may come good but he is unlikely to follow the trajectory of explosive Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen, at least in his first season in Ligue 1. A much less heralded arrival from Belgium last summer, Osimhen scored with his first four shots on target in Ligue 1 and joined Napoli for a mammoth £60m fee after just one season.
Lille are the only undefeated team in the league and sit alongside PSG at the top of the table. Talk of winning the title is not outlandish. “Everyone knows that PSG are the champions,” said Fonte last week, “But Lille are capable of beating them. Over 38 matches, you have to be consistent. So, I want to motivate my teammates to become consistent. We will see what they are capable of.” With PSG distracted by their European obsession, Lille could have a chance if they can follow Fonte’s plan. It is unlikely, but a team built under the philosophy of Campos has done it before.
• After drifting around for some months, Hatem Ben Arfa has made a promising return to Ligue 1. Bordeaux lost 3-1 at Marseille last weekend but he showed some flashes of his genius. He was even better in the 2-0 win over Nîmes this weekend. Comfortably the game’s standout performer, often jinking past red-faced defenders in classic style, Ben Arfa proved dangerous throughout and won the penalty that put Bordeaux ahead. At 33, a glorious cameo to a bizarre career could be on the way.
• Covid-19 cases continued to cause havoc in French football this weekend. Fans have been allowed at games since the sport returned in July but only in small numbers and with rules often changing between regions. Every Ligue 1 club has experienced an outbreak of some sort, many being significant – 11 cases at Lens led to their match against Nantes on Sunday being postponed. Ligue 2 has been hit even harder , with Nancy v Grenoble the latest game to be cancelled in the second tier.
Ligue 1 results
Bordeaux 2-0 Nîmes
Brest 0-3 Strasbourg
Metz 2-0 St Etienne
Montpellier 0-4 Reims
Nice 1-1 Lille
Lyon 4-1 Monaco
Lorient 0-1 Marseille
PSG 4-0 Dijon
Rennes 1-2 Angers
Ligue 1 table