Sitting second in the table with one of the top scorers in Ligue 1, the second tightest defence, and a league-leading 100% winning record at home, it’s safe to say that nine games into the season, things have been going pretty well for Lille. Quite a turnaround for a team who flirted with relegation for the majority of disastrous campaign last season.
Looking back to the start of last season – it had looked so promising for Lille. Gérard Lopez had completed his takeover of the club, and installed Marcelo Bielsa as coach. An array of young players from around the world were signed to signal the start of an exciting new project which would bring success back to northern France.
Things initially started very well as Bielsa’s side swept passed Nantes in the opening game of the season in a 3-0 victory. From thereon, though, things quickly fell apart. It would be another 10 games before Lille secured their next win, while Bielsa was suspended from his job in November before eventually being dismissed in mid-December.
Former Saint-Étienne coach Christophe Galtier was brought in just after Christmas with the task of implementing his disciplined, organised style, which had proved successful with les Verts, and, at the very least, to ensure that Lille remained in the top flight. It was a tough ask, and with only two wins between January and April, it took a run of three wins from their final four games to secure their survival.
Even that, though, wasn’t guaranteed, as the DNCG, the body responsible for monitoring the accounts of teams in France, reported that Lille’s numbers didn’t add up, and unless things dramatically improved by the end of the season, they would face sanctions – including enforced relegation. Eventually, Lopez managed to pool together enough resources to satisfy the regulator, but not without being forced into meeting targets over the course of the summer.
It was, then, a summer transfer window which saw big money departures, with Yves Bissouma, Kévin Malcuit, and Ibrahim Amadou being sold on for well over €30 million in total. With the club now at least having some breathing space, Galtier could focus on the new season ahead. Unlike the previous summer, where the scattergun approach to signings left the structure and direction of the club feeling confused, this year saw a much more targeted approach. In came Jonathan Bamba, Rafael Leão, and José Fonte on free transfers, with Loïc Rémy, Jonathan Ikoné and Zeki Çelik brought in for relatively small fees, and some of the deadwood from last season was cleared out.
Following a much more settled summer, the situation at Lille felt distinctly calmer at the start of the season; with Galtier now having assembled a squad which was very much his, the club could press on with the project in hand – albeit version two. Things got off to a flyer against Rennes, a team who had surprised many in finishing fifth last season. Despite going a goal down, Lille rallied, and in Bamba, Ikoné, and Nicolas Pépé – the latter was one of the few to stand out last season – a trio emerged who looked threatening every time they had the ball. Lille ran out 3-1 victors, but it was the performance of those three players – Bamba and Pépé especially – which got the home crowd excited.
Full of pace and movement, the trio looked like they had developed an understanding almost immediately. That has indeed proven to be the case, as Bamba sits second in the scoring charts on seven goals, with Pépé a goal behind on six. Pépé has notched up three assists as well, with his exciting, direct style of play, where he’s unafraid to run at defenders and provide excellent movement off the ball, helping him become one of the standout players of the season so far. It is little wonder why some of the big teams around Europe have started to show an interest, with teams such as Barcelona and Arsenal scouting the player. Encouraging for Lille, however, is that Pépé has recently claimed that he has no intent on leaving in January, stating that he still “had work to do” with the club.
Convincing wins over Marseille and Saint-Étienne have shown that Lille’s opening day win was no one-off. Under Galtier, a coach ordinarily renowned for defensive teams, the attractive, confident, attacking style in which Lille are playing has demonstrated that both players and the coach are willing to try something new. So far, it’s working a dream, and with the likes of Lyon, Marseille, and Monaco all stuttering at times this season, there’s no reason why Galtier can’t take this team into the European places – and maybe even the top four.
That would truly be a finish that even the most ardent of Lille fans would have disbelieved only a few weeks ago.
This is one project which looks back on track.