The Early Sub: Ligue 1 Preview, What to Watch For

With the calendar turning to August, we brace ourselves for the start of the European football season once again, beginning with each league’s respective Super Cups. Ligue 1 is the most high profile league that’s kicking off this weekend, along with the ever exciting English Championship and the 2. Bundesliga. I’ll try to get to a preview for both leagues over the course of the weekend but this one will be dedicated to Ligue 1 in France. Also keep a look out for my Premier League Preview piece, which will be released just before the Premier League kicks off next week. Ligue 1 experienced a refreshing change of pace last season with the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaving Paris for Manchester as he went to pursue glory at Manchester United. Many questions arose from his exit, would PSG be able to retain their title? Could Cavani step up and be the main man in Paris? How would this affect PSG in the Champions League? Well they surrendered their league title to Monaco, as their contingency of young talent ran rampant through Europe. And PSG were embarrassingly eliminated in the Champions League Round of 16 against Barcelona after blowing a comfortable 4-0 lead in the second leg. Edinson Cavani performed wondrous as the main scoring threat for Paris though, bagging 35 league goals in 35 league starts which easily lead the league, 7 more then 2nd place Alexandre Lacazette. Now a new season is here, and once again all the headlines belong to PSG. Looking poised to regain their league crown in Unai Emery’s 2nd season, PSG has just pulled off the most shocking and expensive transfer in the history of man, purchasing Neymar from Barcelona for over 220 million Euros. They must rip it away from the likes of Monaco who despite the odds, have been able to hold onto Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar for the opening game of the season (although they are surely to leave before the month is over). Lyon, Nice, and Marseille are all forces to be reckoned with as well in France as all 3 shoot for top 4 spots. These are the things to watch for, for the upcoming Ligue 1 season.

New Arrivals

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I mean we can cut to the chase and just discuss here the two main high profile acquisitions by French clubs this offseason. Both were made by PSG and both were Brazilian signings. This of course is the signings of Dani Alves and Neymar. Throughout the season, Neymar played like the absolute best player in the world at times, even eclipsing Messi at times. His takeover of Barcelona’s comeback against Paris in the Round of 16 in the Quarterfinals was absolutely electrifying. The tricky Brazilian had his way with Paris’ defense all night at the Nou Camp, scoring two goals including an extraterrestrial free kick in the 88th minute. He’s a player that can take a game over, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. He has the potential to be the very best in the game and entering his age 26 season, he believes it’s time to step into that role. If Neymar can join PSG and guide them to a Champions League triumph next summer, followed by a Brazilian victory at the World Cup in Russia, there will be little doubt who the best is. It’ll clearly be Neymar, and I believe that’s the vision that Neymar had, that prompted this move to France. It’s outrageous for sure, but Neymar is seeking a challenge that differentiates from the norm. Already winning every trophy possible with Barcelona, can he do the same thing at Paris? Can he do it without the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez who are also both in the top 7 of best players on Earth right now. Now he takes on a new attacking trident made up of the same nationalities at the same positions. Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria are his new attacking partners who are more then capable of creating moments of brilliance themselves. The best days of Angel Di Maria may be behind him, as he hasn’t shown his remarkable brilliance as often as he did while he was at Real Madrid. His flop move to Manchester United was followed by a move to Paris where he’s found his feet once again, but not quite on the center stage as he used to.  Maybe Di Maria can reach those previous heights, alongside the incredible Neymar who’ll surely soak up most of the pressure from defenses. Neymar wasn’t the only Brazilian making a move to Paris though, with Dani Alves moving earlier in the Summer, snubbing Manchester City for Paris as he makes his last enormous checks of his career. Dani Alves has won more trophies then 3 players combined could even imagine, while playing with Barcelona, Juventus and Brazil. His experience, along with the threat that he poses offensively on the right wing, Alves was one of the top Right Backs in the world, despite being declared disposable by Barcelona and joining Juventus on a free. Despite being 34 years old, Alves shined time and time again for the Old Lady, including a breath taking volley from outside of the box against Monaco in the Champions League Semifinals. Now he hopes to haunt Monaco at least twice a year as he looks to add French trophies to his illustrious cabinet as Alves closes out his top level football career. Monaco won’t be giving up their title without a fight, despite already losing Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy. Kylian Mbappe remains for the moment, along with Thomas Lemar. Monaco also welcome reinforcements in the shape of young Belgian prospect, Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht and 5 star skill pacey winger, Jordi Mboula from Barcelona. Monaco will once again be loaded with young talent, as they take on Europe’s top competitions once again. Lyon reloaded on young talent as well, recruiting the likes of Bertrand Traore from Chelsea after a decent year at Ajax and bringing in Mariano Diaz from Real Madrid. Both are brought in to fill the large void left by Alexandre Lacazette who left for Arsenal. In the same spot as they were when Karim Benzema left for Real Madrid, Lyon need to know where the goals are coming from and fast if they don’t want to be left in the dust in the league once again. New arrivals isn’t only held to players. The French top flight will also welcome Amiens, Strasbourg, and Troyes. Although none of them will be making much noise near the top of the table, they will all be fighting once again for their top flight lives this season. Amiens should be able to keep their status in the top flight, as I have them penciled in at 15th for the league this season. Strasbourg will be scratching it much closer, but the French/German border city should stay alive without an issue, with me putting them in 17th. Troyes is a different story. There is no hope for this club, as they’ll just enjoy their season at the top flight before returning to Ligue 2 promptly. They’ll finish bottom of the table this season.

The Title Race

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I mean, I don’t mean to be blunt, but there is no title race. Monaco and Lyon has sold all their talent: Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Bakayoko, Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso have all left France and will not be present to stop Paris’ march to the title. And with the arrival of Neymar, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paris were invincibles this season. Mbappe and Lemar are sure to leave before the month is up and even then, they still don’t have what it takes to stop this reloaded and re-motivated Paris side. The real race in the league is the battle for Top 3, which are the Champions League spots in France. Monaco, Lyon, Nice, and Marseille all have a legitimate shot at making top 3, along with an outside shout from Bordeaux who’s in search of returning to European football. The team to watch for in the top 3 race is Marseille, who fell short of the Champions League by finishing in 5th last season. Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin are brilliant creators for the south coast side, and the addition of Adil Rami and Luiz Gustavo should fortify the defense. If they could add a decent striker to the side, then they could be a scary team to meet in France. Valere Germain was a nice little signing but they need more then that. Their failure to capture Olivier Giroud when he was for sale could be their downfall. They don’t seem to be getting much of anywhere with Moussa Dembele of Celtic either. They have a good little squad, led by former Roma coach Rudi Garcia. There is potential here for Marseille to return to their heights of old, but for now, a top 3 finish would suffice as a victory.

Relegation

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It could be close at the bottom of Ligue 1, with Amiens, Caen, Dijon, Metz, Strasbourg, and Troyes all the favorites to battle it out at the bottom of the league. Amiens, Strasbourg and Troyes are the new kids on the block in the league, and they all could have some trouble keeping their status in the top flight. Dijon and Caen had just slightly avoided relegation this past season, finishing 16th and 17th respectively. They’ll both be tangled up with the new arrivals at the bottom. Metz were just poached of their best player, 19 year old Ismaila Sarr. who was bought for 17 million Euros by Rennes, the former team of Ousmane Dembele. They haven’t been able to scrounge anyone up to replace their young starlet, and as a result, no one will be able to save them from their poor play this season. Troyes are the big surprise in France, earning promotion in the previous season, but won’t put up much of a fight as they’ll finish bottom of Ligue 1. Caen finished in 17th last season, one spot away from a relegation playoff, but with no signings looking to inspire the side they’ll be flat. There is nobody on the Caen roster who’ll save them from relegation this season, and they’ll finish 19th. The team who’ll be doomed to a relegation playoff will be Metz. The loss of Sarr will be too much for their side to handle as they finished 18th in overall team rating last season, even with the young starlet. So 18th sounds good to me for Metz, which is the relegation playoff spot. Strasbourg will just survive, finishing 17th, Amiens in 16th and Dijon rather more comfortably in 15th.

Player of the Year

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Here are some of Ligue 1’s players to watch in the upcoming season. 5 names from 5 to 1 on who I think will light up the French top flight all season long.

5. Thomas Lemar (Monaco). If the Frenchman ends up leaving for Arsenal, Spurs, or Barcelona then I’ll replace him with Loic Perrin of Saint Etienne. But as of now, the skillful winger remains at the Principality and under the control of Leonardo Jardim. Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar are the only ones who can give Monaco hope of achieving the impossible task of retaining their crown. I could’ve place Mbappe here at number one but in all honesty, I think Mbappe is a tad bit overrated, and Lemar is the superior player. That’s just what I believe and if you don’t believe me then here’s some numbers. Lemar achieved an overall rating of 7.48 in the league last season (superior to Mbappe’s 7.22). Lemar also was directly responsible for 19 goals in the league, including a league high 10 assists. Lemar also ranked 4th in key passes per game in the league, establishing himself as one of Ligue 1’s most premier playmakers which is precisely why sides from the Premier League and La Liga are calling for his signature. Still only entering his age 22 season, Lemar is also here to stay for quite a while as a top level winger, with skills that rival Ousmane Dembele’s and Sadio Mane’s.

4. Marco Verratti (Paris). Unfotunately for the rest of Ligue 1, and this list, this is where PSG dominate. The rest of the 4 will consist of players from PSG and that’s starting with Marco Verratti. The Italian midfielder pulls all the strings in the French capital as he sits right at the middle of the park. Unmatched in passing ability, he’s a direct graduate of the Andrea Pirlo school of passing. In Pirlo fashion, Verratti enjoys sitting at the apex of the attack, directing it and picking it the most lethal of passes to unlock the defenses. What cuts him above directing playmakers, is Verratti’s defensive contribution to the side. A more then capable tackler, with an eye to cut out passes and stop attacks before they begin. His ability to regain possession near the middle of the field, leaves opponents open to lethal counter attacks that could be started by the Italian himself. He creates the space for himself, and creates the goals for his team. 5 assists while averaging over a whopping 87 passes a game, proves who’s directing this upcoming power of an attack.

3. Edinson Cavani (Paris). His first year stepping away from the shadow of Zlatan, Edinson Cavani was absolutely prolific. Proving his worth to Unai Emery, Cavani scored an unbelievable 35 goals in 35 league starts for a career high, and has many guessing whether he could top 40 goals in the league this upcoming season. While being the center of attention for most defenses last season, he was wonderfully aided by the likes of Angel Di Maria and Lucas Moura, he’ll be getting the help of Neymar this season. No offense to Cavani, but with the addition of Neymar to the squad, there’s no doubt that he’ll be getting the bulk of the defensive attention which should leave Cavani with plenty of more space. He’s a proven replacement for Zlatan and has gotten an incredible boost in support with Neymar’s signing, this season he should take his goal scoring tally to astronomical heights.

2. Dani Alves (Paris)

You may think it’s crazy that Dani Alves could be one of Ligue 1’s top players. I chose him over the likes of Lucas Moura, Ryad Boudebouz and Fabinho. Not even Angel Di Maria had a shout of making this list, but this is a warning to all. The Champions League Semifinal was not that long ago, and it was on that stage that Dani Alves showcased just how lethal he could be against French sides. Exiled from the Nou Camp, the Brazilian found himself in Turin on a free and as a result, he exploded as the very best fullback in the world. Responsible for 5 goals and 6 assists in all competitions for Juventus last season, Dani Alves got himself 3 Man of the Match awards from right back. I mean just think about that, he took over 3 games from the right wing, and at 34 years old no less. Monaco learned that harsh lesson in the Champions League Semifinals was a spectacular one. His spectacular volley from just outside the box had Barcelona ruing the day they let the dangerous Brazilian leave on a free. He and Juventus certainly made Barcelona pay for that in the Quarterfinals, and Dani Alves is going to keep his end of career tour going. His form is going to go with him, he’ll be one of the best as he teams up with Neymar once again.

1. Neymar (Paris). Is there any doubt who the best player in Ligue 1 is going to be once the season is over? Neymar made a claim at being one of the very best in the world when he carried the torch in Barca’s spectacular comeback against PSG. He dominated La Liga for 4 years and will be looking to take that dominance to France. He had the highest rating out of any player in any competition in the world according to WhoScored.com with an 8.52 average rating  in La Liga last season. Perhaps the best ball handler in the world, Neymar completes more dribbles then anyone else and can cut through defenses like butter whenever he pleases. His potential is limitless and he has the potential to step out of Messi’s shadow in Paris. Although Paris was an odd choice no doubt for Neymar to leave Barcelona to, but it’s the choice he’s made and Paris were willing to pay up.  The eyes of an entire country will be strictly glued to him upon his arrival, and the world’s eyes will be patiently waiting to see what Neymar’s master plan in all this is. Is bizarre as it is, this has to be one of the most exciting transfers in recent times and certainly the most high profile of the summer.

Interesting Miscellaneous Notes

  • This will be Neymar’s 3rd squad after previous allegiances to Santos and Barcelona.
  • Kylian Mbappe will be entering his age 19 season for Monaco and has expressed his desire to stay.
  • Mario Balotelli will be looking to resign for Nice once again and aid them on a possible European campaign.
  • Dimitri Payet will be entering his 2nd season with Marseille.
  • Paul Pogba’s big brother is the starting right back for Saint Etienne.
  • Claudio Ranieri, former manager for Leicester City’s 2016 title, enters his first season in charge of Nantes.

Closing Thoughts and My Predicted Table

I think I’ve covered everything that anyone would want to know for the upcoming Ligue 1 season. The English Championship has also started and I’ll be looking forward to releasing a shorter preview for that. An English Premier League preview should be coming to you next week, along with La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga previews coming the following week after that. Let me know in the comment section if there’s anything else you would’ve wanted to see in this preview, or if there’s anything specific you want to see in my upcoming previews! Until next time, I’ll leave you with my final predicted table for the upcoming Ligue 1 season. Merci! and Cheers!

  1. Paris
  2. Monaco
  3. Lyon
  4. Nice
  5. Marseille
  6. Bordeaux
  7. Lille
  8. Saint Etienne
  9. Nantes
  10. Rennes
  11. Angers
  12. Toulouse
  13. Guingamp
  14. Montpellier
  15. Dijon
  16. Amiens
  17. Strasbourg
  18. Metz
  19. Caen
  20. Troyes
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