It’s been an uneven campaign for Lille, but have things turned a corner after their 4-3 win over Monaco on Sunday? The last couple of transfer windows have been tough on the club as they have lost many of the players who helped them win the title in the 2020-21 season. To make matters worse, their marquee signing this summer, Mohamed Bayo, was sent to the doghouse by new manager Paulo Fonseca after he was photographed in a nightclub the night before their game against PSG in late August. Lille were subsequently thrashed 7-1 by PSG, with defeats to Nice and Marseille following. They have since grown into the season, putting together a run of three wins in four matches before facing Monaco this weekend.
Monaco were in fine form themselves, having gone six games unbeaten in the league. Lille have looked vulnerable in defence this season – they kept their first clean sheet of the campaign in their derby win over Lens, their 10th game of the season – and were without the suspended Benjamin André and José Fonte for the visit of Monaco.
Their defensive troubles continued on Sunday, but their attack continues to go from strength to strength. The 4-3 win summed up where their season is going. Only PSG have found the net more often in Ligue 1. Fonseca’s teams have never been well acquainted with the handbrake, but Ligue 1 provides a different challenge to Portugal and Ukraine, where he enjoyed most of his success – at Paços de Ferreira, Braga and Shakhtar Donetsk. His only previous experience in one of the top five leagues, at Roma, was less successful. Despite a considerable outlay before his final season, Fonseca failed to take the club back into the Champions League and was replaced with José Mourinho.
Fonseca’s preference for his teams to keep the ball and play in an open, attacking 4-2-3-1 formation seemed to be an issue for Lille earlier in the season, so the manager experimented with a three-man defence to bring more solidity at the back. It’s only when he went back to doing what he does best, doubling down on an attacking style, that Lille found their feet. In recent weeks they have been winning games by playing fearlessly – only Lyon and PSG have had more possession in France this season.
Speaking after the win over Monaco, Fonseca was unequivocal in his praise for his players: “I think we deserved to win. We played very well. Even when we conceded goals, the team played with a lot of ambition. We scored four goals, but we could have scored more. We made mistakes, but the important thing was how we reacted. I have a lot of confidence in the team.”
Playing in the Champions League last season stretched Lille’s limited squad but the absence of European football this time around has helped Fonseca, whose side have now won four of their last five matches. Their dealings in the transfer market – aside from Bayo – have also worked out brilliantly. Bayo is not yet back in Fonseca’s good graces, but their other acquisitions have looked comfortable in the manager’s 4-2-3-1.
Adam Ounas has supplanted Edon Zhegrova on the right, lending an air of technical verve and unpredictability to the team’s attack. Defender Bafodé Diakité is not as accomplished going forward as his predecessor, Zeki Çelik, but he has been solid. Brazilian left-back Ismaily, who joined from Shakhtar Donetsk – where he played under Fonseca for three seasons – took a little bit of time to acclimatise to the faster pace in France, but he looks like the answer to a position that has been a problem for Lille since Reinildo moved to Atlético Madrid in January. In midfield, André Gomes has added some class, and the veteran Jonas Martin is a consummate professional who is an ideal presence in the dressing room.
The real gem of the window, though, has been Rémy Cabella. He moved to Krasnodar in Russia three years ago and started brilliantly before being struck down by a cruciate injury. He returned to Ligue 1 with Montpellier last season but was poor. He now looks back to his effervescent best, with three goals – including a brace against Monaco – and four assists in his last six appearances.
It’s not just the older players who are looking sharp under Fonseca. Jonathan David cut a frustrated figure in the second half of last season, scoring just three times after December. But he has been reinvigorated by the attacking talent around him and is again thriving. Only Kylian Mbappé has scored more goals in Ligue 1 this season.
English youngster Angel Gomes, who was an afterthought under previous manager Jocelyn Gourvennec, has shone as a central midfielder. His workrate and passing ability help the Lille midfield to retain the ball and build attacks patiently, key elements in Fonseca’s tactical approach.
While Gomes and David have been the clearest beneficiaries of Fonseca’s tactical revolution, the manager also deserves credit for showing faith in youngster Lucas Chevalier. The academy product did not have his best day on Sunday against Monaco, but he has been a marked improvement on Léo Jardim this season and was arguably man of the match in Lille’s win over Lens in the Derby du Nord earlier this month.
As other clubs have lost patience with their managers and opted for a more conservative approach, Lille are reaping the benefits from – as Fonseca puts it – “playing the type of match the supporters need”. They are now just one point off the European places. Their matches against Lyon and Rennes in the next few weeks will be stern tests, but a sustained tilt at the top five looks increasingly likely.
Lyon picked up their first win since 3 September, beating Montpellier 2-1 on Saturday thanks to an Alexandre Lacazette strike in the fifth minute of added time. In a match marred by red cards for both sides, it was only an impressive display from Montpellier goalkeeper Bingourou Kamara – who had come for the injured Jonas Omlin – that stopped Lyon from winning by a more comfortable margin. Lacazette was again imperious, having scored a brace last week against Rennes. Houssem Aouar, who scored the opening goal – his first this season – was also brilliant, having returned from an ankle injury. Aouar is likely to leave the club at the end of the season, but in the meantime he looks set to have the sort of creative impact the team has lacked since the departure of Lucas Paquetá.
Reims also had their own new-manager bounce, beating Auxerre 2-1 thanks to goals from Junya Ito and Folarin Balogun. Between them, they have scored 11 of their team’s 14 goals this season. Most of those goals came as a product of former manager Óscar García’s counterattacking style, however, the team lined up in a 4-2-3-1 against Auxerre, dominating the ball with Arber Zeneli pulling the strings from the left. Granted, Auxerre are not the strongest opposition – and the absences of Marshall Munetsi and Andreaw Gravillon also may have played a role in the tactical switch – but Reims offered as much going forward as they have all season without sacrificing solidity.
Finally, Rennes kept up their stunning form, beating Angers 2-1 thanks to a last-minute penalty from Lovro Majer. Angers are not the sternest opposition, but Rennes are now 12 matches unbeaten across all competitions. A big test looms against Lille in a fortnight’s time, but Bruno Génésio’s side continue to look like Champions League contenders.
Ligue 1 table