Stuck in the French second tier for the best part of the past decade, Lens returned to Ligue 1 at last in 2020. Under the stewardship of their manager Franck Haise, “Les Sang et Or” (the blood and gold) finished seventh in 2020-21 and currently sit in second in the table behind PSG, ahead of facing an inconsistent Lyon on Saturday night.
This story almost never happened. In February 2020, a few days before the world came to a standstill because of the Covid-19 pandemic, RC Lens decided to dismiss Philippe Montanier and appoint Franck Haise for the last 12 games of the season. Haise’s job was to clinch a promotion to Ligue 1 that was slowly slipping out of their hands. Lens had only won seven points in their first seven games of the 2020 portion of the 2019-20 season.
Haise, then the coach of Lens’ B squad, instantly propelled the first team back into the top two by winning what would ultimately be his only two matches in the competition, due to the early postponement of the league forced by the pandemic. Without those precious six points, Lens would have remained in Ligue 2 for a sixth season in a row.
With the job done despite unexpected circumstances, Haise was confirmed as manager for the upcoming Ligue 1 season despite having almost no experience as a head coach in professional football.
Fast forward to this weekend where Haise is set to celebrate his 50th Ligue 1 game in charge of RCL. His tenure so far has produced the second-highest points-per-game average in the club’s history in the top flight (1.59), taking into account three points for a win, behind only “Le Druide” Daniel Leclercq (1.64), who won Lens’ only league title of their history in 1998. Over the last two seasons, Lens have won 78 points in 49 games, the sixth-highest tally over that period in Ligue 1.
Ligue 1 Table Since Start of 2020-21 Season:
In Ligue 1 2020-21, Lens finished seventh with 57 points, the best record for a promoted side since Monaco in 2013-14 (who finished as runners-up on 80 points). They fell short by one point for a UEFA Conference League spot. Far from being satisfied with this debut campaign, in 2021-22 RCL are enjoying their best start to a top-flight season since 2001-02 (when they finished second) with 21 points after 11 games. They sit in second place behind PSG while Monaco (eighth), Lyon (ninth) and Lille (10th) struggle in mid-table.
Haise has quickly found a good formula to help Lens punch above their weight. Since the start of last season, the Frenchman has consistently deployed a formation with three central defenders. In fact, Lens are the only Ligue 1 team to play with a back three over since the start of the 2020-21 season.
Those three defenders are asked to take risks with the ball. Jonathan Gradit is very comfortable carrying the ball out from the back, registering the highest progressive carry distance in the big five European leagues since last season (almost 7 km). One of his partners, Facundo Medina, likes to play probing passes forward. The Argentine averages the second-highest number of forward passes per game in Ligue 1 over that same period (28.5).
The main asset of this formation is the Lens full backs. On the right side, Jonathan Clauss has been involved in 14 goals in Ligue 1 since the start of 2020-21 (four goals, 10 assists), at least four more than any other defender over that period. This season, half of Lens’ goals have directly come from their full backs, either scored or assisted by Clauss (one goal, four assists) or Przemysław Frankowski (three goals, three assists), his counterpart on the left side.
The Pole has already formed a solid connection with Seko Fofana, delivering nine chances to the central midfielder in Ligue 1 2021-22, the most one player has created for another in the league. Fofana, formerly of Udinese, is also one of the key elements of Haise’s Lens. Only Kylian Mbappé (72) has been involved in more shot-ending sequences this season than him (63 – including 32 shots). With a “box-to-box” profile, he’s completed the fifth most carries of all midfielders this campaign (177), also completing 28 dribbles, which is at least double any of his teammates.
Haise has tried to develop a system in which most of his players can score. Ten of them have found the net this season – only Nice have more unique goal scorers (11).
Some key players of their successful 2020-21 campaign are still struggling to find their feet this season, among them Gaël Kakuta, who’s backed up his impressive haul of 11 goals and five assists last season with just one strike in 2021-22 so far.
Lens have also got several promising forwards, including the rehabilitating Wesley Saïd, who scored a brace in Lens’ most recent game against Metz, after a disastrous spell at Toulouse (25 apps, two goals and a cruciate ligament rupture).
Ten years ago, Lens wasted what might be classified as a golden generation in their academy (Raphaël Varane, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Serge Aurier). They went into deep financial trouble, and that was matched with disappointing results on the field. It’s clear they have learnt their lesson. Despite a meagre budget, they made smart moves in the transfer market like snapping up Loïc Badé for free in 2020 before selling him on for €17m to Rennes 12 months later. It allotted them some much-needed funds to build their squad for this season, and that squad now has them considering a return to European competition 15 years after their last appearance.
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Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.