Ligue 1 Season Preview: The Home of Young Talent
This Friday will see the first of the top five European leagues kick off the 2021-22 season, as Monaco host Nantes in France’s Ligue 1. Lille enter a top-flight campaign as reigning champions for the first time since 2011-12 as Paris Saint-Germain look to recover from failing to win the French league title for only the second time in eight years. Whatever the result at the end, there’s little doubt that this is the competition to watch for exciting young talent. Here’s our Ligue 1 season preview.
Last season, a total of 73,530 minutes of playing time were given to players while aged under 21 years of age in Ligue 1 – more than any of the other top five European leagues. This total was over double that of the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, while it was just over 31,000 minutes more than the German Bundesliga.
Ligue 1 has been the hotbed for young talent across the last decade. We’ve seen many talented young players make the move to other top European leagues after cutting their teeth in the French top flight – Eden Hazard, Thomas Lemar, Michael Essien and Karim Benzema are just a quartet that roll off the tongue from recollection.
In 2006-07, Ligue 1 gave 56,371 minutes of action to players under 21 years old – a tally that was only 3,250 minutes more than the Premier League (53,121). Since then, the two leagues have been moving in opposite directions when assessing playing time given to talent before their 21st birthday. The 73,530 minutes given to under-21 players in Ligue 1 2020-21 was a new high for the French top flight over this period.
This tally was helped by six of the top 10 clubs for giving game time to under-21 players last season being from Ligue 1. Only Borussia Dortmund (9,209) utilised their under-21 talent more often in their league campaign than French top-flight clubs Nice (8,549), Monaco (7,959), Rennes (7,778), St Etienne (7,221) and Dijon (6,461).
Of those five Ligue 1 clubs, Nice have undoubtedly been the most active in the transfer market this summer, as they look to improve on a ninth-place finish in 2020-21 and managed the coup of reigning Ligue 1 Manager of the Year from reigning champions Lille, Christophe Galtier.
Nice – who named the youngest starting XI for a game across the top five European leagues across in 2020-21, with a team that was only 22 years, 238 days old in a defeat to Bordeaux in January – picked up Galtier in late June, after he left as Lille manager just days after their title win. While at Lille he orchestrated an unlikely Ligue 1 crown with a side that had just the third-youngest average starting XI age in the division (25y 337d), and what a story it would be if he can lead a new Nice side to similar unexpected glory. Signings of youngsters such as Calvin Stengs (22 years old), Jean-Clair Todibo (21), Pablo Rosario (24) and the loan signing of Justin Kluivert (22) are decent editions to their existing squad of fresh-faced talent.
Galtier’s replacement at Lille was a surprising appointment, with Jocelyn Gourvennec coming in. His last position in the French top flight saw Guingamp relegated in 2018-19, and he’s already had to deal with the departure of two key players from the 2020-21 title-winning squad.
Mike Maignan, who kept a league-high 21 clean sheets on the way to Lille’s league title has departed for Milan, and Leicester City have picked up central midfielder Boubakary Soumaré. But they have kept key central defensive partners Sven Botman and José Fonte while veteran Burak Yılmaz still powers their frontline.
One player that could force his way into Lille’s side this season is former Manchester United youngster Angel Gomes. The 20-year-old Portuguese played 2,503 minutes in the Primeira Liga in 2020-21 and was involved in nine goals (six goals, three assists) while being Boavista’s most creative player (44 chances created, 3.1 expected assists).
The silverware is already coming for Lille. A powerful first-half strike from Xeka was enough to seal their first trophy of 2021-22 after their 1-0 victory over title rivals PSG in the Trophée des Champions last weekend, which will give the reigning Ligue 1 champions confidence ahead of the league kick-off. However, this was a Paris team without Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Ángel di María and new signings Sergio Ramos and Gianluigi Donnarumma, so it’s probably not an entirely accurate gauge of the new season.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side have been flexing their muscle in the transfer market this summer with some impressive incomings, as they look to snatch back the Ligue 1 title.
Achraf Hakimi has arrived from Serie A champions Internazionale as the fifth-most expensive incoming player in Ligue 1 history, while European Championship-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has come in from Milan. Both aged 22, these two signings are on the more astute side of their transfer business, while 35-year-old Sergio Ramos brings a wealth of experience following a free transfer from Real Madrid. Add in Danilo Pereira from Porto and Georginio Wijnaldum from Liverpool, and it becomes obvious that this PSG side is even stronger than it was in 2020-21 – on paper.
PSG’s strength in recent years has undoubtedly been in attack. Still only 22-years-old, Mbappé already has 107 goals in 148 Ligue 1 appearances. His 27 goals in 2020-21 led the Ligue 1 goalscoring charts and was his second-highest league tally in a season after 2018-19 (33). Teammate Neymar has averaged a goal involvement every 69 minutes during his Ligue 1 career at PSG, which is an exceptional return. However, the problem with the Brazilian is that PSG can’t get him on the pitch enough – the maximum proportion of time on pitch that he’s managed in any of his four Ligue 1 season was 54% in the Covid-hit 2019-20 campaign, while last season he only played 41% of possible league minutes.
Monaco and Lyon made up the pack chasing Lille and PSG in Ligue 1 last season and only fell away late on.
Lyon will have to recover from the departure of the influential Memphis Depay, with the leading assister in Ligue 1 last season (12) moving to Barcelona on a free transfer. New coach Peter Bosz looks likely to have Moussa Dembélé at his disposal, as the forward returns from a loan spell at La Liga champions Atlético Madrid. Dembélé scored just one goal in 21 league appearances across Ligue 1 (one in 16 games) and La Liga (no goals in five matches), but fans will remember a forward that scored 31 goals across his first two league seasons at Lyon combined and hope for the return of that version of Dembélé.
Monaco will be hoping to carry their form from the second half of the 2020-21 Ligue campaign into this season. Niko Kovač’s side secured 51 points in 21 matches after Christmas last season, four more than any other side.
With 7,959 minutes given to under-21 players in 2020-21, they were the third highest across the top five European leagues – 2,871 of these were handed to defender Benoit Badiashile, which was the most by any player while aged under 21 years old in those five leagues. The only two players to play more minutes for Monaco in Ligue 1 last season were 22-year-old Youssouf Fofana and 21-year-old Aurélien Tchouaméni. All three players are still at the club for 2021-22, so the future certainly looks bright at Stade Louis II.
Marseille finished fifth in Ligue 1 last season, but they were 23 points off leaders Lille with 60 to their name. Twenty-two of those points came in 13 games under Jorge Sampaoli following his appointment in February, with his points per game average (1.69) higher than it was before his arrival in 2020-21 (1.52). Sampaoli has reinforced with many signings this summer – the majority defensive, which was needed with Marseille having the leakiest defence of the top six sides in Ligue 1 last season (47 goals conceded).
Rennes have finished in the top six of Ligue 1 in three of the last four seasons, with 2020-21’s sixth-place finish coming with 58 points to their name – the last French top-flight season in which they won more was 2011-12 (60). They already had the youthful attacking talent of Jéremy Doku at their disposal but have now added more young attacking flair with the signature of Kamaldeen Sulemana from Nordsjaelland.
19-year-old Doku was involved in 40 shots following a carry in Ligue 1 last season – either as the shooter or the creator of that shot – and only three players managed a higher total than this. Add Sulemana into the mix, and this season could be an enjoyable one for Rennes fans, as the winger led the way in the same metric across all Danish Superliga players last season (52 ending in a shot or chance created).
This season looks set to be another exciting one in Ligue 1, with Paris Saint-Germain under pressure to win the title after losing out to Lille last time around. With some impressive transfer coups this summer, the expectation is that PSG will be best placed to do so, but with a chasing pack of teams filled with young talent, it’s not going to be an easy feat. But what does our league prediction model tell us?
The model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team’s attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years’ worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for changes in form and personnel over time. You can read more on this below.
The model gives Paris Saint-Germain a 79.5% chance to go on to claim their 10th crown. Lille are expected to be their closest challengers and win back-to-back Ligue 1 titles (12.4%), while Lyon (5.7%) and Monaco (2.4%) are considered the outside bets for success in 2021-22. Considering that 18 of the last 20 Ligue 1 seasons have been won by one of these four teams, our model doesn’t think that any other side has a negligible chance of winning the league, with no other side given more than 0.1% chance of lifting the trophy in May.
While Mauricio Pochettino’s doubters will point to the fact he is yet to win a league title as a manager, the quality of players he has to work with should carry them through. However, things famously don’t always go according to plan in Paris (we only need to look back to last season’s league and Champions League campaigns) and finishing the job might not be that simple.
Our League Prediction Model Explained:
- The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) given each team’s attacking and defensive quality.
- The team’s attacking and defensive qualities are based on four years of historic results, with more weighting given to their most recent results.
- The model will take into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes against and reward them accordingly. For example, scoring against Manchester City is worth more than scoring vs. Newcastle.
- We can simulate the upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution with the two teams’ attacking and defending qualities as inputs.
- Finally, we simulate the outcome of the season 10,000 times in order to estimate the likelihood of each team finishing in each league position.