The 2021-22 Ligue 1 season will certainly be one to remember, with suspense right up to the last matchday and some superb collective and individual performances. The show was on, with 1,067 goals scored at an average of 2.81 per game, the highest total since 1982-83 (1,090 goals, 2.87 per game).
The battle for the European places raged on. While PSG won their 10th French league title – joining Saint-Étienne with the most in the professional era, Marseille secured a direct spot to the Champions League in the dying moments of matchday 38 at the expense of a strong Monaco side.
With four players scoring more than 20 goals (all four Frenchmen, by the way), defenders often capable of turning scenarios around and goalkeepers in the spotlight, we look at the players who make our OptaJean team of the season in Ligue 1.
Walter Benítez – Nice
Nice would have been forgiven for dreaming of UEFA Champions League football in 2022-23, having ended 18 matchdays in the top three, but it was fifth place in the end, and they’ll have to be satisfied with the Europa Conference League. Much of their success came thanks to their last line of defence: goalkeeper Walter Benítez.
The 29-year-old Argentinian, who was naturalised as a French citizen at the end of 2021, has shown the extent of his talent in all areas of goalkeeping.
He kept more clean sheets in Ligue 1 this season than any other goalkeeper (14), while only Keylor Navas (0.86) conceded fewer goals per game than he did (0.95) among those to have played at least 10 matches. With a save percentage of 75% – again, only Navas ranked better among goalkeepers with at least 10 appearances (77%) – he was a decisive factor on numerous occasions.
Based on Opta’s expected goals on target model (xGOT), Benítez’s saves prevented eight goals for Nice in 2021-22’s Ligue 1 – a league-high tally. The shots on target fired at him would have seen the average goalkeeper concede 43 times based on the model, but he conceded just 35 (excluding own goals).
Still uncapped by his country of birth, there is also now a chance he could make France’s World Cup squad for Qatar 2022 should his performances continue to impress. Didier Deschamps already has the experienced Hugo Lloris and Milan’s title-winning shot-stopper Mike Maignan, but the third goalkeeping spot is certainly up for grabs.
Achraf Hakimi – Paris Saint-Germain
Having arrived at the beginning of the season as one of the best right-sided defenders in the world, Achraf Hakimi had to stand out immediately. The 22-year-old joined the capital and was already familiar with the pressure of being at a big club, after spells at Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Internazionale.
Capable of defending as well as attacking, it was mainly in the opposing half that he was able to express his talent. In 2021-22, he was one of the top 10 Ligue 1 players involved in the most sequences ending in a goal, and the highest-performing defender in this category. He even initiated five open-play sequences that ended in a goal for his side, only four players across Ligue 1 managed more.
One statistic highlights his offensive contribution: his 84 touches in the opponent’s box this season. Only Youcef Atal (97 in 2018-19) and Serge Aurier (93 in 2013-14) had more among defenders in the same campaign since records began in 2006-07. This attacking freedom also saw Hakimi average 0.18 expected assists per 90 in open play across 2021-22 – of defenders to play at least 1,500 minutes, only Malo Gusto (0.23) and Pol Lirola (0.19) averaged more.
But the Moroccan has also been able to take defensive risks, making 51 possession-winning tackles this season, the third highest total for a defender and the highest tally for any PSG player. He also locked down the right side of the pitch, making 530 passes from the right side, the most of any right-back.
Marquinhos – Paris Saint-Germain
Marquinhos is the undisputed captain of PSG. The 2021-22 title success was the seventh Ligue 1 winners medal of his career – only Marco Verratti (eight) has won more.
Very comfortable with the ball at his feet, the Brazilian helped PSG progress the ball forward with an average of 70.3 successful passes per 90 minutes (the fourth-most by a Ligue 1 defender), while only Marseille’s William Saliba (861) played more passes following a ball carry than Marquinhos (678).
Of all Ligue 1 central defenders, Marquinhos led the way for involvement in the build-up of team shots (93), while across the whole league he ranked third behind central midfielders Mattéo Guendouzi (97) and Cheick Doucouré (94). Many of these came as vital parts of the move, too – his 16 secondary chances created (the pass leading to the chance created) ranked second among all Ligue 1 central defenders, behind only Lens’ Jonathan Gradit (17).
A nice feature of Marquinhos’ talents is that he plays fair. The PSG centre-back played 2862 minutes of Ligue 1 football in 2021-22 but still only committed six fouls in total. This is the first time on record (since 2006-07) that a player has played at least 2,500 minutes in a Ligue 1 season and committed so few fouls.
William Saliba – Marseille
2021-22 was the third successive season that Arsenal have loaned William Saliba out to a Ligue 1 side since signing him in the summer of 2019, and this was undoubtedly the most impressive of the three. If Saliba hasn’t proved he’s ready for first team action at the Premier League club by now, then he probably never will.
His Marseille side finished as runners-up in Ligue 1, while they also reached the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League in its inaugural season. Add to this his first appearances with the full French national team and a UNFP Young Player of the Year award, you begin to sense Saliba might be on the cusp of becoming one of the leading French central defenders for years to come.
Saliba quickly made himself useful in Jorge Sampaoli’s possession-based playing style at Marseille. His confidence with the ball makes him an invaluable asset in their build-up – only established stars Aymeric Laporte (88) and Dayot Upamecano (83) averaged more successful passes per 90 among defenders than he did (79) among the top five European leagues in 2021-22. He was also key in progressing the ball up the pitch for Marseille, making the most forward passes in the French top-flight (987) and registering the highest progressive carry distance (5.5 km).
Saliba’s reliability – he won possession back from opponents more often than any other Ligue 1 defender (260), while not making a single error leading to an opposition shot – is something that Arsenal are crying out for ahead of 2022-23. Marseille would love to keep him, while Saliba has already commented that he would love to play Champions League football next season. That opportunity is only available at one of those two clubs…
Caio Henrique – Monaco
To complete our defensive line in the team of the season, we considered several players. However, due to his offensive contribution for Monaco in 2021-22, Caio Henrique secured our left-back position.
No left-back was involved in more open play goal-ending sequences in Ligue 1 last season than he was (15), while only two defenders completed more passes ending in the final third (348), coupled with the second-most open play crosses (27).
Thanks to that activity on the left hand-side, he assisted eight goals in Ligue 1 this season – only Kevin Volland made more at Monaco (9), while only Real Madrid star Vinícius Júnior had more among Brazilian players in the top five European leagues (10). Four of those assists came following a ball carry – only Kylian Mbappé (8) and Lionel Messi (5) delivered more in this manner across Ligue 1 last season.
Henrique, who is yet to make his debut with the Seleçao, should arguably get more credit for Monaco’s last two successful campaigns in which they finished in third place. Since first appearing in the competition in October 2020, he’s only missed five Ligue 1 matches. Across that time, Monaco have conceded just 0.8 goals per game with him in the starting XI compared to 1.7 when he’s not.
With players like Aurélien Tchouaméni and Wissam Ben Yedder much-fancied and tipped for moves, Monaco might also need to fight to keep Henrique this summer.
Benjamin Bourigeaud – Rennes
Benjamin Bourigeaud has been a player that Rennes have been able to rely on all season. As an essential part of Bruno Genesio’s tactical scheme, he was one of only three outfield players, along with José Fonte (Lille) and Seko Fofana (Lens), to start every single match for his team in 2021-22.
His assist tally (12) was the third highest in Ligue 1 across 2021-22 and behind only world class stars Lionel Messi (14) and Kylian Mbappé (17), with much of this threat coming from set plays.
He found a team-mate with a league-high 65 corners into the box, with more of these (five) assisting a goal than another other Ligue 1 player. Overall, he created more chances from set pieces than any other player in the top five European leagues in 2021-22 (61).
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the 28-year-old is only dangerous from dead-ball situations, though. Across Ligue 1, only three players created more chances or secondary chances than Bourigeaud last season (90).
Bourigeaud doesn’t just bring assists to the team, but goals too. He scored a career-high 11 Ligue 1 goals in 2021-22 and was one of only two players – alongside Mbappé – to reach double figures for both goals and assists in the competition.
Last season was his fifth in Ligue 1 at Rennes. Will there be a sixth? Bourigeaud’s name is now known to the biggest names in European football so there will be a fight to keep him for 2022-23.
Mattéo Guendouzi – Marseille
Mattéo Guendouzi’s comeback in France is a great story. The midfielder, who was in the youth squads of Paris Saint-Germain until he was 15, joined the great rival Marseille on loan from Arsenal in the summer. He quickly found a way to make OM fans forget his past by showing that he had strong character and some key qualities to help his new club.
Guendouzi played every single game across Marseille’s competitive season (56) – a tally that only Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson (57) could beat – while only William Saliba (4,675) played more minutes of competitive football at the club than he did in 2021-22 (4,660).
Of players to play at least 2,000 Ligue 1 minutes in 2021-22, only Messi (45.2), Valentin Rongier (34.3) and Boubacar Kamara (33.7) completed more passes in the opposition half per 90 minutes than Guendouzi (32.6), while he also had the fourth-highest average for successful passes ending in the final third of the pitch across the competition (16.3). At Marseille, he also had the second-highest tally of chances created (36) and assists (6) in the top-flight last season behind the designated playmaker Dimitri Payet (99 chances created, with 10 assists).
Sometimes depicted as a troublemaker, Guendouzi is not afraid of confrontation. He had the highest number of duels among Marseille players in Ligue 1 this season (319) and the joint-highest number of fouls won (67). Guendouzi is a great asset when it comes to pressing the opposition too, with 27 possessions won in the final third, at least nine more than any other player at OM.
All things summed up, Guendouzi found his place in Marseille, where he is set to stay after his loan. His option-to-buy was automatically activated if OM avoided relegation – they far exceeded those expectations by finishing runners-up behind Paris Saint-Germain.
Seko Fofana – Lens
Not many players can say that they provided their fans with as much emotion as Seko Fofana in 2021-22. With injury-time winners against both Saint-Étienne and Reims in the second half of the season, Fofana was the only player in Ligue 1 to do this more than once.
Fofana scored eight Ligue 1 goals last season, with each of them coming in separate matches. All eight of those goals came in wins or draws and they earnt Lens 11 points overall – enough to allow his club to hang on to a respectable seventh place and replicate their finish in 2020-21.
Fofana played 3,363 minutes across the league campaign, while the only Ligue 1 outfielder to play more was Lille’s José Fonte. He attempted more shots than any other midfielder (97), while his non-penalty xG total of 8.01 was only lower than Arnaud Kalimuendo (8.39) at Lens.
In open play, only Kylian Mbappé (260) was involved in more attacking sequences across the whole of the competition than Fofana (213), with 94 of those coming via shots attempted himself (44%).
He can shoot, he can create, and he can also carry the ball too. Only William Saliba travelled further with the ball at his feet via carries than the Lens midfielder (8,275m) while he also had the highest tally of take-ons following a carry of all central midfielders (54).
He won the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé in 2021-22 as the best African player in the French top-flight, a just reward for his top performances. Having just turned 27 years old and halfway through his four-year contract at Lens, Fofana could be set for a move to another club outside of Ligue 1 this summer.
Kylian Mbappé – Paris Saint-Germain
What adjective would you use to describe Kylian Mbappé’s season? There is no shortage of superlatives. The French striker has once again shown his talent and continued to break numerous records.
Involved in 45 Ligue 1 goals this season (28 goals, 17 assists), he became the first player to be both top scorer and top assist provider in the league since Opta began analysing the competition (2006-07). He also finished the season with the most goal involvements across the top five European leagues.
The superstar – who has just extended his adventure with the capital club until 2025, to the delight of PSG fans – continues to become a legendary figure in Ligue 1 as the competition’s top scorer for a third consecutive season, all while still just 23 years old. Only Carlos Bianchi (four, with Reims and Paris) and Jean-Pierre Papin (five with Marseille) have finished as top goal scorer in more Ligue 1 campaigns.
But beyond the goals, it is in all areas of the offensive game that Mbappé stood out. He had the most shots (147), shots on target (67), touches in the opposition box (338) and successful dribbles (112).
He also showed once again that he knows what to do with the ball. He took 55 shots after a carry and scored with nine of them, the two best totals in the league.
He gave the feeling that he was involved in every dangerous action of the Parisians. That vibe is supported by the numbers: 260 involvements in open-play sequences ending in a shot, almost 50 more than any other player. 50 of these were converted into goals, 22 more than the second-highest in this category, his team-mate Lionel Messi.
As a result, the Frenchman has been directly involved in 50% of PSG’s goals across the league season (45/90), only Clermont’s Mohamed Bayo could say the same, but his side scored just 38 goals, and there is little chance that his level will drop next season. One of his goals will be to become the club’s all-time top scorer in all competitions and surpass Edinson Cavani (200 goals). He is now only 29 goals away from that record.
Martin Terrier – Rennes
With his 21 goals, he thought for a long time that he could steal the title of Ligue 1 top scorer from Kylian Mbappé, with whom he rivalled in the first half of the championship (nine goals each). It wasn’t meant to be in the end, with Martin Terrier finishing seven off Mbappé’s 28-goal tally and four behind Wissam Ben Yedder (25).
Some consolation will be that those 21 goals were just two fewer than in his previous five Ligue 1 seasons combined (23 goals in 125 apps), while it was more than double his previous best in a top-flight league campaign in France (nine in 2020-21 and 2018-19). He will no doubt remain in the Breton history books, scoring the most goals for a Rennes player in a single Ligue 1 campaign since Stephane Guivarc’h in 1996-97 (22).
The striker, who fired 47 shots on target – the second-highest total of the season, proved once again that he has a wide range of attacking options, scoring the most goals from outside the box (5). His fans will certainly remember the one scored against St Etienne on matchday 17, a game in which Terrier scored the first hat-trick of his career. In that same match, Lovro Majer became the first player to create three assists for the same partner in a Ligue 1 match since such records began in 2006-07.
His ability to score in all conditions allowed him to surpass his expected goals total by almost six goals (21 goals from 15.1 xG), which was the best positive differential in Ligue 1 this season.
He reached double figures for goals both home (10) and away (11) in the 2021-22 Ligue 1 campaign and also saw himself part of the pre-selected squad for France’s UEFA Nations League games this summer. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t make the final squad, but if he continues his great league form in 2022-23 then he might have a chance of sneaking into the World Cup squad at the last minute.
Wissam Ben Yedder – Monaco
Twenty-five goals. Over the last 40 editions of the French Ligue 1, only two players have reached that tally during a single campaign without being the top scorer of the league – Alexandre Lacazette in 2016-17 (28, behind Edinson Cavani’s 35) and Wissam Ben Yedder in 2021-22 (25, behind Kylian Mbappé’s 28). Ben Yedder can consider himself unlucky not to pick up the award.
Despite this, the Monaco captain enjoyed his best scoring season in the top five European leagues, netting at least five more goals than in any other previous campaign.
The striker, who signed from Sevilla in the summer of 2019, has been ruthlessly efficient this season, scoring 25 goals from 72 shots, or a goal every 2.9 shots. Excluding the league-high eight penalties he converted, his ratio goes up to 3.8 (64 shots and 17 goals), but that remains the best among those who have scored 10 or more non-penalty goals.
His influence in Monaco’s wonderful run of 28 points won out of 30 in the last 10 games of the season, allowing them to clinch an unexpected Champions League qualifying spot, is huge. He scored 10 goals during that streak, including a perfect hat-trick against Brest – the first in the competition since 2013 – when ASM were two goals down.
Even when he was struggling during the first half of the season under Niko Kovac, Ben Yedder found his way back to the starting XI by scoring six goals after coming off the bench. Overall, he’s now the second-best scoring substitute in Ligue 1 history, with 16 goals behind only Souleymane Camara (26). However, with him now an integral part of Monaco’s plans, it’s unlikely he’ll be used as a substitute enough to equal that tally.
Bruno Génésio – Rennes
After a spell at Lyon, where he gained notoriety thanks to a UEFA Europa League semi-final (versus Ajax) and a Champions League victory over Manchester City, Bruno Génésio replaced Julien Stéphan as head coach of Rennes last season. This change proved beneficial as while his predecessor has done a great job with Strasbourg, Génésio was awarded the title of best coach of the season by his peers for the 2021-22 season.
A well-deserved reward, as Rennes enchanted this season with their attacking football. The Bretons scored more than five goals in three different games in Ligue 1 this season, no team managed this more often across Europe’s top five leagues in 2021-22. Génésio managed to guide his club to their best points total in its history in Ligue 1 (66), but also secured their most wins (20) and highest tally of goals scored (82). Only the champions PSG scored more goals (90) than Rennes in the French league this season. To top it all off, Génésio has the best points per game ratio for a Rennes coach in the history of Ligue 1 (1.76) and the only one with more than a 50% win rate (53%).
It was not only through his attacking strength that Génésio was able to make Rennes shine (they had the fourth tightest defence with 40 goals conceded), but it was going forward that the Bretons made their strongest impression: they were in the top three for total shots (third – 552), shots on target (third – 203) and shot conversion rate (second – 14.9%).
The Bretons may have lacked the consistency to finish higher than fourth and make the Champions League, but Génésio has certainly managed to impose his touch and perfect his reputation as an attacking coach, who will set out to conquer the UEFA Europa League next season.
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