How Lille won the Ligue 1 title

How Lille won the Ligue 1 title

Publish on 05/23 at 22:49 - I. HOLYMAN


How did Lille win the Ligue 1 Uber Eats title? A brilliant Burak Yilmaz, an iron-clad defence marshalled by Jose Fonte and Mike Maignan, a remarkable team ethic, and the work of perhaps Europe's most under-rated coach, Christophe Galtier… highlights the reasons behind the northerners' fourth top-flight crown.


In his mid-30s, never played outside his native Turkey bar a spell in China…what on Earth were Lille doing? You can forgive yourself for thinking that last summer when Yilmaz arrived at the club to replace Loïc Rémy as the frontline's father figure. You would not have been alone in doing so. If you're still thinking it, then you've not been paying attention.


After fuelling the nay-sayers' scepticism when he failed to score in his first four league appearances, the Turkey international has found the net 16 times in just 28 matches this season, and no doubt would have struck more but for a calf injury that laid him low from mid-January to early March, sidelining him for nine league games.


WATCH: Burak brings Lyon to heel




"We all see it in his preparation," said Galtier after watching his striker score twice and set up another in the statement-making Round 34 win in Lyon that pushed Lille closer to the crown, and perhaps more significantly, gave them real belief they could win it. 


"We can say he's an elder player, he's 35 after all, but with is experience, he's calm, he gives advice, he's strong with his back to play and in the air," said Jonathan David, the Canada international who has formed a potent partnership with Yilmaz despite their 14-year age gap with the pair ending with 29 league goals between them.


"He links up well, he knows how to score, right foot, left foot…I learn from him day after day."



'Strikers win games, defences win titles' goes the old adage — Lille have had both. Les Dogues conceded just 23 goals this season, a tally bettered only by the PSG's 2015/16 title-winners (19) since the turn of the century.


Central to that effort — quite literally — has been Fonte. The veteran Portugal international, who turned 37 last December, has featured in all but two of the club's league games this season, missing the 4-0 win over Lorient in Round 11 due to suspension, and the finale against Angers.


Trusted completely by Galtier, Fonte has kept nurtured the talent of Sven Botman — signed from Ajax's youth ranks to replace Gabriel — to ensure continuity in the side's solid base with the captain and his hugely impressive Dutch apprentice providing the platform on which the title triumph was built.


While Fonte has maintained his exceptionally high standards, Maignan has undoubtedly taken a step up this season. 


The former PSG youth academy man is now seen as France's number one goalkeeper-in-waiting after a fabulous campaign in which he has kept 21 clean sheets. 


"If Lille win the title, they owe it in part to Maignan," said a frustrated Frédéric Antonetti, the Metz coach who saw his side beaten 2-0 in Round 32 in a game in which the Lille goalkeeper saved an Aaron Leya Iseka first-half penalty and made a number of other big stops.



Incredibly in a season that has seen them successfully juggle UEFA Europa League commitments with domestic duties, Lille have used only 21 players in L1, the fewest of any Ligue 1 Uber Eats side.


Clearly, however, every single player has pulled their weight and then some. It has been a tremendous collective effort, but embodied by the performances of Benjamin André.


The 30-year-old central midfielder ranks in the top three league-wide for attempted tackles, successful tackles, and fouls committed, a tigerish streak that has meant two of the three games he has missed this season have been due to an accumulation of yellow cards.


With Fonte and Yilmaz, the former Ajaccio and Rennes midfielder is one of Galtier's on-pitch lieutenants, passing on not only the coach's instructions, but carrying them out to the letter and damn well ensuring everyone else does too.


"We will have to be prepared for the fight, as the next games are going to be very difficult," had explained Fonte with four games to go this season. "The mission of older players like me, Benjamin or Burak is to transmit this. We have to be strong in every game." Mission accomplished.



In over 120 Ligue 1 games in charge of Lille, Galtier has won more than half of them. His record since taking over from Marcelo Bielsa and pulling off a miracle to keep the northerners in the top flight in 2017/18 is second, fourth and now champions. Not bad, eh?


Somehow, the former Saint-Etienne boss managed to not only eke the most out of a limited number of players (though certainly not limited in terms of talent), but also keep their feet on the ground and eyes focussed firmly on the prize when all were doubting them.


"My players have something in their hands and we must do all we can to prevent our opponents from taking it away from us, like a dog when it has a bone in its mouth," he told the media — and his squad — in late April with the finish line in sight.


Given the mid-season change of club ownership that could have derailed the squad's challenge, Galtier's achievement is all the more remarkable, and some of the stats of the season show the work he has done to ensure his squad are greater than the sum of their parts.


Nothing says more 'team' than late goals, and no side has picked up more points than the 12 Lille have secured in the closing 10 minutes of Ligue 1 matches this season. 'Galtier Time', anyone? Lille have conceded just seven goals in the second half of matches, testament to the effort Galtier has managed to get from his players.


"Christophe has done a magnificent job," said an admiring Claude Puel before his — and formerly Galtier's — Saint-Etienne side held the league leaders to a goalless draw in Round 37 to delay but not deny Lille their first top-flight crown since 2010/11.


>> MATCH REPORT: Lille pip PSG to take title


>> OPINION: Mike Maignan, Lille's undersung hero