Lille, from relegation strugglers to runners-up
By I. Holyman
In the space of a single season, LOSC Lille metamorphosed from relegation candidates to Ligue 1 Conforama runners-up — ligue1.com's Ian Holyman looks at the remarkable story of a club transformed.
"I thought we would save ourselves in the play-off," admitted coach Christophe Galtier after a 2-1 win over Dijon FCO in the penultimate game of last season, the third in a trio of successive triumphs that ultimately proved the difference between Lille and the drop.
At times, even a place in the relegation/promotion play-off looked like an insane hope after a campaign that started disastrously under Marcelo Bielsa and barely got much better after Galtier took over just before Christmas 2017.
But the former AS Saint-Etienne boss had become battle-hardened to tough situations while in charge of Les Verts, and also proven himself to a be a talented and resourceful tactician. He put those qualities to good use last summer in helping reverse some of what Bielsa had done.
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"A lot of things will need changing, in the organisation of the dressing room, in the everyday routines," he explained once he knew his work would be building to another top-flight campaign, and having himself committed to the club. "We need several players with a lot of experience, senior players who respect the job, the game and who'll lead by example."
A year earlier, Bielsa had radically pruned his squad, trimming off the experience to leave promising buds. Some of those flourished under Galtier this season, but the new Lille boss recognised the importance of guiding figures. Enter Jose Fonte. Mid-30s, a UEFA EURO 2016 winner, a decade in the English Premier League under his belt, and the blueprint for Galtier's vision.
"It was very simple," the Portugal international told Le Beau Jeu, the official Ligue 1 podcast. "The coach asked me to be a leader, to bring some calmness, some experience into the team so we could go through difficult times or keep feet on the ground in the good times. He just asked me to be me, to be professional, show the way to the young kids we have here."
He has played that role to Oscar-winning standard, and Lille have prospered. Where goals were shipped with reckless abandon last season, Fonte's influence as well as his ability has given the team a watertight platform in which full-back Zeki Celik and goalkeeper Mike Maignan have excelled in particular.
Before their Week 38 encounter with Rennes Lille have conceded just 11 goals in 2019 — six fewer than any other side in the division.
"We're a real team," said Fonte, putting his finger on what has made Lille such a difficult unit to break down this season. "We have a real chemistry."
While rendering opposing front lines benign at one end of the pitch, that mix has been an explosive one further up it.
Pepe & Co.
Nicolas Pepe — a Bielsa signing, it should be noted — has provided the sharpest cutting edge. After a promising first season with 13 league goals and six assists, the Ivory Coast international has made himself one of European football's hottest properties by finding the net 22 times and laying on a further 11 goals.
"He can play for whoever — Madrid, Barcelona, Man City, Man United — and do a good job," Fonte, who plays with Cristiano Ronaldo at international level, told Le Beau Jeu.
Lille have admitted they are destined to lose their prize asset to suitors in the summer, filling coffers that were so dangerously empty last summer that French football's financial watchdog, the DNCG, was reportedly considering sending the club down to Domino's Ligue 2 despite Galtier's efforts.
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Pepe though did not do it alone, and his five-star supporting cast can help fill the void if he does go. Jonathan Bamba, who worked with Galtier at Saint-Etienne, has made a weighty contribution of 13 goals, while another summer signing, ex-Paris Saint-Germain prodigy Jonathan Ikoné, and young Portuguese forward Rafael Leao have helped form one of the most exciting and youngest front lines in European football.
Veteran forward Loïc Rémy has filled a similar role to Fonte, and a rash of goals late in the season from the former Olympique Lyonnias, OGC Nice and Olympique de Marseille man helped them over the line.
Their combined talents have created one of the fairytale stories on the continent in 2018/19. Fonte, however, was not among those surprised by the reversal in fortunes.
"It was clear nothing much was expected of us. But the way we started the season, with so many wins…We were confident we could maintain it," he explained.
"There's so much quality and talent in the team. With the manager and staff we have, and the organisation we have as a team, you know you're going to win more games than you lose. I started to be confident quite early, and it was just a question of fulfilling that potential."
There is no doubt they have done that, though there will be little time to savour their achievement. Galtier himself has acknowledged he is all but certain to lose Pepe this summer while other key players may leave too.
Then again, he faced — and overcame — similar scenarios at Saint-Etienne, and after working a miracle already at the Stade Pierre Mauroy with the help of Fonte & Co. over the last 18 months, the 2019/20 season will hold no fears.