Going into the new season, you would be hard pressed not to find a football fan excited by what was going on at Lille. Les Dogues won a Ligue 1 title as recently as 2011 with the likes of Gervinho, Yohan Cabaye and a 19-year-old Eden Hazard all starring under Rudi Garcia, but in recent years were forced to sell their best players to balance the books. A series of top six finishes kept them relevant without really challenging, that was, until billionaire investor Gerard Lopez brought his riches – and a newly found optimism – to the region.
The takeover offered a chance for a fresh restart. For those wishing to brush shoulders with Europe’s elite, you need a moment (and plenty of cash) to build on. Chelsea have 2003, Manchester City have 2008 and Paris Saint Germain have 2011. Add Marcelo Bielsa, the eccentrically brilliant coach, Marc Ingla, the former Barcelona executive and Luis Campos, the Portuguese scout who helped build the all-conquering Monaco side of 2017 – you’ve got the makings of something special.
Add to that an intriguing young roster bolstered by a £50m summer spending spree, it would not be unreasonable to think that in a league still fairly inconsistent away from PSG, Lille had a great chance to hit the ground running and make a real impact for the first time in half a decade.
Instead, the early excitement has vanished and the brand of monotonous football their fans came to expect with the previous regime has returned. Due to the way in which Bielsa organises his teams, a defensive lapse or two is understandable, and a worthy trade-off for swashbuckling attacking play at the other end. But not even that is happening. They’re averaging less than a goal, 3.8 shots on target and creating 8.6 chances per game – numbers in keeping with other teams battling against the drop.
The honeymoon phase has truly worn away and discontent has been apparent in the last few weeks, with some fans criticising Bielsa for hacking apart the team unnecessarily and treating senior players with disrespect. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, centre-back Marko Basa, full-back and recent captain Franck Béria, and Portugal forward Eder were all unceremoniously dismissed over the summer when they could have been used sparingly to guide their youthful colleagues through transition. The squad possesses quality, make no mistake, but it also has the look of an under-21 side that has been poorly assembled before an international tournament.
Bielsa’s style, eccentricities and influence on fellow managers give him something of an aura, but it’s likely any other manager with a similar record would be in greater danger. Admittedly we are still only a third into the season but there is a growing feeling that he may be another manager who is being left behind. His last real success came in 2012 when he took Athletic Bilbao to the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals (losing both), but now, his tactical rigidity is making Lille too predictable and easy to play against.
The players should not escape criticism either, but it’s hard to say on what grounds. Is this poor run of form simply down to the fact that they are too limited? Or are just they taking too long to adjust? Perhaps Bielsa’s training methods are not suited to his squad, but then why were they signed in the first place? With an average age of 22years and 6months, it may be inexperience holding them back, but in Thiago Maia, Luiz Araujo, Nicolas Pepe, and Ezequiel Ponce there is enough quality present to turn things around.
In the preceding two seasons Herve Renard and then Frederic Antonetti were taken on to revive the team, but both were swiftly sacked before Christmas when relegation battles loomed large. Renard was sacked in November 2015; Antonetti made it to November in 2016. Will Bielsa last longer? “I am aware of our position,” said Lopez after the defeat to Monaco. “The coach must find a way to change things. We continue to support him.” This is a sensible stance to take given that the squad is talented, the manager is potentially exciting, and the season is still young, but Lopez could put Lille in danger if he keeps faith in Bielsa for too much longer.