How Ligue 1 is losing its sheen
The Premier League remains the most captivating league in Europe, La Liga boasts the formidable partnership of MSN at the top of the Barcelona tree, Serie A's transfer activity has been more enthralling than ever and the Bundesliga is home to two of the best equipped, most balanced outfits across the continent. In France however, it's a far more desolate story.
With the exception of PSG and, to a lesser extent, the inconsistent, but occasionally wonderful, Monaco, the quality of teams in the French top flight has plummeted below its usually mediocre standard. Despite clinging on to its title as one of the ‘top five’ leagues in Europe, merely by virtue of the synonymous decline of the Belgian and Portuguese divisions, Ligue 1 is undoubtedly losing its sheen, but why exactly is this?
Perhaps the biggest, most frequently posed question hanging over this debate is - why is Ligue 1 so poor at present, but the French national team so good? A slightly alarming statistic for French football is that just 1 of 16 starters in the Euro squad play in Ligue 1; shocking in comparison with the other top four leagues - Spain (8/11), Italy (15/20), Germany (9/14) and England (17/17). It’s a head-scratcher for certain but one thing that is for sure is that France’s top flight is losing its top talents year-in-year-out.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why players, French-born or not, find it so appealing to make the switch to the Bundesliga, Premier League or La Liga instead of staying put. The most common hypothesis states that it stems from a lack of competition in Ligue 1; with PSG’s dominance off the field and on it, pipping the existing champions to the post is essentially an impossible task, even for money-bags Monaco. The former’s yearly wage bill is in excess of £5 million and is more than five times the division’s average.
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Lyon look promising with young talents ranging from Alexandre Lacazette and Jordi Ferri to Nabil Fekir and Corentin Tolisso, but the sales of Samuel Umtiti and Clinton N’Jie over the past two summers suggest that a Southampton-esque exodus may follow for Les Gones - an appropriate name.
Marseille and St-Etienne were formerly forces in French football but have struggled to make an impact on the European stage and they are among a handful of clubs being frequently cherry-picked for young gems; Ligue 1 is increasingly looking like a development league.
While the Premier League has morphed, in Arsene Wenger’s words, into a ‘championship of managers’ this season with the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp all recently making the switch to English football, even the most avid football follower would do well to name more than three gaffers plying their trade in Ligue 1.
The most exciting import of recent years came in the form of PSG's Unai Emery this summer but, even with his successful spell in Seville, he’s not a household name by any means. Of the other top sides in France, Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim has an incredibly modest track record where Olympiakos are probably the most recognisable of his former employers, while Franck Passi of Marseille and Bruno Génésio of Lyon both got the jobs after working as a caretaker and assistant managers.
There’s, of course, nothing wrong with managers being employed in this way; it’s refreshing to see if anything. That said, it links in very nicely with the previous point- players are naturally going to choose to play under managers of proven success with a big name, than someone who’s barely completed their coaching badges. France lacks innovative, hungry gaffers and it’s stalling the progress of teams with great potential.
When Francois Hollande introduced his new ‘super tax’ policy three years ago, it was strikingly apparent that the enforcement of a law where companies would potentially be taxed up to 50% annually would shuffle up Ligue 1. The ins-and-outs are tedious and complicated but the laws have fluctuated and essentially left the nation’s biggest clubs with financial headaches.
Monaco, for example, forked out €50 million to the French Football League to exempt themselves from said ‘super tax’, a deal which was revoked as recently as last year in a case which is still ongoing.
Given that, as previously mentioned, the most competitive sides in Ligue 1 are those with the biggest wallets, it’s something which could yet still impact the nation’s top flight. If such teams as PSG and Monaco becoming restricted in their spending by these laws, they will no longer be able to bring in the biggest talent from across the continent and the league will no longer be lop-sided, but could instead lack any clubs boasting world-class talent.
Poor performances in Europe
Tying together the aforementioned points results in one grim outcome for French football; the division could soon be limited to just one side in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. A French side hasn’t lifted the European crown for more than twenty years, while the last team from Ligue 1 to make a Champions League final was Monaco in 2004.
Last campaign, the side finishing third in France’s elite division had to go through three qualifying rounds to secure a place in the competition which is why it may come as a surprise to see three representatives in this year’s edition, all of which are unbeaten after match-day one. The success is unlikely to last, though, given that PSG have been the only side to really cement a regular place in the knockout stages over the past few seasons.
If these, frankly, embarrassing showings continue then the division could see only the side from the capital qualifying for the Champions League each year, rendering it much harder to attract top talent which, in turn, depletes success even further. It’s certainly growing into a vicious circle for French football at present and something’s got to be done about it.