Ten clubs have won Ligue 1 since 1996. Seven of them have also been relegated in the same period. Despite the dominance of Lyon and PSG, French football has remained fiendishly competitive on the whole, often catching bigger clubs out – joint-record champions Saint-Étienne and 2009 winners Bordeaux were both relegated last season. With four clubs going down from an evenly matched division, this season’s battle could be the tightest in the league’s history.
As many as 12 teams will be fighting for survival this season. Losing Bordeaux and Saint-Étienne – who have both played Europa League football in the last three seasons – has intensified the tussle by ridding the league of two clubs who were usually capable of extricating themselves from the bottom half.
That battle is further tightened as the league reduces to 18 clubs, meaning four will go down automatically this season – from the previous situation where the bottom two clubs went down and a third went into a relegation playoff. If four teams had been relegated in recent seasons, two title winners would have ended up in Ligue 2. Monaco finished fourth bottom in 2019, just two years after winning Ligue 1. And Lille finished fourth bottom in 2018, just three years before they won the title.
After the promotion of Auxerre, Ajaccio and Toulouse – three clubs with strong histories in the top flight – the bottom half of Ligue 1 is full of evenly matched teams all simply hoping to survive. That competitiveness was underlined this weekend as the division’s bottom two clubs won. Eight games in, just four points separate the bottom nine.
Bottom side Ajaccio mustered their first win away at Brest. Surprise promotion chasers last season under long-serving coach Olivier Pantaloni, the Corsican club ascended to Ligue 1 with minimal transfer funds; an average Ligue 2 team on paper was only bolstered by a handful of rapidly ageing Ligue 1 veterans. Angers midfielder Thomas Mangani and Saint-Étienne forward Romain Hamouma, both 35, were the marquee additions.
Despite past glories, keeping Ajaccio afloat will likely be beyond them. They are also joining an already ageing group, which could soon produce an XI with an average age of 33. Their stoic defence, which only conceded 19 goals last season, is the only route to survival. Pantaloni will hope the win over Brest is the first of many 1-0 victories.
Fellow strugglers Angers picked up a shock win over Nice over the weekend. Having seen coach Stéphane Moulin and a spine of trusted lieutenants depart in the last year, Angers took a risk by overhauling their squad on a tiny budget. Only three starters, including former Southampton winger Sofiane Boufal, remain from last term.
They are relying on repurposed, workmanlike players who have returned from loan spells elsewhere, youngsters and transfer-market dart throws. Although, after switching his formation three times already this season, coach Gérald Baticle’s new 4-4-2 seems to be working, but much rests on talisman Boufal.
Beyond these two, a sprawling melee ensues. Despite finishing sixth last season, Strasbourg are the only club in Ligue 1 yet to win this time out. Previously a ruthlessly efficient, physical and attacking outfit, Julien Stéphan’s team have struggled to maintain their intensity. Stéphan’s second full season at Rennes also lost momentum rapidly after they had made the Champions League. A similar capitulation could be disastrous for the Alsace club.
Brest and Reims, who finished mid-table last season, join Strasbourg and Ajaccio in the bottom four. Reims’ pivot away from established professionals towards their academy proved a masterstroke. However, having lost Hugo Ekitike’s goals to PSG and struggled with discipline – they have picked up five red cards already – a repeat looks tricky.
Previously hard-to-beat Brest have conceded 18 goals in eight games and, despite keeping star attacker Franck Honorat, the usually reliable Michel Der Zakarian’s team may fall victim to increasing quality around them.
Ligue 2 champions Toulouse will be hopeful of avoiding the drop despite evolving little. Former Nottingham Forest coach Philippe Montanier has devised a dynamic, positive team with a variety of goal threats. However, top-scorer Rhys Healey’s long-term injury will be difficult to overcome.
Fellow promoted side, 1996 title winners Auxerre, have some second-tier stars overdue a chance to play in Ligue 1. However, it may be too much for intelligent creators Mathias Autret, Youssouf M’Changama and prolific Ligue 2 goalscorer Gaëtan Charbonnier to make up for the team’s porous defence.
Strong relegation candidates just a month ago, Lorient may be the only member of this group who can breathe easily, having already reached 19 points under rookie coach Régis Le Bris. However, they will be wary of slipping down the league like Clermont did after a fast start last season. Clermont’s scouting department seems to have unearthed some gems, with versatile attacker Mohamed Cham, signed from Austria’s second tier, one of many surprise successes. Although, maintaining their form this time around will be even tougher after the sale of goalscorer Mohamed Bayo to Lille.
So ferocious is Ligue 1’s bottom half that cup winners Nantes will also be looking down rather than up. A hectic Europa League schedule – the bane of many inexperienced sides – plus the loss of new France forward Randal Kolo-Muani could hamper them.
Despite some promising transfer business, Montpellier will fear the same fate following just three wins in their 19 games after Christmas last season. Regardless of the City Group’s resources, Troyes fans will also be nervous.
With the league more competitive than ever, these dozen clubs might remember Monaco’s 2011 relegation. The club were one of nine teams within three points of the relegation zone on the final day. A 2-0 loss to Lyon sent Monaco down even though they had amassed 44 points. With most of Ligue 1 trying to avoid the widest of trap doors, this season could yet top even that scramble.
Despite falling behind to Maccabi Haifa in their Champions League group stage match last week, PSG were the only one of six French teams to take three points from the latest set of European fixtures. Marseille made it 16 defeats in 17 Champions League games; and in the Europa League, Nantes were routed 3-0 by Qarabag, Monaco suffered a shock home defeat to Ferencváros, Rennes failed to beat Fenerbahçe and Nice could only draw with Partizan. In a crucial season for Ligue 1’s coefficient ranking, with the top five leagues receiving four automatic Champions League spots in the reformed competition, more poor results could see the French league overtaken by the Portuguese Primeira Liga or Dutch Eredivisie at the worst possible moment.
With the coming international break Didier Deschamps’ last chance to test his squad before the World Cup, France are at risk of starting the tournament dangerously under-prepared. Paul Pogba, Hugo Lloris, Karim Benzema, Presnel Kimpembe, N’Golo Kanté and Théo Hernandez – all planned starters in Qatar – are all absent. As a result, the uncapped Randal Kolo-Muani, Youssouf Fofana, Benoît Badiashile and Alban Lafont have been called up to a relatively inexperienced squad. After mixed results in June, Deschamps is already firefighting.