The first of Europe’s big six leagues1 started today. Defending Ligue 1 champion Montpellier scored early, had a man sent off before halftime, and eventually drew with Toulouse, 1-1. Not a terrible start for a team that lost their best player to Arsenal this summer.
Despite last year’s finish, Montpellier isn’t expected to compete for this year’s title. They weren’t expected to compete for last year’s title, either, so who really knows. At the beginning of last season, they looked like more of a relegation battler than contender, but thanks to new Gunner Olivier Giroud (21 goals, 9 assists), Younés Balhanda (12 and 5) and 23-year-old captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Montpelier were able to spring the biggest surprise of the European season. Defending their title against a challenger engaged in a one team arms race would be less miraculous than last year’s breakthrough.
That doesn’t mean we should expect a race in France. If anything, last season’s failure make 2012-13 success more likely for Paris Saint-Germain. Then, the Parisians finished a disappointing second despite running Summer Spending Spree 1.0. This summer’s version 2.0 is like Mac OS to last year’s Windows. The acquisitions Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and Ezequiel Lavezzi caused a minor talent shift from Italy to France and will almost certainly make up the three points that separated PSG from the title.
As Gabriele Marcotti2 noted this week, PSG’s ability to take that talent and lift Ligue 1 may be the season’s most compelling story. At least, we can’t sit here in August, look at the 20 teams competing for this title, and expect there to be drama come May. The Eden Hazard-less, Salomon Kalou and Marvin Martin-featuring Lille (champions before Montpelier) will be very good, and Lyon’s best starting XI is still formidable, but the more interesting tension will be whether PSG can serve as the rabbit that forces the rest of the league’s hounds to chase.
For that to happen, there needs to be an attitude adjustment throughout the entire first division, because the one thing that continues to keep France from climbing UEFA’s pecking order is a lack of intensity in the league’s games. It’s as if the league is infused by too much French existentialism, with most teams spending seasons asking if the minute-by-minute of league play really matters. There isn’t the naive, scrounge for every bit attitude you have in other leagues. Instead, you get efforts like last year’s Coupe de la Ligue final, where the country’s two biggest clubs (Lyon and Marseille) spent 105 minutes asking who am I, what am I doing here, what does it all mean …
… before Brandao gave l’OM a 1-0 win.
While the League Cup final may have been one of the more extreme examples of France’s on field existential crisis, it’s still emblematic. The two biggest clubs in French soccer met for a trophy with a European spot on the line (at the time, it was unclear either would qualify through the standings), and they spent more of the match looking out of the Hotel La Rut wondering where Tony could be – where he is, who he could be with, what he is thinking (is he thinking of them), and whether he’ll return some day.
Didier Deschamps and Remi Garde played a game of passive-aggressive chicken, waiting for the other to blink first. Because of the quality of Marseille and Lyon, the game played to an infuriating stalemate. In regular league play, you’re more likely to see cracks earlier in games, with teams often waiting for that to happen rather than asserting themselves, taking control of the match, and playing in a way that meant the match’s decisive moments are acts of intent rather than happenstance.
This is why Montpellier was so refreshing last year. They took the title. The year before? Rudi Garcia brought a new energy to the league, guiding Lille to the title. But before that, it was years of Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille reinforcing Ligue 1’s existential crisis. Pragmatism, prudence – a measured approach – could win the league. Why try to transcend that? Unfortunately, Paris Saint-Germain could take the same approach this season and still win the title.
There’s an argument to be made that teams’ week-in, week-out efforts say little about a squads’ potential, which may be true in isolation. The problem comes when so much of the season is spent in neutral. Last year, the league slept, allowed Montpelier to grow into their boots, and gave a relegation battler with a little talent and a lot of belief the league title. While that belief grew, Paris Saint-Germain was playing their way out of Europe, Lyon was acquiescing to their own unduly modest place in Ligue 1’s world, and Marseille was preparing for an epic second half collapse. By May, Montpelier was the club league allowed them to become, yet nobody in France has asked “why couldn’t that have been us?” And almost nobody played the type of soccer that made them better teams at year’s end than they were in round one.
Paris Saint-Germain’s ascendence may imply France can move forward. Their play may compel the rest of the league to try. But it’s going to take more than Qatar buying a team and turning it into MegaChelsea for Ligue 1 to wake up.
In any international competition, Ligue 1’s always well represented, so talent isn’t a problem. They have as much access to Europe’s competitions as Italy and Portugal, so opportunity isn’t an issue, either. France is a beautiful place that urbanites and ruralophiles can both embrace. There clubs are affluent by all but the ridiculously highest standards. There are no external pressures keeping France down.
France’s teams have to want to get better. Unfortunately, it’s that simple. Whereas in most leagues we would take aspiration as a given, in France, clubs (even the biggest clubs) seem content to just be. Montpelier, PSG, Lille – these are the exceptions. Lyon and Marseille have become the rules.
If France’s clubs don’t want the league to be better, PSG’s not going to pull them up. As was the case this time last year, France’s problem isn’t talent. It’s ambition.
1 – Portugal passed France in UEFA’s league coefficient, and I don’t want to drop them out of the “big” group. Or keep France in a five when it might not be as good as the six.
2 – You should expect Marcotti to be cited often, now that most of his work has been freed from pay wall hell