Thursday, 20 June 2019

A Sensational Season Story: Lille

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Lille had narrowly escaped relegation after a season of struggle and huge financial difficulties. However, fast forward twelve months and Lille find themselves preparing for a Champions League campaign after finishing 2nd in Ligue 1 this season. It has been a tremendous transformation for Les Douges and despite there still being a concern with Financial Fair Play, the football club is completely energised and excited for the season that lies ahead.

Lille's tremendous season certainly comes down to the brilliant job done by Christophe Galtier. He arrived on the eve of 2018 and managed to keep Lille in Ligue 1 and the rest, as they say, is history.  Lille were outstanding during the 2018/19 season. Galtier built on their survival and carried their positive momentum forward and things have gone from strength to strength under the popular Frenchman.  He boasts a 47% win record at the club showing the transformation in mentality and style at the club. Galtier's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation has unlocked the real talent and potential of this team. Galtier's exciting style of play saw Lille finish 2nd in Ligue 1 with 75 points and were comfortably the best of the rest in Ligue 1.

While Galtier masterminded their unlikely charge to Champions League football, his players delivered week in, week out. Their prize asset and star player of their sensational season was Nicolas Pepe. The flying forward was absolutely magnificent notching 22 goals and assisting 11 others. Only Kylian Mbappe scored more goals. The Ivorian was outstanding whichever position he played for Lille. He has become a fans favourite and the talismanic figure in the team with his dynamic play, quality finishing and selfless acts in the team. Lille will be desperate to keep him next season but it is unlikely they will be able to with interest from across Europe in the winger. A cheap signing from league rivals Angers has become a quality footballer and certainly, he was Ligue 1 player of the season. Galtier's formation allowed two of his attacking signings to flourish. Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikone enjoyed outstanding debut seasons at the club. Arriving from St Etienne and PSG respectively, Galtier has unlocked their qualities and released their shackles. Jonathan Bamba enjoyed a terrific first season at the club notching an impressive 13 goals and 3 assists while Jonathan Ikone notched 3 goals and assisted 9. Pepe, Ikone and Bamba formed a deadly partnership behind the lone striker and Lille will be desperate to keep them together heading into next season. It was also a breakthrough season for highly-rated Portuguese striker Rafael Leao. The young striker impressed with his deadly pace and physicality while leading the Lille line. The teenager notched an impressive 8 goals and 3 assists in his 24 appearances. Galtier has total faith in him and no doubt Leao will want to add more goals to his game but time is certainly on his side. The sky's the limit for the young striker.

While Lille's attackers have impressed this season, their steel midfield and strong rearguard also deserve huge credit. Thiago Mendes and Xeka have formed a strong partnership at the heart of the Lille midfield with their robust style and excellent passing abilities. Xeka who was unfancied under their previous regime has certainly impressed Galtier in the past twelve months and has thrived this season in a deeper role. Thiago Mendes meanwhile remains a consistent performer in the Lille midfield and he has grown in just his second season in European football. Another man enjoying a terrific season is goalkeeper Mike Maignan. Lille's number one was outstanding playing every minute of the league season and conceding just 33 goals and keeping the most clean sheets. Lille's defence also deserves huge credit for their sensational season. Lille boasted the best defence during the 2018/19 season and that is thanks to the likes of Zeki Celik, Adama Soumauro, Youssef Kone and Gabriel but their standout performer was unfancied signing Jose Fonte. The veteran defender joined on a free transfer after an unsuccessful play in Chinese football and he slotted into that defence beautifully. The experienced head of Fonte has nurtured Lille's very young backline and Fonte has thrived in this role and deserves huge credit for the performances and shifts he has put in. Fonte will get to test himself against Europe's elite next season and he will be even more important with many of the players heading into unknown territory.

The 2018/19 season will forever be remembered by players and fans alike at Lille. The 2019/20 season cannot come soon enough with the excitement building for the new league season as well as Champions League nights returning to Northern France. Galtier may have already accepted the loss of Nicolas Pepe with big clubs desperate for his signature and no doubt Galtier will have plans to replace him with the club needing players for their venture into Europe. Excitement is building despite the concerns of FFP which still hang over the club but it has been a sensational season for Lille and will head into the new season full of optimism, excitement and confidence.

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