European Football

Ligue 1 Team of the Season Part 1: The Defense

How many PSG players will be here? You have to read on this week to find out…

Welcome back to the Team of the Season series, where, for our penultimate entry week, we will be covering a league that is near and dear to my heart: France’s Ligue 1. With a title race going down to the final day this weekend, this could be the first season since 2017 and the second since 2013 where a team not named PSG wins the league title. Amazing, right?

In a season with a three-to-four team title race for most of the year, as well as fairly balanced competition up and down the league, this might be one of the more diverse Ligue 1 Team of the Seasons over the last few years. Without one dominant team (which was mostly PSG), there are many positions where the choices become incredibly difficult. So before I change my mind, let’s get started…

Mike Maignan (Lille OSC)

Yes, this is not Keylor Navas.

Do not get me wrong, Navas is phenomenal, and this might be the most difficult starting goalkeeper choice outside of La Liga. Navas has been world-class throughout the season, showing in the league and Champions League why he is as highly-rated as he is. And yet, Mike Maignan has been a better goalkeeper in basically every way, something that has gone very unnoticed and under-appreciated by those outside of France.

The stats speak for themselves. Maignan has a very healthy lead in clean sheets, seven more than Navas, while having a 0.08 better goals against per 90 mins and having only a 0.2% lower save percentage while seeing significantly more shots (19 more than Navas) and making many more saves (17 more than Navas). The stats are either incredibly close, with Maignan being called into action much more, or the Frenchman leads quite healthily. He has been the safety net at the back for a Lille team that is not as talented defensively as PSG, and they will also not be controlling possession and dominating games as much as PSG. His reactions and athleticism are outstanding, he commands his penalty area and marshals his defense very well for a fairly young player, and his composure in big moments is outstanding for a young player.

He is simply the best goalkeeper in the world that you are not hearing about yet. He is on the verge of being world class, a player who has outperformed a genuinely world-class player over an entire season and has everything needed to be one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, and he will be a very major reason for Lille’s success should they finish the job this weekend. Should this be his final season with Les Dogues, then remember his name, because you will be hearing it a lot more very, very soon.

Jonathan Clauss (RC Lens)

Racing Club de Lens is a club that you may only know about if you know who Raphaël Varane played for before he went to Real Madrid, but they are a club that, despite their small size, is strongly associated with Ligue 1 football, so it was very great to see them back in the league this season. Not only were they back, but they did very well, with a chance to qualify for European football on the final day of the season despite having just been promoted from Ligue 2. Their team has been defined by great seasons from exciting young talents, but I do not think there is a better story in this Lens team than the one of Jonathan Clauss.

Clauss is the dictionary definition of journeyman. The Frenchman came through at Strasbourg but never saw the first team during his time there. He jumped around the lower leagues in France and Germany, playing semi-professionally for several years. He eventually signed with Ligue 2 side Quevilly-Rouen, finally making his professional debut as a 24 year old. He did not last there, but he made a move to German second division side Arminia Bielefeld in 2018 after impressing while on trial with the team. After helping Arminia gain promotion to the Bundesliga, he left the club when his contract expired, signing a three year deal with newly-promoted Lens before this season. After an incredible season, he has become one of the best fullbacks in Ligue 1, being central to Lens’ success and potentially putting him on the radar for a France call-up after the Euros.

Every move he made in his career was a free move, either moving upon expiry of his contract or signing after going on trial. The 28 year old has not moved for a transfer fee a single time in his career, and that might be changing very soon given how great of a season he has had. It is a very heartwarming story, one that defines the “rise from the ashes” season that Lens have had.

So how good is he as a player? Well, he is a relentless attacking fullback, playing as a wingback in Lens’ back five. His six assists this season is joint-second among all Ligue 1 defenders, and he has been able to add three goals to that tally as well. His never-ending energy allows him to cover that whole right side, but the biggest asset to his game is his ability to operate essentially as an extra attacker going forward. He makes intelligent runs and combines well with his teammates, as if he was playing as a winger at times, and his passing and crossing ability has led to many goal-scoring opportunities for his team. In a league that lacks high-level right backs, to be completely fair, Clauss stands at the top of a fairly non-competitive position. Despite this, he is still a great player and a great story.

Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain)

This is going to be very bold to say about a league that has Neymar and Kylian Mbappé in it, but I genuinely do think Marquinhos could be the best player in Ligue 1.

Yeah, I know, a bit of a hot take. I know there is not much for me to draw on when it comes to stats, but hear me out here.

Marquinhos is easily the best defensive player in the league. His positional sense is outstanding, he is competent in the air, he is able to be strong in the tackle without having to be over-reliant on physicality, he is great on the ball, and he is an incredibly intelligent player, which is what allowed him to play as a defensive midfielder last season. He has seemingly been PSG’s most important player, one that makes his presence felt when he plays and is a very noticeable absence when he is not there. His inexhaustible effort and energy has turned him into a defensive wall, often being one of the players that comes to PSG’s rescue when they are in trouble. While Presnel Kimpembe has been fairly inconsistent this season, Marquinhos has been nothing short of outstanding, a very fitting heir to Thiago Silva’s throne in Paris.

And none of this is really backed by the statistics, but trust me, it is like what I said about Rúben Dias, watching him play is the only way to fully understand just how good he is. While his tackling numbers are not outstanding, he is just such a composed and well-positioned player. He is exactly where he needs to be at all times. It is even more noticeable when he is not there, which turns the PSG defense from “fairly solid” to “about to collapse at any given moment”. His leadership and composure, as well as his ability as a defender, is irreplaceable for PSG. They have found some success with and without Neymar and Mbappé this season, and they are still worse without those two in the team, but Marquinhos’ importance in the team is at a level where Paris are significantly worse without him in the team. They failed to win in nearly half of the league games where Marquinhos did not feature, and many of the games they won in this case were very high scoring.

His presence is so important to this team. He is the best defensive player in the league. And he might be the best player overall in the league. If he is not, then he might be the most important to his team. If I were selecting a Team of the Year for the entire continent for 2021 so far, it would be very difficult to keep Marquinhos out of that team.

José Fonte (Lille OSC)

Yes, ex-Southampton center back José Fonte is still playing football, and he is playing very well, as a matter of fact.

The Portuguese, after a very brief spell in China, signed with Lille in 2018, and he very quickly became a key player. Even at 37 years old, Fonte has been an irreplaceable player in his team. As Les Dogues’ captain, Fonte has been instrumental in organizing the Lille defense and leading by example. His experience has been important in mentoring his young defensive partners, Gabriel Magalhães last season and Sven Botman this season, and his very matured defensive intelligence has allowed him to be a very strong center back despite clearly losing a bit of physical ability and pace.

And that might be the bedrock of Fonte’s case in this team: he is simply a very good, and very efficient, defensive player. While his drop off in physical pace does not allow him to succeed purely with positioning, like Marquinhos, he is still a very good tackler. He also, despite his age, is still a strong enough jumper to be among the best in the league in winning aerial duels. In a team that is not able to dominate possession as much as PSG, Fonte is often called into action more often than defenders at PSG, and he more often than not performs well when asked. Even most recently, it was largely thanks to Fonte and Botman that Lille were able to hold onto a point against Saint-Étienne, which kept them top of the league going into the final day of the season. He is very solid and very reliable, key to Lille’s success this season. His inclusion in this team, like Marquinhos, was a no-brainer.

Romain Perraud (Stade Brestois)

Top left backs, like top right backs, are not in plentiful supply in Ligue 1 this season, so much so that Lyon were able to be in the title race for most of the season without actually playing a natural left back at left back. PSG have dealt with many injuries at that position. Lille and Monaco have solid players in those positions, but nothing about either of them really pops off the page for me.

Romain Perraud, Brest’s fantastic flying attacking left back, is sort of the one truly great choice for this position. That does not mean he is not good, he clearly is one of the best creative players in the league, let alone among defenders. Brest have largely overachieved since arriving in Ligue 1, and while they are still at threat of relegation, it has been at least a fairly good season for the still-fairly-newly-promoted side. Perraud has been one of their best attacking players, bombing down the left side and being a very efficient player with the ball. His crosses are usually fairly effective, and, clearly shown by his seven assists, he is very good at getting the ball into dangerous areas. He is also a solid defender, being positionally solid and throwing himself into danger when needed to in order to stop crosses, passes, or shots. He is among the league leaders in blocks, which, while it is his only outstanding defensive statistic, does not fully highlight how solid of a defensive player he is.

I am not quite sure how high his ceiling is, and he will likely not have a future with the national team given how many quality left backs France can call on, but I would be surprised if he remained with Brest after this season. Should Brest go down, I would guarantee that he will be on the move. In a league where many of the top teams lack a quality choice at left back, he could be a very interesting prospect for several teams.

And there you have it, the defense in our Ligue 1 Team of the Season. Agree with my picks? Think that I left someone out? Let me know in the comments below!

Join us tomorrow when we will go over our midfield three.

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