Adil Rami left Lille a champion. An integral part of the Lille team that won a league and cup double in 2011, the towering centre back belonged to a swashbuckling, thrilling side that included players like Yohan Cabaye and Gervinho and Ludovic Obraniak and Moussa Sow and Eden Hazard – players that have all since departed, a championship-winning team dismantled inside eighteen months.
Rami returned to Lille for the first time this week to find Les Dogues teetering close to the brink of chaos.
A lot has changed, for good and bad. Off the pitch Lille have a brand new, impressive stadium, a wonderful training complex, a more solid infrastructure. For all intents and purposes they are now a bigger club.
On it however Lille is a shadow of its former self, a jaded figure from the one that so dazzled France. Where LOSC fans cheered their team to trophies during Rami’s time, against Valencia many of them, disgruntled, staged a protest. One supporters group – the Dogues Virage Est – boycotted the match.
Rami received a standing ovation from the home crowd at the end of Lille’s 1-0 defeat to Valencia. He was the only one. The players in red had long since scuttled from the field in shame, booed after a loss that won Lille the honour of becoming the first French team not to register a single point at home in a Champions League campaign.
Six games, five defeats – including a 6-1 humiliation at Bayern Munich that would genuinely have ended 10-1 or worse were it not for Mickael Landreau’s goalkeeping and Arjen Robben’s wastefulness. Bottom of the group for the second season running. 10th in the table. And, if rumours surrounding Landreau’s contract termination are to be believed, serious dressing room unrest surrounds the club.
When asked about the Grand Stade Lille Métropole, Lille’s state-of-the-art, 50,000-seater, €300million+ new stadium, Rami was frank. “It’s very nice but it’s too grey,” he quipped. “It lacks a bit of red, a bit of decoration and a bit of atmosphere.” He may as well have been talking about his former teammates, because the description fits them perfectly.
Defeat to Valencia, by way of a 36th minute Jonas penalty after he was fouled by Marko Basa, may be slightly harsh on Lille but it summed up their current predicament.
The boos that rang out every time Salomon Kalou wasted possession reflect his shoddy play and general apathy since joining.
The result? A fall from champions in 2011 to mid-table and the ignominy of joining Sporting Braga in being one of two sides to lose all three Champions League home games.
For Lille coach Rudi Garcia losing the way they did against Valencia was ‘terrible’, having more than matched their opponents for long spells. “We put them under a lot of pressure without any success,” said the man often linked to the job at Los Che, a neat coincidence given Valencia’s manager’s bench was empty, with Mauricio Pellegrino recently sacked and new coach Ernesto Valverde in the stands before assuming full control.
Garcia must be aware of the problems.
In attack Lille have lost far too much quality attacking talent not to suffer. Les Dogues scored 68 goals in their title-winning season of 2010/11 at a rate of 1.79 goals per game – the highest in France. In 2011/12 they scored 72 goals (1.89/game).
After 15 games this season they have 16 goals – a pitiful rate of 1.06 goals per game, one of the worst scoring records in Ligue 1 and less goals scored than the likes of Evian Thonon-Gaillard at the bottom of the table. Only Reims, Brest, Nancy, Sochaux and Ajaccio have scored fewer.
Losing multi-million pound players of Sow, Gervinho and Eden Hazard’s calibre is hard to overcome, naturally. The replacements however have thus far proved inadequate. Nolan Roux has never managed more than 10 league goals in the top flight and is yet to prove he is anything close to a consistent and reliable goalscorer. His Ligue 1 average of 1 goal every 344 minutes is measly.
Tulio de Melo is too injury prone. The boos that rang out every time Salomon Kalou wasted possession against Valencia accurately reflect his shoddy play and general apathy in Lillois rouge since joining in the summer. Dimitri Payet has been too inconsistent to be called a success. And the less said about Ireneusz Jelen the better.
Garcia is gradually integrating Ronny Rodelin and Gianni Bruno, who both look promising. Rodelin was a towering presence against Valencia, constantly winning aerial challenges on the diagonal sent long by keeper Steeve Elana and flicking them on to teammates. Bruno also showed his instincts in front of goal with a brilliantly taken strike against Bastia in the recent Coupe de la Ligue win. Neither is far from winning a first team place, but Lille need to invest in a penalty box predator and fast.
Defensive concerns tactically
Defensively Lille are in better shape. Their league record is fine but issues remain. Marko Basa is suffering in his second season and making several mistakes. Aurelien Chedjou has been better, but what is increasingly apparent is that Lille lack a good ball-playing centre back who can help build play from deep.
In possession Lille’s full backs push high up; too often this isolates the centre backs who then play themselves into trouble under no pressure by taking too many touches or choosing the wrong pass, leaving the team on the back foot. A minor tactical point but it has cost Lille this season. When the ball is played out from the back Lille often look uncomfortable building play.
Franck Beria is another who is yet to reach the levels he is capable of while after Newcastle’s summer interest Mathieu Debuchy’s head is clearly not in it this season. Fortunately, in Lucas Digne and Djibril Sidibe Lille already have two full backs capable of stepping in now. They should be integrated as soon as possible.
With club president Michel Seydoux admitting he is open to selling the club and actively sounding out potential buyers, there are obvious problems at Lille right now. Landreau’s abrupt and shady departure from the club in mid-season, ‘by mutual consent’ despite having a contract until 2014, suggests matters beneath the surface are also affecting club harmony.
For a keeper of Landreau’s professionalism, experience and ability to walk out so suddenly is extremely worrying for any LOSC supporter, particularly given the respect he commands amongst fellow colleagues. Another hero of the 2011 season, gone.
This was meant to be a golden period in the history of Lille OSC. Not since the 1950s have they been so successful. Les Dogues have been developed well enough off the field that they are now considered one of France’s biggest clubs, a genuine challenger to PSG.
Those fans who went on strike to protest poor Champions League performances might be advised to look back 15 years to the Ligue 2 days and realise that, then, playing Bayern Munich at home in a 50,000 seater stadium would have been considered a beautiful dream.
It would be churlish to describe Lille as a club in ‘crisis’ at this exciting time in their long history. But on current form, the idea that they are the organic, emerging giant of French football looks more dubious by the day.