2021/22 Ligue 1 Preview

The 2021/22 French Ligue 1 is kickstarting on Friday 6th August at 9:00pm CET, with the match between Monaco and Nantes. The league’s obvious frontrunners seem to be PSG, as they strengthened their already competitive squad (highest amount of Expected Points last season, according to our model) with the arrivals of Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos, Hakimi and Wijnaldum. The fight for the Champions League spots promises to be tight: in our view, Monaco and Lyon will compete with Lille, the defending FL1 champions (ranked fourth on xPoints last year). The battle to avoid relegation seems fierce, with Reims seemingly better placed compared to Nantes, Troyes and Clermont, but losing the “Hidden Gem” Predrag Rajkovic would certainly put a dent in their hopes.

Performances and xPoints

The comparison between the 2020/21 Ligue 1’s ranking and the expected points ranking uncovers surprising results: according to our Expected Points model, PSG would have deserved the first position finishing with 77.2 xPoints, distancing Monaco by just 0.2 xPoints.

2021/22 Ligue 1 Table and Expected Points

The most striking outcome was Lille’s outperformance. They ranked fourth for Expected Points (67.0), outperforming them by 16.0 (the highest value in Ligue 1 2020/21). What was the secret of Lille’s success? Lille outperformed both Expected Goals  (64 Goals, 50.5 xG) and Expected Goals Against (23 Goals Against, 28.4 xGA). With regards to xG, the outperformance was partly due to their forwards’ finishing abilities: Burak Yilmaz (who has been Lille’s top scorer with 16 goals last season) and Jonathan David (who scored 13 goals) have outperformed xG by 155% and 127% (10.3 and 10.2 xG), respectively. Furthermore, Maignan’s outstanding season can partially explain the performance with regards to xGA: a very high saves ratio of 79.0% (average 67.8%), especially for close-range saves (72.4% against an average of 56.7%), helped him keep a league-high 21 clean sheets.

The second team in terms of xPoints outperformance was Montpellier (54 points against 44.9 xPoints), thanks to a substantial gap between goals and xG (equal to 8.2) and a smaller although positive difference between xGA (64.8) and goals conceded (62). The couple formed by Delort and Laborde has been crucial. These two players exchanged 0.16 xG P90 and 0.30 goals P90 between each other, achieving (within the couple) 11.1% of their team xG when they both were on the pitch. In addition, they recorded exceptional performances also individually: Delort outperformed xG by 120% (he scored 15 goals), and Laborde even by 140% (16 goals). Data about these two players are particularly explicative, mainly because they scored more than half of Montpellier’s goals (31 out of 60).

Other noteworthy outperformances came from the analysis of PSG’s (28 GA and 37.6 xGA) and Reims’ (50 GA and 60.4 xGA) xGA. These results are consistent with the performances of their goalkeepers. Both K. Navas (who was the best goalkeeper in Europe in 2020/21 for SPR) and Rajkovic (a ‘Hidden Gem’, according to our analysis) had very high saves ratios (80.4% and 79.0% against an average of 67.8%), both for short-range shots (73.8% and 72.4%, average 56.7%) and for long-range shots (96.3% and 93.9%, average 82.9%). Without their goalkeeper’s performances and their strikers’ finishing abilities (42 goals with 35.5 xG), Reims would have likely been relegated to Ligue 2 (35.5 xPoints, corresponding to 19th place).

The team displaying the worst performance, in comparison to xPoints, was Strasbourg: they ranked eighth on xPoints (54.1), but barely avoided the play-outs, with just 2 points above the watermark.

One last note: Monaco had the second-worst underperformance in terms of xGA (-9.7, only Lorient had a larger negative gap). Lecomte’s considerably below-average long-range saves ratio (71.4%) – which translated into a well-below-average total saves ratio of 61.4% – clearly represented a limit for a team that, looking at our xPoints model, could have aspired to fight for the first place.

An example of Lecomte’s struggles with long-range shots

The 2021/22 summer transfer window

Teams getting stronger: PSG, Marseille and Monaco

At the moment, PSG is the leader of the transfer market. First, they strengthened their midfield with the reconfirmation of Danilo Pereira (€16m from Porto) and the free transfer of Wijnaldum (from Liverpool). Danilo Pereira is a physically imposing (188 cm) defensive midfielder with good heading skills (67.0% aerial success ratio, role average 54.0%, and 0.07 headed goals P90, average 0.01). Wijnaldum is a complete and adaptable central midfielder that excels in passing abilities (48.3 completed passes P90 and 47.2 Expected Passes P90 out of 53.0 attempted passes P90, equal to a 2.2 percentage points outperformance with respect to xPass accuracy; in the 2020/21 season, he has been second in Europe, after Arthur, for pass accuracy in opponents half with a 92.3% precision). In addition, PSG spent over €60m for Hakimi: this dynamic and powerful full-back should be PSG’s added value on the right-wing, considering his offensive vocation (1.89 successful dribbles P90, average 0.75 and 0.51 shots on target P90, average 0.15). The free-transfer purchase of an experienced elite player (SPR: 60) like Sergio Ramos will help defend Donnarumma’s goal. It could prove hard for the Italian international (awarded as the best player of Euro 2020) to steal Keyor Navas’ place: the latter still shows slightly better stats in many important features (93.0% long-range saves ratio against Donnarumma’s 83.0%, 87.8% distribution accuracy against Donnarumma’s 85.7%). In such a situation, Areola’s departure was inevitable (loan to West Ham).

Marseille is another pivotal actor in this transfer market. They signed the versatile midfielder Gerson (€25m) from Flamengo and confirmed the young (1999) promise Balerdi (SPR:54) for €11m from Borussia Dortmund. In addition, they concluded three significant loan deals: the center back Saliba from Arsenal (7.2 recoveries P90, average 4.9), the creative right winger Ünder (2.1 chances created P90, average 1.4) and the goalkeeper Pau Lopez, who will probably take Mandanda’s place.

Monaco closed the deal for Myron Boadu (€17m from AZ), a poacher (26.9% NP goal conversion, average 13.5%) with above-average associative skills (0.17 assists P90, average 0.11). He will take Jovetic’s place, who signed for Hertha BSC (free transfer).

Talents runaway: OL and Lille

Lyon is facing Depay’s departure to Barcelona: this elite forward was crucial for his team’s offensive actions due to his technical (0.42 through balls P90, average 0.12 and 94 chances created, highest value in the last Ligue 1) and shooting skills (110 shots, highest value in the last L1, with 42.4% shot accuracy, average 34.5%), and his ability to cut inside. Joachim Andersen, a physically imposing (192 cm and 90 kg) and technically skilled (57.9 completed passes P90 and 56.9 xPass P90 out of 67.1 attempted passes P90, equal to a 1.8 percentage points outperformance with respect to xPass accuracy) center back, permanently left Lyon for €17.5m (destination Crystal Palace), after spending the last season at Fulham.

Lille seems to be struggling to retain its talents. Maignan (AC Milan, €13m) and Soumaré (Leicester City, €20m), two symbols of the last season, left. Amadou Onana (€7m from Hamburger SV), a 19-year-old defensive central midfielder who shows a 63.5% duel success ratio (average 49.8%), will replace Soumaré, who combined pace, stamina and defensive skills (67.4% tackle success ratio, average 62.4%).

Changing is Nice

Nice is changing a lot: they reconfirmed Todibo (€8.5m from Barcelona), a tall (190 cm) center back who can be also deployed as a defensive midfielder, while Lees Melou, a complete midfielder (0.47 percentage points outperformance with respect to xPass accuracy in the last season and 202% performance vs xG outside the box), left for €7m (Norwich). In addition, the right-winger Calvin Stengs joined the team for €15m from AZ: this extremely creative winger (0.56 through balls P90, average 0.12 and 2.1 successful dribbles P90, average 1.6) can be the extra gun of the team. Furthermore, Kluivert (loan from Rome, a winger who shows 2.3 successful dribbles P90), Rosario (€6m from PSV, a playmaker who also showed 4 assists out of 1.6 Expected Assists in the last season) and Lemina (€5.5m from Southampton, a versatile midfielder who registers 1.94 successful dribbles P90, average 0.65)  joined the team.

Boulaye Dia left Reims for Villarreal: this fast striker has been crucial for his team by scoring 14 goals (with only 12.3 xG). His departure means that he will need to be adequately replaced if the team is to avoid relegation for another year.

Rennes invested in two prospects. The first is the 21-year-old Loic Bade (€17m), a central defender who showed his physicality (191 cm and 89 kg) and defensive attitude (2.3 interceptions P90, average 1.5 and 6.8 recoveries P90, average 4.9) last season at Lens. The other one is Sulemana (€15m), a very young (2002) and adaptable forward usually deployed as a left-winger: in the last season, he scored 10 goals with Nordsjælland. On the other hand, Nzonzi came back to Rome at the end of his loan.

Brest and Strasbourg capitalized on the growth of two defenders: the forward back Perraud, a good crosser (0.9 successful crosses P90, average 0.3), went to Southampton for 13 million euros, while the young (2000) center back Simakan, who has above-average defending skills (63.2% duel success ratio, average 56.4%), flew to Leipzig for 15 million euros.

Nantes, which avoided relegation thanks to play-outs, loses Imran Louza (€10m to Watford), a highly versatile player who can cover the whole midfield and scored 7 goals last season. On the other hand, they redeemed the goalkeeper Lafont and Cyprien, a technically gifted midfielder (0.17 through balls P90, average 0.11 and 2.0 chances created P90, average 1.0), joined the team for €6.7m.

Outlook of the 2021/22 season

Ligue 1’s summer transfer window will close on the 31st of August, therefore, at the moment, we are looking at a fragmented and incomplete scenario.

PSG: Well ahead of the pack

PSG will be the frontrunner: the team coached by Mauricio Pochettino dramatically increased its salary budget to try the takeover of both the Ligue 1 and the Champions League. In the last season, they had above-average performances in each phase of the game (defence, build-up and attack): with the new arrivals, they acquired at least three new starters (S. Ramos, Hakimi and Wijnaldum, while Donnarumma will face the competition of Keylor Navas) that are likely to further improve these stats. In addition, Pochettino hopes to have Neymar available for more matches than in the last season (only 18 appearances). His creativity, together with Di Maria’s technical skills (3.2 chances created P90 for Neymar, 2.7 for Di Maria), will be necessary to trigger Mbappé’s ability in attacking the space (0.64 through balls received P90 in the last season) and Icardi’s finishing abilities (20.2% NP goal conversion, average 13.5%).

PSG stats (2020/21 Ligue 1)

Lille, Monaco and OL: Targeting an UCL spot

In our view, Lille is unlikely to repeat the exploits of the last season. First, the former president, Gerard Lopez, left. He was replaced by a subsidiary of the investment fund Merlyn Partners, which immediately announced the intention of reducing Lille’s debt.
The departures of Maignan and Soumare can be a problem for a team that won the Ligue 1 mainly thanks to its remarkable defensive stats (only 2.9 shots against on target per match, average 4.1, and only 23 goals against, the lowest value in 2020/21 Ligue 1).
Furthermore, Galtier will sit on Nice’s bench next year; Gouvernnec (ex-Guingamp) replaced him. This uncertain situation will not help Lille to confirm the title: they will start the next season as outsiders (even though their victory in the Trophée des Champions against PSG bodes well).

Monaco are not changing too much: actually, Niko Kovac’s team seems reasonably well-balanced. They can count on a close-knit offensive couple formed by Volland and Ben Yedder (in the last season they exchanged 0.22 xG per match between each other) and on a trustworthy defensive duo formed by Badiashile and Disasi (Lille had 2.7 shots against per match, average 4.1).
In addition, they enriched their offensive unit with the “wonderkid” Myron Boadu, who is usually deployed as a center forward, just like Ben Yedder. Kovac has three alternatives: a lineup with two center forwards, a 4-3-3 lineup, adapting one of the two as a winger, or considering them as alternatives. On the other hand, they should intervene in the transfer market if they aim to outperform Lecomte’s and Mannone’s figures (Monaco had a 59.6% save ratio, average 66.4%).

Sliding doors for Olympique Lyonnais: Garcia exits, Bosz (from Bayer Leverkusen) enters. These two coaches share an offensive vocation: in the last season, Lyon recorded 16.1 shots per match (L1 average: 11.7) and created 456 chances (first in L1). In this framework, Depay’s goodbye is likely to change the team’s balance, also considering that he was first in his squad for chances created P90 in 2020/21 (2.9).

Marseille, Rennes and Nice: Potential surprises

Sampaoli’s Marseille will try to improve their below-average offensive danger. They seem to have good finishing skills (they outperformed xG and have a slightly above-average shot accuracy of 35.7%), but they shoot too little (3.1 shots on target per match against an average of 4.1). In this sense, a creative winger such as the newcomer Under could help building opportunities for Arkadiusz Milik, who scored 9 goals in 15 presences in the last season (1.6 shots on target per match in 2020/21 against an average of 1.0).

Rennes could be one of Ligue 1 surprises. In the last season, the team had excellent build-up stats (second team for ball possession, 59%, and 248 passes in opposition half) and showed offensive results broadly in line with the average.
Now, they are facing both threats and opportunities. One of the main threats is Nzonzi’s return to Rome: with 2902 passes (first in 2020/21 Ligue 1), he has been the playmaker of Rennes’ robust midfield. Furthermore, there are transfer rumors regarding Camavinga, a complete midfielder who can impose himself in both phases (2.7 successful tackles P90 and 1.2 successful dribbles P90, against an average of 0.9); in case of departure, Rennes should try to get the most benefit from this transfer to re-establish its midfield.
On the other hand, the growth of their other young prospects represents an incredible opportunity: they can count on the passing ability of the forward back Truffert (49.0 completed passes P90 and 48.6 xPass P90 out of 58.8 attempted passes P90, equal to 83.5% passing accuracy and 0.9 percentage points outperformance with respect to xPass accuracy) and the speed of their wingers, Doku (first in 2020/21 Ligue 1 for successful dribbles, 110) and Sulemana, who will support Guirassy (10 goals last season). 

In the last season, Nice had a very young roster (24.0 years average age in the 2020/21 season, the youngest in Ligue 1) and they are continuing on that path with the arrival of the Dutch Stengs and Kluivert. Nice’s success in 2020/21 Ligue 1 will depend on the ability of Galtier to maximize the potential of his young team, starting from those who were already part of it, such as the wonderkid Daniliuc and Gouiri. Daniliuc is a centre back with interesting technical skills (59.9 completed passes P90 and 59.1 xPass P90 out of 68.2 attempted passes P90, equal to a 1.5 percentage points outperformance with respect to xPass accuracy) who could find more space with Saliba’s adieu. Gouiri (who scored 12 goals last season) is a very dynamic forward (1.7 successful dribbles P90) who also likes to aggregate with his teammates (0.23 assists P90) and who can also play as a winger.

Reims, Nantes, Troyes and Clermont: Relegation fight

We expect a harsh relegation fight, as in the last season.

Reims, which was in the second-last position in terms of xPoints, lost their top scorer Boulaye Dia (14 goals); in addition, Lille is targeting Predrag Rajkovic to replace Maignan. Without these two outperformers, it will be a difficult season for Les reuges et blancs, coached by Oscar Garcia (ex Celta Vigo). 

Nantes, after winning relegation playoffs on away goals against Toulouse (they won 1-2 in Toulouse and they lost 0-1 in Nantes) trust in the newcomer, the midfielder Wylan Cyprien to help Chirivella and Touré to improve their strongly below-average build-up stats (43% average ball possession, 154 successful passes own half per match against an average of 205).
Furthermore, they would hope that Kolo Muani, who has a good relationship both with Moses Simon (0.15 xG P90 and 0.10 goals P90 within the couple in 2020/21) and Ludovic Blas (0.10 xG P90 and 0.14 goals P90), will not suffer Louza’s departure.

Troyes, which won the Ligue 2 with a quite experienced (27.3 years average age) and defensively robust squad (7.8 shots against per match against an average of 11.9), still relies on Touzghar: we will see whether the left winger Ripart (€3.3m from Nîmes) will be able to support this 34-year-old forward who scored 16 goals in the last Ligue 2 (50.0% shot accuracy, average 39.8%). In addition, they signed Metinho (€5m), an 18-year-old midfielder who played for Fluminense in the last season.

Clermont is not changing that much. They rely on their goalkeeper, Desmas, who shows above-average close range saves ratio (65.5%). Furthermore, it will be interesting to see if the offensive trio formed by Allevinah, Dossou and Bayo will be able to repeat last season’s performances (they scored 46 goals out of Clermont’s 61 total goals).

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