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Scouting the cut-price Ligue 1 Talent Menu

For the first time in years, football is being cautious with its money.

The toll of empty stadiums translated into a penny-pinching January transfer window. Premier League clubs racked up a total transfer expenditure of just £70 million, down from £230 million a year prior (as per Deloitte). To some extent, this trend will continue. However sexy the prospect of an Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe turning up at a club near you this summer may be, the financial forecasts suggest these players may well remain restricted to the lustful gaze of window-shoppers. The era of the hundred million pound transfer will likely remain on hold. 

Yet the financial shackles put on the football landscape are nothing compared to the situation unfolding in Ligue 1. The farcically premature cessation of last season’s campaign, due to a supposed breakdown in communications between French government officials and UEFA, was the first of two seismic administrative blunders made by the league.

Whereas other countries went on to complete the 19/20 season during the summer, thus allowing their clubs to collect TV revenue for matches postponed by the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, Ligue 1 jumped the gun and its clubs lost out. 

At the time, this blow was softened by the shimmering prospect of an almost €4 billion deal with Barcelona media conglomerate MediaPro. It was touted as the vessel to transport French domestic football to the level of Spain or Germany. A farewell to ‘farming’. However it then emerged that sufficient due diligence had not been undertaken and that MediaPro were unable to meet promised payments. The deal collapsed. 

The French footballing authorities didn’t just manage to shoot themselves in one foot, they shot themselves in both. Cynical though it may sound, the situation in France presents an opening to the rest of Europe. Cash-starved clubs, even those currently embroiled in a title race, such as Lille, could well be forced to sell their talent at a reduced rate. With that in mind, here are five players that should be targeted by clubs with a range of budgets; like a dinner menu for bloodthirsty opportunistic DoF’s . 

Ngonda Muzinga

Club: Dijon 

Transfermarkt Value: £3.6 million 

At the pits of the ‘farmer’s league’ (a horribly misleading term, by the way) is not where Europe’s finest would often do their shopping. Dijon, for whom Muzinga plays at left back, have a pitiful fifteen points this season and sit bottom of Ligue 1, with relegation all but a mathematical certainty.

But whilst his club’s form might not have many salivating, Muzinga’s personal metrics are impressive. 

Combining solid defensive statistics (his 2.38 interceptions per 90 puts him in the 99th percentile across Europe’s big five leagues) with an ability to progress the ball up the flank well – completing 5.66 progressive passes and 1.62 dribbles per 90, Ngonda’s balance of offensive and defensive attributes makes him a rarity in his price bracket. Naturally, we’re not talking about the complete defender here – Ngonda ranks poorly for pass completion and pressures on the ball, but he does represent the high standard of player that can be found in France for potentially very cheap. 

Indeed, budget Ligue 1 left-back options are plentiful. Anthony Caci of Strasbourg, who was picked up on in a January 2020 episode of Tifo Football has very similar metrics to Ngonda. As for pure defenders, Fabien Centonze of Metz is a viable option, potentially for newly promoted teams needing to sure up their back line – his passing statistics are poor but his 3.2 tackles, 2.48 blocks and 5.4 clearances per 90 are all extremely high. 

Loïc Badé 

Club: RC Lens 

Transfermarkt Value: £5.4 million 

The conveyor belt of emerging French centre backs at this time is ceaseless. To go shopping in France for a new defender is to walk into a Sushi Restaurant and sit at the counter as prospective superstar after prospective superstar sails past. So you’re bamboozled by the excess of choice and can’t choose at all? Then look for the package marked ‘Loïc Badé’. 

The assertiveness Loïc Badé exudes in his defending is like that of a defender 10 years his senior. At 6 ft 3 he’s able to utilise his long-limbed frame to his advantage in shielding the ball from attackers. Equally however, Badé is deceptively athletic and carries the ball out from the back with eye-catching ease, employing the same upright gait associated with the most imperious centre halves, but simultaneously capable of fluid changes in direction and tight ball control. 

In the case of Badé’s defensive record, there’s no need to trust the eye test. He ranks among the top 10% of defenders in the big five European leagues in tackles (2.65 per 90), interceptions (1.74 per 90), clearances (7.87 per 90) and aerial duels won (4.74 per 90). Lens currently employ him as a right-sided centre back in a three, allowing him to use his pace and frame to show forwards into the channel. If he can learn to better defend off both feet, as the requirement to do so would be greater in a common two man central defensive partnership, then there’ll be little to stop him reaching the highest level.

A La Havre graduate, Badé was amongst the litany of defenders linked with Liverpool in January as they scrambled to plug the gaping chasm in their defence. Whilst Ozan Kabak was eventually selected, the link alone suggests Badé’s ever-growing reputation. Leeds United have also been touted as suitors, unsurprisingly given the joy they’ve had scouting Ligue 1 in recent years. 

Romain Faivre 

Club: Stade Brestois 

Transfermarkt Value: £7.2 million 

Drifting in from the right-hand-side onto his favoured left foot, there are few more efficient creative forces in Europe right now than Romain Faivre. Faivre currently averages 4.99 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, putting him in the 95th percentile amongst Europe’s big five leagues. He moves across the pitch in frictionless motion, caressing the ball between tackles as though walking on air. He has also completed 2.89 dribbles per 90 in the process, the result of which has been recent links to Manchester United and PSG. 

Fleet-footed and nimble, rather than explosive, Faivre is an exceptional talent but perhaps not an exceptional athlete. Comparisons to Florian Thauvin do not flatter Faivre, but they might offer something of a warning. When Thauvin sought greener pastures after excelling at Marseille, he responded to the siren call of Newcastle United, a club with an impressive history of shopping French – it made sense. And yet, Thauvin’s style was incongruous to Premier League physicality. He struggled and ultimately failed to make an impact (thus returning to Marseille where he returned to form). 

This isn’t to say the 22 year old Stade Brestois Frenchman could never cut it in a physical league, but he might want to think carefully about his career path, taking gradual steps rather than great leaps. Regardless of where he chooses to go, Faivre’s suitors will be many and his days remaining in Ligue 1 perhaps limited. 

Renato Sanches 

Club: Lille OSC 

Transfermarkt value: £25.2 million 

It was a tough job picking between Sanches and his midfield partner Boubakary Soumare. Whilst it would be inspired business to order the ‘set menu’ and take the duo together, if we’re forced to eat ‘à la carte’ then Sanches might be the way to go.

With hair braided like Edgar Davids, a play-style like Clarence Seedorf (that is, according to ex-Dutch international Pierre van Hooijdonk) and an unsuccessful stint at Swansea like Itay Shechter(?), few players have experienced a rise, fall and rise again quite as compressed as Sanches. 

Bursting through in 2016 at Benfica, he won the prestigious Golden Boy award that year after being voted as the best young player at Euro 2016. Sanches made the leap to Bayern Munich following the tournament, in retrospect prematurely as he struggled for appearances and was loaned to Swansea (where he also struggled for appearances). 

Lille has proved his second coming. Sanches is currently performing at the level of an elite progressive midfielder; 7.27 progressive passes per 90 (with an also-impressive 74.14 total passes attempted) and 7.71 progressive carries. He uses his remarkable balance and low centre of gravity to evade tackles in the centre of the pitch and start attacks by breaking the lines as a ball carrier. 

The Lille business model very much relies on turning profits on Luis Campos’ intelligent acquisitions. As such, Sanches would almost certainly be gettable, despite his side being within a whisker of league leaders PSG at the time of writing. No doubt, any manager currently blighted by an overly pedestrian pivot should be enticed by the redeemed Portuguese star. 

Eduardo Camavinga 

Club: Rennes 

Transfermarkt Value: £54 million 

An obvious pick, notably, but if the carcass of a wounded Ligue 1 were to be divided up between the beasts of Europe, then here lies the juiciest of all the pieces of meat. 

In more flattering terms, Camavinga is a complete modern midfield player. Occasionally mislabelled as a traditional holding midfielder, he thrives at aiding Rennes to progress the ball up the pitch, currently averaging 6.24 progressive carries per 90. Often receiving passes in deep areas of the pitch from his central defenders, the 18 year old has the full gamut of abilities on the ball – passing range, fluidity of movement and change of pace. 

This isn’t to disregard the Frenchman’s defensive capabilities. Currently averaging 3.97 tackles per 90, putting him amongst the elite ball-winners in his position, Camavinga’s game is balanced and mature, equal parts orchestrator and destroyer. Amidst a dizzyingly competitive field, he is already capped three times for France.

In Camavinga’s case, only the very elite clubs would stand a chance. This is Michelin Star dining. Come summer however, he will have only a year remaining on his contract. For a long while Camavinga’s nationality has fuelled rumours of a move to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, but his agent Jonathan Barlett recently claimed “four [or] five” clubs would have a shot at signing his client. Whoever those chosen few are (admittedly, most are probably quite guessable), they should head to the feast as quickly as they can. 

All statistics from FBRef

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