In the long history of Ligue 1, only once before had a team that was top of the table going into the final round of fixtures failed to win the title. In order to avoid the fate that befell Nîmes in 1962, Lille – having only drawn at home to a Saint-Étienne side who had nothing left to play for last Sunday – had to go to Angers and win to confirm the fourth title in their history.
It was a task that was easier said than done. Yes, Lille had the best away record in the league, but they would be going to the Stade Raymond Kopa without their captain, the influential and experienced José Fonte, to face a team that would be bidding an emotional farewell to their long-time manager, Stéphane Moulin, who was stepping down after a decade at the helm.
If there were any nerves, they scarcely showed for Christophe Galtier’s rejigged team, who won comfortably. Yusuf Yazici and Renato Sanches came into the team and made Lille more physically robust and direct, with Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikoné surprisingly dropped. Sanches, who had lacked form and fitness of late, was the more notable gamble, but his presence paid dividends almost immediately, slipping in Jonathan David for the opening goal 10 minutes into the match.
His insistent and lively play on the right not only gave Lille a percussive attacking thrust on that flank, but it also allowed right-back Zeki Celik to deliver a more conservative performance than is his wont. With Fonte, the right-sided centre-back, absent, that more cautious approach from Celik paid off, even if Angers’ attack offered very little. The excellent Angelo Fulgini did score a consolation goal in stoppage time, but the hosts were largely blunted.
That Sanches put in such a driven and determined performance after not starting a league match in a month was testament to his own progress, but it also showed how good Galtier is at bringing the best out of players. Sanches built a considerable name for himself five years ago when he was a key part of the Portugal team that won Euro 2016, but unconvincing spells with Bayern Munich and Swansea damaged his reputation. His development under Galtier has been more linear and consistent, even while he has contended with injuries and Covid-19. Sanches is far from the only player who has benefited from Galtier’s management. The player he set up for the opening goal, David, also owes a debt to his coach.
While Burak Yilmaz’s recent heroics, especially against Lyon and Lens, have garnered the headlines, the development of David over the course of the season is perhaps Galtier’s finest achievement. The most expensive arrival to France this summer, the young Canadian struggled badly at the start of the season. Even when Lille were top of the table in January, that seemed despite his presence in the side, rather than because of it. With just two goals and one assist in the league, he hardly looked like justifying his €30m price tag – a huge figure for a club already under a great deal of financial strain.
His progression in 2021 to becoming a vital part of a title-winning side, is nothing short of miraculous. With 11 goals in the calendar year – including the winner against PSG in a closely contested match at the Parc des Princes and a late double against Marseille – David has been one of the league’s form players. By showing patience with the youngster, as well as belief in his partnership with the dynamic Yilmaz, Galtier once again demonstrated his ability to improve young attackers – as shown previously with Nicolas Pepé and Victor Osimhen.
Despite the individual brilliance of Yilmaz, David and Sanches, and the more consistent performances of midfield linchpin Benjamin André and goalkeeper Mike Maignan one clean sheet short of the league record), this is Galtier’s title more than it is anyone else’s. Named manager of the year for the third time in his career, the veteran coach’s ability to develop his team, even while key players were being sold due to the club’s perilous financial situation, is a major mark of quality.
Galtier is now being linked with richer clubs such as Nice and Lyon. If he does leave Lille this summer, he will do so having delivered a title nothing short of miraculous, even in a season when PSG have struggled with a change of manager and fixture congestion. While Ligue 1 is so often seen as a font of talent on the pitch, the achievements of Galtier and some of his fellow managers show there is also a lot of talent on the sidelines in France.
Despite being unable to beat Lens on the final day, Monaco are back in the Champions League. In contrast to their dismal performance in the Coupe de France final last week, lost 2-0 to PSG, Niko Kovac’s side played with plenty of verve and were only kept at bay by Lens goalkeeper Jean-Louis Leca. If Galtier is the manager of the year, Kovac and his opposite number on the evening, Franck Haise, would have been worthy winners in another campaign.
Haise took newly promoted Lens to within a point of Europe and, despite having to cope with a rash of Covid-19 cases and a few lengthy injury spells (Séko Fofana, Ignatius Ganago), his team was only undone by a brutal run of fixtures in the last month of the season. Kovac, for his part, has Monaco playing thrillingly incisive modern football; only Manchester City have won more points per game in 2021 in Europe’s top five leagues. Lens and Monaco will be worth watching next season if they can keep the bulk of their squads intact, something auguring well for the league as a whole.
Monaco ended the season with a sigh of relief. Their goalless draw at Lens gave Lyon a chance to overtake them in the table and clinch a place in the Champions League next season. Lyon’s task on the final day – a home match against a Nice side with nothing left to play for – looked like an easier task than a trip to Lens, but yet again they were undone by their defence, losing 3-2. With Memphis Depay on his way out, Lyon may not be able to rely on their attacking prowess to keep them above the fray next season. With manager Rudi Garcia joining the Dutchman in heading towards the exit, a major shakeup is in store this summer, a task made all the more difficult without the financial recompense of the Champions League.