James Nalton builds a team of the season for Ligue 1 using TransferLab.
There’s no doubt that the 2020-21 Ligue 1 team of the season was Lille. Christophe Galtier’s side prevented Paris Saint-Germain from winning four league titles in a row for the second time in their history. But this past year in French football should be remembered for what Lille were able to do, rather than what PSG couldn’t.
Seeing Lille’s name atop the table at the end of the season for the first time since 2011 added a competitive edge to a league that is always interesting in many ways but in recent years has been dominated by PSG.
Parisian puissance was interrupted by Monaco in 2017 and now Lille in 2021, and it’s perhaps an indication of the superior teamwork of Galtier’s men that none of their players are represented individually in this team of the season, as decided by TransferLab’s Best XI tool. Cases could be made for a number of Lille players but their teamwork, tactics and players chipping in when needed at important stages of the season have played a bigger role than any individual.
The team below was selected based on a 4-3-3 formation using the roles shown and only from players who have played more than 2,000 minutes. This in itself led to some potentially controversial omissions, some of which are highlighted as we go through the XI:
Three players have been shortlisted for each role and the data threw up several stars of the present as well as the future. The player at the top of each list of three will make the final team, apart from centre-back where the system doesn’t separate left or right-sided central defenders so some decisions have been made here to balance the back line.
The first controversial Lille omission arrives immediately. It’s a surprise not to see Mike Maignan guarding the goal or even in the top three as the 25-year-old’s performances earned him a move to AC Milan in the upcoming transfer window and he was a key part of the title-winning side.
Even when setting the goalkeeper profile to “shot-stopper” or “ball playing” PSG’s Keylor Navas ranks highest each time,
The aerially dominant Alexandre Oukidja of Metz tops the list if the profile is set to “all round” but we will go with Navas as the Costa Rican gives us the ability to play out from the back and also ranks higher than Oukidja for saves (quality).
Montpellier’s 22-year-old French keeper Dimitry Bertaud ranks highly but only played 745 minutes. He may be one to look out for in the future should he get regular game time.
José Fonte and Sven Botman? As with their teammate Maignan, neither of Lille’s defensive duo make the shortlist. However, the players chosen may be even more interesting to look at.
There are four French centre-backs in the six-man shortlist, two of whom are 21 or under.
Loïc Badé, the 21-year-old Lens centre-back, is the highest-rated central defender in this team and has been linked with a number of big clubs across Europe.
The 6ft 4in right-footer who plays in the centre of a back three for Lens hasn’t even made an appearance for the French youth teams, such is the nation’s depth in this area. This is just his first season in Ligue 1, though, after joining from Ligue 2 side Le Havre last summer, so there’s plenty of time for him to impress the national team selectors.
Unlike Badé, Monaco 20-year-old Benoît Badiashile has appeared for France from U16 to U21 level and could be set for eventual inclusion in the senior national side, though it’s difficult for any player to break into this part of the squad at the moment. The Monaco left-footer has also been attracting the attention of a number of clubs across the continent.
Competition in the France squad could lead to Badé choosing to represent Ivory Coast and possibly even Badiashile opting for DR Congo, the respective African nations they’re eligible for, but even despite their current depth France may well need the pair further down the line.
Stade Brestois’ Brendan Chardonnet also has a profile score of 95, while away from the TransferLab team PSG duo Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe were the names chosen in the UNFP (France’s equivalent of the PFA) lineup.
????-???? ????? ? ????/?????
— UNFP (@UNFP) May 23, 2021
If looking for young players with potential who are already performing at a high level, you can’t argue with the selections of Badé and Badiashile, especially as they offer good right and left-foot balance. Chardonnet could be used on the right if our hypothetical team operated with a back three, with Badé playing in the middle.
When finding the best full backs in the league, the “attacking” profile has been used because everyone likes attacking full backs. We have also set the defensive midfield position to “holding” to provide cover.
And where would a team boasting buccaneering full-backs be without a Brazilian? Monaco’s 23-year-old former Santos youth Caio Henrique gets the nod on the left of the back four, though don’t expect him to be ‘back’ too often.
As shown by his heatmap above, much of his work is concentrated in the attacking half of the pitch and he’s also played as a wing-back on the occasions Monaco have used a 3-4-3 formation. He’s used to playing alongside Badiashile, too, which adds some chemistry to this team.
This chemistry is replicated on the other side of the pitch where centre-back Badé is joined by his Lens teammate Jonathan Clauss, who is the highest-rated full-back on either side.
Clauss attempted more crosses than any other player in Ligue 1 last season and TransferLab rates the quality of these crosses highly — in the 93rd percentile. He also ranks in the 95th percentile for passes into the box and touches in the final third.
His pass accuracy appears low but this is something often seen in full-backs of his type who regularly send the ball into the box. The danger arises due to the areas into which these crosses are played and the way his quickness can get defences backpedalling uncertainly as shown in the clips below:
The 28-year-old’s attacking numbers are something to behold and are no doubt boosted by the fact he plays a wingback role for Lens, although both these full-backs rate poorly when it comes to their 1v1 defending win %.
This is where the defensive midfielder will come in to provide cover. Lyon’s Thiago Mendes comes out on top in this area and is the perfect player for this role.
The Brazilian is as good at breaking up opposition play as he is at initiating moves for his own side, ranking highly for a wide range of skills including progressive short passing, pass accuracy, interceptions, and 1v1 defending.
Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara and Morgan Schneiderlin made the shortlist but Lille’s Benjamin André misses out.
Slightly ahead of Thiago Mendes, the box-to-box midfield profile throws up three really interesting, and ultimately really good players, each at different stages in their career.
Lucas Paquetá ranks in the top three for midfielders regardless of which profile is picked, but his 98 rating in the box-to-box role marks him out as the best midfielder in this side:
It was a shrewd signing by Lyon to get the 23-year-old from AC Milan for £20m and the Brazilian has begun to fulfil the potential he showed before moving to Europe from Flamengo in January 2019.
Second in this box-to-box ranking is 20-year-old Yacine Adli who could be one of the most coveted players in the French leagues before long, if he isn’t approaching that status already. His performances in a fairly average Bordeaux side this season sees TransferLab highlight him as one of the league’s best players:
Finally, 29-year-old Teji Savanier has gone under the radar for some time, and will probably continue to do so due to his age, but he’s regularly at the top of the midfield charts when it comes to creativity and has the work rate to go with it off the ball.
Dmitri Payet has played a number of positions for Marseille this season, including from the left and as a support striker but his role is always roughly the same.
He’s their creator in chief and is joint second in Ligue 1 for assists with 10. He adds plenty of guile and creativity in this side ahead of the all-round Paquetá and the defensive Thiago Mendes.
The clip below shows him taking up a position just left of centre and sending a one-touch through-ball to Arkadiusz Milik:
It’s worth highlighting that if the profile is changed from “attacking playmaker” to “shadow striker”, Monaco’s versatile German forward Kevin Volland comes out on top by some distance with an impressive score of 96.
The selections up front initially appear controversial. Where are the other PSG players?!
Well, Neymar and Angel Di Maria miss out as they are below the 2,000-minute threshold. Neymar has a good return from the 1,417 minutes he played in the league this season but there’s no doubt who the star of world football is at the moment…
Kylian Mbappe averaged more than one goal per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season and is unsurprisingly the league’s leading scorer with 26 goals, only four of which were penalties. He’s also reassuringly ranked as the best all round striker in the league by TransferLab and the highest-rated player in this team along with Paquetá and Clauss.
Fourth-place Lyon were only five goals behind the expensively assembled PSG attack and as a result are well represented in the front three. The ever-impressive Memphis Depay finished the season with 20 goals and 12 assists putting him top of the league for goal contributions and his teammate Karl Toko Ekambi was second in the league for total non-penalty expected goals behind Mbappe.
The Cameroonian makes this team cutting in from the left wing, providing a direct goal-scoring threat from the flank. He ranks in the 99th percentile for carries and expected goals, and in the 97th percentile for forward passes received. He and Mbappé would also be happy swapping positions during games in our imaginary team, fighting to get on the end of Clauss crosses or through-balls from Payet, Paquetá, or our final forward.
Lyon’s Zimbabwean forward Tino Kadware is unlucky to miss out on the shortlist on the right as he’s just below the 2,000-minute threshold.
Montpellier’s Andy Delort is another notable inclusion as he has the second-most contributions to goals in the league thanks to his 15 goals and nine assists. While we’re on the subject of Montpellier again, it’s worth pointing out that Delort’s teammate Gaëtan Laborde is second in the league for non-penalty goals with 16 along with Volland. Mbappe has 21 non-penalty goals.
The inclusion of the final forward in this team, Florian Thauvin, requires some digging, especially as on 97 he’s one of the highest-rated players in this line up. This despite him not having the raw assists numbers of players like Nimes’ Zinedine Ferhat, who also features in the shortlist, Payet, or even Delort.
TransferLab takes into account the quality of chances created as well as quantity, and this is where Thauvin ranks highly:
He is second in the league for expected assists behind Depay according to FBref (again using the 2,000-minute qualifier) and is above the 90th percentile for expected assists, quality of his key passes and passes into the box according to TransferLab.
Promising teenager Jeremy Doku also makes the three-man shortlist on the right-wing and the 19-year-old Belgian would top the list if the profile was set to “classic winger” due to his supreme dribbling skill. Another one to look out for in the coming years.
There are numerous other players deserving of a mention in advanced areas including Ludovic Ajorque of Strasbourg, Monaco pair Wissam Ben Yedder and Aleksandr Golovin, and Farid Boulaya of Metz but perhaps the biggest omissions aside from the PSG duo are Jonathan David and Burak Yilmaz of league champions Lille.
It took David a while to get off the mark and he only scored twice in his first few months at the club but went on to score 11 goals in 2021, including an important opening goal in the final game against Angers which they needed to win to secure the title.
Yilmaz has also been one of the most important players for Lille this season and is unlucky to miss out here.
Ligue 1 is stocked full of attacking talent and many of these players are up there with the best in the world in their position.
It’s taken the breakup of PSG’s dominance for the quality of this league to be more widely recognised, but as is the case below Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, there are always plenty of interesting and entertaining teams and players, even if PSG regularly romp to the title.
Though this is a team picked by the data rather than the eye test, the various profiles available result in a balanced team of players who could potentially perform well together. Très bien ensemble.
The team of the year was no doubt Lille, but as a group of players who have been reliable enough to rack up over 2,000 minutes at a high level, this team is very impressive and includes a nice blend of future stars, older heads and players in or approaching their peak years.
GK: Keylor Navas – PSG
RB: Jonathan Clauss – Lens
RCB: Loic Badé – Lens
LCB: Benoit Badiashile – Monaco
LB: Caio Henrique – Monaco
DM: Thiago Mendes – Lyon
CM: Lucas Paquetá – Lyon
AM: Dimitri Payet – Marseille
LW: Florian Thauvin – Marseille
CF: Kylian Mbappe – PSG
RW: Karl Toko Ekambi – Lyon
GK: Alfred Gomis – Rennes
CB: Brendan Chardonnet – Stade Brestois
RB: Léo Dubois – Lyon
LB: Miguel Trauco – Saint-Étienne
DM: Boubacar Kamara – Marseille
CM: Yacine Adli – Bordeaux
AM: Kevin Volland – Monaco
FW: Franck Honorat – Stade Brestois
ST: Andy Delort – Montpellier
Analytics FC provides software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking. We provide cutting-edge software solutions such as TransferLab, which helps improve and simplify recruitment decisions. To find out more about TransferLab and our other data services, or to find out more about us, visit our website.