smarterthinking

It's finally time to focus on Lens

It is a season of sweet vindication for fans of RC Lens – and for its owner.

In 2016-17, the historic French club ran a deficit of €4.6m and finished fourth in Ligue 2, missing the promotion playoffs by a point. In 2017-18, the annual deficit grew to €13.5m, and they finished 14th. In 2018-19, they added another €11.1m in red ink, squeaked into the promotion playoffs on goal difference, and lost to Dijon in the final.

Then last season, Lens sacked their longtime manager, Philippe Montanier, just before the season was suspended. Franck Haise, the reserve team coach, took the reins and won what turned out to be the last two matches of the campaign, nudging the club up to second place in the table. They were one point ahead of Ajaccio at the moment the French government decided to cut the season short. After five years, they were back in Ligue 1 at last.

Joseph Oughourlian had poured millions into the club, and he would have had to spend even more if not for Lens's loyal fans. They regularly packed the Stade Bollaert-Delelis – the largest in Ligue 2 by some distance – with crowds of 25,000 or more, a remarkable figure for a town of roughly 31,000 inhabitants. Today, as Lens sit 11th in Ligue 1 with two games in hand, the stadium is empty except for the personnel needed to play and broadcast Ligue 1 football. It's bittersweet, but still sweet.

So what has been behind Lens's success this season? Their central defenders have been a big part of it. Just have a look at these stats for the season so far:

It's hard to think of a better CB trio in Ligue 1, and it's virtually impossible to think of one where two of the three are under 22 years old. Loic Bade is just 20, and Facundo Medina – a smarterscout young prospect who cost just €3.5m from Talleres in Argentina over the summer – is 21. It's almost as though no one could have predicted what a high performer Medina would be after crossing the Atlantic... except if they had used our platform:

Medina's defending quality and ball retention – for us the key overall metrics for CBs – are almost exactly the same in Ligue 1 as they were in the Argentine Superliga, measured at a Ligue 1 standard. And though he's no great shakes in the air, he's one of the best tacklers in France. Bade can take care of the aerials, anyway, as a CCB usually will; he already rates 78 out of 99 for aerial duels in open play. It's just as well that these guys are all lights-out defenders, since Jean-Louis Leca's shotstopping leaves room for improvement.

Moving forward to midfield, Lens have another gem in the person of Cheick Doucoure. The Malian smarterscout young prospect joined the club in 2018, straight from Real Bamako. He was outstanding at LCB and RCB last season when needed, but this season he's back to his original position in the middle of the pitch – and he's putting up some extraordinary numbers at just 20 years old:

Exactly zero DMs in Europe's top five leagues have had better ratings for defending quality, ball retention, and ground duels in and out of possession over at least 570' in the past five seasons. Doucoure looks like a star, and a check of his smartermap this season at DM is even more beguiling:

Doucoure has box-to-box coverage and mixes dribbles in among his passes almost everywhere he goes. He uses shorter passes near the left flank and is more adventurous as he floats toward more central areas. Overall, his profile bears a strong resemblance to another midfielder who broke out in Ligue 1 at the same age:

We didn't use any red ink to highlight the similarities here, because we probably would have run out. From ball retention and playing style to skill in three different types of duels, Doucoure and the 2017-18 version of Tanguy Ndombele are almost mirror images. Back then, Ndombele had just gone on loan to Lyon for €2m, and the move became permanent for €8m at the end of the season. A year later, he joined Spurs for €60m.

As you can probably guess by the photo above, we're not done talking about Lens's phenomenal young players until we've mentioned 21-year-old Cameroonian international Ignatius Ganago. The striker suffered a sprained ankle recently but had a blazing start to the season. In style, he also brings to mind some players who you might have heard of:

Now, we're not saying that Ganago is the next Erling Braut Haaland or Kylian Mbappe. He'll have to keep up these ratings for quite a bit longer before we start to believe that. But putting aside his finishing, which seems to be improving so far this season, he can go punch for punch with those two talents in terms of his ability to get shots off in the box and his overall attacking output. That's partly because Ganago, who joined Lens from Nice this summer for €6m, doesn't take a lot of bad shots:

With that kind of shot distribution, even a weak finisher is going to score goals. The estimated chance of scoring for his shots has averaged 24% so far in 2020-21 – and he's actually finishing above par, by contrast with his struggles in previous seasons.

And it's not just the youngsters who make Lens intriguing. Their RM/RWB is Jonathan Clauss, a 28-year-old French journeyman who had never played in the a top-tier league. He helped Arminia Bielefeld to win promotion to the Bundesliga last season, though he was used predominantly as a RW, where his attacking numbers were nothing to write home about. Yet at RM/RWB, he was fantastic. Signed over the summer for a free transfer – he had never moved for a fee, anyway – he may be the sleeper story of the entire window:

Yet the most unexpected star in Lens's constellation may be Gael Kakuta, the onetime Chelsea starlet who went to England, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, China, and back to France before returning to the club where he first stood out in the youth ranks. Maybe he just needed to be given more freedom as a passer, because we're having a hard time finding another way to explain this:

By now, hopefully it's clear that Lens have a pretty special squad. (We haven't even talked about Seko Fofana, the €8.5m signing from Udinese whose season has been hampered by injury – we devoted a whole thread to him in August!) Lens also appear to have a special coach. Here's our profile for Haise this season:

Lens are only eight matches into the season, but Haise appears to be having an enormously positive effect on their results. Compared with the results we would have expected given the previous performances of his players, Haise may have added up to 0.56 expected goals per game to Lens's expected goal difference. Of course, Haise may also be benefiting from a natural upswing in the development of Lens's young stars. But these are still impressive numbers for a coach who's already played Paris-Saint Germain, Nice, and Lille.

At home, Lens press high but also play a passing style, much like the most admired clubs in Europe's top five leagues. They defend exceptionally well and also grow steadily in attack for a full hour before peaking. An early first substitution helps to keep the momentum going after the break, making them more dangerous in the second half than the first. In away matches they play more directly and sit back more, offering less in attack overall. As the players mature, they may yet find that same intensity on the road.

We're going to keep watching Lens when the 2020-21 season resumes and beyond. They've already beaten Paris Saint-Germain. If they can keep this young and exciting squad together, why shouldn't they challenge the big boys?

[Photos: Supporterheninois]

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