Bravo for Brest and bye to Mbappé: the complete Ligue 1 season review

Player of the season: Pierre Lees-Melou, Brest

In his final year in Ligue 1, Kylian Mbappé scored 27 goals to help PSG towards a third successive title and yet there was something unsatisfying about his season. He has been increasingly peripheral in games: clinical, at times eye-catching, but a little underwhelming for a player considered by many to be the best in the world. Luis Enrique believes PSG will be a better team next year, without Mbappé, who did not feel as central to their success as before – certainly not at the end of the campaign.

The opposite is true of Pierre Lees-Melou. He has been the driving force behind Brest’s shock success, laying the groundwork both in and out of possession for Les Ty Zéfs as they defied the odds, not only avoiding a predicted relegation battle, but pushing the team towards an improbable Champions League qualification. No player won more tackles in Ligue 1 this season than Lees-Melou and only Metz’s Matthieu Udol made more blocks. The journeyman, perhaps remembered in England for his underwhelming spell at Norwich City, has found a home at Brest. PSG would have won Ligue 1 with or without Mbappé, but it is difficult to imagine Brest challenging France’s elite without Lees-Melou.

Manager of the year: Eric Roy, Brest

Eric Roy’s appointment as Brest manager in January 2023 came during a relegation scrap and turned plenty of heads. “Lots of people were critical of my decision. Roy hadn’t managed for many years,” the club’s sporting director, Grégory Lorenzi, told us earlier in the season. Indeed, when Roy arrived, he hadn’t managed a club since leaving Nice in 2011. However, his appointment, based on Lorenzi’s “gut feeling”, has proved a masterstroke. He has transformed a squad of journeymen and players with unrealised potential from relegation fighters into European contenders.

Initially based on defensive solidity, they changed tack in the run-in, opting to play more offensively with two strikers. The results and performances were at times chaotic, unpredictable and volatile (see the game of the season), but Roy’s approach got Brest over the line. The team is unrecognisable from the side that Michel Der Zakarian left in the relegation zone just 18 months ago; one man, more than anyone else, is to thank for that.

Best young player: Warren Zaïre-Emery, PSG

The Lille centre-back Leny Yoro is a strong contender but Zaïre-Emery is worthy of this award, even if his form has tailed off slightly in recent weeks – likely a result of his over-deployment. One of the first names on Luis Enrique’s team sheet, he and Vitinha have improved massively under the Spaniard, giving PSG their best midfield since the days of Blaise Matuidi. Blending maturity and dynamism in a way that belies his 18 years, Zaïre-Emery has also become a regular for France, and will play a key role this summer at the Euros.

Warren Zaïre-Emery shows off the Coupe de France. Photograph: Aurélien Meunier/PSG/Getty Images

Match of the season: Rennes 4-5 Brest

Down two goals inside 10 minutes to their more moneyed Breton rivals, Brest’s Champions League hopes seemed to be slipping through their fingers. A flurry of goals came in response, though, and Eric Roy’s side pulled ahead to lead 4-2 with less than an hour to play. Les Pirates seemingly had one foot in Europe’s marquee competition.

Rennes, still in with a shout for Europe themselves, battled back, levelling the match at 4-4, before Lilian Brassier sealed the win for his side in the sixth-minute of stoppage time. Third place would not be confirmed until the final round of fixtures, but this result put Brest five points clear of fifth-place Nice with three matches to play, all but sealing an historic European campaign.

Best signing: Wilfried Singo, Monaco

Georges Mikautadze would have been a worthy winner of this award. The Georgian almost single-handedly kept Metz in Ligue 1 thanks to his 14 goals in a campaign marked by a brief and unsuccessful stint at Ajax. However, the award goes to Wilfried Singo, who had a similarly revolutionary impact at Monaco. Singo’s move to the Stade Louis II last summer went under the radar. He was something of an unknown quantity when he arrived for a small fee from Torino – he isn’t any more.

Singo has played centre-back and right-back in a back four for Monaco this season, as well as on the right side of a back three, and he has looked equally as comfortable in each position. His aerial ability and devastating speed have been put to good use both in attack and in defence. His performance against PSG, including that now famous “Stop that Chokbar” flick over Bradley Barcola’s head, will live long in the memory. He has been consistent throughout the season and a big reason behind Monaco’s second-place finish in Ligue 1. He also won the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast.

Biggest shock: Brest reach Champions League

When Eric Roy became Brest manager in January 2023, he inherited a team in the relegation zone. He led them to safety comfortably last season and the club’s inaction in the summer transfer window suggested they would have a similar finish this year. The exceeded those expectations and then some.

With the third best defence in the league, Brest profited from drop-offs in performance from the likes of Marseille, Rennes and Lens to launch an assault on the European places. Not only did they qualify for European football for the first time in their history, but they earned a place on the podium and therefore a spot in next season’s Champions League. They will not be able to play their home games at the decrepit Stade Francis-Le Blé and they can’t compete with the big boys financially, but they certainly did so on the pitch this season.

Brest have reached the Champions League for the first time in their history. Photograph: Valentine Chapuis/AFP/Getty Images

Outstanding goal: Lamine Camara, Metz

The young Senegalese international scored more important goals this season but, for sheer audacity and technique, it’s hard to look past his strike against Monaco early in the campaign. After winning the ball back thanks to an astute bit of pressing in the centre-circle, Camara looked up and, spotting Philipp Köhn off his line, rifled a shot into the hosts’ goal. This was no chip or hopeful lob; his powerfully struck effort must be seen to be believed, a fine shorthand for the abilities of one of the league’s top young midfielders.

Departure of the season: Kylian Mbappé

How will Kylian Mbappé’s departure affect Ligue 1 next season? Luis Enrique insists his team will be stronger but, with Lionel Messi and Neymar already gone, Ligue 1 is left without a star. The effects of that are already visible. With just over two months until the start of next season, the LFP is struggling to sell the broadcasting rights. A solution will surely be found. However, it is unlikely to reach its ambitious €1bn fee. The financial ramifications will be considerable for every club France.

Biggest flashpoint: the attack on Lyon’s bus

Le Choc des Olympiques, the name given to the match between Marseille and Lyon, was particularly apt this season. “Choc” means clash in English and that description was sadly accurate on a night of violence at the Vélodrome in October. As Lyon’s team bus approached the stadium it came under attack from Marseille fans. One projectile smashed the window next to then-Lyon manager Fabio Grosso, the shards cutting his face, leaving blood streaming down his cheeks.

Grosso’s bloodied and battered face was the image of one of the darkest nights in recent French footballing history. The preparations for the ultimately postponed game were also soured by racist and homophobic chanting. Angry and scared, Lyon did return to the Vélodrome a month later, albeit without Grosso, who had since lost his job. When the Italian left Lyon he had visible scars from the encounter; French football too remains scarred by the violent, racist and homophobic episode.

Fabio Grosso needed stitches after the Lyon team bus was attacked by Marseille fans Photograph: Olivier Chassignole/AFP/Getty Images

Save of the season: Brice Samba, Lens

To say it’s been a disappointing season for Lens would be an understatement. Marquee signing Elye Wahi has underwhelmed; the team struggled to show much attacking impetus in Europe, despite a famous win over Arsenal; and they were then even pipped to sixth place by Lyon on the final day. One player who didn’t disappoint, though, was Brice Samba, and his fine save against Brest is a worthy winner for this honour, the French international reaching backwards to claw a flying header from Jérémy Le Douaron off his line. Lens would go on to lose the match, having finished with 10 men, but it nevertheless offered an impressive reminder of Samba’s abilities, whose place in Didier Deschamps’ France squad was consolidated over the course of the season.

Flop of the year: Randal Kolo Muani, PSG

Other strikers (Wahi, Folarin Balogun) have struggled this season after making high-profile moves in Ligue 1, but both are still early in their careers, and the former was playing European football for the first time. Kolo Muani is in sixth professional season, and has already won more than a dozen caps for his country. A return of just six goals in the league (and none since February) is paltry indeed given his eye-watering €95m transfer fee. Mbappé’s departure may give him more opportunities next season, but it’s hard to see him being more than a bit-part player, with Bradley Barcola, Ousmane Dembélé and Gonçalo Ramos likely to be Luis Enrique’s first-choice front three.

Team of the season

Marcin Bulka; Wilfried Singo, Jean-Clair Todibo, Leny Yoro, Bradley Locko; Pierre Lees-Melou, Vitinha, Aleksandr Golovin; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Kylian Mbappé.

Bench: Lucas Chevalier; Lilian Brassier, Achraf Hakimi, Takumi Minamino, Youssouf Fofana, Téji Savanier, Edon Zhegrova, Ousmane Dembélé, Georges Mikautadze.

The Guardian

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