French academies have long sustained Ligue 1, both in terms of finances and football. The production line often follows a well rehearsed system, especially for smaller clubs. When a place in the first team opens up, clubs will look to their academy instead of wasting resources signing established professionals. Such is the depth of talent, the gap in quality between the two options is far smaller than the resources needed to facilitate them. Now, however, driven by financial concerns, that system is becoming more formalised and widespread. Ligue 1 has benefited greatly, but the league also needs to be careful in the long run.
Free from the spotlight and pressures of the Premier League, young players can develop quickly in France at clubs that are skilled and predisposed to nurturing burgeoning talent. Nicolas Pépé’s career shows the trajectory well: he moved from Angers to Lille for £16m and then from Lille to Arsenal for £72m, greatly rewarding two French clubs of different standings.
Due to financial strife inflicted by the humiliating collapse of the domestic broadcast rights deal last season and the lack of crowds due to the pandemic, these processes are now accelerating. Ligue 1 clubs are being forced to become more speculative in their promotion of young players, under the gaze of French football’s financial watchdog, the DNCG, to whom clubs must prove their budgets balance out, making experienced, more costly signings even less realistic.
Some clubs are on the verge of dedicating their first team solely to producing young players, with the apparent aim of selling on that talent. Stade Reims are leading the way. They have suffered injuries to senior players but many more have been marginalised or moved on to make way for academy graduates. Their previous creative fulcrum Mathieu Cafaro, for example, only 24 himself, barely featured this season before he was shipped off to Standard Liège this month.
Much as Monaco used the experience of João Moutinho, Radamel Falcao and Kamil Glik to nurture younger players, veteran 34-year-old centre-back Yunis Abdelhamid remains key to Oscar Garcia’s fluid and versatile 3-6-1 set-up, but the only other outfield regulars older than 24 are wing-backs Thomas Foket and Ghislain Konan. The team they put out against Clermont earlier this month contained five teenagers and had an average age of 23.2 years. Of the 12 youngest starting line-ups this season, six were from Reims.
Reims have one of the best equipped modern training facilities in Ligue 1 and their decision to promote these young players is working. They were beaten 4-0 by PSG this weekend but they matched the league leaders for long spells and two of the goals they conceded were deflected. Having been relegation contenders at the start of the season with their experienced players in the team, they are now competitive and tricky opponents for everyone. Garcia has quietly conjured up a managerial magic trick in repeatedly doubling down on his young players while also producing results.
Midfielders Alexis Flips (22) and Dion Lopy (19) look at home in Ligue 1. Forwards such as Nathanaël Mbuku (19), who impressed last season, Ilan Kebbal (22), N’dri Koffi (19) and El-Bilal Touré (20), who broke through in 2020 after arriving from his native Mali, have continued to cause Ligue 1 defences problems. Centre-back Wout Faes, a relative veteran at 23, has become one of the most solid defenders in the league.
Reims’ plan is working off the pitch too, with foreign clubs showing an interest in their youngsters. Their 19-year-old striker Hugo Ekitike has been the subject of £30m bids from Newcastle in recent weeks, with Chelsea and others also keen. A move for the rangy but technical Ekitike, who is capable of scoring all types of goals, would be a big risk for relegation-threatened Newcastle given that he has only played 32 senior games. However, this type of interest is exactly what Reims were hoping for.
Reims are not the only club moving in this direction. Saint-Étienne and Monaco have regularly fielded teams with an average age of under 24 this season; and Marseille began the campaign with the youngest squad in Europe’s top five leagues. Like Reims, Angers have moved on senior players due to financial worries and have filled the gaps from their youth system.
Lille, meanwhile, look likely to cash in on their young title-winning core in the summer much as Monaco did after their title success in 2017. Every club but PSG is giving more young players a chance. Angers, Rennes, Monaco, Nantes, Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Montpellier and Metz all successfully promoted youth players into their first teams over the last year.
The league authorities have also sought to support this style of club management. Imminent regulation changes will allow young players’ first professional contracts to be up to five years rather than the current cap of three. This is due to growing frustration over the time and energy clubs put into developing players but not always seeing the financial rewards, as more and more young players leave for free at the end of their contracts.
Although that means French clubs will hold on to their burgeoning talents for longer, Ligue 1 needs to be cautious. With the arrival of Lionel Messi and PSG’s continued largesse, interest is growing, as is the quality of play with the hope that revenue soon follows. A selling mentality is necessary for some clubs but if it becomes ingrained French football risks mirroring South American leagues in being full of exciting young talent often poached too soon, ageing returning heroes and a sea of averageness in between. To compete with the other “big five” leagues over the longer term, Ligue 1 needs to hold on to talent wherever possible and maintain its strength across the league.
For now, however, this latest influx of talent has led to a dynamic, competitive and thrilling season across the division. Although such impetus has arisen partly due to mismanagement, rarely has the self-styled “League of Talents” so earned that moniker.
Bordeaux moved out of the relegation zone, and probably saved coach Vladimir Petkovic’s job for now, after their rollercoaster 4-3 win over Strasbourg. President Gérard Lopez was heard yelling at his players after their disastrous 6-0 defeat at Rennes last weekend, with L’Équipe reporting that Petkovic was now fighting for his future. Goals are not an issue for Bordeaux – Hwang Ui-jo scored a hat-trick at the weekend to take his tally to nine this season, with his strike partner Alberth Elis on eight – but they have the worst defence in the league, a problem that will only get worse with Laurent Koscielny banished due to his high salary. They will not win 4-3 every week.
Nice eased past struggling Metz for their fifth consecutive win to stay second. Having looked disjointed before Christmas, Christophe Galtier has finally found some balance by dropping perhaps his best player in forward Andy Delort. A €10m transfer, after 62 goal contributions in 95 league games for Montpellier, was seen as a marquee move for Nice but Galtier’s famed 4-4-2 looks far more balanced with Amine Gouiri playing off focal point Kasper Dolberg in attack. Although he has proven effective as a substitute, the 30-year-old Delort will not be content to play that role for long.