RC Lens, why they are currently ‘the best of the rest’ in Ligue 1.
PSG, Monaco, and Lyon are three clubs that instantly spring to mind for their past recent performances in Ligue 1, and when it comes to Ligue 1 clubs with authentic European Pedigree. Marseille also spring to mind for their history but they have struggled to maintain high standards throughout most of the past decade due to a host of mostly infrastructural factors. Lille have won Ligue 1 before in recent memory, led by a young Eden Hazard amongst others, and have been impressive over the past couple of years, currently holding a 3 point lead at the summit of the Ligue 1 table. Rightly so Lille and Monaco maybe be the sides who are getting all the plaudits for launching somewhat unexpected title challenges in an attempt to dethrone PSG’s dominance. One side who have slipped under the radar and find themselves behind the clubs battling it out in the title race (only 5 points separate Lyon in 4th and Lille who are currently top) and are sitting pretty in 5th right now, is RC Lens. The team who hails from the Northern region of Pas-de-Calais have defied the odds, being promoted from Ligue 2 last season to having a really solid season back in France’s top division with even European football being a tangible thought for the club now.
A Brief History of RC Lens
Lens or by their full name, Racing Club De Lens may have spent most of their recent history bouncing between Ligue 2 and France’s top tier, but they are no strangers to success and playing at a higher level. This is also a side that can boast established internationals and elite professionals Raphael Varane, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Alphonse Areola and Loic Remy as ex-players. The Club has had considerable success bouncing between Ligue 2 and Ligue 1. The club has won Ligue 2 four times and also gained promotion twice as runners up (including last season). Despite the team not being a household name Lens did win a Ligue 1 title back when the league was more competitive, in 1998- the very same year France won their first World Cup. Lens also finished runners up in Ligue 1 in 2002 and three other times in the late 50’s and 70’s. Lens can also boast 2 Coupe de la Ligue trophies in the 90’s and have European experience in fairly recent times finishing as semi-finalists in the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup and winning 2 Intertoto Cups, although they were joint winners in 2007, the penultimate rendition of the cup before its abandonment.
In the past decade things have been a bit bleak as Lens have only featured twice in Ligue 1 since 2010-11 until now. In the prior 2 seasons Lens finished 19th and 20th so after another promotion back to Ligue 1 last season, expectations were presumably low if past ventures to Ligue 1 were to be repeated. 2019-20 was Lens 5th year in a row in Ligue 2, and the club finally returned to the topflight in France finishing with 53 points, 1 behind champions Lorient. Lens’ promotion was controversial with the season being abolished due to Covid and 10 games being left unplayed. For context Clermont Foot were 5th but only 3 points behind Lens when the pandemic forced the season to be halted.
Despite the odds being in their favour, Lens have not rested on their laurels and have seized their opportunity of essentially being fast tracked into Ligue 1. Lens have only lost 8 as of yet and have grinded out 13 wins and 10 draws in their return to Ligue 1 after a 5 year absence. Notable results include a 1-0 win over giants PSG, a 3-0 win over Monaco and an enthralling 4-4 draw with Reims. Lens have been an underdog to root for this season and it is a true shame that they seem to be lacking recognition outside of France for their efforts this season- even if their promotion came due to fortunate circumstances. If Lens can maintain their consistency, they hold a real chance of achieving Europa league football for next season ( possible if they ended the season if 5th of 6th and French footballs domestic competitions are won by sides already occupying a European spot) which would be a huge statement for a newly promoted side, and surely an achievement which would raise eyebrows form fans across the continent.
The Stade Bollaert-Delelis, the recently renovated home of RC Lens
The manager and his style
Current manager Franck Haise took over from one time Nottingham Forest manager Phillipe Montanier in 2020. Haise had an unspectacular career as a professional playing as a defensive midfielder in a 16 year career mostly playing in Ligue 2 and for some of France’s more obscure sides . After a few years coaching and serving as an assistant manager at Lorient , Haise managed the Lens B team before being promoted to first team Manager in February of 2020.
Haise has favoured playing 3 at the back since taking over. In Lens’ aforementioned 1-0 victory against PSG a 3-4-1-2 was deployed and this formation was also used in the 3-0 away win vs Monaco. More recently in the 1-1 home draw against Champion’s league chasing Lyon, a 3-1-4-2 was used. Haise’s favoured 3-4-1-2 makes Lens a very tough unit to break down. Full backs haidara and arguably star player Jonathan Clauss are effective going forward while the 2 sitting midfielders in combination with the back 3 makes Lens difficult to penetrate and break down at times. The Front two, usually Socota/Banza and kakuta are hard workers and well drilled, helping by pressing from the front.
Lens of course possess some talented players, but they are more a case of a team being good due to the sum of its parts. Defensively lens have conceded 43, from an average of 10 shots conceded a game while Monaco have conceded 38 so far from 1 less shot conceded per game. That equates to Lens only conceding 5 more than Monaco so far in Ligue 1 despite facing roughly 30 more overall shots on average across this season. Offensively from their 31 Ligue 1 outings this season Lens have averaged 3.8 shots on target Per Game this season, just 0.1 less than Arsenal have managed in the Premier league this season and marginally more than Sevilla (a Champions league quality side and currently 4th in La Liga) have managed in Spain’s topflight. Furthermore, looking at Lens’ quality on the ball, from a total of 461.4 passes a game they have averaged 348 accurate short passes and 30 accurate long balls. This is more than other fairly similar teams in Europe’s top 5 leagues teams, with teams like Burnley and Getafe who have thrived in their respective leagues from a similarly dogged and highly effective style , averaging less accurate Long balls and short passes than Lens. This shows that Lens have quality on the ball as well as being solid at the back for a newly promoted team and going forward they are also potent enough with 47 goals, only bettered by one team outside the top 5 (Montpellier). Lens are currently a very stable and effective unit under Haise, and if Lens can finish the season in 5th or 6th which looks likely considering they are unbeaten in 5 , then surely Haise’s current contract will be renewed beyond June 2022.
The key players
Lens’ squad matches their smaller budget a bit and as a result there is not many household names in the squad, there is however a number of relatively unknown gems in the team. Starting at the back Loic Bade has the highest market value in the squad ( as per Transfermarkt.com) of 10.8 million euros. Remarkably Bade averages nearly 8 clearances per 90 as well as 4.67 aerial duels won. This is considerably more than highly rated and valued RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano who averages below 4 clearances and aerials won per 90, although he does play in aside who attack more and retain considerably more possession. At just 20 years old many teams will be keen to sign Bade, who is an imposing figure at 6’3 and has been remarkably consistent in France’s top division, considering it is his first full season as a senior professional and his first time playing in Ligue 1. Another young prospect at the back for Lens is Argentina International Facundo Medina. The left footed ex River Plate man is capable of playing left back or in a back three. Medina has looked very comfortable in his 22 appearances to date, even scoring 3 in that time. Medina, like Bade is another young defender with a very high ceiling and therefore with potential high re-sell value for the future.
Full backs are vital to Lens’ Typical 3-4-2-1. A Special shoutout must go to Clement Michelin who has 4 assists from the right, despite most of his appearances coming from the bench, however the star of the show for Lens’ full-back department is undoubtedly Jonathan Clauss. Clauss arrived in Lens in 2020 after gaining promotion to the Bundesliga with Arminia Bielefield. The Frenchman has been in phenomenal form for a wing-back playing outside of one of France’s traditional ‘big’ teams. Clauss has the third most goal involvements for his side with 3 goals and 6 assists. That’s only 1 less assist than the likes of superstars such as Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe, and Clauss still has 7 games to add to this tally. Moving onto central midfield, the main man is Seko Fofana. The Lanky former Man City, Fulham, and Udinese Midfielder, who also has 6 caps for Ivory Coast is a standout performer for Lens and so vital for the team’s functionality. Wearing the number 8 shirt the 25 year old isn’t your typical hard working box-to-box midfielder, instead he is more of an attack minded ball carrier, linking the midfield to the front two. Going forward he has 2 goals and 3 assists and has a decent 0.8 key passes averaged per 90 as well as a highly respectable pass success rate of 87%. Fofana also averages 6 progressive ball carries a game and completes just under 1.8 dribbles a game. For some context that’s nearly double the progressive carries Bernardo Silva averages per 90 and more dribbles than Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde completes a game.
Lens share goals amongst their forwards quite well with forwards Banza, Gnagno, and Kalimuendo combining for just under 20 goal contributions between them. Florian Sotoca has 8 goals and 3 assists which is a very solid return for a 30 year old player with only 32 career league goals to date, prior to this season, however The shining light going forward for Lens is Gael Kakuta. Former Chelsea man Kakuta has always showed potential after starting his youth career with Lens. Kakuta played for every youth group for the French national team, scoring over 20 goals, but like many young players before him his career stood still a bit a Chelsea. After 6 mixed loan spells and brief spells at Sevilla and in China, Kakuta returned to France with Amiens in 2019. After contributing 7 goal involvements for Amines, the now DR Congo full international, joined Lens on loan this summer following Amiens relegation to Ligue 2. Kakuta has had the best goal scoring season of his career so far, playing further up the pitch and scoring 9 times in Ligue1 in addition to laying 5 assists. This is the best form of Kakuta’s career as he had never surpassed 12 goal involvements before this season, and he still has 8 games left to add to this. In addition to his 9 goals, Kakuta is incredibly creative and core to Lens and their build up play, a homage to most of his career spent on the wing, with an average of 0.27 expected assists per 90, only 0.04 fewer than Lyon star Memphis Depay and more than Lille’s Canadian starlet Jonathan David. With Kakuta being in some of his best ever form and having never really settled at one club in his career , it would suit both parties nicely if Kakuta was to join his first club on a permanent basis this summer.
What does the near future hold for Lens?
Lens have exceeded expectations for a newly promoted side, they play functional and highly effective football and are on course for their best season since the late 90’s. With their stadium being renovated in 2016 for the Euros and a decent squad and coach already in place, the club already has the foundations to kick on and be regulars in the top half of Ligue 1 for years to come. European football is not beyond them this year and may not be in the future if they can build from the lofty heights potentially achieved from this season. Keeping the coach and key players together or , managing to get good fees if their most valuable assets choose to leave should be the top priority this summer. If Lens qualify for Europe, they have every right to be excited for a return to European mid-week football, however they should be wary of the impact an increased playing schedule could have on burning out a fairly small squad. Despite this whatever way you look at it the future is currently bright for RC Lens and on paper they are clearly the ‘best of the rest’ in France at this point in time.
Written by- Joe Langlands
LinkedIn- Joe Langlands