The French know how to do a dynasty. The Merovingian’s ruled from 428-751, the Carolingian’s took over, ruling until the mid-10th century, and the Capetian dynasty ran the show for just over 800 years. Away from the history of French monarchs, their footballing structure has also witnessed a number of strong dynasties. Stade de Reims won four titles in the 1950s, Saint-Étienne won seven in 10 years from 1966, and Marseille ruled from 1988 to 1992, winning four on the bounce.
Since the turn of the century, there has been yet more dynastic domination. Olympique Lyonnais won all seven of their league titles in consecutive seasons from 2002 to 2008 and recently, backed by Oryx Qatar Sports Investment, Paris Saint-Germain have controlled Ligue 1, winning every title bar one since 2012/13.
In between the fall of one dynasty and the rise of another, there is always a period of turbulence. A scramble to be the first to establish dominance. In the top flight of French football, this happened between the fall of Lyon and the ascension of PSG. It was a period with six different winners in six different seasons, as French clubs aimed to take the throne.
The beginnings of this remarkable run began with the 2007/08 season and the finale of the Lyon dynasty. Prior to the season, the pitfalls of running a club the way Jean-Michel Aulas had been were beginning to show. Any club, as seen in more recent seasons with Borussia Dortmund and Southampton, that operates on a policy of signing young players cheaply, developing them and selling them for a profit runs a risk. When it works, the club can flourish both on and off the pitch, as Lyon did. Often, however, transfer mistakes are made, vital players are sold, and clubs to fade.
Before the new campaign began, Lyon sold several key players from their record-breaking season, where they became the first club from Europe’s traditional top five leagues – England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France – to win six consecutive titles. Florent Malouda, Alou Diarra, Éric Abidal, Tiago and Sylvain Wiltord left the Stade Gerland as the exodus took shape.
Lyon’s season began comparatively poorly to their previous campaigns. In the last two seasons, Lyon found themselves four and eight points clear of their nearest challengers, but at the same stage during the current campaign, they trailed Nancy by a point. As the season progressed, Les Gones reasserted themselves as the best side in France and broke out to a six-point lead over nearest challengers Nancy and Bordeaux after 20 league games. The gap would fluctuate through the remaining rounds of the season, being as low as a solitary point after 25 matches, but as high as 10 after 30.
Top-scorer from the previous season Fred missed the early stages and was unable to earn his place back in the team, and with Malouda having swapped south-east France for west London, there were question marks about who would score the goals to propel Lyon to league glory. The answer came in the form of a young Karim Benzema. The French striker led Ligue 1 with 20 goals after breaking through as a starter following three seasons of sporadic appearances and fired Lyon to a seventh straight title.
In the off-season, Lyon replaced manager Alain Perrin, who had led the club to their first league and cup double, with Claude Puel and continued the policy of selling their better players in favour of youth prospects. Loïc Rémy joined Nice, Hatem Ben Arfa left for Marseille, Sébastien Squillaci was to Sevilla, and Milan Baroš joined Galatasaray. It marked the end of the Lyon dynasty in French football.
Halfway through the 2008/09 season, all signs pointed to a continuation of the Lyon dominance. They held a three-point lead over Bordeaux, who were closely followed by Rennes, PSG, Marseille, Lille, Toulouse and Nice; a top eight covered by as many points. Lyon were proving that their model was still successful, largely led once again by the goals of Benzema.
The gap had closed, though, and Marseille were only a point behind. Bordeaux, Lille, PSG and Toulouse were all within six points, but Lyon seemingly had the edge. They had been here before and were the seven-time champions. The experience of winning titles would surely help Lyon over the line.
However, three consecutive victories for both Marseille and Bordeaux, including a 1-0 victory for Bordeaux over Lyon, saw them pull clear of the chasing pack, with Marseille two points clear. Lyon had fallen four points back of second place. A shock defeat to mid-table Valenciennes saw them all but surrender the title, and Marseille’s 2-2 draw with Toulouse allowed Bordeaux to close up once more. With just four games remaining, the top two were tied on 68 points, separated by a single goal.
Having won three more games, and with Marseille dropping points against Lyon, Bordeaux headed into the final game with a three-point cushion, knowing a draw would be enough to secure a sixth title. At the Stade Vélodrome, Marseille took care of their side of the deal, beating UEFA Cup hopefuls Rennes 4-0. All Marseille eyes were on the Stade Michel d’Ornano, where Caen were hosting Bordeaux.
The first half went by without major incident, with the teams level at 0-0. A mere four minutes into the second half and a short free-kick found Benoît Trémoulinas in space on the left wing. After controlling the ball, he whipped a cross to the near post where it was met by a powerful Yoan Gouffran header, giving Bordeaux the lead.
Les Girondins held onto the lead for the remainder of the match and secured the title for themselves. Laurent Blanc’s men had broken Lyon’s dominance, the first different side to win the top flight of French football for seven seasons. Bordeaux’s run to the title was particularly impressive, winning their final 11 games to reach the top of the table.
Bordeaux’s title was more improbable than it seemed, largely because of perfect momentum in the final weeks of the season. Aided by goals from Fernando Cavenaghi and Marouane Chamakh (13 each) and Yoann Gourcuff (12), and with only two players making the Ligue 1 Best XI that season – Gourcuff and Souleymane Diawara – Bordeaux’s success was one of a team performing above its weight.
Les Girondins appeared to be on their way to becoming France’s next footballing dynasty. Having retained all their key players barring Diawara, they began the new season strongly. Victory in 14 of their first 19 games meant that halfway through the season, Bordeaux had a comfortable eight-point lead over Marseille.
However, just two victories in the next six matches saw that margin begin to dimish, with Marseille just three points behind and leading a chasing pack containing Montpellier, Lille, Lyon and Auxerre, who were all within six points of the defending champions. Three points from the next available 15 saw Bordeaux slip to second in the table, showing the pressures that come with being the champions. Ultimately, it was Marseille who capitalised on Bordeaux’s stumble, edging out a three-point gap.
The next five matches saw both Bordeaux and Montpellier lose touch with the front-runners. With just three games left of the season, Les Olympiens had a five-point lead at the top of the table and were within touching distance of a first league title since 1991/92. The title was duly secured, with Marseille’s confident 3-1 victory over Rennes enough to ensuring the south coast of France would party that night. The title success was well earned by Marseille, in what was manager Didier Deschamps’ first season in charge, with Mamadou Niang’s 18 league goals a key factor behind the glory.
Much like Lyon and Bordeaux, Marseille began their title defence in strong fashion, winning seven of their opening 15 league games. They were, however, unable to separate themselves from the pack, with just five points between top of the league Marseille and Toulouse in 12th.
Ten matches later and the leading group had been whittled down to just five teams: Lille, Rennes, Marseille, PSG and Lyon, all of whom were within four points of each other. As the season came to its climax, it was upstarts Lille who were beginning to wrestle the control of the league. Led by young stars Eden Hazard, Gervinho, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sow, all aged under 25 at the start of the season, they led with just five matches remaining, heading Marseille by a single point.
As with any young side, there were questions asked about their mental strength. These questions are often amplified when the nearest rivals are the defending champions. Lille answered them all. An Eden Hazard-inspired 1-0 victory away at Nancy, a come-from-behind 2-1 win against Saint-Étienne, and a Gervinho-led 1-0 victory at home to Sochaux, combined with Marseille only picking up four points from nine, meant that with two games left, Lille were a single point away from a first league title in 57 years.
Their defining game came in the capital against PSG, a team chasing European qualification. Ludovic Obraniak fired Lille ahead after just six minutes with only his second goal of the season, but on the stroke of half-time, Guillaume Hoarau drew PSG level. Star striker Moussa Sow restored Lille’s advantage on the hour mark. Mathieu Bodmer, formerly of Lille, brought PSG level again, and the final 20 minutes saw Lille scrap for the point they needed.
Goal had, like many, predicted Lille would finish third that season, with a young squad that needed more time to challenge for honours. The rate of improvement was remarkable. Hazard became one of the most sought-after talents in Europe, eventually moving to Chelsea for £32m in 2012, Sow scored 25 league goals in the most prolific season of his career, and Gervinho, Cabaye and Mathieu Debuchy all earned themselves moves to the Premier League.
It was the coming of age for many of the players in the Lille side but, as with Bordeaux and Marseille previously, they sold off their best players in the seasons that followed and were unable to build on the success of their title victory.
Heading into the 2011/12 season, Marseille, Lyon, Lille and the now oil-funded PSG were seen as contenders for the title. They were safe predictions. PSG had money, Marseille and Lyon were perennial challengers, and Lille were the defending champions. Yet, the biggest shock of this unprecedented run was about to come.
Halfway through the new season and the four main sides were all in the mix, but they were joined by Montpellier, Rennes, Toulouse and Saint-Étienne, creating a top eight covered by nine points. A mere six games later and the beginnings of a two-horse race were showing. Montpellier and PSG had broken away and had a six-point cushion to Lille in third. La Paillade were widely expected to fall away from the title hunt but, led by striker Olivier Giroud, they were upsetting all the odds.
With just three matches remaining, Montpellier held a three-point advantage over PSG, with a resurgent Lille just two points further back. Montpellier were on the verge of becoming the fifth side to win the title in as many seasons, but unlike the previous four, it would represent their first-ever top-flight victory. Rennes, Lille, and Auxerre were all that stood between Montpellier and the unlikeliest of title successes.
A Souleymane Camara strike and a Benoît Costil own goal gave Montpellier a 2-0 win over Rennes but wins for PSG and Lille meant the gap remained the same heading into the final two matches. PSG comfortably beat Rennes 3-0 in their next game, giving the clash between first and third place more significance.
The encounter was a close one, with the two strongest defences in the league producing a typically cagey affair. Lille had control of the ball, retaining 63 percent of possession, but the game was largely a midfield battle with neither side able to dominate. The game appeared to be heading for a draw, one which would rule Lille out of the title race and give Montpellier a one-point lead heading into the final game.
With Lille throwing their players forward, Montpellier were afforded the chance to counter. A clearance from a Lille free-kick found Giroud, who battled his way into the box, holding off the retreating defenders. Reaching the byline, Giroud squared the ball across the box to substitute Karim Aït Fana, who rolled it into the net, sending the Stade de la Mosson crowd into raptures.
Lille were knocked out of the title race, but the championship hadn’t been won yet. PSG were only three points behind and, with both sides level on goal difference, a slip-up for Montpellier could see the title head north. PSG travelled to Lorient, one of eight sides who could still be relegated on the final day, while Montpellier visited already-relegated Auxerre.
Auxerre took a shock lead over Montpellier when Olivier Kapo headed home after just 20 minutes, but Lorient helped ease some of the tension by also taking the lead in their match, Kévin Monnet-Paquet firing them in front. Montpellier soon drew level with John Utaka scoring to ensure the championship hopefuls went into half-time level. Two goals in 15 minutes for PSG, with Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta completing the comeback, saw Montpellier only a goal away from handing the title to the Parisians.
Just as Motta was heading PSG in front, Utaka was striking for Montpellier, putting them in front with just 15 minutes remaining. Montpellier saw the game out and became French champions for the first time in their history. René Girard’s men had surprised all expectations by staying the course and completed one of the unlikeliest title triumphs in recent history.
It was a performance built upon a strong defence, with only 34 league goals conceded, and the attacking talents of Giroud – 21 goals and nine assists – Younés Belhanda and Aït Fana. If any season was to sum up the chaotic nature of French football during this period, the one in which Montpellier surprised everyone to achieve glory is a strong candidate.
The 2012/13 campaign was the beginning of the next great French footballing dynasty. PSG had been backed by Qatari oil money for a full season and began to flex their financial muscle. The key moments seemingly came prior to the season kicking off. To bolster their squad, PSG recruited heavily. Ezequiel Lavezzi arrived from Napoli for a reported €30m, commanding centre-back Thiago Silva left AC Milan for €42m, and highly-rated Brazilian Lucas Moura signed from São Paulo for a rumoured €45m, ready to link-up in January. Gregory van der Wiel, David Beckham and Marco Veratti all arrived in the French capital too, but the key signing came in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimović.
The Swedish striker joined for the relatively low transfer fee of €20m, but his arrival was the spark needed to take the next step. By the halfway point of the season, PSG were tied at the top of the league on 38 points with Lyon and Marseille. It appeared that Ligue 1 was destined for another close battle.
As the league progressed, PSG began to waltz towards the title. Seven-points clear of Marseille after 30 matches meant it was highly likely that the title would be heading back to the capital. The run-in was easy, too. Winning seven and drawing one of their final eight matches saw the Les Parisiens ease to glory, finishing a comfortable 12 points clear of second place.
Ibrahimović had been a revelation, his 30 league goals comfortably leading the way. Javier Pastore and Jérémy Ménez each provided solid assist numbers – eight and seven respectively – but the Swede inevitably stole the spotlight. They were also solid defensively, keeping a remarkable 23 clean sheets from their 38 league games.
It would only get better for PSG. The arrival of Cabaye and Marquinhos offered greater squad depth, but the marquee signing of Edinson Cavani created a deadly strike partnership that would ensure PSG became the next force of French football.
Four league titles in five seasons since the first success has created the impression that Ligue 1 is a walkover. The French league can certainly draw upon long periods of domination by single teams, but the period between 2008 and 2013 shows that while the domination is in flux, it can be one of the most exciting in the world.
Ligue 1 is often seen as the weak link in the big five European leagues. For context, the last time German football saw a run like this was in the inaugural seven seasons of the Bundesliga and England saw a similar run between 1967 and 1973. There was a spell of five different league champions in Italy during the 1980s, while Spain’s longest period was three seasons, most recently at the start of the 21st century.
Whatever happens with PSG’s dominance in the years to come, between 2008 and 2013, the title race was unpredictable every season, often settled in the final weeks. Stars were made out of Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud, amongst others, and managers elevated their reputations to new levels. It was a period of drama and entertainment of the highest order. It chaos between the usual tranquillity French dynasties – and it made for some of Europe’s most compelling viewing.
By Michael Gallwey @michael95angelo