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The Lille deal - How Ligue 1's youngest squad are heading for Champions League football

11:30 WAT 01/03/2019
Nicolas Pepe Lille 2018-19
Christophe Galtier's side have set Ligue 1 alight this year, with their youthful offensive line having caught the eye all around Europe

When Christophe Galtier took over Lille three days before Christmas 2017, they were a side in crisis, sliding towards the bottom of the table and banned from signing players in the following transfer window due to fears over their finances.

Barely a year later, the same club stands second in France’s top flight, heading for Champions League qualification next term. Only league leaders Paris Saint-Germain have scored more goals than Galtier’s side and only the Parc des Princes outfit have conceded fewer.

The secret to such a remarkable turnaround has been simple: Galtier has put his faith in a youthful offensive line that has lit up Le Championnat.

Lille have had the relative luxury of being able to field a settled team this season, with few injury or suspension worries, and so their team has been easy to predict. Leading the line has been Rafael Leao, supported by a trio of Nicolas Pepe, Jonathan Ikone and Jonathan Bamba. In midfield, meanwhile, Xeka and Thiago Mendes are the players to orchestrate matters.

Getting the best from Pepe has been vital in their success. Before Galtier arrived last season, the former Angers striker was being used through the centre, a position in which he has never looked comfortable.

Now, allowed to play in his more natural role on the wing, he has enjoyed a breakout campaign, scoring 16 goals and laying on eight to make him one of the most-discussed up-and-coming forwards in European football. Only Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani have more Ligue 1 goals this season than Pepe.

A string of top sides are closely monitoring the forward, with Barcelona, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich among those to be closely linked to the 23-year-old.

Even Galtier is pessimistic about keeping his ace amid such interest: “How can you retain a player when he is wanted by major clubs?”

Lille’s success this season, meanwhile, has been due to their success in the transfer market, in which they swooped to sign free agents Bamba and Leao last summer, both up-and-coming forwards who were out of contract for different reasons.

Bamba was one of Saint-Etienne’s most talented youngsters in years, but after a falling out with the club he allowed his contract to run down. Galtier, the long-time coach of the Loire side, saw his opening and swooped for a player who has settled quickly into the first team, scoring an impressive nine goals.

Meanwhile, the talents of teenager Leao, who has been labelled the 'Portuguese Mbappe', were trickier to pin down, with numerous clubs scrambling for his signature. LOSC won the race for the forward, who had a slow start but has exploded since December, scoring six goals and creating one more.

Crucially, he has brought an added dimension to Lille’s play, which had a tendency to over-rely on exploiting the searing pace of Pepe and Bamba. Teams had started to sit deep and soak up pressure, but with the predatory young hitman leading the line, they have found that far trickier.

The playmaker, meanwhile, is former PSG youngster Jonathan Ikone, a 20-year-old from Bondy who was signed in the summer of 2018.

Often considered a frustrating presence because his obvious technical abilities did not translate into the kind of decisive figures expected of a No.10, he is another to have grown this season, having benefitted from having a pure striker like Leao to work from. Five assists and two goals represent an improvement in both categories from last term – and there is a feeling that there is still more to come.

Given the attacking four have an average age of 20.75, holding midfielders Xeka (24) and Thiago Mendes (26) seem positively ancient in comparison.

The duo, however, have underpinned Lille’s offensive success, offering a lovely balance in the midfield, where they are both capable of winning possession but also of using it smartly, too.

Indeed, Lille possess the youngest squad in Ligue 1 with an average age of just 23.8, but from the football they have produced this season, there are no signs of immaturity.

Galtier has struck a wonderful balance throughout his team, which continues to evolve on a week-by-week basis on an upward trend and will surely continue to do so until the summer - it's then they will likely have to fend off a raft of interest in their numerous young stars.