Few teams across the continent have overperformed like Lens in recent seasons. Two seventh-placed finishes after promotion and a superb runners-up spot, just a point behind PSG in the end last term, amounted to one of the most impressive coaching and recruitment achievements of the last decade. However, Lens’ rise may now be coming to an end, with potentially disastrous timing.
Since promotion in 2020, transfer guru Florent Ghisolfi has expertly unearthed a string of under-the-radar talents helping coach Franck Haise and his team to play aggressive and positive yet solid football. Lens repeatedly hurt teams via a multitude of means: their pacey strikers, a dynamic midfield, and marauding wing-backs, while also finishing last term with Ligue 1’s best defensive record.
Over recent windows, key players such as holding midfielder Cheick Doucouré, wing-back Jonathan Clauss, and centre-back Loïc Badé were sold and replaced with ease while Haise’s team continued on their upward curve. At the centre of the revolution, just as important as Haise and Ghisolfi, was captain Séko Fofana. A destroyer, dynamo, goalscorer, and conductor all in one, Fofana ran Lens’ on-field operation.
This year, however, that triumvirate has been picked apart, and just as Lens seemingly achieved their greatest feat in making the Champions League group stages, results have nosedived. Having won 11 of their final 12 games last season, only losing at PSG, Lens have collected just one point from five games this campaign.
The winter saw Ghisolfi poached by an ambitious Nice outfit, before the summer brought Fofana’s departure for Saudi Arabia. With Haise’s engine removed and without Ghisolfi to conjure a replacement, Haise has, so far, been unable to maintain the club’s performance on his own.
Three different players have been tested in place of Fofana. One, Belgian midfield energizer Stijn Spierings, has already left after just one start. Another, 20-year-old midfielder Andy Diouf, who signed from Basel for €14m this off-season, is talented but raw and well short of replacing Fofana. In truth, although Lens typically concluded much of their business early, it was a weak transfer window compared to recent years.
Although receiving €38m for top scorer Loïs Openda from RB Leipzig can be seen as a good deal, €30m was spent on replacing the Belgian with promising Montpellier striker Elye Wahi, while Fofana’s €25m fee was mostly spent on depth rather than outright quality. Surprisingly, for a team entering the Champions League, Lens made a €4m profit on their summer business according to Transfermarkt.
The previous summer under Ghisolfi saw goalkeeper Brice Samba, a new France international, and Salis Abdul Samed, now one of the league’s leading defensive midfielders, arrive for just €5m each. Centre-back Kevin Danso, arguably Ligue 1’s standout player last term, was poached from Augsburg for only €5.5m the summer before, along with Przemyslaw Frankowski, now Haise’s leading wing-back, who joined from Chicago Fire for just €2.3m. Badé and Clauss, most impressively, arrived on free transfers in 2020.
As a result, there remains a huge Fofana-shaped hole in Haise’s midfield. Gone with the Ivorian are Lens’ intensity, aggression, and drive. Once Ligue 1’s most assured and confident team, Lens now appear comparatively rudderless and meek. The weekend’s home defeat to promoted Metz underlines the decline. Before Haise could point to unsurprising losses away at PSG and Monaco, Adrian Thomasson’s sending off at Brest, and a battling draw with Rennes, but there was no excuse for a such a lifeless home defeat to the league’s weakest team on paper – their fast start notwithstanding.
Now, Lens head to Seville for their first competitive European trip since 2007, bottom of Ligue 1 and without two-thirds of the trio that made this current incarnation of Les Sang et Or an example for the rest of the league to follow. Although the boisterous Stade Bollaert will remain a cauldron for the visits of Sevilla, Arsenal, and PSV, hopes of what seemed like a plausible run into the knockout rounds are quickly evaporating.
Most worryingly for Haise, with the window now closed, replacing Fofana externally isn’t possible, while options are increasingly limited internally. Diouf is, for now, out of his depth. Attacking midfielder Thomasson, who started in a deeper role against Metz, is out of position as a Fofana replacement. Workaholic Spierings could have been a useful option but struggled to settle and returned to Toulouse.
It all points to a complete redesign of the team to compensate for Fofana’s absence, but Haise, with six Champions League games separating what are now a host of crucial Ligue 1 games between now and Christmas as Lens tries to avoid a relegation battle, doesn’t have the time or the resources to do so effectively. Nevertheless, a solution will need to be found quickly. Lens’ season depends on it.
Adam White | GFFN