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Ross Bramble writes about the unfolding situation at LOSC Lille with the recently completed takeover by Gerard Lopez and the impending arrival of Marcelo Bielsa.
These are exciting times for fans of Ligue Un. After years of sweeping domination by oil-rich Paris Saint-Germain and, to albeit a lesser extent, the ambitious resurgence of Monaco, the French first division has been long maligned for its lack of competition at the top end of the table. Even before the world was exposed to project PSG, the French league lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that the likes of Serie A and La Liga did not. Thanks in part to the money and Football Manager cultures of the modern game, however, Ligue Un has an opportunity to re-discover its place on the world stage.
The past year has already seen Chinese investment in OGC Nice and Olympique Lyonnais, and an American takeover at Marseille. PSG and AS Monaco are already well known for their financial exploits, although Dmitry Rybolovlev’s rancorous divorce has seen Monaco playing the transfer market a little smarter in recent seasons. There is, however, a sixth club set to flex its burgeoning financial muscles – Lille OSC, and their new owner Gerard Lopez.
What makes the LOSC story interesting, however, is that it’s not as straight forward as some of the other projects bubbling along in Ligue Un. It reminds me a lot of a song, actually – the 1936 jazz standard “With Plenty Of Money & You”. Allow me to share a few lyrics from it, if you would, which will help us on our way as we look at the how’s, why’s and what’s of Gerard Lopez and his plans for Lille OSC:
“It’s the root of all evil,
Of strife and upheaval.
But I’m certain, honey,
That life would be sunny,
With plenty of money and you.”
Gerard Lopez, the Spanish-Luxembourgian businessman and former Lotus F1 President, officially took control of Lille on January 26th 2017. It was one of the worst-kept secrets at the time, with the deal reported to be next-to-done on numerous occasions in late 2016. Lopez replaced the much loved Michel Seydoux as chairman after 15 years of ownership. Under Seydoux, the club that had spent almost 50 years struggling to survive, both on and off the field, were transformed in to a stable Ligue Un side. Rudi Garcia and his team even managed to claim both the Ligue Un and Coupe de France titles in the 2010-11 season – Lille’s first taste of either success since 1954 and 1955 respectively.
Lille have continued to fight at the top end of Ligue Un ever since, qualifying for both the Champions League and Europa League on a number of occasions. This season, however, Les Dogues have found themselves competing at the wrong end of the table. Starting with a shock exit to Azerbaijani side Qabala in the Europa League qualifying rounds, LOSC’s season went from bad to worse with a string of poor results leaving them in the bottom three come November. Manager Frédéric Antonetti was replaced by Lille favourite Patrick Collot, who played almost 200 games for the side in the late 90s and early 00s. Collot guided the team back to the safety of mid-table, unleashing the attacking talents of Rony Lopes, Nicolas de Préville and others along the way.
It was about this time that Gerard Lopez, who almost succeeded in purchasing Olympique Marseille a few months earlier, had begun to take an interest in Lille. Outside of his intent to invest in the LOSC squad, and appoint much-vaunted and highly respected manager Marcelo Bielsa, little was known of Lopez’s vision for his new side. In January 2017, with the takeover only lacking a rubber stamp, Lopez broke his silence and showed his hand during his first press conference. The businessman told reporters that his ambition was to see LOSC inside the top six by the end of next season. “From that point on,” he said, “anything is possible. I want LOSC to be one of those teams going for the title within two years, or at least, in the top three.”
During the press conference, Lopez also spoke of his great friendship with Marcelo Bielsa, revealing “El Loco” was very excited by the project soon to be put in place at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. Lopez’s new sporting director, Luis Campos, was revealed to be in deep conversations with Collot, Lille’s scouting team and Bielsa himself over player recruitment. Lopez also divulged the details of this new recruitment policy, speaking of his desire to not rely on loan players, and instead focus on youngsters between the ages of 20 and 24 – “players who will be pretty much at the top in two years”, in his own words. Anwar El Ghazi and Junior Alonso of Ajax and Cerro Porteno respectively were set to join the side as soon as the football financial watchdog DNCG had given the club the green light.
Fast forward to the final day of the 2017 winter window, and the LOSC recruitment machine had been thrown in to overdrive. The side from the north announced 5 new signings on deadline day, including the aforementioned El Ghazi, with a handful of others said to be in the works before the deadline passed at 11pm.
And so, the stage is set for the remainder of the 2016-17 season; Gerard Lopez is now at the helm, with Marcelo Bielsa acting as almost his advisor on all matters football. Bielsa is still said to be ready to take the reins from Patrick Collot come the summer, where LOSC will be able to continue their squad restructure. It will be Collot’s job, in the meantime, to keep the ship steady and the seat warm for the final few months of the season, bedding in the new recruits and beginning to shape the future of Lille OSC. It promises to be an exciting end to the current campaign, and there’s plenty to look forward to come the summer – but there should also be a moment to reflect on some very real concerns and roadblocks that could lie ahead.
Now would be a good time to scroll back up and remind yourself of those lyrics to “With Plenty Of Money & You”. With the current LOSC project now laid out, it may be a little easier to see why this song sticks out at me so sorely when I think of the future of Lille under Gerard Lopez – it seems to be the basis of his vision, after all.
The “you” in this situation, of course, is Marcelo Bielsa. It would be inaccurate to say that the Lille project “hinges on” his appointment in the summer; Lopez himself has outlined that the deal to bring the Argentine in as the new head coach is by no means a guarantee. Bielsa is prone to some famously wild and seemingly irrational changes of heart in the past, too. His most recent example was the shock two-day managerial reign at Italian side Lazio, citing distrust with the board. His Marseille spell also ended abruptly, in a shocking post-match interview where El Loco resigned live in front of the worlds media. It would not be out of the realms of possibility for Bielsa to decide against the job over the course of the next few months. Nonetheless, Gerard Lopez seems to be putting a lot of eggs in the Bielsa basket.
With the man not even in charge yet, Bielsa is helping guide transfer strategies and is in daily communication with Lopez and Luis Campos, the sporting director. It’s highly likely that Bielsa’s fingerprints will be on most of the transfer business LOSC completed on deadline day, and summer signings are still being thrashed out even now. What that all essentially means is that Bielsa is busy moulding his Lille team six months before anything is official. That’s all well and good in theory, of course. Should Bielsa step in to the role at the end of the season and – most importantly – see through at least one entire season, the ground work will have been meticulously laid out for him. If Bielsa decides against the move, however, plans will have to change.
Finding a manager to fit the style of players will be the first task to undertake, and has already begun. In his first press conference, Gerard Lopez revealed he had been in contact with a number of managers about the Lille project. It had been reported that former PSG boss Laurent Blanc had turned down the role in late 2016, but that ex-Fenerbahce head coach Vitor Pereira and the now Hull City manager Marco Silva had been approached in his stead. As young, exciting managers, both represent fitting appointments should either be required. That being said, should anyone other than Bielsa get the job, the spectre of the Argentine will be hanging over them no matter what they do. Gerard Lopez has called his unfettered access to Bielsa a “blessing”, but would a new manager agree? It’s hard to know at this stage.
If anyone would know, though, it’s Patrick Collot. It seems it would take a minor miracle for Collot to be handed the job on a permanent basis, but his interim spell will be a fascinating look in to Lille’s future. At present, paradoxically, Collot is the ghost of Christmas past – he represents a life in which Bielsa turns down the role at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, remaining behind the scenes and aiding the recruitment process. Now, again, it would be inaccurate to say that Patrick Collot has not been given the freedom to make an input when it’s come to transfers and tactics. The current LOSC side is his to guide, and his decisions will still be final. Lopez has already spelled out that Collot has his full support, and has applauded the Frenchman for his fantastic efforts since taking the role in November. The new chairman has also made it clear that the manager has been in contact with he, Bielsa and Luis Campos since the takeover bid was made public, and has been kept well in the loop ever since. Collot has echoed these statements on multiple occasions in his press conferences, too.
It does, nonetheless, create a conflict of interest for Collot, at least in the short-term. The side that he has been managing for the past three months has reacted well to his methods, found form and rectified the mistakes of the first half-season. Their efforts have been highly respectable, and players like Marko Baša, Rony Lopes and Nicolas de Préville will not take too kindly to being ousted from the first team in favour of the new wave. Other players such as Vincent Enyeama and Eder may now start to wonder whether their positions at the club are safe, too. Lopez has already spelt out his plan to develop a young, dynamic team that grows together – questions may now be asked by some of the more senior players as to where they fit in this grand vision. Simply put, Patrick Collot’s job could now become even tougher than it has been already. A balance must now be struck between the LOSC of old, and the LOSC of new; the Antonetti and Seydoux era, and the Bielsa and Lopez era. His success could either encourage Bielsa to take the job, or inspire a Vitor Pereira-esque manager to continue his work. His failure, however, could dissuade El Loco, keep him in a background role, and set the tone for the next man in charge.
The reoccurring trend in all of this, of course, is Marcelo Bielsa. It is with him that this project becomes so much more layered and complicated than the others. He represents a dangerous variable no matter which way his possible appointment goes come the summer. His close friendship with Gerard Lopez may be a blessing in the businessman’s eyes, but Collot has been very coy on the subject of Bielsa’s involvement. Without any exact details (which are unlikely to be forthcoming) in to exactly what it is Bielsa has been handling over the course of the takeover process, it’s difficult to come down on either side of the argument, from the outside at least. At worst, Lopez and Bielsa’s relationship could be similar to that of Dorian Gray and Lord Henry Wotton – the experienced, wise, worldly man turning the head of a well-meaning, idealistic student, while their poor mutual friend Basil Hallward is left to try and deal with the fallout.
Ultimately, it is this double-edged sword with Bielsa that makes LOSC such an enticing case study. Lopez’s “With Plenty Of Money & You” approach could be a huge success – Bielsa’s reputation speaks for its self, of course, and his experience and nous could be exactly what Lille and Gerard Lopez are looking for. The businessman appears certain life will be sunny with plenty of money and Marcelo Bielsa, anyway. But just as equally, Bielsa represents a combustible element which could damage the progress of Lopez’s grand vision. El Loco is guided by the beat of his own drum, after all. There is no guarantee he will step in to the breach in the summer, nor is there a guarantee of him sticking around long enough to make the desired impact if history is anything to go by. His position of unpaid advisor may be far more enjoyable to the Argentine, which would likely still be agreeable with Gerard Lopez. Whether or not a manager like Patrick Collot, Vitor Pereira, Marco Silva or otherwise would come to agree is another matter – it didn’t work out well for Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman at Ajax. Bielsa certainly wouldn’t be the root of all evil, but his presence could still inspire strife and upheaval if Lopez isn’t careful.
And yet, all of these ideas and thoughts are just that – ideas and thoughts. Ultimately, what comes next for LOSC is an exciting, energising period that will be a fascinating watch for many fans, clubs and prospective owners around the world. The Lille project is a fresh take on modern football takeovers, the lion’s share of which just prioritise massive investment in already-established stars. As a man with a soft spot for LOSC, my hope is that, regardless what happens in the next few months, Lopez is a success. His “With Plenty Of Money & You” approach has its risks, but I’m certain, honey, that life will be sunny, with plenty of money and… whoever gets the job full-time.