It’s impossible to objectively say one football league is better than another, yet fans with tinted glasses continue to hurl abuse at each other in the hopes that cherry-picked stats and creative insults would validate their primary choice of league. Of all the top European leagues, the French Ligue 1 is perhaps one that never figures in this fan-made merry-go-round. After all, it’s a one-horse race where 19 teams compete for 2nd place behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Paris Saint-Germain, the club that introduced Europe to the unforgettable magic of Ronaldinho a decade ago before he went on to become the world’s best at Barcelona.
While Manchester United has definitely turned heads with the acquisition of Anthony “the next Thierry Henry” Martial from Monaco, two mainstays of the Marseille team that finished fourth last season have been nothing less than sensational in their first month in England. Andre Ayew for Swansea was voted Premier League’s player of the month in August with 3 goals and an assist in 5 games and Dimitri Payet for West Ham has been pulling the strings from midfield for an average team with lots of potential. Swansea have already taken points from a fledgling Chelsea side on opening day and a recovering Manchester United while Payet’s West Ham have managed to beat both Arsenal and Liverpool.
Except for Manchester City, every team in the league goes into games fully aware that they can take no result for granted and this is primarily because every team has an X-factor player who just needs one touch to turn the game on its head. Ayew and Payet are such players, even though very different in style. While the Ghanaian is the all-action midfielder who dogs the opposition to win the ball, runs tirelessly and is not afraid to take shots, Frenchman Payet is an oldschool No.10 who is a natural passer on the ball capable of producing at least one world class chance a game but looks helpless when the opposition is attacking. While Ayew was signed as a free agent Payet, who recorded the most assists in the league last season with 16, cost the Hammers 11 million pounds.
It might be too far-fetched to jump to conclusions about the French top division’s superiority over the Premier League, especially at such an early stage of this season but the French influence in English football is well worth examining. Last season’s Player of the Year, Eden Hazard became hot property by 2012 after his outstanding performances in Ligue 1 for Lille. This is not something new, with players weighed by huge expectations from France having consistently made their mark in England from Thierry Henry and Patrick Vierra for Arsenal’s Invincibles to Didier Drogba and Claude Makelele for Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea and all trying to emulate the heroics of Eric Cantona who was the first Frenchman to play in the Premier League, for Leeds United way back in 1992.
Ayew and Payet are thus emblematic of the two broad categories of footballers imported from Ligue 1. Anyone with a passing familiarity of anything French could guess that like all aspects of the country, the migrant African population is a huge part of French football. Ayew is one of Africa’s best players and caught the eye in Ghana’s impressive but unlucky World Cup run in Brazil. Payet has only recently been able to get a foothold in the French national team in a midfield that boasts of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye and Rio Mavuba among others. The mix of African power play with French technique is what makes Ligue 1 an interesting league to follow though most teams unfortunately rely on one more than the other, resulting in a certain flatness to their game in general, only highlighted by the rare explosive performance.
Jordan Amavi for Aston Villa has been a live-wire in the left side of defense and Bafetimbi Gomis signed from Lyon in 2014 has been absolutely ruthless in front of goal. Alan Pardew has built a team around Yohan Cabaye’s silky passing at Selhurst Park, while Riyad Mahrez has been ripping up the Premier League to be arguably the best player in the country right now with 4 goals and 2 assists for an unbeaten Leicester City after moving from Ligue 2 side Le Havre in 2014.
The French influence had slowly been on the wane over the last decade after a massive outflow of homegrown French talent in the 90’s headlined by Zinedine Zidane and African talent in the early to mid-2000’s but every once in a while, a player like Cabaye or Schneiderlin would suddenly turn up to show the transition into the English game is not as difficult as it is made to be. While a French team might struggle with the physical demands of the Barclays’ Premier League over a season, you can now bet on the best Ligue 1 players like Olympique Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette, who was topscorer in the Ligue 1 last season, to be a definite successes in England. And curiously, this seems to be the case for English teams this season, with most of them capable of the odd perfect game where their other players somehow click into gear together. Ayew and Payet might go on to have spectacular individual seasons but the teams they play for might not ride that wave and finish as high they would’ve liked.