This article profiles the finest defenders in the French Ligue 1.
The league is only two games old, but already familiar fault lines have been drawn. Traditional heavyweights Lyon, Marseille and Saint-Etienne find themselves in the top spots, along with moneyed Monaco, while unfancied Guingamp are rooted to the table’s foot.
Perhaps the sole surprise is Paris Saint-Germain’s sluggish opening. The capital giants have only managed two draws in their first games and are already four points off the pace.
In recent history, the league has developed a fine reputation for producing excellent defenders—men who have typically learned their trade in the French leagues before moving on to bigger things.
Patrice Evra, Etienne Capoue and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa are just three defensive stars to have transferred their talents to foreign shores after serving their apprenticeship. The failures—men like Stephane Mbia—are relatively rare in comparison.
This article covers both young players set for a big year in Ligue 1 and established stars who will surely have a major influence throughout the season.
An international competitor with Gabon, Bruno Ecuele Manga has proven himself to be a particularly capable Ligue 1 defender. He is a versatile player, able to muck in across the back four, but most adept at operating in the heart of the defence.
Having failed to make a breakthrough at Bordeaux, Manga worked his way back up via Angers and has been with Lorient since 2010.
The club have an affiliation with Arsenal, and the two clubs have fostered a mutually beneficial relationship over the years. Considering Arsene Wenger’s proclivity for recruiting players from the French league, Manga could be an ideal choice to partner the player he once replaced in Brittany—Laurent Koscielny.
The ease with which Kurt Zouma rose from nowhere to become one of the world’s finest young centre-backs is truly remarkable.
Still only 18, the Lyon-born starlet already has over 40 top flight appearances to his name and has established himself as a key cornerstone of the Saint-Etienne side that performed so admirably in Ligue 1 last year.
The strapping defender has all the qualities needed to rise to the very top of the sport and has even been earmarked by Didier Deschamps as a future France captain.
Deschamps should know!
It was little surprise that Paris Saint-Germain took the plunge back in July and splashed out a reported €15 million to secure the signature of Lille’s Lucas Digne. The capital giants weren’t just buying a defender for today, they were acquiring a left-back for tomorrow.
A prominent France youth international, the 20-year-old Digne already has nearly 50 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt and has demonstrated his capabilities as a modern, proactive full-back.
It won’t necessarily be easy to establish himself amidst the glitz and egos at Paris immediately, but before too long the dynamic youngster should be the go-to defender for both club and country.
If Lucas Digne is the most exciting 20-year-old left-back in world football, then Serge Aurier is surely his counterpart on the right.
The Toulouse man offers pace and energy in abundance and is already one of the most important components of Le TFC’s starting XI. Versatile enough to operate on the left as well, Aurier has a long and prosperous decade ahead of him.
Aurier made his Cote d’Ivoire debut back in June, pulling on the famous orange strip for a World Cup Qualifier against minnows The Gambia. While he still has a lot to learn at the international level, few would bet against Aurier being the ultimate successor for Emmanuel Eboue down the Elephants’ right flank.
The least heralded of all the players on this list, the veteran Aldo Angoula has been doing a sterling job fighting fires at Evian since 2009. Over the last four years, he has racked up more than one hundred appearances for the Gaillard-based club.
Over the last few seasons, Evian have been perennial favourites to return to the nether regions of the French football pyramid. However, on each occasion they have pulled through against the odds and managed to preserve their top flight status.
This is due, in no small part, to the Cameroonian centre-back’s expert marshaling of the back line. He is particularly impressive within his own penalty area, where he has so often emerged as the last line of defence, saving his team on numerous occasions with gallant clearances and vital interceptions.
He will need to be at his best once again this term.
Another promising defender of African descent is Samuel Umtiti. The Cameroon-born defender has emerged as a crucial component to the rebuilding exercise currently being undertaken by Remi Garde at Olympique Lyonnais.
The club have fallen a long way from their consistent performances in the latter stages of the Champions League, making the technically proficient Umtiti is an important part of the club’s future.
Specialising in the heart of the defence, but also functional as a left-back, Opta identified Umtiti as Ligue 1’s finest tackler during the first half of the 2012-2013 season.
Bernard Lacombe, who played for Lyon during the 70s, drew comparisons between Umtiti and club legend Eric Abidal.
It is to the youngster’s credit that such parallels do not seem far-fetched.
To some, Francois Clerc’s career never realised the promise of those early glorious years at Lyon, when it looked like he would be France’s first choice right-back for years to come. For others, he was never quite worthy of the praise bestowed upon him, and it was therefore no surprise that he didn’t add to his 13 international caps.
Either way, his move to Saint-Etienne last summer proved to be a renaissance of sorts and saw Clerc named in the official Ligue 1 team of the year.
He looks to have finally overcome the injury problems that derailed early portions of his career and can anticipate a few more exciting years dominating the Loire club’s right flank.
Still only 23, Nkoulou has long been touted as one of the French league’s finest defensive talents. The Indomitable Lion began in France back in 2007, arriving in Monaco from the famed Kadji Sports Academy.
After a few encouraging years on the Riviera, Nkoulou piqued the interest of a number of major European sides, including Arsenal, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla. At one point it looked like he would sign for then-French champions Lyon, before Marseille swooped for his signature in the summer of 2011.
He is a versatile operator, capable of holding the fort in front of a defence or taking his spot within it. Nkoulou has not escaped criticism during Cameroon’s disastrous time lately, but he remains a dependable and composed figure in the French top flight—particularly now that errors have all but been ironed out of his game.
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