Ranking Ligue 1 Sides on Their Defensive Strength
All too often, Ligue 1 is described as a poor attacking league. It does have one of the lowest goal per game ratios—2.44 this season—but this is mainly down to the physical nature and defensive strength of the league.
To be successful in France, you need to be well organised and make sure you have the defensive base to build upon in attack.
Last season, Lille were not the third best team in terms of going forward, but they kept 21 clean sheets throughout the league campaign and were rewarded with a place in the Champions League qualifiers.
It is no surprise to see the teams flying high in the table this season performing admirably at the back.
Marseille may be top of the league at the winter break, but who has been the best team defensively?
This ranking has been based on the amount of goals each team has conceded, the amount of shots per game they let the opposition take and how each member of the defence has performed.
It is too easy just to look at goals conceded, forgetting the one-off games that may skew those numbers. Nice won 7-2 at Guingamp, Rennes beat Evian 6-2 and Saint-Etienne collapsed 5-0 at the Parc des Princes against Paris Saint-Germain.
This has all been taken into account as we rank the 20 Ligue 1 teams in order of defensive strength.
20. SM Caen
It started so well for the Ligue 1 new boys, conceding just three goals in their first five games back in the top flight.
Playing Patrice Garande’s 4-1-4-1, Jordan Adeoti was excellent protecting the defence, but the 3-3 draw against Toulouse in September seemed to open the floodgates.
Despite impressive performances from Damien Da Silva, Dennis Appiah and Jean-Jacques Pierre, Caen are giving up the most shots against per game and have conceded the most goals in Ligue 1 this season.
Yrondu Musavu-King and Jean Calve are not ideal replacements when Garande has to rotate or change his back four; ultimately, this is what will harm Caen's Ligue 1 future.
19. Evian Thonon Gaillard
Despite playing a game less than everyone else before the winter break, Evian Thonon Gaillard have conceded 32 goals, the same as bottom club Caen.
Thirteen of those goals came in the opening five matches, including the 6-2 defeat away at Rennes, but they showed signs of hope, managing a goalless draw against PSG at the Parc des Sports.
The performances soon improved and Les Roses went on a run of six wins out of nine league games, including four clean sheets, before the start of December.
Pascal Dupraz's side slipped to old ways before the break, conceding nine goals in their last three games.
The full-backs are solid and consistent, but Dupraz seems to be unsure what his best centre-back pairing is— four different players have started six games or more. That will be the key to their safety.
18. Stade de Reims
Stade de Reims are still missing last season's stalwart Anthony Weber, but things could be worse without the powerful centre-back.
The experience of Franck Signorino on the left and Mickael Tacalfred in the middle has proved important. Add in the excellent Aissa Mandi and the youth of Antoine Conte and you have a decent back four.
Reims problems have come from the protection they get from the midfield. Neither Gregory Bourillon nor Antoine Devaux has sufficiently replaced Grzegorz Krychowiak, who left for Sevilla in the summer.
17. Toulouse FC
Thibault Giresse's goal for Guingamp away at Toulouse was the 29th goal Le Tefece have conceded in the league this season. Compare that to the 53 they let in last campaign and something has definitely gone wrong for Alain Casanova's team since August.
The Toulouse coach started the season playing three at the back, but he has recently moved to a back four. But neither formation seems to have helped him stem the tide.
The departure of Serge Aurier to PSG was a huge blow, as was the injury to Uros Spajic. The Serbian defender will be crucial in the second half of the season beside the newer additions to the first team.
Playing four at the back will have an impact on the midfield, putting more emphasis on Abel Aguilar and Tongo Doumbia to add protection. Casanova's men really should have more than four clean sheets this season.
16. FC Lorient
The problem for FC Lorient is not that they concede a high amount of goals—26 so far this season—but it’s how often they fail to keep a clean sheet.
Sylvain Ripoll's side have only managed four all season, with their last shutout coming in November. Five games have passed since they beat 10-man Lens 1-0 at the Stade du Moustoir.
Moving Raphael Guerreiro to left-midfield has been a master stroke in attack, but despite the performances of Vincent Le Goff, they do look weaker for it.
Centre-backs Wesley Lautoa and Lamine Kone have both impressed at times, but this Les Merlus side lacks consistency all through the spine.
15. OGC Nice
Claude Puel's Nice have one of the best performing left-back's in the country in Jordan Amavi—even right-back Lloyd Palun has been impressive at times. However, through the middle they have looked soft.
Gone are the days of dominant duo Renato Civelli and Nemanja Pejcinovic, now it’s two of Romain Genevois, Mathieu Bodmer and Souleymane Diawara in the centre of the defence.
Les Aiglons have conceded 26 goals this season and have six clean sheets, but four of them came before the end of September.
With Nampalys Mendy and Didier Digard protecting the back four, they should be stronger, but too often their soft underbelly has been exposed.
14. EA Guingamp
Last season, Guingamp's defence was a clear strength. This season, with the added adventure of the Europa League, the squad has been spread fairly thin, leaving holes at the back.
The duo of Jeremy Sorbon and Christophe Kerbrat haven't been as consistent this season, and Jocelyn Gourvennec's side have conceded 31 goals in 19 games. Although seven of the goals came during the huge defeat against Nice.
Nine different defenders have played in EAG's back four due to injuries, suspensions and squad rotation—it has been clear at times. However, the 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade Roudourou proved what they are capable of.
13. SC Bastia
Although they sit worryingly in the relegation zone and sacked Claude Makelele because of their record, the Corsican side have only conceded 23 goals this season.
Their six clean sheets have given the club a chance, and only twice have they let in three of more goals this campaign.
Former Arsenal defender Sebastien Squillaci has been one of their best players this season, as well as on-loan goalkeeper Alphonse Areola.
Captain Yannick Cahuzac and Belgian Guillaume Gillet protect the back four with authority. Their defence will be what potentially keeps them in Ligue 1. It will be the attack, with only 16 goals scored, that will let them down.
12. FC Metz
Before they played their last six games, Metz' defensive record was fairly impressive. Only 12 goals conceded in 13, with Romain Metanire and Gaetan Bussmann impressing from full back.
However, going into the winter break, they conceded 15 goals in six games and have fallen down to 17th in the table.
One reason could be the loss of form of defensive midfielder Guirane N'Daw. The large Senegalese stopper had been superb at the start of the campaign, but holes in the back line have crept in as his displays have dropped off.
Any two of Sylvain Marchal, Guido Milan and Jeremy Chopin have done well in the centre of defence, but more protection in the midfield is needed if they want to stay in the top division.
11. RC Lens
Lens deserve a lot of respect for their defensive performances this season. Newly promoted and unable to sign players due to a transfer embargo, they have still only conceded 24 goals in 19 games.
With only the five clean sheets for Antoine Kombouare's side, they have relied on hard work and organisation to keep opponents' chances limited in front of goal.
When you consider, between them, Dimitri Cavare, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Loick Landre and Abdoul Ba have 38 appearances in the back four, and not one is over the age of 23, you have to believe this Lens defence is one for the future, as well as the present.
10. Girondins de Bordeaux
Willy Sagnol received a lot of praise at the start of the season for breathing life back into Bordeaux, but the former Bayern Munich right-back will be concerned by the amount of goals his side have conceded this season.
They have let in 27 goals in 19 games and only kept three clean sheets in the league. Nicolas Pallois has been impressive since joining from Niort in the summer, and alongside Captain Lamine Sane they have formed a strong partnership, but inconsistencies in selection and formation, especially in the wide area, has caused problems.
Sagnol has also had to deal with a large number of injuries and suspensions, leading to midfield dynamo Gregory Sertic having to cover at the back sometimes. With a settled side, Les Girondins should be fairly solid in the second half of the season.
9. Montpellier HSC
At 37 years old, Vitorino Hilton has still been one of Ligue 1's best and most consistent defenders this season. Roland Courbis' side have only conceded 21 goals, which is only bettered by seven teams.
25 - Hilton has made 25 clearances tonight, more than the whole PSG team (23). Cleaner.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) January 5, 2015
La Paillade have kept eight clean sheets this campaign, and their record is magnified more by the fact they lost 5-1 at Lyon in October.
Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari has impressed beside Hilton, Mathieu Deplagne has surprised at right-back and Siaka Tiene has been respectable as a replacement for Henri Bedimo on the left.
The midfield, through Jonas Martin, Morgan Sanson and Jamel Saihi, has been workmanlike, but effective. However, with Geoffrey Jourdren between the sticks and the defence staying strong, Montpellier will be more than safe in mid-table.
8. Stade Rennais
Going on a run of eight games unbeaten should have helped Stade Rennes finish higher than eighth at the turn of the year.
However, losing three in a row in December—conceding nine goals on the way—slighted their defensive record and their place in the table.
New signing Edson Mexer has created a formidable partnership with veteran Sylvain Armand, but they will be disappointed to have slipped up before the winter break.
5 - Sylvain Armand has made 5 clearances off the line in Ligue 1 in 2014, more than any other player. Veteran. #Opta2014— OptaJean (@OptaJean) December 31, 2014
Fellow new boy Gelson Fernandes has added steel, experience and a calm head beside Vincent Pajot and Abdoulaye Doucoure in midfield, and down the channels, Romain Danze and Cheikh M'Bengue have been solid.
117 - Benoït Costil has made 117 saves in Ligue 1 in 2014, 19 more than any other goalkeeper (Anthony Lopes - 98). Wall. #Opta2014— OptaJean (@OptaJean) December 29, 2014
Goalkeeper Benoit Costil has been one of the better No. 1s in Ligue 1. If Rennes can get over this little blip, then they are one of the stronger defensive teams chasing European football.
7. AS Monaco
When he arrived at the Stade Louis II, Leandro Jardim came under a lot of criticism, with most of it justified as the results were poor.
Things have somewhat turned around, and in the last four games, Monaco have picked up maximum points and kept four clean sheets.
Tunisian centre-back Aymen Abdennour finally looks settled in the back four, but the biggest improvement has come with midfielder Jeremy Toulalan covering in defence with injuries and suspensions. He has been so good, he should consider a permanent move to centre-back.
With the second half of the season ahead of us, Jardim's biggest test will be keeping the strength in the defence if Toulalan moves back into the middle of the park.
6. Lille OSC
Last season, Lille kept 21 clean sheets and had one of the best defences throughout Europe. That strength came through goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and centre-backs Simon Kjaer and Marko Basa.
This campaign, all three remain, but injuries have hampered their ability to play every game together and the extra responsibility of the Europa League has taken its toll.
Left-back Pape Souare hasn't enjoyed as good a season, and new signing Sebastien Corchia hasn't been as impressive as Lille would have hoped.
The failures of Lille’s attack have heaped more pressure on the defence, but still only three teams have conceded fewer goals this season.
Les Dogues conceded 26 goals last season—they have already let in 17 in 19 games this campaign. However, for a team down in 13th, that is very respectable.
5. FC Nantes
After Week 14 of the season, Nantes had the best defensive record in the league. Les Canaris then conceded eight goals in five games and lost the glossy shine off what has been an exceptional season so far.
Consistency has been the best feature of Michel Der Zakarian's side. Centre-back Papy Djilobodji has been excellent, his partnership beside Oswaldo Vizcarrondo is one of the most physically impressive you will find in France.
Ahead of that duo, new signing Kian Hansen has settled in very well in the midfield and Olivier Veigneau at left-back offers consistency. On the opposite side, Issa Cissokho is definitely better suited going forward.
Although young Maxime Dupe deputised well at the start of the season, the return of Remy Riou between the sticks has added experience to the defensive unit.
Nantes have the joint-third best defensive record in the league, and they will hope that can be the base of what helps them finish higher than their current position of seventh.
4. Olympique de Marseille
It is very difficult to sum up Marseille's defence this season. The opening home defeat to Montpellier was so long ago in the Marcelo Bielsa era that you have to dismiss it, but problems still exist.
OM's six clean sheets is very respectable for a team learning a new system, but too often the concentration drops and, like against Lille, Metz and Lorient recently, it has nearly cost them points.
Bielsa likes to change from a back four or a three-man defence depending on whether he is facing a lone frontman, or on rare occasions a two-man attack, but he doesn’t quite have the squad depth to pull it off if he is missing players through suspension or injury.
Nicolas N'Koulou has been the most consistent centre-back in the team. Young Baptiste Aloe deputised well when called upon, as has veteran Rod Fanni—especially since the latter was cast aside by Bielsa pre-season.
Jeremy Morel has been a revelation at centre-back after he was consistently criticised at left-back last season. His performances have been as impressive as they have been surprising.
Marseille may have been slightly lucky to only concede 17 goals this season, but it means they can still improve, giving them a great chance in finishing top of the league.
3. Olympique Lyonnais
This season, Lyon have conceded 17 goals and kept seven clean sheets, an impressive defensive display, certainly after the way they played at the start of the campaign.
Three defeats in a row to Toulouse, Lens and Metz showed the deficiencies in Hubert Fournier's side. However, once Milan Bisevac and Henri Bedimo recovered from injury and joined the back four, with protection from the excellent Maxime Gonalons, they have only conceded nine goals in 15 games.
The spine of Les Gones has been magnificent, from Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes to young centre-back Samuel Umtiti.
Christophe Jallet joined Lyon from PSG in the summer, and the experienced right-back has cast off jokes about his ability and has won his place back in the France national team.
Unsurprisingly, it is the attack that receives the headlines, but without the excellent play of the defensive players, they wouldn't have the freedom to attack at will.
2. Paris Saint-Germain
Despite their problems at the back, PSG have still only conceded 13 goals this season. Some credit must go to the midfield, with Marco Verratti in particular showing his tenacious side, protecting the back line.
After joining for €50 million from Chelsea, the pressure was on David Luiz to impress from the very beginning, and in the league he has done enough to show what he can bring to the Parisian back four.
Marquinhos played a lot of minutes at the start of the campaign and dealt with the situation brilliantly for someone so young, both in the league and Champions League.
You have to expect, for the money spent, that PSG would be dominant at the back, but with the injuries and rotation problems that Blanc has had to deal with, they have still managed to keep eight clean sheets in the league.
Most of the goals that PSG have conceded have come when the entire side has switched off, an issue that has plagued the Parisians for two seasons. This is not just a defensive problem, but an attitude problem within the team.
1. AS Saint-Etienne
There is little doubt that Saint-Etienne has been the best defensive team in France this season. The biggest compliment you can pay them is that they said goodbye to Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma this summer and no one has noticed any difference.
Coach Christophe Galtier must receive endless amounts of credit. When Zouma left, he brought in Kevin Theophile-Catherine on loan, moved Franck Tabanou from midfield to left-back and let Loic Perrin and Mustapha Bayal Sall shepherd the defence.
143 - Loïc Perrin has won 143 aerial duels in Ligue 1 in 2014, more than any other player. Sentinel. #Opta2014— OptaJean (@OptaJean) December 29, 2014
It was worked to perfection, and Les Verts have only conceded 12 goals this season—five of them against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes. They collapsed in that match uncharacteristically, but it hasn't happened again.
The 12 clean sheets that Saint-Etienne have kept is head and shoulders above anyone else in the division.
Stephane Ruffier has been almost flawless in goal—again, it was the game against PSG when he made his mistakes—but he seemed to get rid of them all in that one game.
They are well drilled, organised and play to keep their shape and hit on the break. When you consider that they also had the Europa League to deal with—ironically, knocked out when they lost 1-0 in the Ukraine—it is incredible they have been so outstanding at the back.
With Fabien Lemoine and Jeremy Clement in front of a consistent back four, Galtier's side may just have a chance to finish in the top three. Their only problem is scoring goals at the opposite end of the pitch.