Paris Saint-Germain have rather predictably steamrolled all before them in Ligue 1 this season and seem uncatchable at present. As such the real competition lies in the European places behind them.
Competing with Monaco for second place is a team few would have predicted - Angers SCO. The recently promoted side have defied all expectation and are in serious competition for a Champions League spot.
There always seems to be one team that performs well above expectations. In the Premier League, Leicester City have led the pack at times this season, while Deportivo La Coruna and Hertha Berlin are doing well in Spain and Germany respectively.
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It is no different in France, however, few teams sustain such form for any more than a few weeks. Yet here we are exactly half-way into the season, 19 games down and Angers are in the race for second place.
Well before a ball was kicked, the north-west France side were overwhelming favourites for the drop, having returned to Ligue 1 after a 21-year absence courtesy of the third place play-off. Survival was likely to be the summit of their aims, but their results betray their middling ambitions.
Results which are utterly baffling, especially when you look at the two sides who came up with them last season. Ligue 2 champions Troyes are currently bottom and winless while Gazalec Ajaccio, despite a recent upturn in form are still very much in danger of the drop. So how do Angers differ from the others?
They haven’t taken the world aback with their scintillating attacking football. As many promoted sides do, Angers have taken a pragmatic approach to play this season and it has paid dividends. They have the second-best defence in the league after PSG having only conceded 11 goals - they have also been the only side to stop the rampant leaders from scoring.
Their pragmatism is also evidenced in their goal scorers. With five goals, Cheikh N'Doye is the clubs top scorer which is surprising given his role as defensive midfielder. Voted in the Ligue 2 team of the year, he has relished the step up and now has as many as eight Premier League clubs reportedly scouting him.
The Senegalese international is the very epitome of the qualities Stéphane Moulin has sought in building this side as a physical and aerial presence with seemingly limitless energy. His team is full of hungry players looking for success and they seem to give everything in every match in pursuit of that. Touching on his philosophy, Moulin keeps things very simple.
"Our idea, that is to say is that when we do not have the ball, we all defend, and when we have it, we all attack," he told L'Equipe.
Ballin’ on a budget
Moulin deserves credit not only for building a team capable of competing in the top-flight, but doing it on a shoe-string budget. In fact, shoe-string is embellishing somewhat, considering they did not spend a single penny on transfer fees in the summer, despite recruiting 14 new players.
They’ve done well to replace the talents of Jonathan Kodjia, who was their top scorer last season, but gave in to the temptation of British football and signed for Bristol City. The aforementioned N'Doye was acquired this season, as was the impressive midfielder Thomas Mangani and former Arsenal striker Giles Sunu.
Unlike the other promoted sides, their new-look squad has gelled rather well and exceeded all expectation. Of course, with that comes unwanted interest from bigger clubs and many of their unlikely stars of this season will be courted in the next six months. They have already lost standout goalkeeper and clean sheet leader Ludovic Butelle to Club Brugge this winter.
But as they fairytale continues, it seems there is little that can stop them, on and off the pitch. Long may they thrive, because their ever-so-slightly boring football has made Ligue 1 surprisingly entertaining!
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