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The Fall & Rise of RC Lens


Header logoLigue 1

Team logoPSG
Team logoLens
Team logoMarseille
Last updated 17/04/2024

The Fall & Rise of RC Lens

The Fall & Rise of RC Lens

Lois Openda grabbed his 19th Ligue 1 goal of the season with a back-post header in what turned out to be the winning goal for RC Lens against Marseille on 6th May. It clinched a 2-1 win that put the northern France outfit into second place, two points clear of their opponents, and in the driving seat for automatic Champions League qualification in the French top tier. It is a remarkable feat for a side that was in Ligue 2 just three years ago.

Fall From Grace

Of course, Lens are no strangers to success in French football. Before Paris Saint-Germain and their superstar wealth had a stranglehold on the domestic scene, Lens were one of those to have a spell of success. From 1995 to 2005, six different teams claimed the league title, with Lens picking up their first and only league crown in the 1997/98 campaign under Daniel Leclerq’s guidance.

Whilst Lens were unable to claim a second top-flight title, the team still remained successful. Les Sang et Or (The Blood and Gold) added their second major honour when they clinched the now-discontinued French equivalent of the League Cup, the Coupe de la Ligue, in 1999. Lens finished as semi-finalists in the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup, before finishing as runners-up in Ligue 1 in the 2001/02 season, after being pipped to the title by Lyon on the last day of the season.

Lens’ short stint with success began to slowly dwindle as the club fell further down the table. Midway through the 2006/07 season, they were second behind Lyon, before a hectic end to the campaign saw Lens end up finishing fifth – causing manager Francis Gillot to resign. The following year was even more of a disaster, seeing the club relegated under Jean-Pierre Papin.

The club bounced back with promotion in their first season but were once again relegated after just two years back in the top-flight. Lens have struggled to free themselves from the second division for most of the past decade. Their promotion in 2014 was a short-lived joy, with financial irregularities meaning they were sent straight back down. Lens remained in Ligue 2 until the 2019/20 season, when former reserve team manager Franck Haise guided the team to promotion with a runners-up finish.

Back for Good

Since returning to the first division, Lens have grown from strength to strength and have gradually improved over the past three years. In their first season back in Ligue 1, Haise’s side continued with their attacking approach, scoring 55 goals in 38 league matches, the second highest behind the champions Lille. That same season, Lens finished in seventh position, just one point behind Europa Conference League qualification.

Lens continued to build, bringing in some shrewd signings that would go on to be top stars and crucial in their emergence into European qualification. The likes of midfielder Seko Fofana and Facundo Medina were brought in for just €8.5million and €3.5m, respectively. Although Lens finished seventh for the second successive season, they won more games, lost fewer games, scored more goals, and conceded less goals than the season before.

This season Lens have been very impressive, with just four defeats all season as of Gameweek 36, which is two less than table-topping PSG. As it stands following the win over Reims, there is still a faint glimmer of hope that they can catch the Parisians, with just six points separating them with three matches remaining.

It’s been a campaign to remember, starting with ten wins from their first ten home games of the season, before putting an end to PSG’s unbeaten start to the campaign with a huge 3-1 win. Whichever way it ends, Lens have booked their place in the Champions League, whether that’s as runners-up and automatically through to the group stages, or as the third-placed team in Ligue 1 that has to play the preliminary play-off rounds.

Talent all over the pitch

Lens have continued to evolve, even after losing some big players since the start of last season, such as dominating central midfielder Cheick Doucoure to Crystal Palace for €22million and attacking wing-back Jonathan Clauss to Marseille for €7.5m. That hasn’t stopped Haise’s side from their attacking football, utilising a high press to dominate lesser teams whilst still being able to be a deadly side on the counter-attack when needed.

Brice Samba was the hero in goal for Nottingham Forest on their journey to the Premier League last season. His move to the Stade Bollaert-Delelis for the cut price of €5million was a steal in the summer and the 29-year-old has been one of the best ‘keepers in the league this campaign. The French shot-stopper’s brilliant form has seen him called up to Didier Deschamps’ national team as second-in-command to AC Milan’s Mike Maignan, and it’s clear to see why. His reflexes and shot-stopping abilities are world-class on their own, but Samba’s role in building from the back is crucial to the side. The 29-year-old ranks among the best in the league for passes attempted per match in terms of goalkeepers, as well as sweeping actions per match.

Haise’s men play in a trusted 3-4-2-1 system, with a strong back three that play out from the back. Centre-back Medina is at the heart of that and has been linked with many of Europe’s top clubs after a magnificent season for Lens. The Argentine likes to get stuck in and win tackles, but in possession is a key cog in the Lens machine, progressing the ball from deep to create attacks. Medina ranks in the top 99th percentile of defenders for progressive carries out of defence, progressive passes, and successful take-ons in Europe’s top five leagues – even notching up two goals and three assists in the league this season.

The midfield set up in more of a diamond shape for Lens, with Salis Abdul Samed the anchor man that has excelled since coming in to replace Doucoure. Captain Fofana is the metronome for the team though, another one that has been linked with various big clubs after standing out with his incredible performances. The former Manchester City midfielder ranks among the top 5% of midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues for successful take-ons, touches in opposition penalty areas, progressive ball carries, and progressive passes received. It shows that the Ivory Coast midfielder is a huge threat going forward on the ball for Lens, highlighted by his six league goals and four assists. Fofana is a big presence and glides through a midfield with ease, just like his recent goal against Reims showed – slaloming through defenders before placing the ball in the corner.

The attacking wing-backs, usually Przemysław Frankowski and Deiver Machado, are very attacking and get high and wide down both flanks to support the striker and attacking midfielders, allowing the two men behind the striker to underlap into the box. The wingers also help form a strong backline, coming back to form a back five in defence.

Lois Openda continues to be the dangerman up top for Lens. The 23-year-old made the move to France from Club Brugge for €9.8million in the summer, a fee that looks an absolute bargain after the Belgium forward has fired in 19 goals in the league – a feat that so far is only bettered by Lille’s Jonathan David, Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette, and PSG’s Kylian Mbappe. It’s no surprise that Openda is another name that the biggest teams in Europe are looking at, with his direct speed, agility, and top-class finishing seeing him emerge as one of the top strikers in Europe.

With a hugely talented squad, a confident, flexible approach that is full of conviction, and a loyal fanbase roaring behind them, Lens will be a huge challenge for any team in Europe next season. As they continue to grow stronger, it will be interesting to watch and see how far the Blood and Gold can go.