“First-time manager Régis Le Bris has a lot on his hands here. Lorient were not very good last year, finishing a deserved 16th and often getting battered at the back. To their credit, they’ve signed several defenders this window for cheap, but the reinforcements appear unlikely to save this team from the bottom. They could stay up if their new-look defense produces a respectable season, but it will not be easy.”
This was how TheDyspatch’s 2022-23 Ligue 1 Season preview described FC Lorient on Friday, August 5th, picking them 17th in what promised to be a very interesting French football season thanks to the increased relegation zone. The facts listed were true – Lorient weren’t good last season. They didn’t really do much in the transfer window – a few cheap defenders, a goalkeeper, and a winger, but nothing noteworthy. They had some nice young talent, but there was no reason to think a team that had been 14th in xGD and lost some key starters (including Armand Laurienté, often considered their best player) would be anything but bad. Instead, as of Sunday, October 16th, FC Lorient sit in 2nd position on 26 points – just 10 behind last season’s *total* points.
To be frank, this is a remarkable turnaround. Not only is it very rare for a team as bad as Lorient were last year to make a title run, but as outlined in TheDyspatch’s Ligue 1 preview: “Since 2012-13, only PSG, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Monaco, Nice, and Rennes have finished top 3 in Ligue 1, and this trend unfortunately seems likely to continue – plus, Nice and Rennes have only done it once each. That means that, of the 30 podium positions available since the 2012-13 season, PSG, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, and Monaco have taken 28 – and even then, only 6 of those in total were Lille and Marseille (thrice each). In other words, Monaco, PSG, and Lyon have snagged 22 of 30 possible podium spots in the last 10 seasons.” Basically, it’s very rare that anyone besides those three teams ends up towards the top of the league – let alone a team like Lorient, who were only just promoted in 2019-20 and have been 16th each of the last two seasons.
What’s happening? Why is Lorient so good? Are they actually that good? Is Régis Le Bris an up-and-coming managerial star? Let’s break it down.
First of all, FC Lorient did have some quality young talent last season. French midfielder Enze Le Fée showed flashes of brilliance, and although Nigerian forward Terem Moffi took a step back from his promising 2020-21 season, he still put up .48 npxG+A/90, good numbers for a 22-year-old striker in a difficult defensive league. Both players have taken a step forward, with Le Fée looking like one of Ligue 1’s next midfielding exports while Moffi has banged in 8 goals in just 11 matches – although he did just go down injured against Stade de Reims. The biggest leap from a youngster, though, has been 20-year-old Burkina Faso native Dango Ouattara, with the winger managing 4 goals and 4 assists in just 10 starts. Lorient scored just 35 goals last season, but have scored 21 in 11 matches to this point. Thanks to the quick integration of their defensive signings, the Lorient defense has been strong, and the attack ranks third in France. Yvon Mvogo has had a nice season in goal, despite some shaky moments. All of this has led to a Lorient team that sits just 3 points off PSG through 11 matchweeks.
There is a nagging question, though – how much of this is due to overperformance? FC Lorient’s underlying numbers do suggest some degree of luck when it comes to finishing variance. They’ve produced 15.3 xG and conceded 15.3 xG – and that lack of an xGD actually ranks them 9th in Ligue 1. That’s not great by any stretch, and it does suggest some regression is inbound, but it is also leagues ahead of where they were last season. Regression is out of the picture – they’re far too good. The emphasis isn’t on survival now, it’s on European football. But for that to happen, they’ll need to continue overperforming their xG in attack. Winning matches they lose on xG isn’t sustainable for long, but sometimes it can happen for long *enough* that teams like Lorient can generate enough points to carry them through in the chase for the top.
Régis Le Bris famously almost never gives his players instructions pre-match, preferring instead to allow them to learn to govern themselves within his formations. His results with Lorient’s youth squads were impressive, but there’s a difference between that and the top flight. Le Bris’ attacking 4-2-3-1 has unlocked several of his best talents, and his experience with the players from the youth levels has clearly helped his first-team side play as a unit. Lorient flows into attack as a unit with vigor and intent. Enzo Le Fée, one of the best creators on the planet this season, has flourished under Le Bris’ watchful eye, having been trained by the Frenchman since his days with those youth teams. The defense is solidly structured, and works together well in the build-up. The Le Fée-Abergel double pivot has been a fantastic tandem, dominating the half-space. It’s impressive football.
The biggest testament to Le Bris’ managerial ability is all of the young talent having success in his team. The typical Lorient starting 11 contains players such as Le Fée, Ouattara, Moffi, and Montassar Talbi. To have the level of success Le Bris has had with so many young players occupying crucial roles is a testament to his ability to train those players. A coach whose core philosophy is centered around player development with a track record of success in that regard is certainly not a bad choice to head a rebuild. He may not necessarily be the ideal choice for a huge club because of his grassroots approach, but his results are undeniable.. You can say what you will about Lorient’s luck thus far, but one thing rings true: they wouldn’t be where they are now without Régis Le Bris. It’s reasonable to expect them to fall off the pace and finish towards the bottom half of the top 10, but if their finishing stays hot, there’s no reason this team can’t continue contending for Europe.