Club: RC Lens
Position(s): CM, DM, AM
Preferred Foot: Left
Strengths: distance shooting, passing, technical ability, athleticism, physicality, ball-carrying
Areas for Development: defensive anticipation, shot volume
Lens will play their first Champions League match in 21 years today, traveling to Europa League winners Sevilla, who sit 17th in the La Liga table with three points from four, hovering above the relegation zone due to goal differential. As for Lens, things are even worse. Three months after finishing one point behind Ligue 1 winners Paris Saint-Germain, Lens sit bottom of the table with 1 point, 4 goals scored and 11 conceded. After a summer that saw them lose two key pillars in Seko Fofana (Al-Nassr) and Loïs Openda (RB Leipzig), Franck Haise’s side are flailing at the moment.
After earning promotion in 2020, Lens missed out on European football on the final day of their first two seasons back in Ligue 1.
Today, they’re headed to the UEFA Champions League group stage, ending a 21-year drought from the competition and finishing one point behind PSG. pic.twitter.com/iyMhAAj8QW
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) June 9, 2023
Whilst Sepe Elye Wahi has joined from Montpellier to fill Openda’s void in attack, Lens have signed Andy Diouf from Basel for €14m to replace Fofana. Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France to Senegalese parents, Diouf developed at the academies of Paris Saint-Germain, Boulogne-Billancourt, and INF Clairefontaine, before joining Rennes in 2018. He would make his professional debut on May 9, 2021 in a 1-1 draw against PSG, but he would register just seven appearances for the Brittany club before joining Basel on loan with an option to buy.
He enjoyed an impressive campaign in Switzerland with 57 appearances across all competitions, scoring three goals and two assists in the Europa Conference League as Basel came within inches of reaching the final, only to lose to Fiorentina in extra time in the semis. After just one year abroad, Diouf returned to France and joined Lens on a contract until 2028.
Diouf is a similar profile to Fofana. A technical athlete who has great physicality, ball-carrying ability and tendencies to shoot (particularly from outside the box). Replacing such a key player will be hard, which is why it’s smart that Lens have also brought in Dutch veteran Stijn Spierings (27) from Toulouse. A more experienced player like Spierings will help to relieve the burden of defensive work and ease off the pressure on Diouf’s shoulders.
The 20-year-old box-to-box midfielder has a great engine and is able to cover a lot of ground and run at a great pace for the full 90 minutes, integral to all three phases of play. The Frenchman’s dynamism shines through in one attribute in particular: Ball-carrying. Diouf is a very strong ball-carrier. 4.76 progressive carries per 90 puts him in the top 1% for midfielders outside of the top 5 leagues, with the youngster proving vital in aiding Basel’s transition last season.
Diouf is a progressive player through his passing range. He loves to pass through the lines and play long balls out to the wings, averaging 6.90 progressive passes (top 15%) & also 1.43 successful take-ons (top 10%). Diouf loves to shoot when given space in the attacking 3rd (1.19 shots p/90), generating great power in his shots which enables him to be a threat from distance, and he has what it takes to thrive in an attacking setup where he’s given licence to shoot.
His passing ability is also impressive as he looks to dictate matches from central areas, a technically gifted, all-round midfielder, but oftentimes he rushes passes due to wanting to release the ball too quickly. Another area for improvement is his defensive skillset: because he moves around so much, he’s sometimes out of position for defensive battles, but more importantly, he doesn’t anticipate next passes well enough – also shown by low interception numbers (0.48).
However, although Diouf’s defensive capabilities aren’t elite, they’re good enough for a box-to-box midfield role where his main focus would be ball progression, transitional play and attacking creativity, and he finds a perfect match for his unique profile with Franck Haise’s Lens, which involves:
-5-2-3/3-4-2-1 (defensive vs. attacking structures)
-Wide CBs are main progressive players
-Double pivot consists of a defensive controller (Salis Abdul Samed) and a progressive attacking 8 (Fofana/Diouf)
-‘Wingers’ are two wide 10s (Fulgini/Costa/Thomasson/Sotoca) that play centrally in attack
-Wing-backs (Frankowski/Machado) push high & wide as primary width holders in attacks
-ST (Openda/Wahi) runs channels well & receives through balls in behind
-3-2-5 forms to overload defences
Fofana was given a lot of creative freedom to invade the opponent’s defensive zones, drifting around the half-spaces and creating chances, crashing the box & taking plenty of shots (2.40). He was given less defensive responsibility and more freedom on the ball, and Haise’s system resulted in Fofana’s defensive numbers dropping to 0.82 tackles & 0.56 interceptions. This doesn’t mean he isn’t good defensively at all, but rather, that he’s less active because of the cover from the three central defenders.
Diouf’s defensive numbers will likely drop this season due to being given more attacking licence, and in turn, his creative numbers and shooting volume should increase. Lens is a perfect fit for Diouf, who now occupies the same progressive 8 role that Fofana thrived in. He partners Ghanaian midfielder Salis Abdul Samed, a natural defensive midfielder who would cover the pitch horizontally and control the play with his accurate passing, enabling the other player in the double pivot to charge forward more.
He started each of Lens’ first three matches alongside Samed, being withdrawn around the 82nd minute on each occasion, before dropping to the bench in the following match, when he replaced Spierings in the 57th minute of their 3-0 defeat to Monaco. Diouf remained on the bench for the following match, as Thomasson dropped into a deeper role alongside Samed. Joel Asoro would open the scoring within 37 minutes for newly promoted Metz, with Diouf coming on in the 72nd minute.
Despite racking up 31 shots, 10 on goal, and 75% possession, Lens were unable to find a goal and fell to a 1-0 defeat at home. Les Sang et Or have just one point from five, the lowest tally for a Ligue 1 team that finished second the prior season, and Lens’ lowest tally in the top-flight in 62 years. They need to turn things around and fast, and they’ll be counting on Diouf as they look to shake off their slow start and make their long-awaited return to Europe’s premier competition.
By: Ben Mattinson / @Ben_Mattinson_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sandra Ruhaut / Icon Sport