Pulling off his jersey to reveal a heartfelt message to Ajax youngster Abdelhak Nouri, Anwar El Ghazi’s goal capped of a stunning 3-0 home win for Lille on the opening day of the new Ligue 1 season.
It was everything both the home fans and new boss Marcelo Bielsa had been hoping for.
In truth, it wouldn’t have been hard to improve on what had come before. A run of three wins from six to finish the campaign pushed Les Dogues up to 11th, but with just seven wins and 24 goals, they had the third worst home record in the league.
Only Nancy and Caen fans had to suffer more and they finished 17th and 19th respectively.
100sec d’actu avant LOSC – Bordeaux by LOSCTV
The Argentine boss, heralded as the inspiration and influence behind Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and pretty much every forward-thinking coach in the modern game, agreed to join the 2011 champions in February and that stunning win at the Stade Pierre Mauroy ushered in a new era at Lille.
One fan commented that in 75 minutes he had watched more football this term than all last season. Not only a damning inditement on the previous regime, but glowing praise of Bielsa.
Everyone on the pitch seemed to know their role. Closing down the opposition high up the pitch, passing with intent, the movement was slick and there was a clear game-plan.
The third goal that day was exactly what Bielsa wanted to see. Summer signings Luiz Araujo and Romainigue Kouamé combining down the left, firing in a low cross to El Ghazi.
“It was exciting at first, the friendly games were fun to watch and the first game was excellent,” Lille resident and life-long fan Guillaume Lefebvre told Football Whispers. “But it’s all gone downhill from there.”
The sun was shining at the start of August, but four games later there is a dark cloud forming over the 50,000-seater stadium and that shiny new toy feeling that surrounded the former Marseille coach has vanished.
Lille have picked up just one point in four games and scored just once.
Quickly, the fans are turning and Bielsa no longer looks like the messiah, more the disease that is harming a proud club.
The belief was that things couldn’t get much worse, now, the grumblings and discontent from the home support suggest that might not be the case.
David, one of Guillaume’s fellow friends and member of the Y’est D’Dins supporters group announced after Friday’s 0-0 draw with Bordeaux that he wouldn’t return to the stadium until their current boss leaves. A statement backed up when he threw his season card into a nearby bush.
This is a fan who has travelled by car to watch his team lose 3-0 at Anfield in the Europa League in 2010, and trekked across the continent in 2001 to witness the historic moment when LOSC toppled a Parma side captained by Fabio Cannavaro.
He is not alone, reaction to Friday’s draw with Bordeaux was mixed. Some deciding to applaud the players who picked up a point while down to 10-men for most the game, but the boos were audible too.
Many left wondering what happened to the sharp, exciting football they witnessed on the opening day. August feels like a very long time ago.
“I think the players are too young,” continued Guillaume. “Too many of them don’t know Ligue 1. I get the feeling that Bielsa, despite his time in Marseille has underestimated the level of the French league.”
Unlike the situation at Crystal Palace, this is not just as easy as sacking the manager and moving on. Bielsa is the front-man of a new look structure at the club.
Former president of the Lotus F1 team, Gerard Lopez, is the owner and he is backed up by Marc Ingla, the general director. He is the former vice president of Barcelona and the man who played a big part in the appointment of Pep Guardiola at the Nou Camp.
“He reminds me of Guardiola sometimes in the way that he has an extreme intensity,” said Ingla of Bielsa.
“Playing at extremes always generates stress in the systems but I think it’s good to push everybody and every single point or lever that can make us better. The players, the club or the infrastructure at the training ground.”
It’s no surprise to hear the comparison with the Man City boss, it was the Catalan coach who sought out the help of the Argentine when he was first appointed at Barça.
“My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge,” Guardiola told the BBC.
“He makes the players much, much better and he helped me a lot with his advice.
“I am pretty sure his influence at Lille – their club and their players – will be huge. Amazing. I am pretty sure of that.”
Huge, it has been, amazing, not yet.
The fourth member of the quartet is Luis Campos. The Portuguese man is Lille’s new sporting director and the scout was one of the main contributors to Monaco’s excellent transfer activity from 2013 to 2016.
On paper, it is somewhat of a dream team, but from the outside it looks like Bielsa’s influence and methods aren’t working and don’t have the best intentions of the club.
“He doesn’t care. He doesn’t seem to have any consideration for the history of the club nor of the fan,” exclaimed Guillaume to Football Whispers.
One of the new coach’s first moves was to controversially tell senior players that their services were no longer required.
Vincent Enyeama, continually one of the best goalkeepers in France was one, along with Marko Baša. The Montenegrin centre-back, although 34 years old, was a captain at the club and a much-respected fan-favourite. Both these moves were done without either of them kicking a ball for Bielsa. Pushed out of the team for younger replacements.
“He is just here because he has been given free rein to do whatever he wants,” said Guillaume. “He is here to test his theories about football that’s why he let all the old players go to start from scratch.”
Many believe the coach should have kept a few of the old heads, blending together a strong mix of youth and experience, able to help the promising players settle in the league.
That’s what he did at Marseille, and the young stars like Florian Thauvin and Giannelli Imbula were better for it.
“I think we would have been stronger, but it’s his dream to build a team with just players of his choice and Lopez gave him that. That’s why he is in Lille.”
One of the reasons why the coach walked out on OM after just one game was the club’s inability to sign players he approved of. He didn’t get his own way and he jumped ship.
It’s clear from Lopez’s ownership and his relationship with Ingla and Campos, the Argentine coach has complete control at the Stade Pierre Mauroy.
Which would be fine, but he’s not called ‘El Loco’ without living up to that reputation and that side of his coaching style has already cost Lille dearly.
Playing the second game, away at Strasbourg, hopes had been raised, but it was a difficult trip against the newly promoted side.
Things took a turn when 25-year-old Thiago Mendes picked up an early injury. The Brazilian was superb in the opening game and the absence of the summer recruit has been felt hard.
Lille were forced into another early sub when right-back Kevin Malcuit, another signing, had to come off with a knock.
Two men down after 19 minutes, most coaches would leave their last sub until the second half. Not Bielsa.
Seven minutes before the break, he switched left-backs. Rather than waiting until half-time to provide his insight and influence, he handicapped himself for the rest of the game.
Mike Maignan, Lille’s new No.1 got himself sent off on the 63rd minute with the game still goalless. Leaving his team with 10-men and no sub to replace the shot-stopper.
Both forward Nicolas De Preville and centre-back Ibrahim Amadou took their turn in net, Lille eventually lost 3-0.
Not all Bielsa’s fault, but using the final sub before half-time is an odd move by anyone’s standards.
“The replacement Ballo-Touré? I do not regret my choice,” said Bielsa when asked about the change. “I considered it necessary to do so. I felt that the yellow card taken by Fodé in a game that would go against us, especially on our left side. We thought he would be too vulnerable.”
Without the two injured players, no one questions his move, it’s proactive and decisive.
If Bielsa is the mad scientist, then Lille is laboratory, all done in the hope that Lopez will have several young stars to sell in his northern showroom and the coach’s hipster reputation continues to grow.
Currently there is a huge feeling of disconnect between the fans and the man in charge of the club.
Constant images of players on Instagram living it up down in Paris gives the impression they have no real desire to be in Lille, and their actions on the pitch have done nothing to discredit that belief.
Back at home to face Caen, it was a chance to rectify what went wrong at Strasbourg, but things went from bad to worse. Although Lille had 64 per cent possession, and 15 shots on goal, they were out-fought by the Normand side and fell 2-0.
It was the first time in 10 years that Caen had picked up a win against Les Dogues and the first time in 26 years they had won in Lille. Bielsa is definitely breaking records in the north.
Gone was the flashy, quick, incisive passing. Simple balls were being misplaced. There was no drive, energy or direction from the team.
Sides coached by Bielsa are known for having a slump near the last three months of the campaign, Lille’s had begun after just three games.
On deadline day, LOSC fans were waiting for one or two more summer moves from their new dream team, but quite the opposite happened.
Nicolas De Preville, the 26-year-old forward who scored 14 goals in 23 starts for Lille last term – their top scorer – was sold to Bordeaux just hours before the deadline.
He had been linked with moves away all summer. Rennes and Burnley two clubs mentioned. It was thought he wasn’t in Bielsa’s plans, but after three starts and two goals, including a stunning strike in their 1-1 draw away at Angers, there was hope he would stay.
In his press conference, paraded as the latest member of Les Girondins, what De Preville said would have struck fear into every fan, the striker revealing he was sold because Lille “needed money.”
“When I started preparing for the season, in my mind I was not going to leave LOSC but in August I was told that the club needed money and wanted to sell me.”
11 new players joined the club, with an average age of 21.4 years old. They spent around £40million net, but with De Preville’s departure they are left with just one recognised striker – Ezequiel Ponce – and he is on loan from Roma after a disappointing spell with Granada in Spain.
Lopez even admitted than the 62-year-old even turned down a move for Spurs striker Vincent Janssen on deadline day, leaving fans wondering where the goals would come from.
12 players left, with an average age of 27.8. This is a team lacking experience and after how he has begun the season, they lack a leader and a mentor off-the-pitch too.
The Dutchman may not have been the answer, but Bielsa’s stubbornness and determination to build this team in his own blinkered vision, is going to only harm any hopes of progression long-term.
“Such a young team needs time, so we need to be patient. Yet, we all were waiting for something exciting and entertaining but what we have seen for a couple of weeks now is dull and sad.”
Outsiders love Bielsa for his madcap ways and distinct playing style, lining up 3-3-1-3 with Chile and Athletic Bilbao caught everyone’s imagination and made him the darling of the coaching world.
Everyone wants to watch his teams, but then you are only getting a snapshot and tune in when things are going well. For Lille fans, it has been the dream that has quickly turned into a nightmare.
There is no one above the Argentine to set him straight or question his methods and the team is clearly lacking any experienced heads on the pitch.
You are leaving a set of players who are all together trying to work out how to play in a new country and a new league, alone, with no one steering the boat in the right direction.
When it doesn’t work, it won’t be Bielsa’s fault. It’ll be the players, or the recruitment, or something that exonerates the legendary boss and all his disciples from facing up to the facts.
He is meant be an ideologist and an influencer, but that doesn’t mean he is still a good manager.
Five years have passed since Bilbao reached the Europa League final under his guidance. Football is ever evolving, just as Guardiola, Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino did with what they learnt from him. They took his ideas and made them work, Bielsa hasn’t.
It is still early in the season, there is hope that this group of youngsters will be able to band together and create something beautiful, but it’s safe to say the locals in Lille are restless and are quickly losing belief.
Belief in the new project, belief in the new signings and most of all, belief in the man who was supposed to be their saviour.