For many French clubs, European football proves to be a hindrance rather than a help. Lacking in depth, clubs have failed to fight on both fronts and as European form falters, domestic form often follows. The opposite is true of RC Lens this season.
Prior to their Champions League opener against Sevilla, Lens were in the wilderness. Franck Haise’s side had failed to win any of their first five Ligue 1 matches and had already lost on four occasions, the same amount as they lost in the entire 2022/23 season, where they finished just one point behind eventual champions Paris Saint-Germain. A repeat of that feat certainly didn’t look on the cards with Les Sang et Or trapped in the relegation zone.
Lens notably looked to be suffering from the absence of the talismanic figure of Seko Fofana, a crucial element of the side’s midfield, but also the dressing room, whilst their top scorer, Loïs Openda, also made a move away from the Stade Bollaert. “I don’t think we’ve completely turned the page on last season,” said Haise in the run-up to the match against AS Monaco. “We’ve stayed with what went well in 2022/23 and things catch up with you. We need to turn the page. There is a lot of work to do that hasn’t been completely done.”
Spierings a symbol of Lens’ demise
Haise struck an even more worrying tone after the club’s defeat to Monaco. “We have to be worried. I can’t say that I’m not worried, that wouldn’t be lucid,” said the Frenchman. Things would get worse before they got better, with a shock defeat at home to newly-promoted FC Metz preceding Lens’ first trip of the Champions League campaign.
Lens’ demise on the pitch can at least partially be attributed to what went on off of it. Grégory Thil, in his one and perhaps only transfer window as Lens technical director, saw his role diminish as the deadline approached. The perceived failure of Thil’s business saw Arnaud Pouille increasingly involved himself in the recruitment, bringing in profiles such as Nampalys Mendy, Faitout Maouassa and Ruben Aguilar. Pouille’s involvement suggested that Thil’s time as technical director was coming to an end.
The worst piece of business was undoubtedly Stijn Spierings. The Dutch midfielder had thrived at Toulouse FC the previous season before arriving at the Stade Bollaert on a free transfer. However, it wasn’t a good fight. Spierings was “poorly cast” for Lens’ style of play, and by mid-September, he had returned to Le TéFéCé on a joker transfer.
Understandably, there was little optimism as Lens headed into their Champions League opener against Sevilla.
I’m not going to arrive with a bucket of confidence. We’re going to continue to believe in ourselves. I believe in my players and my team. The season will perhaps be difficult until the end. We came up short this evening, but I am confident […] I didn’t think we would be here, with just one point from 15. I knew it would certainly be a more difficult season. But this is where we are and we have to face it,” said Haise just days before Lens’ trip to Spain.
However, he struck a more positive tone the day before the match against Sevilla. The mood seemed to have lightened, the Champions League a very welcome distraction. “Three years ago, this club was in Ligue 2. So yes, we’ve had bad results since the start of the season and we are working to improve things, but we would be stupid if we weren’t able to enjoy this moment. I don’t want to be stupid,” said Haise.
Fulgini fires Lens back to form
Lens looked to have carried their domestic form into the European competition. Luis Ocampos opened the scoring for Sevilla early on, but Les Sang et Or struck back with a sumptuous strike from Angelo Fulgini. Lens held on to take a point on their grand return to the upper echelon of the European game. “It’s important in the period that we are in to show character, that RC Lens are still here […] it will also, if it is necessary, also give the group a lot of confidence,” said Haise.
The following weekend Lens got their first Ligue 1 victory, against Toulouse, and then backed that up with a slender win over RC Strasbourg Alsace. Then came the exploit, the one that few expected, the victory over Arsenal, which Haise described as “one of the most memorable matches” of his reign as Lens manager.
Lens have not lost since and their most recent 4-0 victory over FC Nantes lifted them to 10th, level on points with Olympique de Marseille. Les Sang et Or are once again looking up the Ligue 1 table, and qualification from their Champions League group looks entirely feasible. If Metz was the nadir of Lens’ season, the match against Sevilla just days later was the clearly identifiable turning point.
So many French clubs strive all season to attain European competition, but once there, it is a sort of poison chalice. There is almost a relief when they are knocked out and a perception that they are better without it, that they can devote all of their time and attention to domestic competition. Lens are proof that European performance can help, not hinder, domestic form.