Lens Is On Pace To Finish In Their Highest League Finish Since 2001/2002
By Jaden Dakwa – LA Soccer Press
There are some stats in world football that are captivating.
Goals, assists, passing accuracy, and advanced stats such as expected goals are often discussed or analyzed. These stats can give some insight into the level of performance.
Racing Club de Lens, a club in Ligue 1, the top domestic league in France, has recorded a stat that is quite compelling. In the 12 home matches RC Lens have played this season, all 12 of these matches have been sold out. This stat does not speak directly to performance, but rather the ambience of the club as a whole.
The Stade Bollaert Delelis has a capacity of 38,223 spectators. The town of Lens has a population of 31,461 people as of January 2019, according to the National Statistics Bureau of France. It is likely that number has risen by a few thousand since then, but a substantial rise would not be evident.
The fact that a town with a population less than its seating capacity is at the forefront of one of the best selling stadiums in Europe is surprising. Although some Lens fans may be located in other parts of the country or the world and away fans will travel to the ground, local fans within the town most likely make up a sizable base.
An energetic home atmosphere could have played a factor in the outcome of matches. Some beliefs and statistics will point to home field advantage. Games played at home were thoroughly researched during the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when spectators were not allowed in stadiums. Wins at home would underscore a sense of familiarity the home team had on their own pitch. In contrast, away teams have to manage traveling, different playing surfaces, and even changes in climate. RC Lens won the first 10 home matches played at their home ground during the 2022/23 season.
In addition, fans and the community are a huge part of the club. No player is allowed to wear the number 12. That number represents the supporters. Look no further than the club’s website where these values are explicitly stated.
“In the Racing club de Lens, we do not count our wealth and richness in Euros, but our richness in human. Moreover, the club has decided not to give number 12 to one of the players. Indeed, number 12 symbolizes the supporters, thanking them for their loyalty and support.”
Echoing that the club places an emphasis on fan appreciation and highlights the importance of their unyielding support.
“The city of Lens is synonymous with human richness, heart fighting, and solidarity. This is the reason why a mining lamp is printed on our shirt. This is the symbol of our past and historical background.”
Lens is known for its resilience. The city became an important industrial hub after coal was discovered there in 1849. Lens eventually became a profitable mining city and within three years the Lens Mining Company was created. Unfortunately, the city was heavily damaged during World War I. Then in World War II, the city suffered a sizable death toll. Two major wars in the span of 20 years left major death tolls and detrimental economic impact.
The last coal mine closed in 1990, and the city suffered devastating rates of unemployment. Lens used to single handedly produce half of France’s coal. With that natural resource no longer a part of the economy, the region became impoverished. The city has since reinvented itself and turned former coal extractions sites into tourist attractions. Former mining bases now feature vineyards, hiking trails, ski slopes, and activities such as meditation sessions.
History clearly serves a large importance. Mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle, Jean-Francois Caron, spoke towards this vital piece of heritage.
“The miners are just as important as the kings in the history of France,” Caron said.
A region that was ravaged in its recent history has made a method to expound upon its history rather than watch it wilt away. This stark reminder is emphasized in the club’s statements.
“This is the symbol of our past and historical background.”
The resiliency of this community is evident. In a way, it draws parallels to football. Despite inconsistent patches in form, the lessons learned from those stretches are very valuable. There is always room to reinvent and improve.
RC Lens is no stranger to experiencing success. Currently, the club is on a high that has not been seen or felt in quite a while. Lens currently sits in 4th in the Ligue 1 table. If the league was to conclude today, Lens would qualify for the Champions League. The last time Lens finished within Champions League qualification places was the 2001/02 season.
Lens won the league title in the 1997/98 season for the first time in the club’s 92-year history. Lens is currently eight points back of league leaders PSG. Achieving a league title would be difficult but not unattainable. An eight point gap at this point in the season is substantial, but not impossible to close.
This current squad in place seems to have enough talent to compete at the upper echelons of Ligue 1. There are currently 11 players on RC Lens that have represented their national teams at least once. Only two other teams in Ligue 1 have a higher total of national team players. Paris Saint-Germain with 12 and Marseille with 13, respectively.
Paris Saint-Germain currently sits first in the league table and Marseille is second. Although this cannot be the sole metric of which a team’s talents are judged, it at least provides some context.
The team is led by their captain and Ivory Coast international Seko Fofana. Fofana has drawn comparisons to Yaya Toure in his career. These parallels are evident in Fofana’s play style. Fofana enjoys graciously carrying the ball from deep positions in midfield to create opportunities for his teammates. The 27-year-old is adept at shooting from long range distances. His technical ability combined with his pace and strength provide a commanding midfield presence for Lens.
When Fofana joined City in 2013, Toure was in his prime. Fofana looked up to Toure as a sense of “inspiration”.
“Yaya Toure is a player that inspires me a lot,” Fofana said. “He has a huge influence on Man City’s style and I have learned from watching him play.”
Toure’s lung-busting, mesmerizing, and mazy runs from midfield are what made his days at Manchester City so special. Fofana definitely appears to have the ability to impact matches in the same manner.
According to Fbref.com, Fofana ranks in the 98th percentile across Europe’s top five leagues for progressive carries per 90 minute period. A progressive carry is defined as whenever a player dribbles a ball in the direction of the opposition goal more than five meters from where they received the ball.
Fofana ranks in the 98th percentile for total shots taken per 90 (2.41) and successful take-one per 90 (1.66).
Fofana seems to be adored by the fans as well. There was a special moment in September 2022 where Lens’ fans stayed after the match to witness Fofana sign his contract extension until June 2025. Fofana joined Lens in 2020 after departing Italian club Udinese. Fofana’s signing was recognized as a huge moment for the club in the short-term. The ability to keep one of the club’s stars was pivotal and shows intent to compete at a high level.
Lens manager, Franck Haise, spoke about the importance of Fofana’s commitment to the future of the club.
“With Seko extending his contract, the club is sending a message,” Haise said. “It’s also a strong message for him.”
Fofana has plenty of options in attack to feed the ball to. Lois Openda, a 23-year old forward from Belgium. Openda seems to be adjusting to Ligue 1 well during his first season with Lens after he arrived from Club Brugge in July 2022. Openda has nine goals and an assist in 25 appearances during the 2022/23 season. It has been a promising season for the young talent and he has showcased his potential as a versatile forward. Openda is capable of playing left winger, right winger, and a center forward in attack.
Adam Buksa arrived as a newcomer in July 2022 from MLS side New England Revolution. The Polish international suffered an ankle injury shortly after arriving, but is nearing an impending return that has been projected for March or April. When healthy, he provides another option as a striker that can play with his back to goal and link up play with his teammates. His proficient finishing with both feet is an added bonus.
Center backs Facundo Medina, 23, and Kevin Danso, 24, have helped Lens to control some of their matches this season. Lens has only conceded 20 goals this Ligue 1 season. That total is currently the lowest number of goals conceded throughout the entire league.
Their manager, Franck Haise, usually opts to deploy a 3-4-2-1 formation which Fofana and Salis Abdul Samed, Ghana international, sit as a midfield pair. Lens like to maintain possession and create overloads in wide areas when building up play during attacks. Samed’s ability to protect in the back three allows Fofana to play with a more free role in midfield. Spreading the width of the pitch can leave Lens vulnerable in transitions, but it is a nuance that Haise and the players have managed well. Their elite defensive record in the league is evidence of this.
Haise was rumored to possibly leave to take the managerial position for Premier League team Brighton & Hove Albion in September 2022. In October, Haise’s contract was extended until October 2027. Haise seems content to remain at the club and the project he is currently pursuing.
The support from the fans has not gone unnoticed by Haise as well.
Haise makes sure he leaves the dressing room early during the half time break. He listens to the fans singing Pierre Bachelet’s Les Corons which is a song dedicated to the mining region.
“I get shivers down my spine,” Haise said.
Haise making time to listen to Lens’s number 12 as the second half kicks off, is a reminder to the fans that they play a special part in the heart of the club.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Dakwa holds a BS in Journalism from Elon University. He writes about European football for L.A. Soccer Press. Follow him at @JDakwa on Twitter.