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It feels that at every rare occasion ‘les sang et or’ qualify for the European competitions, they meet the mighty red-and-white from just across the channel. In Arsène Wenger’s first season at the Champions League as Arsenal manager – Arsenal didn’t qualify for the CL for the 97-98 season, finishing the 96-97 league season in third position, by goal difference, behind Newcastle – we had faced RC Lens at the group stages. Away at Stade Bollaert-Delelis Lens managed to equalize towards the end of the match that Arsenal was leading for the most part thanks to an early Marc Overmars goal. But it was at their away match – at Arsenal’s adopted European home ground of Wembley – they had truly surprised the gunners, earning a famous 1-0 victory thanks to a goal by Mickael Debeve. That RC Lens team also included Smicer, later a Liverpool regular. That set of poor results ensured that Arsenal’s first season – of an uninterrupted, record-setting 19 years stretch to follow – back at the top tier of the European competition ended in a rather unmemorable manner, failing to qualify from the group with Dynamo Kyiv top and RC Lens as the runners-up. 

We exacted revenge of sorts a couple of years later at the semifinals of the 2000 UEFA Cup – Bergkamp scoring the solitary goal at home, with Henry and Kanu ensuring a 2-1 away win – though it is unlikely that any Arsenal fans will want to remember that season for the many heartbreaks that it caused, on and off the field. 

Since then, ‘the blood and gold’ have had somewhat of a mixed time. They won the (now defunct) UEFA Intertoto Cup twice, in 2005 and 2007, moved back and forth between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, most notably finishing as runners-up twice in that time frame – in 2001-02 behind Lyon, and last season behind the mighty PSG, missing out on what would have been their second league triumph by the margin of a solitary point. 

This latest round of revival – two seventh position finishes following promotion from the second tier, and then last year’s surprising attack on the recently acquired monopoly of the Ligue 1 titles – owes a lot to their manager Franck Haise, and his signature tactical approach of midfield diamond and high wing backs. 

There are multiple opinions about how RCL got their nickname of ‘the blood and the gold’: according to some the colors carry the memory of their Spanish connection as the medieval town of Lens for a while belonged to the Spanish Netherlands before being passed back to France in the seventeenth century by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, while others affirm that the name is a homage to the coal miners who had formed the backbone of this working class town in the industrial age (red for their blood, gold as coal was so highly valuable for a long time). 

No such doubt exists about how RCL will form their starting line-up:  Haise always organizes his team in what are all essentially different variations of the 3-4-3 formations, with the front three switching between 1-2 or 2-1 styles depending on the opposition and RCL’s own defensive approach. The structural consistency comes from the three center-backs, two central midfielders and the two wing backs. They do not press the opposition high up on the pitch, but at the same time they do not drop back or form low blocks. In possession they like to move their three central defenders and one midfielder very close to the center circle and rely on the ball carrying and passing abilities of their wide center backs to recirculate and continue to put pressure on the opposition defense. The Argentinian Facundo Medina, one of those center backs, is particularly adept at this ball carrying role, as well as in passing ambitiously and progressively. 

From the last year’s successful team, Lens have lost their talismanic captain and playmaker Seko Fofana to the Saudi Pro League. The French born, Côte d’Ivoire  international was instrumental in how Lens used to operate in the opposition half, equally good at passing and dribbling and an excellent half-space operator. In Fofana’s absence, Sotoca in right midfield and Polish international Frankowski on either wing – a two-footed player similar to our very own Trossard or Tomiyasu – are the primary creators, and a significant percentage of RCL’s goals last season were created by crosses and cut-backs from the wings. 

The departure of Fofana and their chief goal threat from last season, the Belgian Loïs Openda who now plays in Bundesliga for RB Leipzig, has evidently weakened Lens significantly – they are currently struggling at the relegation threatened 15th position in Ligue 1 (with ex-gunners Lacazette and AMN faring worse for Lyon, sitting in last place at 18th !), with four losses, two wins and one draw from their first seven matches. 

The Arsenal team is doing comparatively well, despite not yet getting near to the level of the free-flowing exhilarating display that had characterized much of their football last season. The expectations are higher this year and this group of young talents are no longer a surprise to any. Quite understandably, Mikel Arteta is focusing more on controlled dominance, tactical variations and an ability to spring surprises to push this squad further forward to the type of success that this great club has been missing out on. 

An away European match at a passionately supported club is never an easy proposition, whatever the current form of the opposition may be. We will need to be at our best to ensure that we return with all the three points and build more assuring momentum to our European adventure. The injury news seems to be not too disheartening, Martinelli and Trossard likely still missing out in addition to the unfortunate Timber. 

I don’t think we will see too many changes from the weekend’s successful outing at Bournemouth. I myself would have preferred to see Nelson instead of Nketiah and Jesus down the middle, but I suspect if Jesus is indeed played down the middle, it would be Fabio starting on the left. My predicted line-up:


White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko 

Ødegaard – Rice – Havertz 

Saka – Jesus – Vieira     

Everyone going to the match, enjoy the trip and the game, and I look forward to hearing your voices on the television. I predict a challenging but ultimately assured 3-1 victory for the away team. 

Come on Arsenal!

29 Drinks to “A Surprising Familiarity”

  1. 1
    OsakaMatt says:

    Thanks Dr F, excellent preview and an impressively detailed rundown on the opposition, who seem to be in hearteningly poor form. I remember them nicking that game at Wembley, I was bloody annoyed at the time but I suppose I will have to forgive and forget as we got our revenge soon after.

    I think Tomi might start and I thought Leo was close. If fit he should start too.
    A win here would be a handy stride forward and a 2-0 with our now customary away clean sheet would do nicely,

  2. 2
    TTG says:

    A superb preview especially in relation to the description of the opposition about whom I knew next to nothing . I saw the Wembley game against Lens ( how I hated those nights – I’d leave at 5 am to drive to a residential road near the stadium . It took about three hours and I’d then tube into the office .
    I then had at least two hour drive after the match home . And when you’ve lost it is such a drag . I also saw the home semi against Lens in 2000.
    I get the impression that some Holics think this is a gimme. Maybe the ease of our victory against PSV has created fan complacency. I hope they don’t get player complacency . If we can win it will be a great start ahead of two challenging games against Seville . Your team sentiments seem spot-on but I suspect Trossard might have been rested on Saturday for this match .
    I’m going to be optimistic and suggest a 2-0 victory

  3. 3
    bt8 says:

    Thanis for a great preview, Dr F. Not sure how you know so much about Lens, but as they say, if you have got it, flaunt it! Strong team expected. COYG

  4. 4
    Ollie says:

    Cheers DF. I’ll read this properly tomorrow on a good screen rather than a phone, but as TTG this may not be a gimme. Lens have been in relative poor form, but CL might galvanise them, and also the last few matches have seen a slight upturn in fortune.with two league wins following the creditable CL draw aat Sevilla. They may only be 15th but they were bottom a couple of weeks ago.

  5. 5
    Bathgooner says:

    A very informative preview, Dr F. I too am very impressed by your knowledge of the ‘blood and gold’. I knew absolutely nothing about Lens although I too was at the match at Wembley all those years ago. I was at all our Wembley games in the seasons we used Wembley for the CL. Unlike TTG, the geography was favourable for a journey from the west for an evening game and I had a longstanding parking spot just off Preston Road where there was an excellent chippie for a prematch calorie boost. Despite the convenience for yours truly, the Wembley games were generally dismal experiences. Hopefully tomorrow night’s game will bring a different emotion.

  6. 6
    bt8 says:

    No wonder the preview is up. We play on Tuesday not Wednesday night. Man United host Galatasaray at the same hour.

  7. 7
    bt8 says:

    Visiting the city of Portland as I am, I have identified the bar where I hope to watch the game tomorrow at the lunch hour.


  8. 8
    bt8 says:

    BBC headline:
    Man United’s Antony ‘in con consideration’ for Galatasaray

    No word whether that’s for sale, loan, or for tomorrow’s team yet.

  9. 9
    bt8 says:

    in con consideration = in consideration

    (one too many cons there, unless I missed something)

  10. 10
    bt8 says:

    And in at the 1/10 ton

  11. 11
    bt8 says:

    Travel delay due to the storm at Luton airport: Arsenal were scheduled to depart for Lille at 4.15pm Monday afternoon but didn’t take off until late in the evening, and finally touched down in France at 10:40pm. I hope they got enough rest overnight.

  12. 12
    North Bank Ned says:

    An excellent and informative preview, Dr F. You are correct that European competitions and domestic leagues are different beasts. Form in one does not necessarily translate to the other, and vice versa.

    Wahi, who has replaced Openda, has yet to reproduce the goal-scoring prowess he showed at Montpellier last season, and Fofana’s successor, Diouf, recruited from FC Basle, has yet to cement his place in the team. They are both barely 20 and French U-21 internationals, so their time will doubtless come, but hopefully not by Tuesday.

    In the first round of matches, Lens achieved a creditable draw in Seville, never an easy place to visit for European games, against a Sevilla side stacked with internationals. They took five yellow cards, suggesting a certain robustness. They won’t be pushovers, but we should have enough quality to ensure a win.

  13. 13
    OsakaMatt says:

    Being stuck in Luton for 6 hours is no laughing matter. On the bright side I am sure the team got some rest as there is fuck all to do,

    Yeah, Lens did well to get a point at Sevilla first game. However, Sevilla have also started the season poorly and currently languish in the bottom half of La Liga. As long as the players don’t get complacent – don’t think that will happen on MA’s watch to be honest – I am happy to be very relaxed about this game and this group really.

  14. 14
    Ollie says:

    Since they landed in Lille (obviously it makes sense, it’s only next door to Lens really), where the Eurostar to Brussels stops, you really have to wonder why they electes to fly rathet than take the Train for such a ridiculously short trip.
    And I’m not just talking about Carbon footprint, it hardly takes any longer from anywhere in North London.

  15. 15
    Bathgooner says:

    Excellent points, Matt @13 and Ollie @14. Luton is not a location to linger in, nor indeed to be seen dead in. Eurostar would indeed have been far more convenient on the way out but I suspect the private charter will be sitting, warmed-up, waiting on the runway to whisk the team back to their own beds immediately after the final whistle whereas I suspect Eurostar would be somewhat less accommodating.

    bt8 @7, that does look like a bar with a good atmosphere but Gooners look a bit thin on the ground. Thee Man and Scouse quotient looks a bit high. I hope they’ll be screening the right match for you!

  16. 16
    Bathgooner says:

    Interesting piece on She Wore today (https://shewore.com). The club does seem to be alienating a large number of its legacy fans.

  17. 17
    Ollie says:

    Good point about the return, bath @ 15. Didn’t think of it.
    Similarly one of the several reasons I gave up on the idea of going to Lens eventually (i.e. yesterday evening really) is there was no train to anywhere from Lens after match time.

  18. 18
    Ollie says:

    (the crucial point obviously being accommodation, as I was planning to go back the next day for that train reason)

  19. 19
    Countryman100 says:

    A typically erudite and informative preview Dr Faustus. I am glad our injuries are clearing up, as any away game in the CL is difficult (Lens finished second in Ligue 1 last year). I expect as strong a team as is possible to run out in Northern France tonight.

    Matt@13, I expect yours and mine experience of five hours at Luton will be vastly different to the Arsenal team cosseted in a VIP lounge. Then a five day rest before City on Sunday. They of course are playing tomorrow against Leipzig.

  20. 20
    Doctor Faustus says:

    Thanks everyone for the kind words!
    Good to see Partey back. If we secure a result early enough he might get a bit of game time.
    If Leo is fit he definitely starts.

    Come on Arsenal!

  21. 21
    Trev says:

    Cheers Dr F for a North Bank Neddian, history and tactics lesson on RC Lens. Interesting as I knew nothing of it before.
    Team wise I would prefer to see Saka given a break and a bit more healing time after the last couple of games. Vieira over to the right and Nelson to start on the left for me. I’m not sure quite where he can be shoe horned in but I would really like to see more of the ESR forward drive in the team. Accommodating him in Europe could be a problem but maybe, given the sharpness of the PGMOL brigade, we could try starting with a twelve man lineup against Man City …?

  22. 22
    Uplympian says:

    Cheers Dr F for a very informative preview.
    I also hope Saka is rested – he needs & deserves a break, along with ensuring he is 100% for next Sunday. Nelson is certainly ready for a start and it would be good to get some time on the pitch for Partey. With Lens finding a very very close second to QSG last season they are not a push over by any means. Along with this we often find away ties in Europe hard going so any win will be very welcome.

  23. 23
    OsakaMatt says:

    @19 hahaha, that’s true C100.
    The extra day is handy for our preparation I hope.

  24. 24
    bt8 says:

    The Grauniad reports: prematch media “duties are, according to Uefa rules, to be carried out by 8pm local time the evening before a game but Arsenal will not be fined on this occasion. The governing body is understood to view the delay as force majeure while noting this was their first such breach.”

    If force majeure takes over a second time we could be in deep doo-doo.

  25. 25
    North Bank Ned says:

    Ollie@14: Perhaps they looked at some of your past encounters with the Eurostar, and thought twice about it…

    Anyhow, the Luton Layover XI v Lens:

    Tomiyasu, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko
    Rice, Odegaard (c), Havertz,
    Saka, Trossard

    Bench: Ramsdale, Hein, White, Kiwior, Cedric, Smith Rowe, Thomas, Jorginho, Vieira, Elneny, Nelson, Nketiah

  26. 26
    North Bank Ned says:

    bt8@24: UEFA being pompous and self-important.

  27. 27
    North Bank Ned says:

    A frustrating night at the office. Samba stopped everything that came his way and they scored with two top-draw strikes, but it is difficult not to say that Lens deserved their victory. Not necessarily defining for qualification for the knock-out round, but it opens the group up more than one would like at this stage. Not much margin of error for any of the four from here on in.

    Saka’s departure could weigh more heavily than the defeat, however. Arteta has got to learn to rest him.

  28. 28
    Bathgooner says:


  29. 29

    […] away fixture in which he provided a detailed review of RC Lens’ history, squad and playing style (https://www.goonerholicsforever.com/?p=8441). They still have strong hopes of qualification for the knock-out rounds but to maximise their […]