Ligue 1 is a defensive league. A glance at the weekly results suffices to confirm that impression, but the statistics bear it out too. Over the past three seasons, the average number of goals scored per league game in France is 2.33. In Germany the figure is 2.89, in Spain 2.78, in England 2.68 and in Italy 2.57.
Why the emphasis on defence? It is perhaps partly down to the unique way in which French professional football is regulated. A body called the Direction nationale de contrôle de gestion (DNCG) monitors French clubs' accounts and hands out punishments to teams who spend beyond their means. While Ligue 1 sides are therefore well-placed to benefit from UEFA's new financial fair play rules, they are unable to give themselves a leg up on their domestic rivals by splashing the cash on new players and high wages.
In such a climate, where only a handful of clubs have the means to make waves in the transfer market, coaches frequently opt to play safe. If you don't have the money to assemble a glitzy forward line, at least you can make yourselves difficult to beat. "You don't see the 6-0s of Arsenal and Chelsea in France," complained Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti earlier in the season. "It's the culture of defence in a homogeneous league."
This season, however, things may have started to change. The goals-per-game ratio (2.32) may not be any higher than in previous years, but teams who have prioritised expansive football have enjoyed success in a way that is impossible to ignore. Lille, most notably, secured a league and French Cup double by playing superb attacking football, while Sochaux have qualified for the Europa League despite placing their faith in a commendably proactive but borderline suicidal 4-1-3-2 formation.
Central to Lille's success has been their dazzling front three of Moussa Sow, Gervinho and Eden Hazard, who have scored 44 of the team's 65 league goals (68 percent) this term but cost a total of just €6 million (the fee - a club record - when Gervinho moved from Le Mans in 2009; Sow was a free transfer from Rennes last summer, while Hazard came through the youth system).
Sochaux, meanwhile, put their faith in youth. Their three attacking midfielders - Ryad Boudebouz, Marvin Martin and Nicolas Maurice-Belay - and two strikers - Modibo Maiga and Ideye Brown - have an average age of 23 and all have enjoyed the most productive seasons of their careers to date. Saturday's 2-1 win at home to Saint-Etienne secured at least a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds and they may yet pip Rennes to an automatic berth.
Both Lille and Sochaux are reaping the rewards of long-term projects centred around carefully investing in young players, showing patience with their coaches - Rudi Garcia at Lille, Francis Gillot at Sochaux - and encouraging attractive football. "We have always tried to attack, to have the ball, and to play our game," explained Garcia, after the 2-2 draw at Paris Saint-Germain that made sure of the league title.
With turnover rising to €60 million due to their double-winning exploits and a 51,000-seater new stadium opening next year, the only uncertainty surrounding Lille's immediate future concerns whether or not widely coveted players like Gervinho and Hazard will still be around next season to lead their side into the Champions League. Sochaux, likewise, may struggle to hold on to talents such as Martin, while Maurice-Belay has already announced his intention to leave.
Nevertheless, whether they manage to hold on to their star players or not, Lille and Sochaux have demonstrated to their risk-averse Ligue 1 counterparts this season that a lack of funds need not necessarily equate to a lack of ambition, and that going forwards may not be so backwards after all.