A change in approach – An Italian Job or Realpolitik in Ligue 1?
Seven rounds in, there have been many surprises in Ligue 1 so far, including what the hell are PSG up to, Pascal Dupraz for President, and yikes Lille. One interesting side-note has been a change from the norm in formation terms – to three (or five) at the back.
This approach is not unheard of in France, of course, but this season’s approach seems both more consistent, and also more positive, so far. Last season a variety of non-four backlines were used by around half the teams in the league*, but for a variety of reasons, mostly reactive, rather than proactive. Rennes used a five-man backline in nine of their first ten matches, in what appeared to be a conscious choice by then-boss Philippe Montanier. After a decent start, with four wins in five games, there was a run of four consecutive 1-1 draws topped with a 4-1 trouncing at home from Nice, our Rennes correspondent Rich of the opinion that the personnel weren’t comfortable with the transition from defence to attack, and Montanier moved them to a 4-2-3-1 for the rest of his tenure.
The other frequent users of a non-four backline were Lille, but that can’t really be described as consistent. The listed formations for their fourteen matches under Herve Renard featured seven with three or five at the back, but mostly look like a man randomly throwing numbers between 1 and 5 at a wall and seeing what happened. He was relieved of his duties. Frederic Antonetti moved firmly to a 4-3-3 and that was the end of that experiment.
In the other more sporadic usages of a defense of three or five, a pattern can perhaps be discerned. First, that they were mostly listed as a defensive five. Second, that the opponents were key. Of the 21 league matches involved (outside the more frequent usages listed above), PSG were the opponent 5 times (plus one league cup match), Lyon and Monaco twice each. And many of the other iterations seemed to be preparation for those games against the top three, particularly the champions: ASSE showing a 5-4-1 against Reims in the round before PSG; Nice running a 3-5-2 in three matches before facing PSG with a 5-3-2 before Christmas, etc.
Rarely, however, did this this reactive, more defensive approach reap rewards: Toulouse managed an uncharacteristically solid display (particularly for them, at the time) in their league game against the champions, maybe unlucky to lose, and only 1-0, Caen stymied Monaco in a 2-2 draw. Mostly, however, things went rather badly – Courbis brought the 5-4-1 back to Rennes only to lose 4-0 to PSG, Caen tried the same and lost 6-0, Nice lost 3-0 to both Lyon and PSG. This perhaps demonstrates that while having more defenders on the pitch is prima facie a good idea, if those defenders aren’t used to playing that formation, facing the top-scorers in the league maybe isn’t the time to try new things.
In total, about 10% of last season’s matches featured a non-four backline. This season, it’s 12 of 70 league games, over 17%, and four teams, so far, are involved. Toulouse were maybe just being cautious with a five-man defence against OM in the first game – after the drama of last season, you can’t blame Dupraz for taking potential boredom over potential catastrophe as they drew 0-0. The same could be said for taking the same approach against PSG in game seven, where they went a large one better than previous outings with a 2-0 win, particularly impressive as it featured the youngest starting XI this season. OK, Alban Lafont in goal skews those stats quite a bit, but boy was he good. Anyway.
Lyon’s use of a 3-5-2, first run out in the Champions League opener against Dinamo Zagreb, seems a little more forced-by-events. The change coincided with Alexandre Lacazette being injured, and when Nabil Fekir was also unavailable. With no like-for-like replacement, shoring up the back while fielding two up-front looks a sensible move in principle from Bruno Genesio. It hasn’t quite worked out like that, however; they beat Zagreb 3-0 and Montpellier by the now-traditional 5-1 scoreline (bonsoir, M. Varela), but a goalless draw at OM saw Maxwel Cornet looking isolated, and 1-0 losses to Lorient and Sevilla, even with Fekir back in the side, showed how much they miss Lacazette as they were denied respectively by Benjamin Lecomte and Spanish woodwork.
Saint-Etienne have some previous in formational changes, but their current approach may also be forced as they are running out of defenders at a rather alarming rate. We haven’t included the enforced change to three-at-the-back against Nantes because they only had two listed defenders on the field after Kevin Malcuit got sent off, so there was little alternative, and they did line up with four defenders for at least the first five minutes. It may also be tough to read too much into the 3-5-2 that beat a ten-man Lille 3-1 at the weekend, when the 3 was made up of two DMs and a CB. However ASSE are one of the more flexible users of a three-man defence, earlier beating Montpellier 3-1 and getting a very creditable 1-1 draw at the Parc des Princes before bits started falling off all senior defenders.
The team who look like they might actually mean it, man, are Nice. Under new management and with some veeeery promising new recruits kicking around in attack, OGCN are rocking a three-man defence like it is actually their (or Lucien Favre’s) idea, rather than a pre-emptive response to their opponents or their injury list. The first unexpected run-out came in the chaotic 3-2 win over OM, although it should be noted that the comeback started when Younes Belhanda came on for Henrique Dalbert, reverting them to four at the back. Similarly they switched against Montpellier, when 1-0 down, to throw on more attacking players and draw level, through Belhanda. However they stuck with their 3-5-2 throughout the 4-0 win over Monaco, and the slightly more nervy 1-0 away at Nancy. The impression is that Favre likes this formation as a way to get the best out of his squad, but also that he is both realistic and smart enough to make the necessary changes if it isn’t working.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out – if OL will revert to a four-man defence when Lacazette comes back (almost certainly), if ASSE will go back to taking each game as it comes when they have actual staff back there (ditto), and if any other team takes on this approach consistently, not just because they think having more defenders is a smart move against the top three. With PSG looking vulnerable, the fear factor may ebb away, and mean that if we do see more flexibility in defence, it will be for positive reasons.
* Formation information mostly taken from Transfermarkt, which may not be 100% even given the fluidity of formation change throughout a game, eg they have TFC lining up 4-4-1-1 against PSG on Friday when this looked more like a 3/5 backline live, and l’Equipe have it as a 4-2-3-1.