Matchday 32 saw European hopefuls Nice visit an inconsistent Rennes side who were in search of their first league victory in four games. In this tactical analysis, we review how tactical inflexibility and a lack of attacking cohesion prevented goals from being scored in this Sunday afternoon clash.
The game started slowly, unsurprising considering Nice are the joint lowest scorers in Ligue 1 with just 23 goals. Fouls and misplaced passes dominated the early phases of play as both teams struggled to construct any penetrating passing combinations. As the half-time whistle blew Rennes and Nice had amassed a disappointing xG of 0.22 and 0.16 respectively.
The second half offered much of the same, with both team’s defensive tactical shapes cancelling each other out. Reduced space in the final third left little room for creativity and few opportunities to play through the lines. A late attacking flurry saw Rennes rattle the woodwork twice in the space of three minutes as the home side pushed forwards. The 3rd best defence in the league held out though, and the spoils were shared in a forgettable afternoon in Northern France.
Rennes tweaked their shape from a 4-4-1-1, which they used in their defeat to Lyon last week, to a more conventional 4-4-2. Julien Stéphan has opted for the flat 4-4-2 formation 38% of the time this year, and the percentage of Rennes’ attacks ending with a shot using this system stands at 20.7% compared to 18.6% not using it. This has earned them an average xG of 1.29.
Stéphan made several changes to his side, returning joint top scorer Niang to the starting 11, partnering Hatem Ben Arfa up front. A reshuffle in midfield offered a start to Johansson, who replaced suspended skipper Benjamin André. Da Silva also returned from injury after missing the previous match.
Nice have struggled to find the net this year, despite averaging 54.57% possession. The problems lie in the quality of their possession where, although they average 506.8 passes per match, only 52.24 on average are into the opposition’s final third. Bearing in mind, only 72.9% of those passes are successful, the reason for Nice’s goal shyness becomes quickly apparent.
Nice opted for a 4-1-4-1, a system they’ve only played for 142 minutes in this season. Vieira made only one forced change from the team that beat Montpellier, introducing Walter to replace the injured Wylan Cyprien. Diaby maintained his place in attack for the away side. The striker is still yet to score in Ligue 1 this season.
Out of ideas
They say a team’s behaviour is a reflection of their manager, and Nice’s was anything but. Les Aiglons demonstrated the defensives qualities a player like Vieira would be proud of, but that’s where the similarities end. In possession Nice were unimaginative, opting for a single pivot no.6 who rarely displayed the ability to play forward. By the time Nice moved the ball forward, the Rennes‘ defensive structure had organised, preventing Vieira’s side from penetrating easily.
In possession, ball rotations were slow and safe. Each player took too many touches, destroying the tempo of attacking build-ups. A lack of movement from the strikers offered few options for the defensive player in possession, forcing them sideways.
A passing map for both teams shows the top three passing combinations were between the defensive players. With both sides operating a deep line out of possession the ball often stagnated in the early phases of possession. We can also see from the networks that both sides lacked width. The average positions of the wingers moving in from the touchline added to the congestion in midfield.
Rather than break out in transition, Nice opted to keep the ball and consolidate possession. Above we can see Nice only chose to counter-attack twice in the match, both times yielding an xG of 0. A disappointing statistic for a side that bagged 53 league goals last season.
Nice and compact
Throughout the game, Nice demonstrated their defensive strengths. Their shape and organisation has yielded them an average goal conceded per game of 0.9. Though this structure sacrifices attacking fluidity, it has achieved defensive success, leading them to 8th in the league.
Out of possession, Nice dopped into their defensive structure opting against a press high up the pitch. The unit stayed narrow, minimising their shape horizontally and vertically. Nice congested the middle of the pitch which forced Rennes to pass the ball into the wide areas.
Once the ball moved into the lateral areas, Nice shifted across. Due to a reluctance to play cross-field passes, Rennes players were restricted to playing safely in front of Nice’s shape. A pass into midfield followed by a sprayed pass to the opposite flank would have resulted in more penetration. Another creative option here would be to construct an overload on the wing using a midfield runner. An overlap or underlap from this position would create a 3v2 scenario, creating the opportunity to progress the attack. Unfortunately, Rennes were too immersed in their rigid system, reluctant to freely commit players beyond the ball.
Rennes will look back on this game and rue the two big chances they missed late on. On reflection, however, they’ll realise that they didn’t create enough chances and their rigid shape ultimately blunted their own attack. An absence of pressing or explosive movements in transition is holding this side back from a European challenge this season. With their season effectively finished, Rennes’ remaining six games are seemingly condemned for mediocrity.
Nice will want to forget this match in a hurry. Their over-reliance on stability and structure will surely raise questions amongst the club faithful once this season is over. A reluctance to take risks in possession and restricted creativity in their build-up is a worrying sign for a side that made the Champions League qualifications just two seasons ago.