Finishing 17th in the Ligue 1 table in 2017/18. Only a tiny margin saving them from relegation. Nobody would even think that Lille’s going to challenge for the title the very next season. Perhaps Monaco, Lyon, and Marseille would have been the more realistic teams to be up there.
But they did just that. Lille finished second, just behind Paris Saint-Germain. With 75 points collected – 16 points separating them from PSG who sit atop the table. They’ve been there since week 17 and stayed strong to secure their first Champions League qualification in almost seven years.
But who’s responsible for it? Can you say it was Marcelo Bielsa? Or is it Christophe Galtier?
Bielsa headed Lille and then left after only four months in charge. Despite their abrupt ending, the Argentinian did leave an impression. Whether it’s his unorthodox approach to his players or the way he has set up the team.
Meanwhile, Galtier inherited an excitingly-talented yet somewhat messy squad. Several genius recruitments and a few tweaks later, voilà! There’s the Lille side they’ve all been yearning for.
Both did their part, but this season all the praise should definitely, and exclusively be given to Galtier.
Several new players arrived at Domaine de Luchin early in the 2018/19 season and some that were present eventually left.
With the arrivals of Rafael Leäo and Loïc Remy, Galtier didn’t have to worry about losing Lebo Mothiba who moved to Strasbourg early in the season.
The arrival of Jonathan Ikone seemed to push Yassine Benzia out of the attacking midfield spot. Meanwhile, Luiz Araújo often came in as a substitute with Jonathan Bamba taking his place on the left side of the wing.
Mike Maignan was still an irreplaceable figure between the posts. Meanwhile, the back four has seen some changes.
Fodé Ballo-Touré was originally the main man on the left but decided to join Monaco in January. Youssouf Koné replaced him. The latter has so far exceeded people’s expectations this season.
A much more solid and experienced José Fonte replaced Edgar Ié at the back, while Adama Soumaoro retained his place despite having to rotate a lot with Gabriel due to his proneness to injury.
Lille originally didn’t have a natural right-back last season, forcing to play Kouadio-Yves Dabila, Ié, Yves Bissouma, and Imad Faraj to fill the spot. The first thing they did in the summer of 2018/19 season was to bring in a right-back and they duly did. Zeki Çelik and Jeremy Pied both came into the side. The former was then established as the main right-back, while the latter served as a backup.
Xeka finally returned from his loan spell with Dijon and cemented his place in the team, playing alongside Thiago Mendes in the middle of the pitch.
Formations and style of play comparison
The 2017/18 season was a bit of an experimental season. The wily Argentinian tactician often rotated his squad while switching back and forth between 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 3-3-3-1, and 5-3-2.
All that, combined with the new players failing to settle in quickly and some questionable decision making, caused some unrest and unwanted chaos in the team.
With Bielsa, there were surely lots of visible differences that can be seen.
A usually patient, low-blocking Lille side now pressed high and aggressively. They seemed to play shorter passes, exchange in a much higher tempo, move with more fluidity up front, and attack with intent.
Players being played in new positions and unfamiliar roles were not uncommon. Take Bissouma for example. Originally a box-to-box styled midfielder, being asked to play as a right-back by Bielsa. Or prolific winger Nicolas Pepe, standing in the centre as the main striker. Or Mendes who was often played as a holding midfielder.
Did they work?
It’s quite hard to say yes to that.
There seemed to be numerous flaws in their game. Their seemingly awful communication and lack of cohesion, along with poor tactical understanding often caused some disappointingly unorganised play.
More often than not, their inability to comprehend their tasks went punished. This was why Lille had one of the worst defences in Ligue 1 last season, conceding 67 goals in total.
The players were struggling. They were trying so hard to put everything that they were trained and instructed to do into play but ultimately failed, quite miserably.
Nevertheless, Bielsa still had a big influence which heavily impacted the players’ mindset and the way they play.
Lille have had a long history with the 4-2-3-1 shape. From their title-winning 2010/11 season under Rudi Garcia until now (with the exception of René Girard who adopted a 4-4-2 shape from 2013/14 to 2014/15 season), this has been their most-used setup regardless of the composition.
While Bielsa loved to try on different formations throughout his spell, Galtier fixed his eyes on the 4-2-3-1 shape.
Last season, Bielsa often opted for a front three consisting of Anwar El Ghazi, Pepé, and Luiz Araújo. When Galtier took charge, he immediately moved Pepé back to his favourite right-wing spot, with Lebo Mothiba playing in the centre. Both El Ghazi and Mothiba left the club earlier in the season – the former only on loan, while the latter permanently.
Galtier already knew what he was going to do with his squad. The scouting and recruitment team had done their best to bolster the weak spots and further strengthen certain areas.
Since the start of the season, Galtier opted mainly for a 4-2-3-1 system, although much later in the season would often deploy his team in a 4-4-2 shape.
According to statistics, Lille mostly used the 4-2-3-1 more often than any other system (40%). Meanwhile, 4-4-2 was the second favourite with 38%. Other formations like 4-4-1-1 and 4-1-4-1 were quite rare, but occasionally seen deployed in certain situations.
Excellent defensive organisation
Usually, against stronger, offensively aggressive oppositions Lille tended to defend with a low block. They defended with 10 men behind the ball, pressed as a unit, and tried to keep the space between each line as compact as possible.
Lille allowed their oppositions to freely play out from the back, only applying pressure when they seemed to be in an uncomfortable position.
As we can see, Lille maintained a narrow line in the middle. That is to prevent their oppositions from advancing centrally and force them to play in wider areas.
Once the opposing player has found the ball in either flank in their defensive half, they will attempt to create an overload and swarm the ball-carrier.
An almost identical but slightly different situation can be seen when Lille are facing oppositions of similar or lesser stature.
The picture above was when Lille played against Angers several weeks ago.
In this game, they were more confident in closing down their opposition and pressing aggressively, often forcing them to play long balls forward. They set up a high defensive block and kept their shape compact by pressing as a unit.
The rest was pretty much the same. Vertically compact shape, narrow middle, overload flanks, and swarming the ball-carrier.
Player positioning and movements
Under Bielsa, Lille played with El Ghazi on the right and Araujo on the left. Judging by that, they surely weren’t looking to play with inverted wingers. Pepe, who mostly played as the main striker seemed to be instructed to move into channels and roam wide rather than stay central.
Galtier, on the flip side, preferred to play with two inside forwards. Pepe on the right and Bamba on the left. Either Leao or Remy would play as the centre-forward and stay central. The limited movements of the striker allowed the trio behind him to get even more creative with their positioning and movements.
Take a look at these heatmaps.
Leao (left) rarely moved away from his area in the centre, although occasionally dropping slightly deeper. Meanwhile, Ikone (right) was much more creative, usually roaming wide (mostly to the right side), but relatively few movements inside the box.
We can see from the heatmaps above, Pepe (right) was actively moving and cutting inside. Same goes for Bamba (left) who rarely went to the byline, but rather opting to cut inside a lot.
With wingers often moving narrower, full-backs maraud forward and exploit spaces in wider areas.
Here we can see the movements of Kone (left) and Çelik (right) on the flanks. They often sit high up the pitch and were very actively moving up and tracking back on their respective sides.
Çelik was particularly more active. The Turkish full-back’s speed on the flanks, ball-winning ability, willingness to go the extra mile, and attacking flair were crucial in Lille’s campaign this season.
Those two pictures above also showed the difference in how Lille’s two central midfielders move and position themselves.
Xeka (left) was not a very active member offensively, although occasionally bringing himself forward and into the box to receive crosses. The Portuguese midfielder most often held himself in the centre of the pitch to anticipate counter attacks. This is particularly vital as Lille often played with two offensive full-backs who might leave their respective position to attack, leaving only two men at the back.
Xeka’s responsibilities include (but not limited to) snuffing out opposition attacks, but he often turned out to be the team’s creative outlet as well. His passing and vision were often vital in helping his team progress the ball and/or break quickly in counter-attacks
Meanwhile, Mendes (right) was the more active midfielder, moving up and down the pitch. From one box to another.
Unlike Xeka, he very rarely entered the box though, mainly due to his lack of ability to win aerial duels, but would often just wait at the edge of the box for spill outs.
The Brazilian schemer is an all-around excellent player. He’s strong enough to stand his ground, possesses a great amount of pace, endless stamina, aggression, excellent technique, fantastic defensive prowess, splendid ball control, and crisp passing as well as vision and awareness.
There’s no doubt that these two players were extremely vital in Lille’s successful campaign this season.
Lille improved how clinical they were in front of goal since last season. We could perhaps attribute that to the way they build their play up and attack this season.
Les Dogues love to keep the ball at their feet. They move the ball around, working their way up patiently.
Lille played the ball out from the back a lot, moving the ball laterally and playing on the flanks. They tended to play mostly on the right side, which explains why Ikone’s heatmap showed that he often drifted to the right flank.
The full-backs often sit high but would drop back whenever needed to provide passing options and help recycle the ball.
As mentioned before, Lille often played the ball in wider areas. They were very effective in rotating the ball down the wings. Two teammates would close down the ball-carrier, creating passing triangles and exchanging one-two touch passes.
Lille’s goals came a lot from counter attacks. Two players usually went forward while the rest of the team defended. It was usually Pepe and Leao/Remy. While Leao/Remy usually acted only as a distraction, Pepe would move in behind the defenders, lose his marker and exploit spaces left behind the defence. They were particularly effective against opponents with high defensive lines.
Lille usually struggled against oppositions with a deep defensive line though. Montpellier for example. They have virtually no space behind the defence to exploit so the pace of their attackers basically means nothing. In this case, their best hope was to take shots from outside the box.
Defensive and offensive stats
The most distinguishable difference between Bielsa and Galtier at Lille was the defence.
Lille are often known for their strong, impregnable defence. In the 2013/14 season, the partnership of Simon Kjaer and Marko Basa was responsible for getting the side to finish third in the league with only 26 goals conceded. Two seasons later, Soumaoro and Renato Civelli were the centre in Lille’s fortified defence, bringing them to a fifth-place finish while conceding only 27 goals in the league.
Sadly the same can’t be said when Bielsa was at the helm, but this season was different under Galtier.
Lille were hailed as one of the best defences in Europe, with only 33 goals conceded in Ligue 1, making them the best defence in the league this season. This is undoubtedly due to their excellent defensive organisation.
Lille averaged around 41.87 interceptions per game and managed to win an impressive amount of 35.22 (45.3%) aerial duels per game.
According to Wyscout, they faced an average of 9.62 (36.5%) shots on target, while only conceding 0.89 goals per game.
They were more impressive offensively.
Lille have recorded around 12.04 (40.8%) shots on target on average. They also have an average of 1.3 xG value in each game while managing to score around 1.8 goals per game.
In total, they have bagged 68 goals in Ligue 1 this season. Pepe is surely the best Lille player this season. His excellent finishing easily contributed to his 22 goals tally, while his ability to create chances has provided Lille with 11 assists this season.
When Bielsa left, Galtier inherited a highly-talented team. Morale was low, yet pressure was piling up. Nevertheless, the Frenchman managed to drag the Northern France-based side out of the relegation zone.
After a surprisingly poor finish, not much was expected from Lille in the next season. Though club president Gerard Lopez originally aimed very high, he eventually came to the realisation that his team might not be able to pull off such a drastic transition so quickly.
As the 2018/19 season got underway, Galtier was met with a not very high expectation of finishing in the top 10 in Ligue 1. But the former Saint-Etienne man eventually succeeded to smash all his expectations. Finishing second in Ligue 1 and qualifying for the Champions League.
His excellent communication with the players as well as smart tactical decisions were vital in Lille’s campaign. His “Ligue 1 Manager of the Year” award was unequivocally deserved.
But one question remains. With key players linked with moves to European giants and the seniors not getting any younger. Can he pull that off next season?