Lille were hugely weakened in the last summer transfer window, and many believed that Christophe Galtier wouldn’t be able to repeat the last season’s success. Getting the silver medals after finishing with 75 points and getting Champions League football – this would be very difficult to replicate. The loss of their two star attackers, Rafael Leão and Nicolas Pépé, out of their famous trio with Jonathan Ikoné, heavily impacted the attacking power of Les Dogues. However, the arrival of Victor Osimhen, Renato Sanches, and a couple of others revived the hopes of fans for the continuation of UCL football on Stade Pierre-Mauroy. At this moment, Lille are going in the fourth position behind only PSG, Marseille and Rennes. So there is a good chance that Lille will get in the Champions League zone again at the end of the season. In this tactical analysis, I will look at some of the build-up patterns that Christophe Galtier uses in his work with Lille and what players have the most influence on that.
The build-up formation
This season Galtier tried several formations, but the list of players remained the same and the structure of the build-up didn’t change too. At the beginning of the season, the main formation was 4-2-3-1 with Osimhen up top and Jonathan Ikoné behind him acting as a number-ten. It looked something like this:
This formation was used, for example, against Olympique Lyonnais on the 3rd of December last year. Somewhere from there, the coach switched to 4-4-2 scheme with forwards Osimhen and Ikoné. All the players remained, the only change was with Ikoné partnering up with Osimhen in the attack. The new formation can be seen in the image below:
Positioning in the build-up
Either with 4-2-3-1 or with 4-4-2, when Lille were playing out of the back this season, they use 3-2-5 formation with one of the full-backs, Bradarić or Çelik, staying with centre-backs and forming a back-three. The two midfielders, Soumaré and André stay in their original positions above the defensive line, and while Osimhen acts as a striker, Bamba and Ikoné act as narrow wingers. Let’s say in this case Bradarić, the left-back, joins the attack, then he and Sanches provide the width and sowe get a 3-2-5 scheme. You can see the movement of the players in order to position themselves like that in 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formation in the image below:
This is a common practice to use a similar player location. For example, Klopp and Guardiola use that too, just with some variations. This formation is great because it allows a team to outnumber the opposition defence, as most of the time there are only four defenders, so we get 5 v 4. You can see this positioning in the game against Monaco:
Here Domagoj Bradarić joins the front-five with Bamva, Osimhen, Ikoné and Sanches (all in orange circles). The two midfielders (blue circles) stay around the centre circle and Fonte, Gabriel, and Çelik stay back. However, you can see that Monaco were set up in 4-5-1 formation with Keita and Martins on the flanks, and Martins is defending against Bradarić, who is with the ball on the left. This Monaco formation allowed them to solve the issue of outnumbering, as one of the flank midfielders would defend against one of the Lille’s full-backs.
So, Lille not only uses this rigid structure of 3-2-5, oftentimes one full-back is not pushing that high to get in the attacking group and thus there is more protection, and that allows the other full-back to position himself a little bit higher. Quick passing play between the full-backs, centre-backs, and midfielders would allow them to switch the play from one flank to another, and there would be a greater opportunity for stretching a defence and creating good chances.
Here you can see two full-backs pushing not so high, and André joining the attack from the midfield spot. This way Lille have the equal number of attacking players with the number of Montpellier defenders, and four players at the back allow good ball circulation and the chance for a quick switch:
Sometimes one of the full-backs will push higher and the shape will look more like 3-1-6 with two centre-backs and a full-back in the defence – usually Soumaré, will be in the holding midfield role, and a huge number of attacking players. The main point is in having one more attacking player than the opposition has defenders so it is much easier to break the defence down. This way Lille have more passing options, and the ability to create passing triangles between full-backs, midfielders, and wingers.
This also allows the full-backs and sometimes other players (but mainly full-backs) to release the front-three with through-balls. All of them have speed, and they are great at making start-and-run without being caught offside. This is huge, as it is one of the most-used approaches for creating chances for Lille this season. Through-balls for Osimhen, Ikoné or Bamba are very effective, and if they don’t lead to open goalscoring opportunities, it is still a great way to move up the pitch and earn a throw-in or foul. We will see this concept in more detail in the next section.
Using long balls
We saw in a previous section that through-balls and long balls are very important for Galtier’s team. When full-backs are in a good position (near the touchline or in half-spaces), they try to get the ball to Osimhen or Ikoné (most of the time), who try to establish possession in the final third. These two attackers are good in the air, especially Oshimen, so it is reasonable for his pattern to exist. We can see an example below:
This is not the only idea in Lille’s attacking arsenal, but it is one of the most efficient ones due to the aerial ability of Osimhen and others. There is always a good chance that one of the attackers will win a first or second ball, so it is a very effective type of ball progression. In the example above you can see that Lille are able to get the ball to the final third with just one pass and a good opening from Osimhen. Now, Lille have an opportunity for a great attack without having to break down the opposition press through normal passes. It is a useful tool against the teams who apply high-intensity pressing or if Lille are not able to bypass the press in any other way.
Victor Osimhen drifting wide
We discussed the long balls that Lille use to enter the attacking third, and I pointed out the importance of Osimhen several times. He has the qualities or target man and at the same time he is a very agile and fast footballer, so he becomes very useful in Lille’s tactics.
One of the biggest principles Osimhen uses in his game is leaving his position as a centre-forward and drifting wide. This movement has several reasons. The first one is that the central area is usually more crowded, there are more players so it is tougher to win the ball in the centre. By moving closer to the touchline, Osimhen creates space for himself and also disrupts the opposition defence, even if they already studied this movement and ready to exchange the marked players. The second reason is that full-backs are shorter and less physical than centre-backs so 6’1 Osimhen has the advantage in the air as he has to compete with weaker players (physically). Also, he has great acceleration so he gets the ball first most of the time.
Below you can see his heatmap for this season. Just by looking at it, it is very clear how much time he spends in the penalty area as he is the main striker of the team. But the more important thing for us to note is the fact that he spends a lot of time on the wing and in half-spaces too, fighting for first and second balls. He prefers to drift to the right flank more than to the left, as Ikoné is usually occupying that space already. However, he can open himself up for a pass on the left flank too.
Here you can see an example of this movement:
So Osimhen is an important cog in Galtier’s tactics. He is the main goalscorer, netting 11 goals in 22 games, averaging exactly one goal every two games. He helps tremendously with ball progression with his ability to open himself up and run behind the defence. His strength, agility, and speed are deadly for League 1 defenders.
The influence of Boubakary Soumaré
Boubakary Soumaré is one of the most exciting prospects in Ligue 1. He is a very important part of this team, and he is vital to his team in the build-up. He has a great passing ability along with the vision and the ability to play under pressure. In the image below you can see all of his progressive passes this season:
He operates mainly as a left midfielder, and a lot of his short progressive passes to the attacking trio come from the left half-space. Also, there are plenty from the centre and from the right flank. Another major passing pattern is the 30m or more pass to the right flank. The receiver is often the right-back Çelik, although it can be Sanches too. Soumaré is sitting deep during the build-up, oftentimes being left as an only midfielder, as we saw in the sections above. He circulates the ball from there, dictating the play. However, from this position he can’t risk and progress the ball, so he has to pass it to full-backs or centre-backs. Whenever another midfielder like André stays with him or he gets another player to cover him, he can play risky passes to the Lille’s attackers.
From the example above we can see that Soumaré plays the ball to Loïc Rémy bypassing the whole Monaco’s midfield trio. He has André next to him in case of a failed pass and the necessity to defend after that, so the risk is justified. Even if anything comes out of this pass, it still creates danger and disrupts the opposition structure, as defenders and midfielders have to regroup after Rémy gets that pass between the lines. He is very good under pressure too, not panicking or giving away the ball cheaply. This is important for a midfielder because any lost ball is a danger that no team needs. He is calm and composed on the ball, and that is a great asset for a midfielder to have.
So, Soumaré is a very important player in Galtier’s system, being one of the main players responsible for ball progression. He has a lot of talent, and his understanding of the game will only improve onwards, and it will become even more beneficial for Lille.
Third-man runs and Renato Sanches’ influence
Apart from the principles of build-up play we discussed above, there is one more thing I want to emphasise. Galtier has been using the same squad and the same starting eleven this whole season with sometimes just Araujo replacing one of the attackers. This helps to build chemistry between the players, let them get to know each other better. It is especially important with the attack, as there have been some changes from last season.
In the build-up, Lille players like to carve out opposition pressing using third-man runs. As we saw earlier, Lille have a big number of players (5-6) joining every attack. It creates an opportunity to create passing triangles between players and break the opposition defence. Lille attacks through the middle a lot, but they attack through the wings and half-spaces too. We discussed that having a 3-2-5 shape is common for attacking football and many coaches use it. The main question is, when not attacking centrally, which areas of the pitch to attack: half-spaces or the wings? Guardiola’s Manchester City attacks half-spaces with the likes of David Silva and De Bruyne, while Klopp’s unbeaten Liverpool puts a lot of emphasis on attacking through the wings with TAA and Robertson. Galtier’s team exploits the wings too with pacey full-backs and wingers.
In the image above Lille pull off a great attack with a nice combination between three players. First of all, Bradarić is running with the ball to the centre, where he finds Bamba with a pass. Bamba drags two defenders out of position, mostly the full-back. It allows Ikoné, who positions himself near the touchline, to make a run into an entirely open wing-space and then make a pass to the penalty area. Such triangles are not a rarity for Lille, they use them quite a lot in their build-up. Fast, agile and physical players who can move the ball forward with dribbling also make these passes even more reasonable. Third-man runs are a great option for attacking through the flanks, and Lille use them a lot. Even though this team prefers to attack through the centre, either with long balls, high-speed vertical passes, or breakthroughs with dribbling, attacking the wing-spaces are an essential part of Lille’s attacking structure.
Renato Sanches was considered almost like a failed talent after his unfortunate three-year spell in Bayern Munich and a disastrous loan to Swansey. However, under Galtier he seems to be getting back on track pretty fast. In Lille he is not used as a central midfielder anymore, this season he resurrected his career as a winger. During the build-up he is often near the touchline, allowing full-backs to attack the half-spaces, just like Bradarić and Ikoné did in the previous example. His individual skillset is essential for Lille, and his abilities now seem to suit so much more to him on the wing, not when he plays centrally. From there he can pick the ball in the deeper areas and progress it forward with his dribbling and passing, constantly looking for spaces. He brings another dimension to his team as he ads another option in the build-up. His dribbling and pace are thriving in Lille’s system, and it looks like a beneficial deal for both sides.
Christophe Galtier is doing a brilliant job with this Lille team. Having escaped relegation in 2017, the following season was an incredible success. This season, despite a slight downfall table-wise, is still a great one considering that Lille have lost two of their stars last summer. Their attack is on point, but the main issue this season has been their shaky defence, that cost them some results, for example, a draw with Valencia in UCL. Anyway, there is a big chance that we will see this club in the Champions League once again this season. In this analysis/scout report, I wrote about the main principles of build-up play of Lille under Galtier, one of the many components for Lille in order to try and establish themselves as a big club in France.