How Christophe Galtier Turned Lille Into Ligue 1 Title Contenders
Possessing an excellent blend of youth and experience, Lille have taken Ligue 1 by storm this season, as Les Dogues’ dynamism, organization and adherence to Christophe Galtier’s demands see them currently sit atop of the Ligue 1 standings.
Despite always losing their star players every summer, with recent departees including Nicolas Pépé (€80 million to Arsenal), Victor Osimhen (€70 million to Napoli), Rafael Leão (€29.50 million to AC Milan), Gabriel (€26 million to Arsenal) Thiago Mendes (€22 million to Lyon) and Yves Bissouma (€14 million to Brighton), it’s been astonishing how smartly they keep replacing their big names to rebuild.
Bringing in the likes of Renato Sanches, Benjamin Andre, Yusuf Yazici, Jonathan David, Burak Yilmaz, Domagoj Bradaric, Timothy Weah, Sven Botman, Jose Fonte, Jonathan Bamba, Jonathan Ikone and Zeki Celik has served as a testament to their astute recruitment team, led by Luis Campos.
While many thought they’d be competitive as always, not many predicted they’d be leading the way heading into the final stretch of the season. Under the tactically meticulous guidance of Galtier, they’ve unquestionably been one of the hardest teams to play against due to their multifaceted offensive threat and solidity at the back.
To start with their defensive output, and they’ve been exceptional in this regard, for they’ve been supremely well organized and coached to remain compact horizontally and vertically to stifle opponents. Doing a fine job of restricting opponents and limiting the amount of quality chances they face, Lille’s aptitude in this regard is highlighted by the fact they boast the best defensive record in Ligue 1 (only conceded 16 goals in 26 games).
Typically defending in a base 4-4-2 shape that can often resemble a 4-2-2-2, they’ve been a well-oiled machine when pressing and sitting deeper in a compact mid or deep block. Remaining disciplined, coordinated in their mechanics and concentrated, they know precisely when to step out, shift across, drop back or stay in shape depending on the situation, which allows them to deal with whatever they’re confronted with.
In situations when they press high, it’s been impressive how they’ve set up to combat their foes. With the opposition regularly enjoying a 3v2 numerical superiority against their first line of pressing, they’ve handled such situations smoothly. Once the keeper passes to the center-back, the ball-near forward will press him on an angle, hoping to use their cover shadow to block the passing lane to the central midfielder behind him and deter the ball holder from passing back to the keeper. The ball-far striker will then usually shift across to the dropping midfielder or central center-back (if in a back three), with the idea being to guide their adversaries wide, where they can use the touchline as an extra defender. The ball-near winger will usually stand off the closeby fullback, before pressing once the pass is hit towards them. They too will curve their pressing, hoping to block off central lanes to minimize the options for their foe.
The fullback will then step to the dropping winger while the central midfielders will aggressively shift across to mark their opposite numbers, as they condense the pitch brilliantly to force an error or the opponent into hitting a low percentage long ball. It also warrants mention how the far side fullback and winger shift across to make life even harder for the opposition to break through their press with an infield pass.
If they win the ball back higher, their pressing compactness means they’re close together so they have many nearby options to attack quickly against an unset defense. Then, if a long ball is launched forward, their towering, aerially dominant central defenders in Botman and Fonte usually win their duels so Lille can regain the second ball to go again.
Moreover, how they respond to triggers like a pass towards the touchline, a backward pass, an underhit pass, and an opponent receiving back to goal or in an open posture has offered an extra reason for upside. Furthermore, it’s been key how they’ve overloaded the ball side and pressed backward with intent to cause dilemmas for the man on the ball, who will typically make a poor decision when placed under such duress without a clear out ball.
Timing their press, screening potential passing routes forward, performing dual roles, and going as a unit, it’s been a joy to watch Lille harry so intelligently and successfully.
So comfortable in their mid-block, Lille control dangerous central areas effectively, with their spacing and frequent adjustments allowing them to block pass lanes and minimize space between their lines. Happy to concede space out wide and very adept at dealing with crosses and runs into the box, they cope with these instances with their aforementioned shifting and imposing presence in the area (that includes commanding keeper Mike Maignan).
Being so content and secure without the ball, there’s no issue for Les Dogues not having the ball, for they can quickly spring into life on the counter-attack from their closely connected defensive shape.
As solid as a rock defensively, the exceptional Maignan in goal has been ably supported by the brilliant central defensive partnership of Botman and the experience Fonte, who’ve formed a formidable duo and lead by example with authority. They’re then well equipped in the full-back areas, as Celik is the first choice right-back while Bradaric and Reinildo have shared the left-back duties.
By the numbers, their collective excellence is evidenced by the fact they’ve faced the fewest shots in Ligue 1 (206), made the fourth most interceptions (1058) and have conceded the least goals as mentioned earlier.
Meanwhile, when it comes to their offensive exhibits, Lille have been equally effective, with Galtier having plenty of depth in his attacking ranks that give him a plethora of different combinations to choose from depending on the opposition and so they can rotate to cope with their domestic and Europa League demands.
Spoilt for choice, Galtier has the likes of David, Bamba, Ikone, Yazici, Yilmaz, Luiz Araujo and Weah to choose from, who ensure he has some outstanding options at his disposal who offer varying threats. Although none of their attackers have hit double figures yet for goals, with Yilmaz their top marksman on nine, they’ve all parlayed tidily to contribute 39 goals.
The wily French strategist has implemented some interesting mechanics to get the best out of them too. From his 4-4-2 shape that’ll morph into a 4-2-2/4-2-2-2/4-2-4 or 4-2-3-1 at times, this has given them a platform to shine, with their coherent understanding seeing them dovetail sharply.
With the wingers instructed to drift infield to operate in the half-spaces, this not only makes huge spaces wide for the fullbacks to surge into but also means they can combine intricately with their fellow frontmen to quickly unlock the opposition rearguard. From here, they can engage in some slick up-back-through exchanges, rapid one-twos, and crafty backheels and flicks to manipulate and exploit openings in behind. Enjoying a strong presence between the lines, this has benefited their technically elite frontmen, for they’re comfortable receiving under pressure with their back to goal, inheriting the ball in a forward-facing posture and knowing when to turn if viable.
To further compound issues for their enemies, Lille’s frontline will execute clever rotations and opposite movements, where one player will drop and the other will counterbalance this by surging in behind, which are so difficult to deal with. Altering reference points and upsetting defenders’ rhythm, they persistently ask questions of their enemies on who they should mark in what zone.
Due to them being positioned within close proximity, this has enabled them to fiercely counter-press if a turnover is committed. Reacting smartly, their aim is to immediately regain possession by heaping pressure on the ball carrier and shutting off potential outlets to hopefully win the ball back high to attack again.
The danger of the front four is amplified by their threat in behind, with them alert to get on their bike once they identify a gap between defenders if a defender is ball watching or already preoccupied with a marking assignment. Whether running between central defenders, down the channel or marauding into the box to latch onto crosses and cutbacks, this has been a notable aspect of their play. How the blindside of opponents has also been exposed has been vital, for this importantly gives the runner a dynamic advantage over awkwardly oriented trackers with their back to goal to attack deliveries.
Extra upside can be extracted from how central attackers expertly pin and draw markers to consequently open up room for teammates to target both in front of and behind the defensive line.
In terms of their build-up, opponents have usually been confronted with Lille’s quality structure to progress upfield. Mixing things up depending on their opposition and during games, they sometimes build with the two defenders or in a three with a dropping central midfielder to generate an overload.
Wanting to pass the ball out on the ground mostly, the fullbacks give width to their plans, while the midfielders and indented wingers offer crucial options to bypass the press. Wanting to provoke their foes into stepping out before desiring to play through them to access the half or 10 spaces, they’ve done so well with their asymmetrical central midfield staggering and aforementioned mechanisms.
When a center-mid drops, the other will often be positioned on a different line or push upfield to give them another outlet to move through the thirds. In situations when one midfielder checks deep, an interesting 3-1-4-2 shape will develop, which gives them quick circulation across the backline, allows the center-backs room to dribble wide, lets the fullbacks drive high, and lures out pressers so threatening spaces between the lines can be found with line breaking passes. An alternative of the above can be found when a fullback stays deep to form a back three this way, thus meaning they keep the double pivot and attack in a 3-2-4-1 system to ask questions of their opponents’ game plan.
In wide areas, rhombus and triangle-like shapes are formed to ensure numerical superiority can be obtained, plus so passing angles are available to get the ball back inside to access the center or switch play to the underloaded far side, where the fullbacks can enjoy advantageous 1v1s.
Full of speed, trickery and invention in their offensive ranks, Lille are masters in transition, springing to life to heap pressure on retreating backlines on the counter. Quick to get numbers forward and target the vacant zones behind onrushing fullbacks and when one forward draws out a center-back, they fill dangerous lanes in a coordinated fashion to wreak havoc. Lightning to break upfield, ideal 3v2 or 4v3 scenarios are frequently manufactured to give themselves terrific chances of carving a path through short-handed, backpedaling backlines.
In slower, methodical build-up, rotations between the fullback and nearby winger have provided some good variety and meant the fullbacks can underlap to catch opponents off guard. Furthermore, if the press can’t be beaten, having the option to use target man Yilmaz has been valuable so they can set up around him to regain second balls in advanced areas.
Some offensive statistics of note come from how they’ve taken the fourth most shots (317), are sixth for touches inside the area (422), rank fourth for through balls (253), make the third most passes into the final third (1746) and are third for deep completions (250).
When Lille’s young American star, Weah, spoke to CBS, he offered a wonderful insight into how the players are relishing working under Galtier, gleaming: “The coach has an amazing game plan and loves to attack.
“His football is based on teamwork and what you can do for the team. He is one of the best I have ever worked with and one of the best in the world, for me. He is like a father figure — you cannot ask for better. This is a great group of young guys. We are all super hungry. Even Renato (Sanches), who was at Bayern, he wanted to start over here. We feel great and everyone is hungry.”
While there’s still plenty of games left to decide who’ll claim the Ligue 1 title, Galtier’s Lille have certainly proven they’re the ones to beat.
Consistent, possessing Ligue 1’s best defense and with so many game-changers in attack, it’ll be fascinating if they can keep up their level in their quest to become the first Lille side to win a title since 2010/2011 when the likes of Eden Hazard, Gervinho and Idrissa Gueye were starring for Les Dogues.