Scouting Report: Alassane Plea

With the news that Lucien Favre will be the manager of OGC Nice next season, Nice are going to be heading in a different direction for the near future. Nice were one of the pleasant surprises of Ligue 1 this season. A team that wasn’t pegged for anything more than mid-table obscurity ended up finishing 4th in Ligue 1, only two points off of the final CL spot in France while scoring the 3rd most goals (58). They were led by an attacking trio of Hatem Ben Arfa, Valere Germain and Alassane Plea which combined for 37 goals and 16 assists.

But things will change for Nice when next season starts. They’ll be losing 81.1% of that production during the summer with Ben Arfa leaving on a free and Germain returning to his parent club Monaco. As with most Ligue 1 teams, finances aren’t abundant, so it’ll be nearly impossible for them to find this production with gaudy transfers. It’s for that reason that they’ll be relying on the likes of Vincent Koziello and Nampalys Mendy, who emerged as building blocks for the future in midfield.

Another player that Nice will have to lean on next season is Alassane Plea. Plea is another example of the Thierry Henry effect in France: a winger during his early years who has slowly migrated centrally. Plea hasn’t quite gone as far as the likes of Alexandre Lacazette where he can function alone as a standard CF/ST or even Anthony Martial when he was with Monaco, although perhaps with more seasoning this might eventually happen. Plea is just as tall as Martial while a couple of inches taller than Lacazette while sharing similar attributes in quickness though in terms of raw speed he falls behind the two.

Scoring

On the surface there wasn’t anything outstanding about Alassane Plea’s production. 10 goals contributed on the season (6 goals, 4 assists) is pretty pedestrian. If you prorate it for every 90 minutes, it projects Plea in a better light. A goal contribution rate at 0.64 rated 15th in Ligue 1 this season, a marked increase from last seasons’ production and while the quality of chances he got were nothing special, there was improvement in both that and his finishing.

Plea Shots

Plea Shots

Plea Shots

Alassane Plea xG Chart + Data courtesy of @SteMc74

Again, those numbers aren’t mind blowing but it represented continued progress for a 23 year old completing his 2nd season in France. The playmaking numbers were pretty pedestrian though and his rather high assist rate was more a function of Nice’s over-achievement in converting shots into goals than it was anything else. Models project Plea with his current body of work to be a pretty solid player but not quite at the level where he can be considered a “can’t miss” prospect.

Improvements in shot volume is a positive, especially considering that Nice weren’t a team that focused on bombarding opponents with shots. Nice only produced ~10 shots per game this season, which was 2nd to last in Ligue 1 behind only Bastia, who only shot 8.7 times per game. Also a positive was despite his increase, it didn’t result in more affinity to long range shooting as the shot charts described which is something you might see with players who increase their shooting load.

The majority of Plea’s six goals came from him occupying open space to be a target for a pass, either because he made a decisive run to bend the defense or he just had such wide open space to run into. Only one of the six goals by Plea came from a sequence that featured something resembling multiple dribbles, which was this curling shot versus Guingamp.

When it came to shots, the same type of pattern emerged. This doesn’t mean that Plea can’t be a good forward in the near future, there are several top class strikers who do the bulk of their work without the ball. Perhaps one area that Plea will need to work on is incorporating little shimmies and body feints to create a yard of space between himself and the defender without the benefits of running ‘downhill’ against the opponent.

Positional Versatility

One thing that stands with Alassane Plea out is his comfort in playing different areas. He’s just as comfortable playing in a congested area in a half space as he is spreading himself wide and playing as a more traditional winger touching the sidelines.

Plea 1

Plea 1

Nice this season played something that resembled a 4-3-1-2/4-3-3. The width provided comes from either the full backs or one of the front three. Plea was probably the player most comfortable in a very wide position because it allowed him to gather a head of steam and try to beat opponents in 1v1’s, even though it didn’t end in shot opportunities all the time.

At times it got a bit congested in the attacking midfield because Nice love to play intricate passing in short distances. Only PSG played a shorter length of passes in Ligue 1 this season. Often the front three looked like they were only arm’s length apart when the ball was directed out wide. When Plea played in the middle, he played more to break the defensive lines and exploit the space between fullback/CB. In a way, his movements are somewhat similar to Alexandre Lacazette. Both like to find holes within a backline and make runs in between. One difference between the two is Lacazette is considerably more comfortable in tight areas inside the penalty box to shifthis body in a way to avoid defenders, an illustration of the years experience playing centrally.

One type of run that both Lacazette and Plea do try and execute is immediately after their team gathers possession and facing a defense regathering themselves, they try and make themselves a target by making a little looping run that ends with them running inbetween the CBs. Plea isn’t quite good enough yet to pull off those type of runs or intricate dribbling moves inside the box but that will come with more familiarity of the position. If someone wanted to make the argument that Plea will eventually become a CF/ST, Lacazette’s evolution could be used as an example.

Relationship with Ben Arfa and Germain

It’s clear that one of the reasons why Plea became an intriguing prospect this season was because he was part of a front three that complemented each other very well. Germain does all the little things you would want from a striker that isn’t tasked with being a heavy shot generator (layoffs, passes from a wide area into an incoming central teammate etc.). Ben Arfa had his career revived this season and it helped Nice in numerous ways. One thing it did was allow Plea to find someone that can attract a considerable amount of gravity with the ball that allowed him to play with more space, especially when said individual can create solo runs like this.

This was mentioned by the fine folks at FFW when they profiled Alassane Plea in the 2015 edition of Le50:

“What he needs now, in order to develop, is a partner to share the workload. Someone he can play off, to maximize his pace and technical ability. An experienced target man would be a perfect summer signing and would help to play to his strengths and maximize his potential next season.”

Ben Arfa is one of a select few players in the world who can break through an organized defense with his dribbling ability from one end of the pitch to the other, and then go back and do it again.

Germain was the perfect 3rd wheel in this trio because his game lends towards efficiency, particularly off the ball. Blink and you’ll see him drag his opposition marker out wide so it allows space for Ben Arfa or Plea to work centrally. While not as quick as Plea, Germain was keen to exploiting space between the fullbacks and he always managed to find himself in a great area to take shots. Germain also ranked 2nd in total aerial duels on Nice despite being less than six foot and he’s adept at doing layoffs for his incoming partners.

Of course Germain was quite good with the ball as well and could pick out a runner, particularly on the fast break which played into Plea’s strengths.

Passing

An assist rate of 0.26 per 90 from a winger is quite good production which might give the impression that Plea is a creative winger. That’s kind of a false impression. For one, despite the high assist rate his overall creative numbers whether it be just raw chances created or expected assists were pedestrian and the high assist rate was mostly a function of Nice having a high conversion rate. Plus Plea didn’t really pass in general, Only Germain had played less passes per 90 minutes and no one had a higher dispossession rate.

This isn’t to say that Plea isn’t able to make high level passes or he’s inherently selfish. It’s just that Nice didn’t asking him to do that as his main role and more so tried to accentuate his strengths. Their midfield + Ben Arfa (to a lesser extent) were the ones tasked with the playmaking burden.  And there is some evidence to say that he can grow into being a more capable creator with more experience.

Even when the passes didn’t come off properly, you can see a level of thinking in the passing attempts.

Germain raises his hands wanting the diagonal attempt to hit him in stride, which it didn’t and the possession ultimately went nowhere. Not a lot of wingers are capable of making this pass with consistency, it’s the type of pass that Angel Di Maria has made famous over the years. There was one example that I feel encapsulates Plea’s room for improvement as a passer. In the same game versus Ajaccio, Plea came back to help his fullback so Nice could retain possession. One he gathered the ball, he made a smooth turn and tried with the outside of his foot to pick out a throughball pass to get Germain on a 1v1 versus the GK.

It’ll be interesting to see how Plea performs with his passing next season. While at Borussia M’Gladbach, Favre had the benefits of having a very creative striker in Raffael and perhaps he might think that Plea could become something resembling that. This is one of the ways that Plea can become a very good forward even if he can’t create quality shots individually, by being able to make these passes on a more regular basis which can open more breathing space for himself and his teammates to operate.

Conclusion

It would be a considerable stretch to consider Alassane Plea a knockout prospect currently, the type of which a team would be salivating to get and build a whole attack around. He’s not of the caliber of a Michy Batshuayi or Nabil Fekir (when healthy) in Ligue 1 who have major European clubs wanting their signature. While he had a nice enough season, critics could argue that if it wasn’t for the unlikely renaissance of Hatem Ben Arfa, Plea would still be floating around in no man’s land. However glass half full people would point out that at only 23 and just completing his 2nd season in Ligue 1, he’s shown ample progress to suggest that he can more than hold his own in an attacking front three provided it has a focal point. His pace is obvious and he’s increased his shot load while not suffering from shot location issues which is a nice return for his continuation as a more central player. Passing ability is not a strong suit yet but using a “process over results” approach would show that Plea’s ability to connect the pass is lacking but his willingness to try and find a quality passing route isn’t.

It’ll be interesting to see how he develops under Favre’s managing. Under his watch, Gladbach played a methodical style based on possession and slowly progressing the ball into dangerous areas which isn’t too dissimilar from what Nice pulled off last season. In Raffael, he had someone who approximated Ben Arfa’s role as dual creator/dribbler. In comparison to say Memphis Depay who went from a shooting happy environment in PSV to a constricting one in Manchester United, there shouldn’t be too big an adjustment next season. Where Plea may suffer is the lack of creativity around him when it comes to the scoring burden. Plea benefitted from the gravity that Ben Arfa attracted with his dribbling and the unselfishness of Germain’s movements. Without them, he may struggle next season as a sort of lone wolf.

Nice have an interesting player who’s only 23 and still getting his feet wet in Ligue 1, not exactly known as the easiest league to be for an attacking talent. A product of the famous Lyon youth academy that seem to churn out quality attacking players, his upside may only top out as an above average inside winger but it’s still a level that will command a decent transfer fee, and perhaps this is underselling Plea’s potential because he hasn’t played on a team that has found a good-great balance between shooting efficiency and volume. If the club can continue to find harmonious forwards to play up front with Plea (and of course he avoids the injury bug he suffered this season), then 2016-17 could very well be Alassane Plea’s true breakout season.

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The Disjointed Nature of Inter’s Attack

For the first time in half a decade, Inter Milan are involved in a genuine fight to win Serie A. With Juventus’ struggles in the early parts of this season, it has opened the door to a four-team battle for the title. Napoli have been arguably the most consistent team in Serie A, Juventus has clawed their way back to contention and Inter already have victories over title contenders Roma, and Milan. Roberto Mancini overhauled their squad during the Summer transfer window, and remodeled an attack that was previously based around striker Mauro Icardi. The Argentine had tied Luca Toni for first in goal scoring in Serie A at 22 goals. Adam Ljajic and Stevan Jovetic were captured on loan deals, with big money spent on Ivan Perisic and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Mateo Kovacic was the only main departure.

On the aggregate, Inter Milan’s attack has been acceptable, especially considering the upheaval at hand. Inter rank 8th in Serie A in total shots, 6th in the % of shots coming from the central part of the penalty area and 4th in expected goals for. There’s a bunch more numbers you could pile through and it would turn out in a similar fashion, ranking Inter’s attack as a respectable team but nothing special.

The manner in which they’ve attained this is fascinating. In an era where team attacking movements have never been more intricate, Inter are an outlier with their attacking approach oriented on athletic ability. They’ve switched between multiple formations: a 4-3-2-1, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and recently Roberto Mancini has preferred a double pivot within the 4-2-3-1 formation. The depths of which Inter’s formations have changed has reflected the constant search for a workable formula. So far it hasn’t mattered. They sit top of Serie A. But you get the feeling that the club at times is living on borrowed time with their over reliance on defense, especially in close game situations.

The most striking thing about Inter’s attack is the frantic tempo; constantly looking for passes into their attacking players. Most of the central midfielders that Inter have are broadly classified as athletic ball recyclers with the likes of Felipe Melo, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gary Medel. As a result, teams have often gone to man marking Inter’s central midfield which has forced either the double pivot or the three man midfield to do one of two things: either make a rudimentary pass to a teammate around them or transition the ball quickly to one of the attacking players.

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The central midfielders are all fairly uncomfortable against the press, meaning the full-backs most remain slightly deeper to create an easier passing option should they come under any serious pressure. This makes it more difficult to release the full backs into advanced areas.

Inter Pic

Inter can still occasionally get their fullbacks into advanced areas, particularly Alex Telles. But this occurs when they play 1v2 with a wide player, or they collect the ball in a non structured situation and advance it high up the pitch.

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As a result, Inter have a tough time creating attacks from the back. When teams don’t pressure Inter’s backline, it can look sometimes that they’re bereft of ideas on how to build play from deep. This often leads to ponderous passing and the occasional ambitious long ball from their centerbacks. It gets even more worrisome when the opposition are pressing Inter. Udinese, and at times Fiorentina, pressured against Inter and it caused them to play on the back foot. During the initial stages of the Napoli match, even when Napoli were up 1-0 they hurried the Inter backline. Nagatomo was particularly targeted, and this forced Inter to retreat back to Samir Handanovic using him as a release valve to restart their attack.

Inter Pic

Inter’s poor build-up structure and Napoli’s poor press force Murillo into a difficult situation. He has three main options: pass it back to his GK, make a near-suicidal pass to a teammate in the midfield, or hoof it as far as possible.

Very little of the Inter attack goes through the central midfield, and when it does, it’s often forcing the attacking players to receive the ball much deeper than they would like to. It makes sense to get your best players on the ball as much as possible, but the attacking players are much less dangerous when being asked to collect the ball in the midfield with their backs to goal.

Inter Pic

When Inter deviate from playing redundant midfield players and instead use Brozovic, they trade defense structure for a bit of offensive spontaneity. Brozovic is a talented dribbler who can get himself out of tight situations with his light feet and in one smooth motion can either pick out a pass to an attacking player, or create the pass that creates an opportunity for a teammate to advance play.

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This suggests the best midfield going forward would be utilising Brozovic in a double pivot alongside one of the many destroyers. Geoffrey Kondogbia, for example, thrived last season at Monaco alongside creative midfielders, but has struggled this year in a midfield full of mostly redundant pieces.

Upon transitioning into the opposition half, Inter’s attacking play is largely based on individualism. The likes of Ljajic, Perisic and Jovetic are adept at receiving the ball in somewhat unconventional areas and quickly putting pressure on the opposition with either a pass or dribble. At its best it’s an efficient way of bypassing their weaknesses in the midfield and producing good scoring chances, particularly when the attacking move involve striker Mauro Icardi. Their only goal versus Lazio symbolized that.

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This is Inter at their best: a quick tempo involving a defensive action -> quick pass to the attacking three -> ball into Icardi. It’s everything that Roberto Mancini wants Inter to be with the roster he’s accumulated. However, strip out those moments and you find an attack that is often stagnated. It’s the consequences of relying on individualism to paper over the cracks. When the killer passes aren’t available, Inter will still try and force them in and meekly secede possession. Inter also have a penchant for long range shots when things don’t go their way with the club ranking in Serie A’s top 6 in shots from outside the area.

And here’s the big kicker, the attacking structure that Inter have built has come at the expense of their talisman goal scorer Mauro Icardi. Icardi has been dying for service this season. He’s been receiving the ball about as little as a striker of his caliber can and it’s easy to see why. Inter have built an attack that is the antithesis of a poaching striker. Numerous Inter build up plays in the final third involve overloading on either side and a gap in the central area. When that happens, often times there’s little support for Icardi in the areas that a #10 would generally occupy. This means Inter often rely on 30/35 yard passes to create a chance for Icardi.

Inter Pic

Inter Pic

In theory, a permanent switch to the 4-2-3-1 should help rectify these type of situations going forward. There’ll be times when Icardi will communicate to those around him that he is available for a ground pass, but yet no one will provide him the ball. Even though Jovetic wears the #10 on Inter, he doesn’t play as a nominal #10. He moves around all over the place and occupies different positions playing at times; sometimes like a wide player and at times like a second striker. That type of versatility is needed considering the one dimensional nature of the central midfield, but it can come at the expense of building a consistent rapport with Icardi. He’s also quite happy to let fly outside the box shots if he doesn’t sense anything happening around him.

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The 4-0 victory against Frosninone in late November was arguably Inter’s best attacking performance. Three of the goals that came in the second half were created from some beautiful team passing and hinted at what Inter could be if they get their attack going. Ljajic’s role in particular was important because he did the brunt work of the creativity on that night, occupied the #10 areas that Icardi can get service from and generally stayed attached to him. He played a nice 1-2 with him which led to a tap in for Icardi.

Inter Pic

Jovetic was also more consistent when playing closer to Ljajic, and although his touches were still spread out, there was more of an emphasis on being closer to Icardi for link up opportunities.

Inter Pic

After 17 games, Inter’s attack can be best described as still a work in progress. To their credit they have been ruthless in capitalizing on defensive errors and turning them into goals. Their 4-0 victory over Udinese was a testament to that, as they scored three of their goals from defensive errors by the Udinese backline. Inter are blessed with a couple of hyperactive creative midfielders in Ljajic and Jovetic, while Icardi has still managed to score goals at an impressive rate despite being much more of a supporting player than the main focal point offensively. It’s probably fair to say that the offense still being this choppy is a bit of a concern despite having no European football to deal with, but it’s also fair to say the massive roster upheaval Inter had over the summer means this shouldn’t be a surprise.

The Frosinone performance showed a road map that Inter could head down and find attacking success, but this level of performance needs to be attained against teams with a sturdier defense. In an era where a lot of teams are zigging, Inter are zagging. If the club can find more cohesion going forward, we might be looking at the first Scudetto for Inter since the treble winning season six seasons ago.

 

PSG 4-1 Saint Etienne: When pressing goes wrong

PSG and Saint Etienne at the Parc De Princes was an intriguing matchup between the huge Ligue 1 favorites and a team that some believe could challenge for a Champions League spot. PSG are a juggernaut but Saint Etienne are also an interesting team. They have taken the mantle from Marseille as perhaps the most aggressive pressing team in France. Of course, their pressing isn’t as frenetic as the Marseille side under Marcelo Bielsa, but it’s quite intense in its own right. With the attacking talent at hand for PSG, utilising that style of play was audacious from Saint Etienne manager Christophe Galtier.
ASSE

It was the same standard 4-3-3 for PSG but with minor alterations. Layvin Kurzawa and Gregory Van Der Wiel came in at full backs and provided a lot of speed at their position compared to the likes of Maxwell that usually starts for PSG. Adrien Rabiot played instead of Blaise Matuidi for squad rotation purposes. Saint Etienne this season have shifted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation after playing primarily in a 4-3-3 formation to make up for a natural #10 on last season’s team and basing their attack on their wingers.

Saint Etienne’s offensive woes

In many ways, Saint Etienne utilised a very similar gameplan against PSG to the one Marseille used a few weeks ago. ASSE tried to play primarily through the counter and press either when they lost the ball or just got tired of PSG passing between their centerbacks. In comparison to Marseille who mixed their use of pressing, Saint Etienne were more gung-ho about it. In rare instances, Saint Etienne would choose to play a conservative 4-4-2 defensively.

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Saint Etienne were appalling going forward, creating very little offensively. 12 of their 14 shots were outside the penalty area and PSG suffocated any attempts of Saint Etienne creating any half decent chances. Just like with Michy Batshuayi, Robert Beric was isolated very often and used as an outlet for Saint Etienne when they wanted to establish possession.

Pos

The problem was that when Marseille did similar things with Batshuayi, they would follow it up with actions that were quicker tempo; whether it would be Batshuayi trying to run in behind the centerbacks of PSG or Marseille’s wingers trying 1v1 in an attempt to create quick offense. Saint Etienne did very little of this. Saint Etienne’s passing was non existent and the one time they had a quick combination passing sequence, it netted them their best chance which was an effort from Valentine Eysseric in the 14th minute outside the box that nearly curled in past Kevin Trapp.

PSG deserve credit for Saint Etienne’s attacking woes. PSG gave little to no room for Saint Etienne to work with, and without the individual talent to create something out of nothing, it left Saint Etienne grasping at straws. When PSG weren’t pressuring Saint Etienne after losing the ball, they were willing to drop back slightly and suffocate the space in their own third.

And when Saint Etienne tried to hit PSG on the counter, PSG tracked back and snuffed out any danger.

Angel Di Maria’s centrality

When Real Madrid won its 10th CL title two seasons ago, one of the biggest reasons for their success was that they converted Angel Di Maria into an inside midfielder who would make lambasting runs through the middle. It created a welcome dimension for that Madrid side and it paid dividends in the CL final where Di Maria played a huge role in the Gareth Bale game winner in extra time.

PSG haven’t completely gone the same way with Di Maria, and they may never do what Real Madrid did with Di Maria, but Sunday hinted at the type of damage he could do if allowed to roam in centrally more consistently. We saw signs of it when PSG destroyed Monaco two months ago on Di Maria’s debut for the club including an audacious long ball onto Lavezzi for the third goal in their 3-0 victory. Outside of that, Di Maria has played more or less as your average inverted winger who gets to cut inside with his stronger left foot.

Against Saint Etienne though, it was more the Real Madrid Di Maria that we saw. Though he did play quite a fair bit out wide, he also was allowed to drift inside and almost make it a four man midfield with Cavani as a left forward and Ibrahimovic as a #10/ST. Van Der Wiel’s bombing up and down the right side allowed Di Maria to come in centrally. The third goal in particular was Di Maria at his best, a wonderful throughball to Cavani that led to a tap in for Ibrahimovic.

Performances like this from Di Maria may lead to PSG playing a three man midfield featuring Marco Verratti/Blaise Matuidi/Di Maria, which would arguably be the most dynamic midfield in Europe. Matuidi could make up for Di Maria when he doesn’t fully track back, and it could take advantage of both Verratti and Di Maria’s outstanding ability to create throughball opportunities and PSG have Lucas on the bench so a 4-3-3 formation would still be possible. At the very least, it’s a lineup that could be used domestically without too many repercussions considering the talent at hand.

Bad Pressing: starring Saint Etienne

Pressing against a team as ball dominant as PSG has been attempted before in Ligue 1 recently. Lyon last season in their two 1-1 draws against PSG pressed with the front three of Nabil Fekir, Clinton N’Jie and Alexandre Lacazette. Marseille famously tried an intense man-marking version of pressing against PSG last season and in the second Le Classique last April, it got them a 2-1 lead after 45 minutes in perhaps the biggest game of Ligue 1 last season. With a team like Saint Etienne who don’t have well-renowned offensive talent, using it as a way to create opportunities was a logical idea and if executed properly could lead to maybe 1-2 big chances in open play.

The problem was that it didn’t work for Saint Etienne on two levels. Firstly, their attempt to create a high tempo defensively didn’t frustrate PSG and it didn’t even create chances for themselves in attack. The warning signs were there early on for Saint Etienne. An 10th minute long ball into Ibrahimovic bypassed the Saint Etienne backline with ease and nearly put him on a breakaway. A younger Ibrahimovic would’ve gotten to this ball and had a key opportunity at goal.

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Saint Etienne’s backline were consistently trying to play the offside trap and PSG’s attacking trio all had their attempts at getting behind their defense. Two or three more times before the first goal, PSG played direct longballs from their own half, that on another day, could’ve ended up as grade A chances.

The first goal for PSG was a combination of great passing and half-hearted pressing on Saint Etienne’s part.

When Motta receives the ball, Saint Etienne could try and double team him and gamble they could dislodge the ball. Or alternatively they could’ve sat back a little and give Motta some room but try and take out his passing options. Instead, it was a faux-pressing action between the two players closest to Motta that allowed him to pass it to Rabiot and it eventually ended up in a Verratti throughball onto Kurzawa. It also didn’t help that Monnet-Paquet didn’t smell out the danger and track Kurzawa’s run and then Francois Clerc gave a poor attempt at tackling Kurzawa just before he got 1v1 with Ruffier. Again, it was great bit of passing from PSG and it was the type of movement and tempo that they can do on a consistent basis against any defense in France. But it was helped by Saint Etienne’s indecision.

More of this happened in the second half when Saint Etienne continued to play a high line against PSG and repeatedly got burned. Di Maria was played in via a lovely back heel by Ibrahimovic and could’ve made it 2-0.

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For a team that has been known for its solidarity defensively over the past few seasons, Sunday night was one of Saint Etienne’s worst defensive performances under Galtier.

Conclusion

Saint Etienne were awful against PSG on both facets. Defensively, they surrendered eight big chances against PSG and gave up an expected goal tally of 4.03, by far their worst number in a single game this season. Going forward they only had two shots in the penalty area and one big chance created. It was a case of having the right idea but a very low bar in terms of the execution at play. PSG picked apart Saint Etienne’s press and suffocated their attack when Saint Etienne tried to create. It was a poor display for a supposed CL contender in Saint Etienne and it showed just how limited they can be against top opposition, which they haven’t had too much of with their easy schedule so far this season.

For PSG it was another further statement as to how far above they are talent wise over the rest of Ligue 1 which was already very well known, and it showed us a window into how PSG could incorporate Angel Di Maria centrally. His movement was excellent and his performance overall was reminiscent of his heyday at Real Madrid and even his first few performances with Manchester United. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had arguably his best game in months and it was a throwback performance, with his willingness to run in behind defenders along with his tendency to drop deep and play as a faux #10. It’s probably too much to ask of him to play like this a lot, but PSG don’t need him to.

It was a very thorough demolition by PSG; the type of performance that shows why some people think of them as one of the top five teams in European football this season.

PSG 2-1 Marseille: Contrasting 4-3-3’s Take Center Stage in Le Classique

It’s been interesting to see the tactical change Marseille have undergone since the departure of Marcelo Bielsa. Last year Marseille played in multiple fluid formations in an ultra aggressive pressing system, whether in a 3-4-3 or a spread out 4-2-3-1. This year has been considerably different as Michel has Marseille playing under a much more conservative (relative to Bielsa) 4-3-3 formation. The use of Abdelaziz Barrada as a left sided central midfielder has been interesting as well, with his presence at times creating at times a 4-2-2-2

PSG countered Marseille’s 4-3-3 with their own similar formation that unlike for Marseille, has been a staple for PSG for quite a long time. Le Classique was home to dueling 4-3-3s, a fascinating encounter between by far the best team in France, in PSG, and a mercurial Marseille club that have been much better than their 16th place showing.

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Marseille’s Conservatism

Under Marcelo Bielsa, Marseille were one of the most aggressive pressing sides in Europe last year. The intense man-marking system had its flaws (both short- and long-term), but it also had its considerable positive effects. Marseille were one of the best at establishing a chaotic tempo and getting out to early leads, very similar to the 2013-14 Liverpool side. The pressing system also suited certain members of last season’s Marseille squad.

This year has been different. Marseille still press but not to the degree they did last season.

Against PSG, it was more of the same. Marseille set up at times in a 4-4-2, very happy to allow PSG to pass from the back.

It’s a considerable change from last season’s Marseille squad but it was also a welcome change in some ways. It displayed a sort of pragmatism that Marseille lacked at certain times last year. What made the new found conservatism even more profound is Marseille found ways to mix and match this with the intense man marking system. Even though Remy Cabella was listed as a LW, he drifted inside with and without the ball.

Marseille PSG

Motta is dispossessed, which creates a counter attacking opportunity leading to a handball infraction just outside the penalty area.

When Marseille got it right, PSG had stretches where they clearly struggled to create a passing tempo from the defense onto their attack. It showed more variety in Marseille’s off the ball structure than was present with Bielsa as their manager. It also allowed for OM to soak up pressure and play on the counter primarily, something that they didn’t do much last season. Roman Alessadrini took charge of the right hand side and was very direct while Michy Batshuayi presented himself as a credible target man when Marseille needed to play long balls to him to relive the pressure from PSG’s pressing of the OM backline.

However there were consequences to the 4-4-2 set up that OM played defensively, and PSG exploited it when the opportunity presented itself, especially when Marseille became quite narrow.

Serge Aurier’s Positioning

The use of Remy Cabella as a LW this season has come with mediocre results for Marseille and against PSG that didn’t change; though this time, Cabella was also a hindrance defensively. In the modified 4-4-2 system defensively, Cabella’s positioning was all over the place as he drifted inside many times. Sometimes he & Barrada would alternate who would play as the nominal left sided midfielder in defensive phases.

Occasionally it ended in good results, like the instances where Marseille would try and create transition opportunities. Other times, it left acres of space for PSG to punish when given the opportunity. Serge Aurier is perhaps the most forward-venturing fullback in Ligue 1 and he was a constant nuisance for Marseille with his positioning, putting a huge strain on Paulo De Cegile and the OM backline to cover up.

Marseille PSG

This was a constant theme for Aurier. What made this particularly tough was that Di Maria and Aurier would often times alternate positions. Di Maria would come deeper despite being the RW and Aurier would go forward. Combine that with the brilliant movement of Marco Verratti and It resulted in PSG’s first big chance of the match.

Marseille PSG

The constant switching between Di Maria and Aurier was a powerful weapon for PSG, and it also displayed the damage Di Maria could inflict from deeper areas. Aurier when going forward is very comfortable on the ball and it proved too much for Marseille to handle. De Cegile isn’t lacking mobility but there was no chance he could cover the entire right hand side by himself, as Cabella was slow to shift. No LB in the world could, nor should, be faced with 1v2’s against the likes of Di Maria and Aurier. Marseille had no counter to this whilst both Cabella and Barrada were on the pitch and it brings into question why Michel is continually playing both Barrada and Cabella on the left side.

It was a masterclass showing from one of the best RBs in Europe. Aurier wasn’t flawless (he gave up a penalty that could’ve equalized for OM in the 2nd half) but his overall performance displayed both the endless stamina and skillful talent he possesses.

Multifaceted Michy Batshuayi

With Michel setting up Marseille to play primarily on the counter attack versus PSG, Batshuayi was tasked to play multiple different roles. At times he was asked to play as a point of reference of some sorts, other times he tried to give width to compensate for Cabella’s continued escapades into the central area. There were even multiple occasions where Batshuayi would collect the ball from inside his own half, another sign into both how committed Marseille were to playing on the counter and how big a stranglehold PSG had in terms of raw possession.

When Marseille wanted Batshuayi to run through the channels, he had the mobility to do so.

Marseille PSG

Against a lesser type of opponent, these kind of instances could’ve resulted in breakaway caliber of chances. It didn’t against PSG because they have the type of mobility at CB to sniff it out and turn possible quality chances into run of the mill stuff.

The goal by Marseille though exemplified the all -around capabilities that Batshuayi possesses. He collected the ball around midfield to keep hold of possession for the team.

Marseille PSG

And then made a typical center forward run and got on the head of Barrada’s cross.

There were also moments where Batshuayi would try and create offense for himself, one of those instances occurring two minutes after the 55th minute penalty save from Kevin Trapp, resulting in a half chance that was parried away. Performances like this are a strong indicator into the caliber of player Michy Batshuayi could become. Against lesser opponents, Marseille’s half chances could’ve been B+ caliber of chances, and most of Marseille’s chances have Michy Batshuayi’s fingerprints all over them.

Conclusion

The performance produced by Marseille was a indicator that they are certainly not the caliber of a 16th place team, which is also backed up by the data. It wasn’t a perfect performance, as PSG did create three clear cut chances from open play, but that’s usually a given when PSG play anyone in Ligue 1. PSG at times looked genuinely troubled with Marseille’s change of pace defensively and were hit on the counter multiple times including the opening goal. Bordeaux did similar things against PSG earlier in the season and it’s the clear tactic to use against a possession dominant side like PSG.

But it was also a reminder as to the massive gap between PSG and the rest of the field in Ligue 1. On an off day, PSG were still able to get in behind Marseille’s defense. In a battle of 4-3-3s, PSG’s version looked more compact defensively even with Marseille doing a number of things right.

The use of Remy Cabella at times effectively gifted PSG the right hand side and both Di Maria and Serge Aurier took great advantage of it. It looks increasingly unlikely that Marseille’s best lineup shouldn’t include both Barrada and Cabella, and it’ll be up to Michel to play a traditional winger if he wants to keep his version of the 4-3-3.

There are clear signs that Marseille will right the ship and move up the table. The problem is just how quickly can they climb up and salvage a possible shot at a Champions League birth for next season.

Olympique Lyonnais 1-2 Stade Rennais: Compactness dooms Lyon

by @Moesquare

Olympique Lyonnais have only taken four points from a possible nine so far this season, a far cry from the start they were hoping for. Lyon can take solace in the fact that both Monaco and Marseille have also had similarly lackluster starts, two clubs who think they should be part of Ligue 1’s top three. Lyon have been uninspiring over the last five halves of play, and Rennes helped contribute to that with a compact showing defensively away from home.

Stade Rennais had a pretty defensive lineup going into the match, even by their standards. Pedro Henrique started as a makeshift striker, despite usually operating as a winger. Former Lyon player Mehdi Zeffane was put into the starting lineup, but as a left sided midfielder in front of the back five, instead of as a fullback.

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As the game kicked off, Lyon immediately took up their narrow 4-3-3 defensive shape. However, normally Lyon would prefer to have the front three in wider positions, defensively. Lyon at their best like to press along the flanks and the sidelines, giving them opportunities to regain possession and possibly launch attacks the other way.

 

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Rennes’ Pressing

Rennes aren’t known for their pressing, and are certainly not in the same category as Marseille last season under Marcelo Bielsa. Their defensive style is more similar to the likes of Nantes & Saint Etienne, who prefer to do their defensive work in the midfield and allow the opposition time on the ball in non-dangerous areas. However, Rennes’ manager Philippe Montanier had Rennes press the Lyon backline continuously, particularly in the first 20 minutes. This led to Lyon making questionable decisions and forcing potentially dangerous turnovers.

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The result of this was that Lyon were unable to establish rhythm to their attacking play. Lyon prefer to utilise the central areas, more so than most Ligue 1 sides, and the width is provided from a combination of their forwards drifting wide, or fullbacks bombing up the touchline to create overloads. At their best, Lyon are able to blend the centrality of their attacking players with the width from the full-backs (Rafael & Bedimo) into a fluid attack. Rennes recognised this, and seemed to dare Lyon to beat them only by attacks starting from the outside; the clogged up the centre of the pitch, so only simple options were taken by Lyon to keep possession of the ball.

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The first goal by Pedro Henrique came just a couple of minutes after, via a mistake from Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa & Jordan Ferri. The goal was a reward to Rennes for their determination and tactical preparation coming into the match.

As the game moved further along, the intensity of the Rennes press slowly started to decrease. It wasn’t necessarily because of the positioning of the front five from Rennes, as they still were fairly high up the pitch.

Henrique didn’t change his positioning but allowed the backline of Lyon to make passes. Nabil Fekir became a more central threat and Lyon were able to hem in Rennes into the final third more often, evidence by the 180 final third passes that Lyon created (the highest mark from a Ligue 1 team so far this season).

Lyon Fullback deployment

One of the staples of Lyon’s offense is how high up the pitch the likes of Rafael and Bedimo are positioned, to provide additional width when Fekir & Lacazette don’t drift out wide. Lyon aren’t a very cross happy team (they were in the bottom three last season in crosses per game and chances created from crosses), but Lyon use this width to create 2v1s on either flank when the middle is unavailable to build through.

We saw similar things with Lyon after the Rennes opening goal, as they started to involve their fullbacks more often in an effort to bypass the middle of the pitch.

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While Rennes did a solid job in plugging the middle, there were a few attacking moves from Lyon that posed trouble for them, and they were all built from wide areas. The goal from Fekir was through a combination of Bedimo cutting inside in a failed 1-2 combination with Lacazette, Jordan Ferri’s high positioning on the right hand side and another forward run from Rafael.

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It was somewhat fortuitous that Lyon scored despite the good things they did to unlock Rennes’ defense. The cross from Rafael on the right hand side was deflected onto Fekir, whose shot was also deflected past Costil.

Lacazette’s involvement

It was interesting to see Lacazette’s positioning throughout the entire match. At his best, Lacazette can perform both as a striker who comes from the outside-in or inside-out. Lacazette wasn’t close to his best against Rennes and seemed to prefer cutting inside from wide areas. His performance more reminiscent of his earlier days as a winger than the striker of 2014-15.

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TacOne of the rare opportunities where Lacazette was able to effectively come from the outside-in was when he, Valbuena and Fekir combined on a lovely interplay that nearly resulted in a Grade A chance for Lacazette.

Some of this was due to Rennes’ defensive outlook, overloading the midfield and essentially gifting parts of the flanks, especially in the midfield. But also key was Rennes controlling the tempo of the game. Lyon ideally like to play a mixture of a quick tempo attack combined with doses of methodical football that’s more focused on creating throughball opportunities. Rennes forced Lyon to play the majority of the match as the latter, trying to break through against their defense, especially when they sagged back and dared Lyon to break them down.

Lacazette thrives on controlled chaos because his speed and strength combined with his quick shooting ability makes him a nightmare in those situations. He’ll find the spaces in between the CBs and make runs into the penalty box, which his teammates found last year in high abundance. Those runs weren’t available against Rennes, and the slow pace meant he couldn’t thrive in that vacuum, another feather in the cap to Rennes and their defensive outlook.

Conclusion

Rennes did a solid job defensively against Lyon. They weren’t perfect, but they forced Lyon to play a predominantly slow paced match, and they did a good enough job in limiting the opportunities that they created. Lyon are averaging 5.33 shots in the danger zone area (the center of the penalty box) this season which is 4th best in Ligue 1. Lyon attempted six versus Rennes, right around their league average.

It’s fair to say that Rennes were a bit lucky in nabbing two goals out of only six total shots, particularly considering that the shots were arguably stoppable on Lyon GK Anthony Lopes’ part. But one might argue that Rennes deserved that bit of good fortune for what they did to Lyon with that defensive lineup. Zeffane was great in his return to the Stade Gerland and did a surprisingly great job as a left sided midfielder. He assisted on the first goal and scored the winning goal.

It’s too early to predict doom and gloom for Lyon, especially considering that they faced similar struggles at the start of last year’s campaign. They do not look anywhere close to the side that took Ligue 1 by storm last year, but time is still very much on their side.

Rennes came to the Stade Gerland with a plan and executed it. The focus on defensive & compact football worked well for Rennes, and may provide a blueprint for other Ligue 1 teams to use against Lyon throughout the season.