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Julien Stephan: Analysing his overachievement with Strasbourg

Three months after resigning from Rennes, Julien Stéphan was officially appointed as the new head coach of Racing Club Strasbourg.

Seen by many as the brightest coaching prospect in the French game, Stéphan’s appointment last summer is considered somewhat of a coup for the Alsatian club. As they only secured their Ligue 1 status on the last day of the 2020/21 season.

Having won promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2017 after a nine-year absence, the club has finished each season in the league’s bottom half. This season, though, the team went into the final day of the season fighting to finish in fourth place and ultimately ended the 2021/22 campaign in sixth place — a very impressive showing. This shows what a remarkable job Stéphan has done in such a brief period.

This article will be a tactical analysis focusing on the tactics adopted by RC Strasbourg throughout Julien Stéphan’s first season in charge. We will provide an analysis of the tactical principles of his approach this season and focus on the key features that have put RC Strasbourg in contention for European football.

Tactical Flexibility

Julien Stéphan has proven himself to be an adaptable and flexible coach. He will adapt his formation to the players he has available and will often change his tactical approach to match the opposition.

During his time at Rennes, he focused his tactics around a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 before switching to a 4-3-3 for most parts of his last season.

The same principle has been applied to Strasbourg this term as he has shown his flexibility and adapted his approach once again.

The graphic below shows he has decided to base his tactics around a 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 system. Switching from the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1 formation used by Strasbourg for the majority of last season under Thierry Laurey.

The 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations are ideal formations for Julien Stéphan’s approach as they provide him with the opportunity to be flexible and unpredictable with his tactics. As the two shapes are “in possession” and “out of possession” variations of each other.

Between the two formations, you get good defensive coverage against possession-based teams and teams who prefer counterattacks. Your team can transition between the two quickly and effectively, while you can control the game from the centre of the pitch. 

The predominant use of this shape has also seen Julien Stéphan defer away from trying to control the game by possessing the ball and start controlling the game by mastering the space.

This season, Strasbourg have an average possession rate of 48.5%. When compared to Julien Stéphan’s Rennes team of last season — who achieved 57.4% possession — it signals a change of approach from Stéphan.

Stéphan has implemented a more direct approach at Strasbourg as they try to build through the defence less often and opt to get the ball forward into space more. Strasbourg are currently in first place for long balls in Ligue 1, with 47.3 per 90 minutes.

They still look to progress quickly and vertically, but he has set them to have less of the ball. Last season, his Rennes team averaged 532 short passes per match as Strasbourg currently sit towards the bottom of this particular table with 388 per match.

Defensive solidity

Overall, the defensive structure that Julien Stéphan has applied since arriving at the club has been essential in Strasbourg’s performance this season. They defend well as a unit all over the pitch.

As we approach the final game of the Ligue 1 season Strasbourg have the fifth-best defensive record in Ligue 1 — conceding just 39 goals. Meanwhile, their expected goals against record are 41.60, which is the fourth-best in Ligue 1.

Defensive Shape

Defensively, Strasbourg plays in a 5-3-2 shape. They block the central areas, look to compress the space between the lines and force the opposition out wide.

One of the benefits of playing with this formation and a possible reason for Julien Stéphan implementing this approach is its ability to be played with a high, medium, or low block. So, Strasbourg can adapt how they press the opposition depending on who the opposition is and what in-game situation develops.

When play is forced out wide, the team then looks to shuffle across and engage the opposition aggressively in the wide areas.

You can see how Strasbourg have blocked the pathway for PSG to progress through the centre. As soon as Mbappé receives the ball out wide, the midfield moves across to close him down. Then, the centre forwards drop deeper to narrow the space between them and the midfield. This forces PSG’s play back towards their own penalty area. 

This pressure against the ball remains high through the wide channels. Strasbourg aims to win the ball back and catch the opposition out of position with quick turnovers down each flank.

High, Medium and Low Block

When Strasbourg plays a team that wants to build out from the goalkeeper and through their defence, they will push higher and initiate a man-orientated press, looking to win the ball back deeper in the opposition’s half.

The aim remains the same — block the opposition from being able to progress the play centrally, force the play wide, and win the ball back. If the ball can’t be won back, they force the opposition backwards.

When Strasbourg operate with a low defensive block, they are very good at protecting their penalty area. Their defensive shape remains the same as they keep a 5-3-2 narrow block and lock to force the opposition out wide. 

When defending deep, they have up to eight players defending the penalty area, as the midfielders drop closer to defence to decrease the space between them and the centre backs. It also provides extra players to win the second and third balls should the cross manage to get into the penalty area.

The tactical theory behind Strasbourg forcing the play out wide is to keep the opposition further away from your goal and force them into crossing the ball

This season, Strasbourg are top of the table for winning the most aerial duels with 39.99 per 90. Along with conceding the fifth-lowest number of shots on goal per 90 minutes with 9.

Attacking Play

Since Julien Stéphan took control of the team, Strasbourg have focused more on getting the ball forward quicker and attacking space in the opposition’s half.

They attack as a cohesive unit so when they get the ball forward into the opposition’s half, the defence moves up the field too. They position themselves as high as the halfway line with good movement from out wide and through the centre of the pitch.

You can see how far up the pitch the defence plays as they look to dominate the ball in the opposition’s half.

They like to stretch the opposition with vertical and lateral attacking play which provides an effective variation to how they attack teams.

They have no overreliance on one individual player to make their attacking play work. Their goals have been shared between the three centre forwards so no matter what pairing plays upfront as part of their two-man attacking line, they continue to pose a significant threat, as you can see with a list showing their highest goal scorers this season.

  • CF. Ludovic Ajorque – 12 goals
  • CF. Habib Diallo – 11 goals        
  • CF. Kevin Gameiro – 11 goals  
  • CM. Adrien Thomasson – 8 goals

After playing 37 league games Strasbourg had scored the seventh-highest number of goals in Ligue, bagging 60 goals. Their xG tally, meanwhile, is 56.88; this is the sixth-highest in the Ligue 1, which shows an overperformance but not at a rate to be considered unsustainable. 

Wide attacks

Building attacks through the wide areas has been a fundamental tactic used by Strasbourg this season. Even though only having one wide player on each flank can pose a vulnerability when playing with a 3-5-2 formation, Strasbourg negates this by overloading the pitch centrally to create space out wide to cross.

Against Saint-Étienne, you can see how high the wing-backs play. This gives Strasbourg the option to switch the play or go direct and over the top if Saint-Étienne tries to compress the space centrally.

Dimitri Liénard and Ibrahima Sissoko being in the half-space on the left-hand side helps create the space out wide, which brings Saint-Étienne’s defensive shape narrower. Strasbourg are then able to play direct down the left flank and cross. 

The wingbacks being high and wide and beyond the ball carrier on both flanks supports Strasbourg’s wide play tactic. 

Strasbourg have the second most successful cross completion rate in the Ligue 1 with 35.1%. They average the sixth most crosses per 90 with 15.02, highlighting their tendency to use the wings when entering the final third and attacking the opposition’s box.

Central attack

As you know, in football, a player can play a crucial part in his team’s attacking play with good attacking runs and picking up clever positions. Even if he does not receive the ball.

Part of Strasbourg’s attacking play develops from good attacking movement in the middle area of the pitch. Between the three, the central midfielders provide good rotation and support the play right across the attacking third of the pitch.

Sissoko and Liénard attacking through the half-spaces against Saint-Étienne were a common trait throughout the first half. Julien Stéphan had identified that asking the midfield to attack these areas would bring Saint-Étienne’s full-backs further inside.

Even if they do not receive the ball in the first phase of play, the movement they provide disrupts the opposition’s defensive shape — vital for Strasbourg’s strategy of attacking open space directly.

Attacking Set-Pieces

Strasbourg have scored the second-most goals in Ligue 1 from set-pieces this season with 13 goals and they’ve proven to be a vital tool at their disposal. 

The delivery for corners is always an outswinger. They have five players positioned in the penalty area ready to attack zones marked on these two examples.

Once the corner is delivered, one player goes to the front of the six-yard box, one player attacks the back of the six-yard box, and then two more attack the six-yard box centrally. One Strasbourg out of the five remains just beyond the penalty spot for second balls.

You can tell that Julien Stéphan prepares the team well for set pieces, and they work on them in training. On the occasion that a weakness is identified, they will arrange a specific routine to exploit that weakness. Set-piece creativity is an exciting and effective element of their offensive tactics. 

They have pulled two players towards the taker to show for a short corner. This in turn attracts two Saint-Étienne players away from the goal and leaves additional space to attack. However, before the corner is taken, one player runs back into the box and the other pulls away. The corner is taken in the same way, delivered towards the six-yard box and Strasbourg score. 


Appointing Julien Stephen was a masterstroke by club president Marc Keller. There’s no doubt Strasbourg have performed beyond expectations this season.

Given the club already has a good infrastructure and a passionate fan base. There is no reason Strasbourg can’t look to build on this season’s overachievement and join the clubs regularly challenging for European football.

This analysis shows what we have identified as being some of the main aspects of Julien Stephen’s tactical approach as Strasbourg manager. We have looked at the key tactics surrounding the attacking and defensive structures Stephen has employed since arriving last summer