After coming up through the club’s youth academy and subsequently spending nine years of his professional playing career at Espérance de Tunis, former centre-back Moïn Chaabani joined the Tunisian club’s senior coaching staff in July 2016. He would go on to become Espérance’s manager just over two years later in October 2018.
39-year-old Chaabani’s tenure as Espérance manager has been highly acclaimed, with the former centre-back even drawing some comparisons to Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, likely because of the fact that he led Espérance to the CAF Champions League, Africa’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League, in both 2018 and 2019. Chaabani’s Espérance competed in the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup that was won by Los Blancos and the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup which was won by Liverpool.
Chaabani also led his Espérance side to the 2018/19 Ligue Professionelle 1 title and Espérance currently sit 12 points clear at the top of Tunisia’s top-flight, having gone undefeated in each of their first 17 games of the season – winning 15 of those contests.
Knowing that, it may not come as a big surprise that Chaabani has been touted as one of Africa’s best young coaches and in this tactical analysis piece, we will take a look at Chaabani’s tactics and his tactical philosophy. This analysis will look at how Chaabani’s Espérance side perform with and without possession of the ball, as well as when in transition between those phases of play.
Chaabani usually lines his Espérance side up in a 4-1-4-1 shape, or the very similar 4-3-3 shape. During the 2019/20 campaign, Espérance lined up in one of those two formations in 57% of their games.
However, Chaabani likes his full-backs to play high up the pitch in possession and as a result, this can result in something resembling a 2-3-4-1 shape forming during the early stages of the build-up, as the full-backs begin to advance ahead front of the defensive line and get in line with the holding midfielder.
We can see an example of this shape forming during Espérance’s build-up phase in the image above.
Espérance are a team that tends to dominate possession. They have kept an average of 58.61% possession in all competitions during the 2019/20 campaign. Teams that tend to dominate possession also tend to play the ball out short from the back and that is the case with Espérance. While they are capable of playing the ball long from goal-kicks, they tend to play short goal-kicks and build their attacks through the centre-backs, as we can also see in this image above.
These tactics in the build-up serve to draw more opposition players high up the pitch and Espérance bank on their technical ability and their understanding of their gameplan in possession to play past the opposition’s press.
Espérance’s full-backs tend to get quite wide during this phase of play and at this particular moment in the image above, we can see both full-backs advancing out towards the sidelines. This stretches their team’s field of play and gives the opposition a larger area of play to have to concern themselves with.
As the full-backs push out wide, this can stretch the opposition’s defensive shape and create gaps for Espérance to play through. As we can see in the image above, Espérance’s holding midfielder is being man-marked by an opposition player, however, as Espérance’s full-backs attract the attention of the opposition’s two wide men, this creates space for one of Espérance’s two more advanced central midfielders to drop deep, temporarily creating a double-pivot in the build-up which allows Espérance to create a 4v3 overload in this area of the pitch.
This is a tactic that Chaabani’s side often utilise in order to get around the problem of the holding midfielder and full-backs being tightly marked during the build-up, thus making it difficult for his side to play through them.
Another tactic that Chaabani’s Espérance like to use in the build-up is to create a deep and slightly wide diamond via the positioning of one centre-back, one full-back, the holding midfielder and one of the two more advanced central midfielders. This diamond creates progressive short passing options for Espérance during the build-up and helps them to play past an aggressive press, such as the one we can see in action in this image above.
Here, the left centre-back finds the left-back out wide. As the wide man receives the ball, he attracts pressure from the opposition player positioned closest to the sideline in this picture.
The full-back quickly plays the ball inside in front of the holding midfielder, who can then play a straight-forward progressive pass to the more advanced central midfielder, who is now freed up as a result of the far opposition player pressing the full-back aggressively.
This shows us how this tactic can help Chaabani’s side to beat the opposition’s first two lines of pressure in the build-up via their short passing philosophy.
Once Espérance build into the centre of the pitch, they try to get the ball into the final third as quickly as possible, as their wingers, centre-forward and full-backs create a five-man offensive line, as we can see in the image above.
The full-backs are pivotal in Chaabani’s offensive tactics at Espérance because their attacking role allows the wingers to cut inside and perform the role of two inside forwards. Espérance’s centre-forward – often, but not always, Ibrahim Ouattara – tends to drop slightly deeper, creating space for the inside forwards to attack inside and creating a problem for the opposition’s defence to solve, as his movement can attract an opposition centre-back out of position, as we can see here.
However, one negative aspect to Espérance’s build-up during this phase of play, is that they can get overloaded in central midfield, as we can see here, resulting in the ball being lost. Chaabani relies heavily on his midfielder quickly advancing the ball up to the final third, however, if he fails to do so, this can result in a dangerous counter-attack for the team to have to defend against.
We will discuss some of the key aspects to Espérance de Tunis’ offensive game in order to analyse how Chaabani likes to set his side’s attack up. Firstly, in addition to playing with high full-backs, inside forwards and a centre-forward that likes to drop slightly deeper than normal in order to create an offensive line of five, Chaabani likes to attack via the wings quite a bit and Espérance tend to play plenty of crosses.
In this image above, we can see one of Espérance’s inside forward’s in possession of the ball. As he threatens to cut inside, he creates space for the full-back to overlap him and create an additional wide threat, in addition to potentially creating some room for the ball-carrier by drawing the opposition defenders’ attention.
On this occasion, as the opposition defenders continue to track the inside forward’s run, the overlapping full-back receives possession of the ball out wide.
The overlapping full-back carries the ball towards the byline and cuts just inside the opposition penalty area before playing a cross. Espérance’s full-backs like to play crosses from these advanced positions, while the more advanced wide men tend to float crosses in from deeper positions. This creates a sense of unpredictability about Espérance’s crossing, which helps them to keep the opposition’s defence on alert.
Chaabani’s side tend to flood the opposition penalty area with bodies when a cross is being played and as we can see here, they often create a scenario which sees more offensive players in the penalty area waiting to attack a cross than defensive players preparing to clear the danger.
In addition to potentially allowing an Espérance man to enjoy a free header by creating this scenario, Espérance also tend to benefit from rebounds and take advantage of loose balls thanks to these offensive tactics.
Espérance like to get the ball out wide in the final third quite quickly, as they can often create an overload with the overlapping full-back combining with the inside forward and potentially even an advancing central midfielder by getting the ball into this area. On this occasion, the right central midfielder carried the ball out wide and found the full-back. The midfielder then continued his run to take up the most advanced position on the right-wing, while the full-back remained slightly deeper. This created a triangle with the inside forward who is occupying the half-space, as we can see here.
As this passage of play moves on, the full-back plays the ball into the feet of the inside forward in the half-space, who holds up the play well. At that point, he has two options, firstly, he can play the ball through to the central midfielder who is now occupying the right-wing, or secondly – the option that he ultimately takes up, he can complete a one-two with the full-back, who continues his run inside.
Chaabani likes to utilise the half-spaces by placing the inside forwards in those positions while threatening the opposition goal and they can be effective at creating holes in the opposition defence by doing so.
As the full-back receives possession in a central position, he can thread a ball through the gap that has been created in the opposition’s backline thanks to this quick short-passing link-up play and intelligent use of the half-space. As Espérance attract players into that position, they pull them away from central areas and they are good at going on to exploit the gaps that they create in the opposition’s defensive line.
While Chaabani likes his side to build-up their attacks using short-passing plays in their own third of the pitch, once the ball progresses or is won in the middle third of the pitch, he appears to be happy for his team to play more direct.
We saw an example of this in the previous sections, as the number of players that Espérance positioned in the final third, compared to the middle third, seemingly encouraged the midfielders to get the ball forward quickly to where their teammates were waiting.
This is also the case when Espérance has the opportunity to counter-attack. Regardless of in which third of the pitch Espérance win the ball back, they like to counter quickly and in a direct fashion. When they win the ball back high up the pitch, their attackers’ dribbling comes into play more quickly, whereas when they win the ball back in either their own third of the pitch or the middle third of the pitch, they usually use long-balls to find the attackers in the final third first, before their dribbling and positioning cause the opposition problems.
We can see an example of an Espérance counter-attack in this image above. This triangle shape with two wide forwards and one slightly withdrawn centre forward is the kind of offensive shape that Espérance like to create on the counter.
They like to find this central attacker slightly deep, so that he can carry the ball forwards and force the opposition defence to make a decision with regard to when one of them will make a move to close him down and risk creating a gap in the defence as a result. As we can see, the central attacker then has two wider forwards ahead of him who he can find with a through ball if a gap does open up on either side of the opposition’s defensive line.
Alternatively, if the opposition defence doesn’t close this ball-carrier down, then he can go all the way himself, which could be just as dangerous of an option.
While Espérance often dominate possession, they have got a pacy and well-drilled offensive line who are also comfortable with playing on the counter-attack.
Out of possession
Chaabani likes his team to defend high up the pitch and Espérance tend to utilise an aggressive option-oriented press when the opposition has the ball in their own third of the pitch.
Initially, Espérance like to make it difficult for the opposition to play through the middle of the pitch via their positioning during the early stage of their opponent’s build-up play. They like to force their opponents to play the ball out wide in their own third of the pitch, which is where we can see them in possession of the ball here.
This subsequently triggers an aggressive press that sees Espérance’s team shift heavily towards that side of the pitch in order to try and prevent the opponent from playing the ball out via any short-passing options and force them to either turnover possession or play a riskier pass.
As the opposition full-back receives possession, Espérance’s centre forward pushes up onto the nearest opposition centre-back, while the near-side winger presses the ball-carrier. One central midfielder pushes up, while the other sits deeper and the far-side winger comes all the way over into a central position.
On this particular occasion, the ball-carrier manages to beat the nearest opposition player thanks to his dribbling quality, however, the Espérance press quickly prevents him from progressing further and Chaabani’s men win the ball back inside the opposition’s half, creating a dangerous counter-attacking situation.
We can see an example of Espérance’s defensive shape in a deeper position in this image above. Their centre-forward is just out-of-shot and they appear to be lining up in more of a 4-4-1-1 shape due to how their midfielders’ positioning is staggered, however, we can see that they maintain a fairly high-line, not dropping too deep, in order to try and congest the amount of space that the opposition have to play in front of their goal, at the expense of allowing some space to be left open behind the defensive line.
Furthermore, as we can see here, Chaabani likes his centre-backs to defend aggressively and rather than having them drop deep, he is happy for them to break out in front of the opposition forwards to try and snatch the ball away from them via interceptions, which happens here as the opposition central midfielder attempts to thread a ball through to the attacker.
Due to Espérance’s tendency to commit high numbers forward, including both full-backs, they can sometimes be exposed in the wide areas on the counter, as we see in this image above.
It may be fair to say that this is one area of weakness in their game. They are often left with just this trio consisting of the two centre-backs and the holding midfielder to deal with counters and if the opposition get the ball in the wide areas on the counter, they can exploit gaps in the Espérance defence.
To conclude this tactical analysis piece, it’s clear that Chaabani likes his side to have quite an aggressive brand of football both in and out of possession. While the 39-year-old’s Espérance side are patient in possession of the ball in their own third of the pitch, they play aggressively both in and out of possession the remainder of the time.