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Saint-Etienne: Analysis of their disappointing 2019/20 season

Saint-Étienne may be somewhat disappointed with their performance in Ligue 1 this season so far. 28 games into the season, Les Verts currently sit in 17th place on the table, just three points clear of 18th place Nîmes Olympique in Ligue 1’s relegation playoff place.

After achieving a fourth-place finish last season, it may be fair to say that Les Verts have experienced a fairly significant drop in form this term. In addition to currently sitting 13 places below their final position on the Ligue 1 table last season, a bottom half finish this term would see Les Verts finish in the bottom half of Ligue 1 for the first time since the 2009/10 season.

In this tactical analysis piece, we are going to examine some of the tactics that Saint-Étienne have been utilising this season that may have contributed to their relatively poor campaign. Furthermore, this scout report will look at some aspects of Saint-Étienne’s game that may have been causing issues for Les Verts in both their offensive tactics and defensive tactics of late.

Saint-Étienne’s defensive shape and pressing

Saint-Étienne currently have the third-worst defensive record in Ligue 1 for the 2019/20 season, conceding a total of 45 goals in their 28 league games so far this term. One of the reasons for Saint-Étienne’s defensive failings this season may be the team’s general overall defensive shape, which may contain some glaring weaknesses which have left their backline exposed at times. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

Les Verts have typically lined out in a shape featuring two central midfielders throughout the 2019/20 campaign, with the 4-2-3-1 currently standing as their most commonly used shape in Ligue 1 this term. This shape can often look like a 4-4-1-1 during the defensive phase as their two wide playmakers drop back into a midfield line of four. We can see an example of Saint-Étienne assuming this defensive shape in the image above. 

Saint-Étienne’s two most advanced players, the centre forward and the central attacking midfielder can both be seen marking one passing option each as Les Verts’ opponents in this clip, Stade de Reims, are attempting to build an attack from the back. Saint-Étienne’s attacking midfielder can be seen marking a Reims midfielder here, while their centre forward is standing in close proximity to the ball carrier’s central defensive partner in this image. 

Additionally, Saint-Étienne’s midfield line of four are also positioned quite high up the pitch here, standing nearer to their front two than they are to their back four. This creates a fairly large amount of space between Saint-Étienne’s defensive line and midfield line, which Reims can be seen taking advantage of here by positioning two advanced ‘8’s in the gap between Saint-Étienne’s midfield and defensive lines. 

This large gap between the lines is a common feature of Saint-Étienne’s defensive shape which may be causing them some issues this season. This gap highlights a lack of vertical compactness which some Ligue 1 opponents have managed to take full advantage when playing against Saint-Étienne. 

The positioning of the two Reims ‘8’s, and how they manipulate and take advantage of Saint-Étienne’s midfield, plays an important role in the build-up for Reims here. As this image shows, one of Reims advanced central midfielders is currently sitting quite wide, occupying Saint-Étienne’s left midfielder, while the other one is sitting quite centrally, occupying the left central midfielder. 

With both of Saint-Étienne’s left-sided midfielders seemingly occupied with one opposition player each, Reims’ centre forward drops into the midfield line between those two players where he can receive the ball from his centre back and help his side to advance play, beating at least the first line of Les Verts’ defence in the process. This provides us with just one example of how Saint-Étienne’s defensive shape has led to some weaknesses in that side of their game at times this term. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

In this next image, we can see another example of Saint-Étienne’s 4-4-1-1 defensive shape from this clash with Reims. On this occasion, Reims are in control of the ball just inside Saint-Étienne’s half of the pitch, with the right-back playing a pass into the holding midfielder on this occasion, as can be seen in the image above. 

Les Verts’ attacking midfielder had been pressing the right-back while keeping the passing lane into the left central midfielder blocked, while their centre forward can be seen beginning to make a move towards the intended recipient of the pass that is being played in this image. 

Here, we can also see Saint-Étienne’s right central midfielder beginning to leave his position to charge down the holding midfielder who is preparing to receive the ball in this image. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

As this passage of play moves on, we can see that Reims’ holding midfielder manages to receive possession and get his head up looking for progressive passing options despite the pressure being applied by both Saint-Étienne’s centre forward and the marauding central midfielder who we can now see has essentially vacated his position to gamble on pressing the holding midfielder. 

The central midfielder’s press leaves one of Reims’ two more advanced central midfielders free in the middle of the park, making him a clear passing option for the holding midfielder who manages to pick him out on this occasion, beating this midfielder’s press and making him pay for his gamble by moving the ball into the area of the pitch that he had just vacated. 

This passage of play provides us with another example of a way in which Saint-Étienne’s defensive shape has been manipulated by some opposition sides this season. Despite often playing with a number ‘10’, Saint-Étienne’s central midfield duo have been successfully manipulated by numerically superior midfield’s at times this season. 

Some Ligue 1 teams have managed to take advantage of the relatively large amount of space that often appears between Les Verts’ midfield and defensive lines by positioning players dangerously in that gap, while some teams have managed to manipulate the willingness to press that has been displayed by Saint-Étienne’s central midfield in order to draw their midfielders out of position and simply take advantage of their eagerness to win back possession. 

While the Saint-Étienne central midfielder aggressively presses Reims’ holding midfielder in this passage of play, the rest of the midfield and defence don’t join in with the press. This results in Les Verts’ defensive shape being exposed and penetrated. 

Saint-Étienne’s weakness versus counter-attacks

In addition to their press and general defensive shape, Saint-Étienne’s weakness at defending against counter-attacks has been identified and exposed by some opposition Ligue 1 teams this season. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

This image above provides us with a first example of how Les Verts have been exposed via counter-attacking situations during the 2019/20 campaign. Their opponents in this particular image, Rennes, managed to win the ball back just prior to this image being taken. 

As Rennes begin their counter-attack here, we can see that Saint-Étienne have immediately got seven men positioned high up the pitch from their previous attack, now needing to immediately track back in order to catch up with the ball. Having committed seven players forward for their previous attack just prior to this image, that would leave just three outfielders and a goalkeeper back in defence for Les Verts.

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

This next image shows us how Rennes managed to quickly put Saint-Étienne’s defence under pressure on this counter-attack. As we can see, the three outfield players who stayed back for Saint-Étienne during their previous attack are all positioned quite narrow, as they drop back in an attempt to defend against this counter-attack. 

Meanwhile, we can now see that five Rennes players are charging into Saint-Étienne’s half of the pitch as part of their front line in this attempt to expose Les Verts’ transition to defence here. Rennes’ five-man attack threatens the wide areas in addition to the more central zones, which is an area of the pitch that the three Saint-Étienne defenders may struggle to comfortably cover while also protecting the central zones.

It may be fair to attribute this dangerous-looking Rennes counter-attack to Saint-Étienne’s bold decision to commit so many men forward during the one attack. As a result of this heavy commitment of numbers forward, Saint-Étienne left their remaining three defenders quite exposed here once Rennes managed to win the ball back and set off on a counter-attack. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

This next image shows us another example of Saint-Étienne exposing themselves to a counter-attack after losing the ball high up the pitch. Just prior to this image being taken, Saint-Étienne centre-back Wesley Fofana carried the ball out from the back in an attempt to influence the game on the offensive side of things. 

Fofana subsequently found his teammate Ryad Boudebouz in the right half-space where he would go on to unsuccessfully attempt to dribble past Lyon’s backline in the dying stages of this game. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

As Lyon successfully manage to win the ball back from Boudebouz here, they quickly launch the ball forward from midfield, finding centre forward Moussa Dembélé making a run in behind Saint-Etienne’s backline. Saint-Étienne were again exposed here for committing too many numbers forward, including one of their central defenders on this occasion, leaving just one central defender back. 

Following this long-ball, Dembélé is quickly given support by two pacey teammates, who manage to reach the Saint-Étienne penalty area, creating a 3v1 advantage for Les Gones, before any Saint-Étienne players other than this one defender manage to make it back. 

This passage of play shows us another example of how vulnerable Les Verts have shown to be when faced with defending against counter-attacks this season. In addition to overcommitting numbers forward, Saint-Étienne players have also struggled to track back in a timely enough fashion at times when attempting to defend against counter-attacks, which has resulted in opposition teams causing them some trouble in this manner throughout the 2019/20 campaign. 

Saint-Étienne’s offensive struggles

In addition to having Ligue 1’s third-worst defensive record during the 2019/20 campaign, Saint-Étienne haven’t been particularly impressive in front of goal this season either, scoring 29 goals in their 28 league games this term, giving them an average of just over one goal per Ligue 1 game this season. 

Saint-Étienne’s offensive tactics may not have been the most optimal for their side throughout the 2019/20 season. Les Verts currently rank first in Ligue 1 for headed goals this season according to Wyscout, with 10 of their 29 goals coming via headers. However, despite more than one-third of their goals coming from headers, there may be room for improvement with regard to Saint-Étienne’s wing play this season. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

Firstly, during the offensive phase, Saint-Étienne’s full-backs generally push quite high up the pitch, as we can see an example of with right-back Mathieu Debuchy here. As Fofana brings the ball out from the back for Les Verts, Debuchy begins to make himself a potential passing option on the right-wing. 

Meanwhile, right-winger Boudebouz shifts his positioning inside, moving to take up the right half-space. This movement allows Debuchy to take advantage of more space in front of him on the right-wing. Additionally, this makes Boudebouz a more attractive potential passing option for the right-back once he receives the ball. 

Saint-Étienne’s full-backs and wide playmakers engage in plenty of link-up play on the wings for Les Verts, who often build up in this manner using the full width of the pitch. This leads to Saint-Étienne playing plenty of crosses, however, they often struggle to take advantage of these crossing opportunities. 

Les Verts have taken an average of just 12.19 touches per 90 in the opposition box this season according to Wyscout, which gives them the fourth-lowest amount of touches per 90 of any Ligue 1 side this season. Their difficulties with effectively taking advantage of playmaking opportunities may be one of the key reasons for this low number of touches in the opposition penalty area. 

Firstly, one reason that Saint-Étienne have struggled to consistently create much trouble for the opposition from their crosses this season is their lack of a significant physical presence in the centre forward role, especially since the departure of Robert Beric from the club in January. 

Les Verts have played Wahbi Khazri, Loïs Diony, Denis Bouanga, and Romain Hamouma in the centre forward position at different points during the 2019/20 campaign and while all of those players may be accomplished attackers, it may be accurate to say that none of them are out and out centre forwards, with all four players featuring in a position playing off of the centre forward more often than the centre forward role itself, this season. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

The lack of a true centre forward has resulted in some issues with regard to competing for the ball in the penalty area this season. We can see an example of this in the image above. Just prior to this image being taken, left-back Timothée Kolodziejczak had played a cross into the penalty area, however, Diony struggled to hold the ball up under pressure from Lyon centre-back Jason Denayer and was subsequently dispossessed.

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

In addition to that, Saint-Étienne’s movement in the penalty area may also be less than adequate at times this season. In this image above, we can see that Gabonese playmaker Bouanga is the only player in the penalty area as Les Verts’ left-winger prepares to send in a cross.

Additionally, Bouanga is backing away from the centre of the box here, moving towards the far end of the penalty area. As a result of the lack of numbers in the box, in addition to Bouanga’s movement behind the Reims defender here, he fails to connect with this cross. 

Saint-Étienne's disappointing 2019/20 season - team analysis - tactics
Image source: Wyscout

Lastly, many Saint-Étienne crosses have been quite wasteful this season. Les Verts’ wingers and full-backs often manage to get into a position such as the one seen in this image above, where they drive towards the byline in order to perform a cross from that position. 

However, often when they reach this position, Saint-Étienne’s players fail to look up before sending their cross into the box. As a result, their crosses are, at times, misdirected and ultimately fail to meet green shirts in the penalty area. 

This image above provides us with an example of a Saint-Étienne winger sending the ball into the box despite being under pressure from a defender and not having a clear view of his intended target. As the winger plays this low cross into the box, it goes straight to a Reims defender who manages to deal with the danger under little pressure. 


To conclude this tactical analysis piece, it may be fair to say that Saint-Étienne have had to deal with some clear struggles at both ends of the pitch during the 2019/20 campaign. 

Defensively, Saint-Étienne have had their shape exposed by opposition attacks targeting the relatively large amount of space that they leave between their defensive and midfield lines. Additionally, Les Verts have been punished for what may be fair to say has been some disorganised pressing at times this season. 

Meanwhile, in the attack, Saint-Étienne have struggled to have much of a presence in the opposition penalty area throughout the 2019/20 season, as is evident by their low number of touches per 90 in the opposition box this term. It may be fair to say that there has been plenty of room for improvement at both ends of the pitch for Les Verts this season.