Jean-Marc Furlan at Auxerre 2021/22: Promotion specialist’s attacking artistry and defensive distress – tactical analysis
When Auxerre appointed Jean-Marc Furlan as their manager back in July 2019, they did so with one target in mind for the veteran coach: return Les Diplomates to the heights of France’s top-flight to battle with the likes of PSG, Marseille, Lyon, Nice and Rennes for the first time since their Ligue 1 relegation in 2011/12. It’s difficult to fault Auxerre for entrusting Furlan with this task, given that the 62-year-old is a promotion specialist, having previously won promotion to Ligue 1 on four other occasions — three times with Troyes and once with Brest.
The two-time Ligue 2 Manager of the Year took over a team that had finished in 15th place the season before his arrival and managed to improve their position to 11th by the end of his first campaign at Stade Abbe Deschamps. Then, last season, Furlan took Auxerre even closer to their ultimate goal, progressing them to a sixth-place finish. Now, at the time of writing, in what is his third season as Les Diplomates boss, Auxerre sit in fifth place in Ligue 2, with Furlan recently playing down his team’s promotion expectations to an extent, explaining: “When you’re a coach, you want to win everything. You want to be up to it. My dream is to be first with a 10-point lead, I would be more relaxed. For the moment, we haven’t dethroned the big guys.”
However, while Furlan is clearly wary of getting too far ahead of himself, and though Auxerre’s league position suggests that they’ve still got some way to go in their promotion push under the veteran coach, this doesn’t change the fact that Auxerre have been a joy to watch for many Ligue 2 followers this season, with Furlan implementing a possession-dominant style of play that’s seen his side retain the third-most possession (56.3%) of any team in France’s second-tier.
This tactical analysis piece will take a closer look at three specific areas within Furlan’s strategy and tactics at Auxerre this term — his build-up and ball progression, his pressing strategy and his chance creation. As well as looking at Furlan’s structural setup in these different phases of play, I hope to provide an analysis of some outstanding individuals whose performances have been crucial to the execution of Furlan’s plans at Stade Abbe Deschamps in 2021/22.
Build-up and ball progression
Auxerre are primarily lining up in a 4-1-4-1 shape under Furlan, with the 4-2-3-1 shape acting as a distant second choice for Les Diplomates. When building out from the back, it’s common to see Auxerre get their entire backline quite deep, or at least three members of it with one of their full-backs — generally the right-back, normally Carlens Arcus, pushing higher. However, it’s very common to see all four members of the backline sitting deep during the build-up.
Additionally, it’s common to see Auxerre play very patiently at the beginning of their attacks. They don’t like to force the ball upfield, rather they prefer to circulate possession in deeper areas while attracting more bodies from the opposition upfield to create more space to exploit in advanced areas. Once bodies have been drawn upfield and an opportunity to ‘flick the switch’, if you like, and spring the forward pass presents itself, they’ll generally take it and this is where the technical execution, along with individual decision-making and off-the-ball movement, are crucial for the team’s success.
Positional rotations are key to Auxerre’s ball progression too, the success of which is largely a direct result of Furlan’s work on the training ground to prepare his players for how to interact with each other in-game but also, again, relies on players’ individual decision-making and technical ability both on and off the ball. For example, one common rotation we see is for the central midfielder to move out wide to receive, dragging an opposition midfielder away with him. This can create space centrally for another player like the full-back to exploit, which has been seen at times this season. With the full-back now positioned centrally, in space, the midfielder will look to play the ball back to him to continue the team’s ball progression. Another example of this that I’ve seen a couple of times from Auxerre is for the full-back to push high, allowing the midfielder to drop into the full-back position and the winger to move centrally into the midfielder’s position, which now may have more space available for the player to receive in a threatening position.
These rotations aim to pull the opposition defenders around and create space for players to exploit where there otherwise wouldn’t be any had they just remained static and allowed the opposition to defend in their base defensive structure that they started out with. By moving around and dragging opposition defenders with them in the process, Auxerre can dismantle the opposition’s defensive shape just through their off-the-ball movement and then exploit this new space afterwards with good technical execution.
Auxerre’s left-back, 32-year-old Quentin Bernard, plays a crucial role in his team’s build-up and ball progression. The left-back plays a unique role within Furlan’s system, as he essentially operates as a wide deep-lying playmaker. Bernard is comfortable operating centrally, particularly in the left centre-back position, but is also often seen moving into midfield a lot in-game, sometimes off the ball to exploit space as previously discussed, while other times on the ball to carry into space and move into a better position from where he can progress the team further via a pass.
Bernard has played more progressive passes (15.14 per 90) than any other Ligue 2 full-back this season by some distance, which is indicative of his unique role under Furlan.
As shown in figure 1, Auxerre will sometimes look to draw the opposition in centrally and/or to one side of the pitch during the build-up before then switching to the full-back — often the left-back — to continue their progress. Just before the example above, the goalkeeper had found the holding midfielder, who then played some short passes between himself, the right centre-back and the right central midfielder. This drew opposition bodies towards him, centrally and to the right side of the pitch, leading to plenty of space opening up for the left-back to exploit out wide if he could be found, which he ultimately was as the holding midfielder then sprung a switch of play to release the left-back into space behind the opposition’s midfield line.
This required some good technical skill and patience from the midfielders and centre-backs initially to successfully draw the opposition in while retaining possession and forging this opportunity to switch play early on to the full-back. Additionally, this required some good, intelligent off-the-ball movement from the left-back himself to get himself positioned at a good angle to receive the driven switch of play from the holding midfielder.
Figure 2 picks up in a similar situation to where we’d left off in figure 1 but from a different game. However, a similar situation occurred here, with Auxerre sending the ball out wide to the left-back early, giving him the chance to drive forward with it a little bit to progress the team into the opposition’s half before then playing a deep cross. This deep cross from the position we see Bernard occupying above is a common weapon in the left-back’s arsenal. As this particular passage of play moves on, the ball drops onto the central attacker’s head, with that player then flicking the ball on and sending it to the right-winger who we see overlapping just behind him.
The aim of this deep cross from Bernard isn’t so much to directly set up a goalscoring opportunity, though it can, rather it’s to ensure the team gets into a better attacking position and by sending the ball onto the central attacker’s head, he ensures that this player attracts attention from the two defenders near him, creating extra space for the winger who can then receive the flick-on out wide and hold-up the play for a few seconds while waiting for runners to arrive int the box, which is what happens as this passage of play progresses.
It’s also common to see this deep cross lead to the ball being headed down for runners from midfield to latch onto and even for the recipient to try and take the ball down themselves, although the latter is far less common.
As previously mentioned, Bernard is comfortable operating in more central positions. We see an example of this in figure 3. He’s comfortable sliding across into a left centre-back position if required as his team moves into an attacking shape, carrying the ball into the centre to exploit space and continue his team’s ball progression and playing as a left centre-back, if required, due to suspensions or injuries. In figure 3, Bernard was actually played as a left centre-back but there are plenty of examples of the former two situations as well from the 2021/22 campaign.
From this central position, Bernard’s vision and technical passing quality are also very important as he’ll continue playing a deep-lying playmaker role that’s central to his team’s progression. He loves to pull the strings, controlling the play and dictating where the ball goes to move the opposition’s defensive structure around too to create openings for the attacking side.
In this example, we see Bernard pulling off a long, driven switch of play from the left centre-back position, aiming for the right-winger, who’s positioned wide on the opposite wing. A notable aspect of Furlan’s setup at Auxerre is that with the full-backs often remaining quite deep, the wingers tend to stay wide to provide the width for their side in the final third, as opposed to coming into a narrower position early in the attack, as many wingers do at present. This long, driven switch pass is another common and useful tool in Bernard’s arsenal.
As we move on into figure 4, we see that the right-winger received the long, driven switch pass well, controlling the ball before playing it back to the right-back in support. Auxerre operate with quite a wide offensive structure and like to exploit the width a lot, be that via early passes to the full-back like we saw in figures 1 and 2 or later and longer passes to the winger positioned high and wide as we see in this example. With the right-back pushing up in support, this switch of play can easily create a 2v1 advantage for Auxerre versus the opposition full-back defending against the big switch of play, which can then lead to a crossing opportunity, as figure 4 shows.
Here, with the opposition left-back unable to prevent the right-winger from receiving, he’s also then unable to prevent that player from linking up with the right-back in support. Furthermore, he’s then unable to close the right-back down quickly, leading to a good crossing opportunity for the deeper wide man.
Auxerre have played the most passes (486.08 per 90) of any Ligue 2 side this season and they’ve got the third-highest pass success rate (83.9%). They’ve also got the joint-highest passing rate (14.8), which is passes per minute of possession — an indicator of the team’s high tempo passing style. Some of the benefits of this style of play that have been evident for Auxerre this season were discussed earlier in this tactical analysis. However, as figure 5 shows, Furlan’s side isn’t always perfect in possession and can allow some relatively cheap turnovers in midfield as a result of misplaced passes at times. In figure 5, the right centre-back has just attempted to slide the ball into the holding midfielder but the pass is misplaced and ends up running into the path of the pressing midfielder behind the intended receiver instead.
This is particularly dangerous for Auxerre here because in this phase of play, the central midfielders tend to sit quite high so a turnover in midfield like this one can leave Les Diplomates quite vulnerable in transition. As play moves on from here, the opposition can quickly create an overload versus Auxerre’s backline, punishing this cheap turnover and highlighting a consequence of Auxerre’s style and tactics, as well as a weakness in their offensive shape when they’re required to transition to defence.
It’s also common to see Auxerre form a wide triangle in the progression phase between the full-back, winger and central midfielder, like the one we see in figure 6. However, as the winger receives from the full-back here, he’s immediately under pressure and this pressure leads to a misplaced pass into midfield, with the ball again running through to a pressing midfielder instead of the intended receiver.
Just like we saw in figure 5, this leaves Auxerre vulnerable in transition. They don’t have lots of bodies close together, instead opting for a wider shape as we previously mentioned, so more gaps are evident as the transition occurs and they don’t have lots of bodies around to immediately crowd the defender who’s forced the turnover. As a result, the opposition can play through Auxerre’s shape here and create a goalscoring opportunity.
Chance creation — Charbonnier’s off-the-ball movement
At the moment, Auxerre are the second-highest scorers in Ligue 2 (34), although they do only have the eighth-best xG (27.97) which perhaps indicates a somewhat unsustainable level of overperformance in front of goal this term. However, they have been clinical with their chances, indicated by the fact that although they’ve only taken the eighth-most shots in Ligue 2 (9.98 per 90), they’ve got the best shot accuracy rate (45.5%) in France’s second-tier too.
Auxerre’s impressive performance in front of goal this season is thanks in part to Les Diplomates’ success in the progression phase and their ability to successfully make their way into the opposition box as a result of the situations that their successful progression creates. Auxerre have also managed to take the third-most touches inside the opposition box (16.22 per 90) of any Ligue 2 side this term, which is a result of all this and says plenty about their performance in possession.
Gaëtan Charbonnier is a 33-year-old centre-forward who’d previously played under Furlan during his time at Brest. He ended the 2018/19 campaign in which Furlan guided Brest to promotion from Ligue 2 as the division’s top goalscorer (27) and he’s currently the joint-top goalscorer (13) in Ligue 2 for 2021/22. The centre-forward is an excellent fit for Furlan’s strategy and tactics thanks to his skill-set and, in particular, his masterful off-the-ball movement which is a step above this level.
Figures 7-8 provide our first example of Charbonnier’s off-the-ball movement and how it benefits his team inside the final third. Firstly, in the image above, we see Auxerre in possession on the right side of the box, with the winger having just received the ball and started to take on the left-back. As the winger gets the ball under control, Charbonnier spots some vacant space at the near post, within the width of the goal-posts and just outside the six-yard box — a high-quality goalscoring position — and begins to attack that space with his run, knowing it’s a good position from where to potentially link up with the winger.
As play moves on into figure 8, we see that the centre-forward successfully burst in front of the nearest defender, leaving him in his tracks without getting tracked to the front post at all. Meanwhile, the right-winger headed towards the byline, from where he was able to create an opportunity to cut the ball back into the striker’s running path. This created the scenario we see in figure 8, where Charbonnier is in an excellent goalscoring position with no defenders near him approaching a low driven cross.
The attacker’s intelligent movement and foresight to determine where he could pose the greatest threat and give his teammate the greatest passing option were vital to creating this advantageous scenario. Has Charbonnier’s off-the-ball movement and anticipation not been of such a high standard, there’s no way he’d have ended up in this position unmarked. He had to make his move early and decisively, which he did. As a result, an excellent goalscoring opportunity was created and taken, as play moves on. This highlights how Auxerre benefit from the veteran forward.
We see another example of Charbonnier’s excellent off-the-ball movement in figures 9-10, but this time the run is made towards the back post and the incoming cross is a high, lofted one. Regardless of that, the quality of movement from Charbonnier is again of the highest standard, leading to a great goalscoring opportunity being created that the 188cm/6’2” centre-forward also managed to take, thanks to his strong heading ability.
Firstly, in figure 9, we see Charbonnier entering the box parallel to the dribbler on the right wing, who’s got his head up watching the attacker’s run in the box after taking a heavy touch to decide on his final ball. At this moment, Charbonnier starts to peel away from the centre and make his move to the back post. Meanwhile, the opposition’s centre-back is trying to position himself to see both the crosser and the forward but is starting to struggle as Charbonnier moves away from the centre and into a more difficult position to control. At this point, unless the defender has eyes in the back of his head, he can’t see both the crosser and the forward.
If the centre-back follows Charbonnier to the back post, he guards against his direct threat but also allows space to open at the front post that, for instance, the Auxerre attacker just on the edge of the area could move diagonally across the box to exploit. Alternatively, if the centre-back stays where he is, likely protecting this space at the front of the box and in front of Charbonnier, he leaves the striker open to receive the lofted cross at the back post.
As play moves on into figure 10, we see that the centre-back opted to stay put, not following Charbonnier back, which allowed the striker to get onto the end of this high cross and head the ball home for Auxerre.
This was a great goalscoring opportunity, as far as headed opportunities go, and it was created largely through Charbonnier’s dangerous run. He intelligently targeted the defender’s blindside likely knowing that he’d struggle to keep track of him while still watching the crosser and set up an opportunity for himself to avail of a headed opportunity from close-range, knowing this is the kind of goalscoring situation in which he thrives. Auxerre have benefited from the veteran striker’s intelligence and knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses this season, with the images in this section highlighting how much of an asset Charbonnier has been to his team.
Auxerre have been far more impressive going forward this season than they’ve been in defending. Furlan’s side has conceded the 10th-most goals in Ligue 2 (25) at the time of writing, while they’ve got the eighth-lowest xGA (26.44) — a very similar number to their actual goals conceded. This gives them the worst defensive record in Ligue 2’s current top-seven, ironically a record that they also ended last season with despite also ending the 2020/21 campaign with the second-best goalscoring record in France’s second-tier — another record they hold today. Their poor defensive record held them back from achieving a higher finish than sixth last season and may prevent them from achieving promotion again this term.
We already discussed one of Auxerre’s big defensive weaknesses at the end of the first section in this tactical analysis piece when we highlighted how vulnerable they can be in defensive transitions due to their emphasis on a wide team shape and the gaps this creates between their players when transitions occur. The fact that they also currently have the fourth-most ball losses per 90 (103.21) in Ligue 2 doesn’t help this fact. This stat doesn’t necessarily mean that a team is losing the ball cheaply a lot of the time, as some teams such as EPL side Liverpool are quite comfortable with turning the ball over more often in advanced areas but this isn’t really the case for Auxerre, who are a heavily possession-based side and would likely prefer to be further down the table on ball losses. Indeed, some of these ball losses are a result of the fact they play plenty of long balls, switches and deep crosses, as discussed earlier in this analysis, but as the first section highlighted, Furlan’s side also tends to try and draw intense pressure from opposition players to create space further upfield, which can work a lot of the time, but can also lead to cheap turnovers in a vulnerable midfield area. This is something Auxerre will need to see less of in the future if they are to succeed in their promotion push this term.
As for their resting defence, Auxerre play with quite a high line and defend relatively aggressively; they’ve currently got the fifth-lowest PPDA in Ligue 2. Their resting defensive shape will typically appear as it does in figure 11, where we clearly see their 4-1-4-1 high-block. Even in this phase, they tend to have a fairly wide-spread midfield line, with the wingers always looking to retain access to the opposition wide man on the near wing. This is true even for the ball-far winger, and is a result of Auxerre using elements of option-oriented marking when they press aggressively. They want the ball-far winger to be close to the opposition’s ball-far wide option to guard against the switch. This is smart in that it can eliminate one potentially harmful option but it can also lead to gaps opening in Auxerre’s midfield, with the central midfielders at risk of being overloaded 3v2 — something we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this section of analysis.
It’s very common to see Auxerre’s backline get narrow in defensive phases, as we also see in figure 11; the full-backs tend to get very close to their near centre-backs. This increases the need for Auxerre’s wingers to provide some defensive coverage on the wing, as otherwise the opposition wide man would have a tonne of space to exploit out wide. Even with the wingers providing some coverage out wide, however, it’s common to see opposing teams target Auxerre’s wings and a lot of Les Diplomates’ goals conceded come as a result of attacks targeting the wings — not necessarily from the big switch of play, which they do guard against while the central midfielders guard the centre and the ball-near winger gets tight to the opposition’s nearest wide passing option, moreso from attacks steadily built down that wing.
Figure 12 shows an example of a Dijon attack that exploited Auxerre on the wing. Before this image, Dijon found a way past Auxerre’s winger and central midfielder on this side, leading to Les Diplomates’ near full-back getting dragged out of the backline to confront the attackers. While the full-back came out, the rest of the backline didn’t follow, leading to a break in the defensive chain and a big gap opening for Dijon to exploit as they perform a simple one-two to get around the charging full-back and progress into the final third.
It’s common that when a team does get past Auxerre’s wingers, the full-back gets drawn out alone, without the rest of the backline covering the space he’s opening up. This can allow the opposition to exploit the big gap opening between the full-back and the rest of the back four, as was the case in figure 12.
Auxerre like to defend aggressively and win the ball high. This can create excellent attacking opportunities in transition from dangerous areas but can also leave them vulnerable in deeper areas, as figure 12 gave us a taste of, especially due to the gaps that can open in their defensive shape. In figure 13, we see another example of Auxerre in the high-block. Note Charbonnier’s positioning here — standing right on the opposition centre-back without the ball. This is a very common sight which effectively details the 33-year-old’s role within his side’s high-block. Charbonnier Isn’t the most defensively active forward but he positions himself intelligently to cut the pitch in half. In figure 13, we see how he’s intelligently cut the passing lane to the ball-far full-back while retaining access to the off-the-ball centre-back too. His main role here is to retain access to that off-the-ball centre-back and prevent the ball from moving across the pitch.
With the pitch cut in half and the wingers retaining access to the full-backs, Auxerre have effectively cut off plenty of passing options for the ball-carrier, which gives the ball-near central midfielder the green light to start pressing the on-the-ball centre-back, joining Charbonnier in the first line of defence, ideally charging the centre-back down while keeping the midfielder he’d been marking previously in his cover shadow.
As play progresses into figure 14, we see how the holding midfielder pushed up to fill the space that’s been opened by the aggressive central midfielder, creating a 4-4-2 shape. Furlan wants the midfielder to join Charbonnier in the first line of defence to prevent the opposition from enjoying a +1 advantage in their first line of attack.
This is a good example of what Furlan wants as the aggressive midfielder’s pressing angle is doing a good job at cutting off the passes into midfield, while Auxerre have enough bodies close to the opposition’s midfield options to make the short passes unattractive, including the potential passes out to the full-bacs who are being watched closely by Les Diplomates’ wingers. As a result, Auxerre can increase the pressure and either force an error or force a pass back to the goalkeeper that’ll lead to a rushed long ball which Auxerre will fancy their chances to win in a deeper area. This is another big part of the holding midfielder’s role in Furlan’s system — he essentially acts as a screen for the backline and deals with duels — both ground and aerial — in front of them so they don’t get pulled out of position by an attacker dropping for either an aerial battle or a pass to feet. This makes the defensive ability and aerial ability of the holding midfielder crucial in Furlan’s system.
The high press doesn’t always work out perfectly for Auxerre, however, with figure 15 showing an example of how pressing so aggressively with a midfielder leaving the centre and the wingers looking to retain access to the opposition’s wide options even on the ball-far side can leave Les Diplomates looking bare in the middle of the park. Here, though Charbonnier performed his role the same, along with the wingers and the holding midfielder who advanced to protect the centre, it just takes one small misstep to create a big problem with this aggressive defending and the aggressive midfielder failed to cut off the passing lane into midfield with the angle of his press, allowing Grenoble’s right centre-back to play the ball past him and into the holding midfielder.
This creates a dangerous central 3v2 overload for Grenoble and as the ball-near Auxerre midfielder looks to immediately close down the holding midfielder as he receives the ball, he just opens the passing lane to the more advanced central midfielder, allowing the pair to link up and start running at Auxerre’s backline.
So we can see from these examples how Auxerre’s aggressive defensive shape is supposed to work, as well as how the big gaps between the players in the centre can be exploited if something doesn’t go right.
To conclude this tactical analysis, I feel that Auxerre are very much a mixed bag this season. On one hand, they present some very interesting and effective ideas in attack, with the veteran duo of left-back Bernard and centre-forward Charbonnier, in particular, standing out for their key roles in the squad.
However, on the other hand, Auxerre aren’t Ligue 2’s most impressive side defensively and while they can execute an effective high press at times, quite often we see them exploited either on the wings or in the centre depending on what exactly the opposition have opted to target, and given that the defensive issues are what held them back last season, they could very well fall to the same fate this term despite Furlan’s promotion expertise and their attacking artistry.