Lille’s Low Block: How Les Dogues’ defensive structure exposed PSG’s ill-disciplined positional play
The 31st game week of the 2020-21 Ligue 1 season saw a top of the table clash between PSG and Lille who were both level on 63 points. Both teams came into this game with contrasting results in their previous clashes with PSG notching up an impressive 4-2 away win at Lyon while Lille lost to an 18th placed Nimes side away from home. They were both looking to gain the upper hand in the title race with just eight games of the season left, and victory for either team would have a huge impact on their chances of winning the title.
PSG went with the 4-2-3-1 formation that they have been using since Pochettino’s mid-season arrival. He made three changes to the lineup that beat Lyon 4-2 before the international break. Thilo Kehrer, Neymar and Leandro Paredes were drafted into the lineup in place of Alessandro Florenzi, Marco Verratti and Danilo Pereira.
Lille on the other hand made five changes to their lineup as Renato Sanches, Tiago Djalo, Reinildo Mandava, Somare and Jonathan Ikone came into the lineup.
Lille’s mid-low block suffocate PSG
Lille went into the game with a clear plan and formation that would cause troubles to PSG players. The 4-4-2 block set by Galtier was aimed to cut the central passing options available to the PSG players and looked to compress the space in the middle. It was basically a zonal system with the ball being the reference. With players like Di Maria and Neymar playing the lack of central spaces was always going to be a concern for Pochettino as those players thrive with spaces around them. Their shape in their mid-block can be seen in the image below. They have formed a hexagonal box at the centre of the park and PSG have no way of penetrating through this block.
With a 2 man frontline that didn’t press the PSG centre-backs very high but instead blocked the passing lanes to the pivots sitting in front of them. PSG were then given a chance to create a 3v2 overload against them which Lille weren’t much concerned about. PSG went with a 3-1 shape like in the image below where Paredes generally dropped in between Marquinhos and Kimpembe with Gueye sitting as a lone pivot. The centre-backs stretched the field so it was even more difficult for Lille forwards to press them. So they took turns though to mark Gueye while pressing the centre-back in the ball near flank.
So this shape helped them eventually to access Gueye through a second man (indirect way). But then again Lille’s midfield bank was very disciplined to quickly close the central options and squeeze the space so that Gueye cannot find the likes of Neymar in between the lines and his only option is to play it safe to the flanks or backwards. They did press high whenever PSG looked to build out from the back. The body orientation of the Lille players when they pressed the ball was immaculate and it was one of the reasons for PSG’s struggles with possession. We can see one of their centre-forwards pressing Keylor Navas (ball carrier) while cover-shadowing Kimpembe in the image below. Paredes is covered tightly by the other centre-forward. They have left Marquinhos free in purpose so that when he receives the ball he would be pressed tightly by the wide midfielder with the touchline acting as the defender from the other side.
But PSG found solutions to these situations when they had one of Neymar or Di Maria dropping in between the lines to receive the ball like in the image below. Lille’s pivot chose not to follow Neymar higher up the pitch as that would mean the defence would be exposed against the likes of Kean and Mbappe with no one shielding them in such huge space.
Lille’s main intention with their block was to force PSG wide and look to win the ball in these regions for counter-attacks. With PSG forwards either very high up the pitch or not disciplined enough to track back, Lille chose these situations perfect for their counters. We can in the image below as Lille have a 3v2 situation in the flank when PSG have the ball. The wide midfielder, one of the 8s and full-back have formed the overload on Di Maria and right-back. PSG don’t commit another men and Lille have the advantage of winning the ball now and start the counter.
We talked about how body orientation played a huge role in Lille’s pressing and how they wanted to stop the passes coming into central regions. We can see an example of that in the image below where Jonathan Bamba has his body in such a way (makes a curved run) that Di Maria cannot make the pass to the right-back who has underlapped.
Often the 4-4-2 shape would settle into a 5-3-2 with the ball near wide midfielder dropping to ensure that full-backs runs are tracked and monitored. An example of that can be seen in the image below. This would especially be seen much more after their goal as Lille looked to defend their lead.
PSG strangle themselves with unprincipled positional play
If Lille were disciplined enough to make sure that PSG’s forwards were given no space or time to make an action, PSG themselves were very poor with their structure and principles. This directly played into Lille’s hands and the Les Dogues were happy to exploit it.
We can see Diallo having the ball in the flank and he is being pressed by Renato Sanches in the flank. No PSG player is dropping into the space marked by the circle in the above image. Mbappe is looking to stay high to maintain the width but PSG lacked the other player to drop into that space and form a triangle. Gueye being a DM has stayed deeper choosing not to make a run into space. While Neymar being given a free role should have occupied these positions but he is close to Kean which makes him redundant. With him dropping the right-back would have been in a 2v1 situation against two world-class players. There was a situation where they did use that pattern where Neymar and Mbappe dropping into space drags the Lille defence and opens space in behind to which Mbappe makes a run into after a wall passes Neymar. But this was a one-off as they never looked to replicate it again.
Shifting the ball constantly to opposite flanks is one of the most effective ways of stretching a low defensive block and open gaps. Every team that looks to dominate possession would deploy such principles and patterns when they encounter sturdy and robust systems. PSG’s other issue with their positional play as they failed to switch the ball to the opposite flank on numerous occasions. The likes of Neymar Di Maria and Mbappe generate so much gravity that defenders get dragged towards them and leave open spaces on the opposite side. Even when PSG had players occupying such spaces they failed to play the ball to them.
In the example above Kehrer is in a very place to receive the ball as the forwards’ positioning means the Lille’s defence needs to be narrow to cover central spaces. While Lille themselves were in a ball-oriented zonal system they looked to crowd the ball near flank and deny PSG with space there. PSG could have easily and quickly switched the ball to Kehrer who could have driven forward with the ball.
We can see another example of them failing to recognize situations where they could have switched the play to their left-back on the far side of the pitch. Di Maria’s ball to Kehrer is intercepted and PSG lose the chance to penetrate Lille. PSG’s full-backs in this game got into some good positions to receive the ball in huge spaces. But the failure of the PSG midfielders and the forwards to recognize them in such situations wasted the entire play. We can again see Kehrer in a very good position as he makes an underlapping run in the below image. The Lille defenders and midfielders are pretty much focussed on the ball or the presence of Di Maria as they leave Kehrer who has occupied the space between the full-back and the centre-back. Marquinhos does not recognize him and he squares it to Di Maria while Kehrer then drops back into his defensive position.
Lille find it easy against PSG’s lacklustre pressing
It was an ultimate battle between PSG’s pressing and their positional play as to which was the reason behind their defeat. Their pressing off the ball was equally poor and Lille despite having just 35% of possession found themselves very comfortable on it and looked threatening whenever they had it. They also combined with some neat patterns unlike PSG and used that consistently to get into the final third. Lille’s 4-4-2 formation shifted into a 3-2-5 when they had possession. The ball near full-back would push higher with the wide midfielder on that side moving inside. The far wide midfielder would stay wide with the full-back on that side staying deeper like in the image below. Usually, Ikone would often drop in between the lines while David would stay up to maintain the verticality. PSG’s 4-2-3-1 would often shift into a 4-1-4-1 which means that Ikone often found a lot of space in between the lines.
Lille would often form partial triangles using their forward, wide midfielder and full-back. We mentioned how PSG lacked principles in their pressing, we can see one of that in the image below. Di Maria goes to press the full-back while his body positioning means he looks to cover the central regions. Though teams often look to protect the central zones, Di Maria did not have to do that here as Lille don’t have a player in the half-space whereas they have a wide player who is higher up the pitch and the lane to him needs to be closed. He failed to block that and Lille entered into the final third.
In their build-up to the first goal, Lille positioned their wide midfielder close to Diallo so that when he dropped Diallo would follow him. The midfielder would then receive a wall pass and immediately make a run behind into the space that Diallo has vacated. Renato would find him with a through ball and Ikone would go on to assist David for the goal.
PSG also had the same players pressing a single player with a lack of coordination between them. In the below example, both Kean and Di Maria press the full-back while Di Maria recognizes it very late to press the full-back using a curved run. This means that the wide midfielder is accessed by the full-back and he can easily play a pass into the interior region where there is so much space available for the Lille players to drop.
Again Di Maria was one among the culprits when PSG looked to press Lille high and force them to the flank. Di Maria was very slow in marking Andre and with Gueye going wide to mark Ikone which he shouldn’t have since Neymar has him in his cover shadow, PSG leaves a lot of space highlighted by the blue circle. Andre was easily able to receive in the half-turn and switch the ball to the other flank.
Lille held onto their 1-0 lead with some impressive defending and great mentality. The result ultimately takes them to the top with 3 points ahead of the defending champions as the Ligue 1 title race gets much more intense with just 7 games left with even 4th place Lyon just 5 points behind the Lille.
As for PSG, tough challenges await with their tie against Bayern Munich coming up in the mid-week and Pochettino faces one of the toughest few months of his managerial career.