LOSC Lille are champions of Ligue 1. After one of the most intense Ligue 1 seasons we have seen in recent years we have a new champion of France. Christophe Galtier has taken Ligue 1 by the scruff of its neck and shown the world that Lille are one of the most exciting teams to watch. Galtier deserves a large amount of credit for continuing to turn players, young and old, into league leading superstars.
At the beginning of the season, many Ligue 1 fans and Lille fans expected PSG to win another Ligue 1 title. After a poor start to the season from the Parisians, former manager Thomas Tuchel was sacked and PSG were in free fall. Mauricio Pochettino took over shortly after Tuchel’s sacking but it was too late, Lille had momentum and they were not stopping.
Lille have won Ligue 1 convincingly. Their style of play is exciting and the players are a joy to watch. My words will struggle to do them justice, but I’ll do my best. I will be discussing the tactics Lille used this season to win Ligue 1, along with their key games, key players and where Lille might go next. This is the story and analysis of how Lille won their title.
To win Ligue 1, a league that’s been dominated by PSG, a team with infinite resources, Lille would have to use their vastly inferior resources to the best of their abilities. Manager Christophe Galtier has done extraordinarily well with the players he has by playing to their strengths.
On the surface, a team that has conceded the fewest goals in the league would appear to be a rather defensive team. While Lille are more than capable of defending, as a matter of fact they do it intelligently, their strengths are in their counter-attacking play and build up play.
This tactics section will be broken up into three subsections: the build up phase, the attacking phase and the defensive phase.
Like most teams nowadays, Lille like to play out from the back. This is done in an attempt to lure an opposition press so that Lille can exploit the space left behind the pressing players and allow them to move the ball forward centrally. If Lille cannot play centrally, they will build up in the wide areas.
Below we can see that Lille beat the first line of the opposition press by creating a five versus two scenario. There isn’t a high quality forward passing option, but that isn’t a problem for Lille. Fullbacks Reinildo and Mehmet Zeki Çelik have been instrumental in Lille’s build up play this season. They’re comfortable on the ball, can remain wide or even come into the central areas of the pitch when possession moves to the opposite flank.
Lille can move possession to either side of the pitch against a defensive structure containing two or three forwards. Below we see how that looks. The ball sided center-back and fullback combine with the ball sided central midfielder and winger. They form a sort of “pseudo diamond” shape that allows participation from the ball sided forward; often Jonathan David. This quickly turns four versus three scenarios into five versus four scenarios. This is how Lille moves the ball out of defense.
If Lille play against one forward with supporting players, they will form a diamond made up of their goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, defenders José Fonte and Sven Botman, and one midfielder, either Renato Sanches, Benjamin André or Boubakary Soumaré . By doing this, these four players welcome the opposition press by remaining central. Meanwhile, the Lille fullbacks Celik and Reinildo (starred below) remain wide as available passing options.
As the opposition presses the central passing options, Lille can build up in the wide areas. When Lille build up in the wide areas they welcome another press. This second press can be considered a “wide press.” When teams press the wide areas it leaves central spaces vacant for Lille players to move into, making them high quality central passing options who have space and time to play in. We can see this in action below.
The structure Lille attacks with starts as the one we see below. Fullbacks and wingers remain in their wide areas, often isolating the opponent’s wide defenders. Central midfielders are accompanied by Canadian forward Jonathan David, whose role can be best described as a “false #9” because he often acts as the link from the midfield to the forward players.
At 35 years-old (36 years-old in July 2021) Burak Yilmaz leads the line brilliantly. He is an example of what every aspiring forward player should look to become. Fast, strong, technically sound, and above all, a brilliant finisher.
Lille can’t always move the ball forward through the middle of the pitch. When this happens they’ll shift play to one flank and overload it. The ball sided fullback takes up a very advanced position while the opposite fullback tucks inside, forming a back three.
The advanced fullback stays wide while the starting ball sided winger tucks inside between the defending team’s fullback and center-back. The opposite side’s winger will also remain wide in an attempt to stretch the opposition backline or act as a wide passing option. This, combined with both Lille central midfielders moving to the side with ball possession, is how Lille attack.
Lille have used this tactic for most of the season, but it was most evident against PSG when the world was watching. Lille would bait a PSG press, then have the ball sided midfielder drop deeper to receive the ball behind the pressing player. Once possession has entered the middle third, one of the forwards will drop deeper while the wide player remains wide.
Many of Lille’s forward players are excellent at dropping deeper into midfield to receive the ball or help during build up play. However, no one does this better than Jonathan David. Having a forward player drop into midfield has many benefits when done correctly. Most notably, it can often drag a defending team’s man-marker out of position, leaving space for another forward player to exploit, like we see below.
When attacking Lille tuck the starting ball sided winger inside to act as another forward, with width coming from the fullback. I mentioned this above, however the example below is more clear. Lille isolates the defending team’s center-backs while the opposite flank is occupied by Renato Sanches who was used as a winger of sorts in this game. Lille tries to create one versus one, two versus one, and three versus one scenarios through the wide areas often.
Despite bolstering the best defensive record in Ligue 1, Lille defends in a very standard mid-block. It starts with the forwards, often Yilmaz and David. Their job is to screen the forward passing options into midfield. Next, the midfielders and wingers tuck inside to remain narrow and compact, further limiting central passing options.
The objectives of this set-up, and all mid- to low-blocks, is to stop access to central passing options and force the opposition to the wide areas where the ball sided defending Lille players can press aggressively.
Lille stops their opponents from moving the ball forward centrally, so they must go wide. The ball sided forward presses the player in possession, while the ball sided winger presses the wide passing option. As we see below, this forces Marquinhos to spend more time deciding on who to pass to as his most obvious option is being pressed.
By forcing their opponents to take more time to decide where to pass the ball to, Lille have more time to press and therefore, a higher chance of winning the ball back.
Against teams that are poor at playing out from the back, Lille will use a much more aggressive pressing style. One forward leads the press, while the other shields the deepest midfielder. The wingers will mark the fullbacks on their side of the field while the Lille central midfielders are free to pick up any players that might drop deeper to help in the build up play.
This pressing style is low-risk and offers a high reward. Lille committed at most four players to press their opponents while keeping their back four intact. This ensures safety from a counter-attack should an attacking team beat the Lille press.
Lille won’t commit more numbers forward as it’s far too risky. Instead, they press intelligently, albeit infrequently. If a team can get past Lille’s press, Lille are able to quickly shift back into the mid-block I mentioned earlier due to how few numbers they commit forward.
When defending, Lille played incredibly narrowly. We know this is done in order to prevent the opposition from using central passing options. However, it also allows Lille to counter-attack with pace and fluidity should they win the ball back.
By having their wingers tucked in so narrowly in defense, Lille allow them to attack any of the channels between defenders they want. The wingers take up positions similar to that of a central midfielder at times. Spaces between fullback and center-back, or center-back and center-back are targets for not just the Lille strikers, but also their wingers.
In a league as one sided as Ligue 1, any team that tries to compete with PSG must either match their results or better them. It’s much easier said than done. One or two bad games will be the difference between winning a trophy and not. PSG have dominated Ligue 1 for the past decade, winning seven Ligue 1 titles from a possible ten. The outliers in Ligue 1 being Montpellier in 2011-12, Monaco in 2016-17, and now Lille in 2020-21. However, this season PSG is the outlier.
In order to keep pace with PSG, a team that rarely loses, a team must lose less than PSG. A brilliant tactic, I know. Lille have lost three, drawn ten and won 23 matches this season. By not losing to title rivals and beating everyone else, Lille were able to keep pace with a PSG team that had sacked their previous manager, Thomas Tuchel, on December 24th, and replaced him with Mauricio Pochettino on January 4th, a manager with a very different style of play.
So, this Ligue 1 season could not have been more perfect for Lille to win. Their main rivals were in disarray and Lille were nearly unbeatable. Without discrediting the entirety of Lille’s league season, I’ll share what I think are the most important games that decided the Ligue 1 title.
On April 3rd, 2021, Lille visited Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc de Princes in what could be best described as a Ligue 1 title deciding match. Whoever won this match would be top of the Ligue 1 table. As we know, Lille won this match. It was Canadian forward Jonathan David who broke the deadlock before being substituted for an ankle injury he sustained not long before he scored the winner.
To win a match of this magnitude in the style of play Lille have become known for is not just impressive, but a sign that the players on this team have the mentality of a title winning team. This isn’t a team with players who crumble under pressure; instead they embrace it. Lille have the fourth youngest team in Ligue 1 with the average age of the squad being just 24.7.
PSG have dominated Ligue 1 for seven of the last nine seasons. PSG have no shortage of excellent players either, having used a total of 33 different players this season, while Lille have only used 21; the fewest in the league. This match was truly an example of David taking on Goliath and winning.
If you would like to relive this match, we wrote an analysis of it that discussed the tactics used by both sides that can be found here.
On April 25th, 2021, Lille visited Lyon at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais. Lille fans began to believe that their title hopes were being crushed before their eyes as they witnessed their side 2-0 down after just 35 minutes. A goal from Lyon’s Islam Slimani and an own goal from captain José Fonte spelled disaster for Les Dogues.
Just before half-time, the veteran Turkish forward Burak Yilmaz scored a goal that would inspire Lille’s remarkable comeback. Tactics were thrown out the window in the second half, the only thing that mattered was getting that ball into the Lyon penalty area. 15 minutes into the second half, Jonathan David scores bringing the game level.
Lyon began to crumble. Both teams had thrown out their game plan for different reasons. Lille needed to win to keep up with PSG, and Lyon needed to not lose, especially if they wanted to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After 85 minutes Yilmaz scored the winning goal, bringing the score to 2-3. This was one of the greatest individual performances we have ever seen from any Lille player, or Ligue 1 player as a matter of fact. Burak Yilmaz carried this Lille team on his back against Lyon.
The sheer magnitude of this match would have seen most teams crumble, let alone individuals. 35 year old Burak Yilmaz who never played outside of Turkey and China before this season inspired one of the greatest comebacks Ligue 1 has ever seen. He will be remembered as a club hero for years to come.
This Lille team is special. It’s full of exciting players who play under a great manager and coach. Each player played a monumental part in winning Ligue 1. Having said that, there is a player who deserves a larger spotlight.
It’s easy to pick the top goal scorer as one of the best players of the season, but I think context is needed to best appreciate what a season he has had. Burak Yilmaz came to Lille and Ligue 1 at 35 years old, the twilight years for most football players. Before the 2020/21 season, he had never played outside of Turkey or China. Playing for Lille in Ligue 1 was Burak Yilmaz’s first time playing in one of the top five European leagues. The best part of all this? Burak Yilmaz arrived at Lille for free.
16 of 64 league goals came from a 35 year old forward who had never played in the league before, in a system that many would consider quite defense oriented. Yilmaz’s performance this season is a testament to his quality as a forward and an athlete. Below we can compare him to some more unorthodox goal scorers across Europe. As you can see, he is among esteemed company.
Lille have been an absolute pleasure to watch this season. Watching them play out from the back, beat high pressing teams and force their way into the final third is no easy task. It’s even harder when you’re also keeping the best defensive record in the league. Football is a team sport and, yes Yilmaz has had an amazing season, it would be unfair if I glossed over a few other great players.
Lille not only kept the most clean sheets in Ligue 1 and conceded the fewest amount of goals, they did it in style and José Fonte was integral in this. Playing out from the back is crucial in the modern game, there aren’t many older players who can adapt to the changing footballing landscape. While José Fonte is not a natural ball playing defender, he certainly adapted well. At 37 years old, he never once looked out of place and was able to keep up with the ball playing abilities of his goalkeeper and center-back partner, Mike Maignon and Sven Botman.
Boubakary Soumaré is one of the most sought after young players in Europe and for good reason. His second half to the season was remarkable, joining league leading players in progressive passes (6.78 per 90), progressive ball carries (5.97 per 90) and interceptions (1.78 per 90). Soumaré is quickly becoming one of the best creative box-to-box midfielders in Europe and is redefining what it means to be a “#8”.
Jonathan David started his career at Lille very poorly. When he first arrived he failed to win over the Lille fans and didn’t score his first goal until November 22nd, 2020. Like most young forwards, David just needed time before he got settled and began to play in a similar style to how he did at Gent.
His ability to lead the line as a #9 and create chances like a #10 makes him one of the most exciting and versatile forwards in Ligue 1. His winning goal against PSG played an important part in Lille’s title win, but his rough start to the season sees him fall just short as Lille’s player of the season.
With no official departures or arrivals from or for Lille confirmed, we can only speculate what might happen next. Unfortunately, like many clubs, Lille have struggled to handle the financial impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the world. Despite selling €99,000,000 worth of players last season, Lille are still struggling financially. Player sales aren’t a possibility, they’re unfortunately inevitable.
We saw that great Monaco team from the 2016-17 Ligue 1 season get pillaged by Europe’s elite teams. Bernardo SIlva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiemoué Bakayoko left that summer, with Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Lemar and Fabinho leaving the following summer. Lille will likely share a similar fate.
Having said that, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Lille can earn hundreds of millions of euros in player sales and ensure that their club does not fall into financial ruin while also competing in next season’s Champions League. Lille will then continue to buy inexpensive, talented and raw players who can refine their skills playing at an elite level.
This is, and has been for a while now, the strategy of Lille. Player sales can be the largest source of revenue for a club and there’s no shame in that. Lille consistently produces top players and will continue to do so, whether the current players remain at the club or now.
Lille have been one of Europe’s favourite underdogs this season. The footballing world has collectively tipped their hat to them for toppling the seemingly endless rule of PSG, even if for just one season.
Christophe Galtier has done a fantastic job with the group of players he has by ensuring that they play in the roles best suited to their playing abilities. While the concept may not seem outlandish, many managers will often choose to sacrifice team performances and players in an attempt to play a certain style and brand of football. Not Christophe Galtier however.
The Lille players are not only talented, but are some of the most likeable in Europe. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when that underdog is competing against a team with endless resources and world-class players in almost all areas of the pitch. Even if Lille failed to win the Ligue 1 title, their performances, character and style of play won our hearts. Allez Les Dogues!
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I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___