Lille Make Encouraging Start to Ligue 1 Under Marcelo Bielsa

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Marcelo Bielsa is always a name that football fans like to hear. It reminds them of high-octane pressing and fast-paced attacking football. The news that he would be returning to football, and Ligue 1, with Lille was therefore met with much excitement, and after the club’s season opener against Claudio Ranieri’s Nantes, it’s clear that Bielsa’s philosopohy remains laragely unchanged.

He arranged his players into a 3-3-1-3 formation, something which isn’t out of the ordinary for him. In front of the three centre-backs, new signing Thiago Mendes played as the lone holding midfielder, and in the wingback positions, Kevin Malcuit stormed forward from the right while Fode Toure operated in similar fashion on the left. Further up the field, Yassine Benzia played as a kind of 9 and a half, in that he divided his time between sitting in a true centre-forward location and dropping a little deeper. The front three then rounded out the side, with striker Nicolas De Preville flanked by Anwar El Ghazi, who played on the right, and left-winger Luiz Araujo.

That made for an exciting line-up, one packed with pace, power and new additions. Bielsa put them to work straight away, and with a mix of high pressing and wing-based ball progression, they controlled proceedings to such an extent that they disposed of Nantes by a comfortable 3-0 margin. Of particular interest, at least in their Ligue 1 opener, was how happy they were to attack the flanks. Maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising given that Mendes was really the only true presence in the deeper central midfield area, but the fact that only 23% of Lille’s attacks originated from the middle was nonetheless intriguing. The rest of the team’s attacks came down both wings, and with the left and the right each seeing 39% of Lille’s attacks, there was no real preference as to which side they utilised.

Against Nantes, it must be said that this strategy worked pretty well. Ranieri had organised his side to be compact and narrow in a defensive 4-4-2 structure, which meant Lille had to keep them moving from side to side. Mendes was often the facilitator in this way, as when Nantes managed to shuffle over to cover one side of the field, the 25-year-old Brazilian would often receive the ball in a deeper position before quickly moving it over to the far side. That gave Bielsa’s men the chance to create overloads on the open side, and when they managed to do this, it wasn’t uncommon to see the wingers combining with the fullbacks in order to generate opportunities.

This is illustrated by the fact that Lille had 29 crosses for the match, a number high enough to make them the equal biggest crossers in the league on Matchday 1, alongside Rennes. It worked a little differently on the two flanks, though. On the left, Araujo, though a direct and pacey player, liked to drift infield. That meant that left-wingback Toure, and his second-half replacement Rominigue Kouame, had a lot of room into which to overlap. On the right, however, El Ghazi tended to stay much wider in more of a touchline-hugging sort of role, so Malcuit had to pick and choose his moments a little more. Instead of always bombing on, he would therefore often assist in circulating the ball in deeper spots as well.

Despite these differences, both sides were nonetheless effective. In fact, all three of Lille’s goals came from crosses – one from the right and two from the left. Lille’s opener, scored just after half-time, featured a short pass from El-Ghazi to find an overlapping Kouame, and although the substitute’s cross didn’t find a target initially, defender Junior Alonso buried the rebound from the edge of the area.

Next up, El Ghazi picked up possession wide on the right-hand side, and responded to Malcuit’s incredibly powerful underlapping run by playing the ball into his path. The signing from Saint-Etienne followed up with a clever piece of dribbling near the byline, and when Nantes defender Nicolas Pallois caught him with a trailing leg, De Preville was only to happy to step up and dispatch the penalty won by Malcuit. It wasn’t until the third and final goal, though, that Bielsa’s side generated a truly cohesive piece of wingplay.

Here, Mendes received the ball deep in central midfield, and upon turning to face forward, he noticed that Araujo had dropped short into a left-of-centre location. Mendes then played a short vertical pass to his teammate, at which point Araujo looked to keep the momentum in the move. He swivelled on the ball, took one or two touches to steady himself, and made use of Kouame’s hard running. Araujo pierced the Nantes backline by playing a pass in behind, and when Kouame latched onto it on the left-hand side, he hit it first-time to the far post. The precision of the cross was such that El Ghazi didn’t have to break stride, and when he side-footed his shot home, it felt like the move that Lille had been trying to produce all game had finally arrived.

That made it 3-0, and it must be said that there was a degree of comfort about the win. Lille enjoyed 62.5% of possession, pressed well and generally controlled all aspects of the game. In short, they were dominant. Granted, there were a couple of moments when their high defensive line looked a little vulnerable, but, despite that, they were never really troubled by a defensively-geared Nantes.

As a consequence, Bielsa’s return to Ligue 1 was a positive one, and when he thinks back to that third goal and the way his players seamlessly transitioned from defence to attack within the space of a couple of passes, he’ll have a sense that they’re starting to get a feel for his approach. Of course, there’s still plenty of work to do, especially when it comes to integrating the many new signings into the side, but it’s all looking very promising.

Lille have invested heavily by adding players like Thiago Maia, Araujo and Mendes, and with a fairly kind run of early-season fixtures to come, starting next weekend against Strasbourg, Bielsa won’t be thrown in the deep-end initially. He can therefore spend some time familiarising his squad not only with each other but also with his tactics. Whether Lille can consistently perform at a high level under Bielsa remains to be seen, but at least at this stage of the new campaign, the coach’s principles are coming together, and he is fashioning an impressive list of players as well.

Now, it’s simply time for football fans to sit back and enjoy Lille’s progression under the eccentric Argentine.