Marcelo Bielsa's House of Horrors
Lille were (and to some extent still are) one of the great experiments in European football. You wouldn’t think that a club currently residing in 19th place in Ligue 1 with only 9 points from 11 games could be classified as such, but ahead of the season, with new ownership and the return of everyone’s favorite crazy managerial genius in Marcelo Bielsa, it was hard not to be excited about which direction the club was moving. The club won a ligue 1 title as recently as 2011 but in recent years had been selling their best players just to balance the books. The takeover offered a chance for a fresh restart. Add to that an intriguing young roster bolstered by a £50m summer spending spree and it wasn’t unreasonable to think that in a league that was fairly chaotic outside PSG, Lille had a great chance to hit the ground running, sneak in and become something of a hipster’s favorite.
Instead, the early excitement has been vanquished and the kind of depressing football that Lille fans came to expect with the previous regime has recurred. Lille have been very bad defensively through 11 games, and have shown a sterile attack that looks like nothing from Bielsa's last Ligue 1 tenure at Marseille during 2014-15. This was supposed to be the year where major progress occurred, perhaps leading up to the point where the club could viably contend for a Champions League spot in future seasons. Instead, we’re at the point where it’s fair to wonder if they’ll even be able to drag themselves up to a mid-table position at season’s end.
For stretches of the season, in 2014-15, Bielsa's Marseille squad were the toast of European football (like a lesser version of what Napoli are today). It was the Bielsa concept at its finest: breaking up opposition as far up the field as possible to create good shots taken in transition, scoring a lot, and a major impetus to attack whenever possible. The physical demands that his tactics required led to the team's eventual demise as they tired through April and May, but it can’t be denied that during that season Marseille matches were appointment viewing television.
This Lille side has been almost the opposite. The raw numbers are bad: Metz and Caen are the only two Ligue 1 teams to have scored fewer non-penalty goals, and only Amiens have created less big chances. Lille rank near the bottom in expected goals for. At an xG/shot rate of 7.5% in open play is super low and watching Lille settle for hopeless long shots instead of trying to look for better options has been grim.
(chart via StatsBomb Services)
Verticality is a major principle that Bielsa adheres to, the idea of getting the ball forward in a timely fashion and getting past defensive lines. When it’s truly flowing, it can produce scintillating football. Lille haven’t really been able to do that. A lot of times, the ball will be passed from one center-back to another then followed by a hopeful long ball to one of the wide players. In Lille’s first ten games, no team in Ligue 1 had a higher proportion of passes occurring in their own half of the pitch.
(chart via Euan Dewar)
On top of that, when they have been able to connect on passes to their attacking wingers, it’s not led to anything worthwhile. Luis Araujo and Anwar El Ghazi are talented wingers and their acquisitions at the time made sense, but they’ve been settling for bad shots far too many times at the expense of potentially better opportunities. They've had fullbacks making runs to advantageous areas to make crosses or cut-back passes, but instead the duo have taken bad shot after bad shot:
There's no guarantee that passing to Kevin Malcuit or Fode Ballo-Toure whenever they get into these situations will net a great chance, just as there's no guarantee that recycling the ball in the final third will create the vital opening needed. But settling for these kind of shots time and time again is a form of malpractice.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of disappointment comes from the form of Yassine Benzia, a once highly rated attacker who even was being showered with praise from Bielsa months ago. It’s quite hard to have an attacking player who offers next to nothing as either a goal scoring threat or as a playmaker but Benzia is managing to pull that trick off. From his time at Lyon forward, he has been hyped as a prospect, but we have very little evidence so far into his career that he’s a good player, and it’s even more pronounced when he’s playing as a #10. He’s just not been dynamic whenever in possession of the ball. His touch has lead him astray on numerous occasions, turning intriguing possibilities into distant memories. Despite the fact that he’s creating 2.7 key passes per 90 minutes, almost all have ended up in long range shots. Not all of that is his fault, but the experiment of him playing that position has not been a success.
The decision making of this squad whenever they do get into good positions has left a lot to be desired and to some extent, it’s expected. Benzia is still 23 and hasn’t played a lot of Ligue 1 football, Araujo is 21, El Ghazi is 22, Thiago Maia is 20. I’m not sure that youthfulness can be used to fully explain a team that’s shooting below 8% in open play, but I’m willing to believe that it’s can be a trying exercise to coach a young squad to take greater care of the ball and value shot selection, if indeed they are being directed that way.
In a season full of disappointment, one of the few rays of sunshine has been Thiago Mendes’ play. Being a central midfielder in a Bielsa led side isn’t the easiest of tasks, but he’s been productive. His ability to make himself available for passes has been a welcomed addition, and he’s flashed the ability to be a press resistant midfielder by being hard to knock off the ball.
Are there hopes for Lille turning things around in attack? Against Metz two weeks ago, they were able to string together passes but even then, it never led to any high-quality chances in open play. There was still the repeated ball circulation between the center backs leading to inaccurate long passes towards the wing, with a lack of occupation in the middle portion of the final third continuing with a focus on wing play. The 3-0 scoreline was flattering, and the match itself didn't feel like an indicator for a possible turnaround in fortune.
A man-marking press exposed
There are different ways to defend as a team, but an obvious main goal is to allow as few quality chances as possible. There are teams like Liverpool who press and do fine in terms of shot volume but the chances they do concede tend to be memorable and dangerous. Arsenal have generally done well in conceding long range shots despite employing a half-hearted approach to pressing opponents. Chelsea try to disrupt things whenever opponents get into the middle third.
We know the deal that comes with Bielsa coached teams; a holistic man-marking approach that has become somewhat of a rarity in European football. It’s designed to break up buildup play and attack as quickly as possible. To some extent, you can see how it’s worked out with Lille. They have been able to break up opponents passing very high up the pitch and disrupt build-up play. It hasn’t necessarily led to them creating quality chances, but they’ve regained possession of the ball higher up more times than not.
(chart via Euan Dewar)
With all pressing systems, you’re at the opponents’ mercy if bypassed. Lille have tested that because once things get broken, it’s led to some chaotic situations. Teams coached by Bielsa are inherently dealing with a certain level of chaos, and this season it hasn't ended up to the benefit of the team. Whenever they lose the ball, players frantically try to find someone to mark with the demands the system entails. The result has been moments where the opposition can carve them up and get into dangerous areas.
Lille are towards the bottom in both shot volume and expected goals conceded, and it's stuff like this along with some weird individual defensive errors that has been the cause of that. I'm probably more confident that there will be some form of improvement in this area compared to the attack. Even though the end results have yet to gel, there are things that can be pointed at as signs of the players learning to carry out what is expected of them. In attack, you'd be hard pressed to find any positives.
Will Lille get Relegated?
Looking at the state of affairs within Ligue 1, and on a pure talent basis: Lille shouldn’t be in the position that they are in. People (like myself) overrated both the quality that Bielsa was working with when the season began, and just how hard it could be to coach up a team that’s full of players aged 23 and under. But even the biggest of pessimists couldn’t have imagined just how bad it’s been. There are further intriguing players on the squad like Nicolas Pepe and Fares Bahlouli. El Ghazi is a better player than he’s shown to be so far, and the defensive personnel in theory is as good if not better than the unit Bielsa had to work with at Marseille.
On the other hand, this team has been very bad through 11 games and if they continue to play in this manner, they will stand a great chance of dropping into Ligue 2. Lille can’t buy a good shot on goal, and despite the number of athletes at his disposal to use for the trademark press, the scheme has been leaking chance after chance once the press gets broken. Losing a player like Nicolas de Preville at the end of the summer window has proven to be a bigger blow than might have been thought, a productive attacker that could've been leading the line alongside for Araujo and El Ghazi. And if the two of them continue to be high usage wingers who provide little to no value in attack, then it might very well be that the team as a whole continue to create shots at an 8% xG/shot clip throughout the rest of the season.
Put a gun to my head and I still think Lille are going to dig themselves out of this hole. But the top 6 prediction that I had for this club seems almost laughable considering what has occurred on the pitch. Lille have been bad and with little signs of improvement through November, Bielsa's European return has turned into something of a nightmare.