Article by Ben Griffis
Post-season update: Christophe Galtier led Lille to the 2020/21 Ligue 1 title. This title further cements how successful his shift to a 4-4-2 was this season. Paired with outstanding performances from many players, Galtier’s Lille held off favorites PSG to win the title on the final matchday with a 1-2 win away at Angers.
Christophe Galtier’s Lille have been having a remarkable 2020/21 season. In this article, I will look at Galtier’s tactics this season, which have helped them stay at the top of the table for much of the season. First, I’ll introduce Galtier before touching upon his tactics in the past and finally discussing this season.
Christophe Galtier began his tenure at Lille in December 2017 after 8 years in charge of Saint-Étienne, where he won Manager of the Year in 2012/13 as well as that season’s Coupe de la Ligue. Galtier took over a Lille that Marcelo Bielsa left in 18th place.
The Lille team Galtier inherited from Bielsa had gone through major squad changes during the summer. Bielsa froze out and forced out many older, long-serving players and worked to replace them with younger players, including Nicolas Pépé. Galtier did well to stay up after a horrible run from February to April, finishing 17th—one point above Toulouse who lost the relegation playoff and 5 points above 19th placed Troyes.
Galtier’s first few seasons with Lille were successful. Implementing a 4-2-3-1 formation, Galtier led Lille to a 2nd place finish in 2018/19—one season after narrowly escaping relegation. For his exploits, Galtier earned Ligue 1’s Manager of the Year once again. Galtier continued his favored 4-2-3-1 shape into the next season. The COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2019/20 season and Lille finished in 4th place, one point behind Rennes after 28 matches.
Starting in the 2020/21 season, however, Galtier changed his tactics. His 4-2-3-1 gave way to a slightly more defensive 4-4-2. This is the formation I will look at in this article, as he has used this formation in the vast majority of games.
A quick remark about Galtier from a team selection standpoint I like about Christophe Galtier: Galtier does not shy away from dropping a player if their form dips. For Champions League match against Valencia in 2019, Galtier said he opted to drop Ikoné because the player was in a bad run of form. Galtier’s quote after the match was, “you can’t love a player and then hate him because he is less efficient. His entry into the match was noted and remarkable.” Ikoné came on in the 65th minute—right after Valencia took the lead—and scored in the last minute of added time. This example showcases Galtier’s team sheet decisions. Galtier will not choose a specific player based on what that player has done in the past. He picks the players who are the best at match time. Ikoné obviously reacted well to the benching. Galtier does have a fairly regular starting 11, but this Ikoné example above shows that he will change the team sheet if necessary.
Buildup and Attack
As mentioned above, Christophe Galtier employs a 4-4-2 this season, instead of his previously preferred 4-2-3-1. This allows him to use a double-pivot in the center of the park, making use of hard-working midfielders like Benjamin André, Renato Sanches, Boubakary Soumaré, and Xeca. One midfielder stays deeper than the other during buildup to allow for vertical passes between them. Further, during each possession one midfielder is the more creative outlet looking for passes to play to players moving ahead of the ball, while one remains further back to maintain a sturdy shape in case of possession loss. In attack, the 4-4-2 can become a 4-2-4 if the wingers remain high up, or even a 4-4-1-1 when one forward drops a bit deeper.
Galtier builds up from the center backs of José Fonte and Sven Botman. They start the attack and attempt to find one of the two midfielders who has dropped back or a fullback who has come alongside to form a back three. This is a feature used fairly often by Galtier and allows his team to overload the center of the pitch. One fullback, such as the right back Mehmet Çelik, will stay back initially to form a back three while the other fullback pushes high up the pitch.
While a fullback forms a back three, the other fullback and both wingers push high and join the strikers near the opposing back line. It is then the midfield’s duty to link the back three with all the attackers. This is where the fullback comes into play.
The fullback already has a fair amount of space to run into since they start deep and rather central. They can move into that space with little trouble. To make this type of movement even more dangerous, Galtier instructs the winger to drift inside while the fullback simultaneously makes a run. This dual-movement can confuse defenders as the fullback pushes up the lines and moves from central to the wings, while the wingers drops back slightly towards the ball and moves centrally from the wings. The midfielder then has options and passes to the best-positioned player.
But Galtier does not instruct only the wingers and fullbacks to make movements ahead of the ball. The strikers are involved in this as well, and they will drop deep, creating confusion amongst the opposing center backs and midfielders on who should pick the striker up. If all three players make this move at once—fullback, winger, striker—it spells danger for Lille’s opponent.
Lille, however, is not a long-buildup team. Galtier favors moving the ball up the pitch relatively quickly. He wants to get the ball near the opponent’s box as opposed to keeping it near Lille’s. The movements described above help create space either centrally or on the wings to move the ball—and Lille has little preference where to play through, with a pretty even number of attacks through the middle and each side of the pitch.
When transitioning to defense, Lille will normally regroup to form their defensive shape. One striker may press, but the remaining players will form up to create defensive solidity and the shape discussed below.
Christophe Galtier maintains his 4-4-2 shape when defending as well. All players are asked to do their part in keeping the lines compact to leave little space for opponents to drift and find space between the lines. Lille also want to force their opposition out wide by defending narrowly. They then overload the side the ball is on by shifting their lines to the ball’s side. While this opens up space for the opponent to switch, it allows Lille to suffocate their opponent and win the ball back.
Lille are a pressing team, but the press is not relentless like a Liverpool-style gegenpress. Galtier uses a pressing trigger to initiate the press in the opponent’s third. One striker will press the center backs and fullbacks when their teammates pass back to them. The second striker remains central and cuts the passing lane to the opponent’s deeper midfielder or marks them tightly. Another pressing trigger is when an opponent takes a heavy touch. The closest player will rush towards the opponent to force another mistake. While one or two players press, the other players nearby will move to cut passing lanes. Finally, players will press if the opponent plays a slow pass and the Lille player can get to the receiver before or at the same time as the ball.
When transitioning from defense to attack, Galtier likes his team to push the ball up the field directly and urgently. While not hoofing the ball up to a striker, Lille will use the wingers or fullbacks to drive up the pitch, moving the ball far away from their own third. Lille’s players try to keep their positions while countering but appear to rotate slightly if the opportunity arises or if it is necessary to move the ball.
Christophe Galtier’s change to a structured 4-4-2 has been very successful this season. There is plenty of movement and rotation in buildup and attack to move the ball up the field with urgency. This movement both draws defenders out of position and creates space for several Lille players to exploit. Lille maintain a well-drilled defensive shape for stability and use pressing triggers to win the ball back, but without losing their shape. Galtier’s tactics require a cohesive squad with good amounts of chemistry in order to defend as a unit and effectively rotate to create space. Further, he requires players who have strong positional awareness so that they can effectively cut passing lanes while being aware of their position in relation to their teammates’ position.
Lille’s strength this season stems from their sturdy defense. Lille have let in just 20 goals after 33 games, the fewest in the league. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan has recorded 18 clean sheets, the most in the league. Maignan and the Lille defense also record the best minutes per goal against, allowing a goal every 149 minutes. While Lille are a team with a number of gifted attacking talents, the team’s major strength is their defensive organization.
Overall, Galtier’s decision to implement a 4-4-2 with attacking rotations and a rigid defense has seen Lille hold first place at the end of 15 match weeks out of 33. With Lille’s tactics being more on the defense side than attacking side, it will be interesting to see if they can hold off PSG to win the league for the first time since 2010/11. Lille do not play PSG in the remaining 5 games of the season and are in the driver’s seat. Galtier’s tactics have been successful so far, and he will be confident given his club’s stellar defensive record.