In one of the more well-rounded groups of the UEFA Europa League group stage, Saint-Etienne travelled to the Ghelamco Arena to face off against KAA Gent in the very first round. Saint-Etienne have had a very disappointing season with lots of ups and downs, finishing the season off with just three points above the relegation places in Ligue 1. Despite their league position, they did reach the final of the Coupe de France against Paris Saint-Germain, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, this game will not be played.
On the other hand, Gent have had one of their better seasons in the history of their club. The Belgian Pro League also ended early and this meant Gent finished second and secured a Champions League play-off ticket. So this match became a game of two extremes, ending in a 3-2 win in favour of the Belgian side as Saint-Etienne didn’t convince during the 90 minutes.
Lineups and formations
Jess Thorup set out his Gent side in his favoured 4-4-2 diamond system. Thomas Kaminski started in goal, with a back four made up of Mikael Lustig, Igor Plastun, Michael Nga deu-Ngadjui, and Nana Asare. The pivot for this game was Sven Kums while Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe and Elisha Owusu occupied the wider midfield positions. The young and talented Jonathan David finished off the midfield diamond. Their two strikers were Laurent Depoitre and Roman Yaremchuk.
The Saint-Etienne manager Ghislain Printant mostly prefers to line his team up in a 5-3-2 system, and he chose this as the system to face Gent. Stéphane Ruffier started in goal, with Harold Moukoudi, Loic Perrin, and Thimothée Kolodziejczak making up the back three. The wing-backs for the day were Mathieu Debuchy and Miguel Trauco. Saint-Etienne’s midfield trio consisted of Zaydou Youssouf, Yann M’Vila, and Yohan Cabaye. Romain Hamouma and Whabi Khazri led the line for Saint-Etienne.
In possession, the hosts were exciting and forward-thinking, making 160 forward passes – nearly tripling that of those they played backwards. Short passing was used to develop attacks through each area of the pitch. The image above shows the combination of at least three passes played between each player. It indicates that Gent prefer to build the play through combinations and short passes. This was the case, especially in the first half, when Gent had an average 60% ball possession.
As the ball moved through the phases into the final third, Gent varied their approach. The home side used the width of their full-backs to stretch Saint-Etienne’s five-man backline and the wide midfielder would try to receive the ball next to the centre-backs.
Consequently, they would create a back three during the possession phase. This would not only aim to overload the flanks, but also the deeper position of the midfielder would trigger one of Saint-Etienne’s three midfielders to step out and create space in the French side’s block.
The image below shows how Gent use these wide dynamics to progress forward and create an overload on the side of the ball.
As Gent tried to progress through the sides, Saint-Etienne had the same game plan, although they were less effective at executing it. The wing-back, the midfielder, and the ball carrier would try and create a 3 v 2 situation and thus an overload down the side, just like Gent. But this was easily nullified by the Belgians.
Due to the quick-shifting of their defensive block, they were able to create a defensive overload in their advantage. The obvious answer for Saint-Etienne lied on the ball-far side. Because of the striker pinning Gent’s ball-far full-back, if they could quickly switch the play to the far wing-back, he would find himself in open space. But because the distances between the Saint-Etienne centre-backs were too big and the fact that Gent would push forward when a lateral pass was played, Saint-Etienne weren’t able to switch play.
The image above also illustrates the four-diamond two structure Gent would defend in as they often dropped into a medium block. At times Gent would press high when a pressing trigger occurred like a bad pass, a receiving player with bad body shape, or a backpass.
But the gameplan was to stay in their medium block. The medium block of Gent allowed Saint-Etienne’s centre-backs as much time as they wanted on the ball. As a result, they would play long balls to their strikers, avoiding the Gent’s first and second line. With Khazri moving around Hamouma, a lot of danger would be created when Hamouma would win the long ball and flick it on to his strike partner Khazri.
Saint-Etienne would also drop instead of pressing high up and also drop into a medium block. This also could be found in their pressing intensity statistic: the French side’s PPDA in the first half was very high at 32.2. This means that they pressed without intensity and were rather passive in their defensive performance. In the image below, the 5-3-2 structure is shown.
This structure was easily manipulated by La Gantoise. As discussed above, Gent would look to break them down the flank. In the below image, Asare takes up a deeper position because he knows that the opposing wing-back, Debuchy, tries to cover him. This opens up space behind the wing-back where Odjdja runs into. The ball carrier has now two options: he can play a vertical pass to the striker, who then can flick the ball on to Odjdja, or the ball carrier can just play a ball over the top to Odjadja. Both ways were effective in progressing play down the flank.
Gent were also dangerous on the counter. The combination of Depoitre and David seemed to be a match made in heaven. Depoitre is more a classic target man, whereas David is a faster and more technical player. Thorup uses this to Gent’s advantage during counter-attacks.
The idea during the counter-attack was to move the central centre-back and force him to leave the area by movement from the striker to the half-space. Once the centre was unoccupied, it was David’s task to run from deep, exploit this space and receive the ball in a goal-scoring opportunity. In the image below, Depoitre makes a run in behind pulling the Perrin out of his position to the side. Kums notices this run and plays the pass to Depoitre. David sees the space centrally and runs into it. Consequently, David receives the ball from Depoitre and comes into a goal-scoring opportunity. This resulted in a goal for La Gantoise.
In this case below, Gent use the same strategy when counter-attacking. Saint-Etienne’s high-press system is easily bypassed by Asare. Subsequently, Yaremchuk runs in sight of the centre-back covering the middle. Again, space opens up centrally and David is making a run from deep to arrive in this free space.
Gent’s offensive set-pieces
Above we described how both teams approached the open play. But another real attacking threat from Gent was their set-piece play as their offensive set-pieces caused a lot of difficulties for Saint-Etienne. We will discuss two of the various set-piece strategies Gent used during this game alone, although they deserve a separate analysis piece on their own.
The first set-piece was a free-kick. Two Gent players take up an offside position, the reason behind this tactic is to block the two defenders who mark the zonal central zone. When the ball is delivered it will fall to the second zone, where in this case, Asare is ready to pounce.
The second example comes from a free-kick and uses the same set-up. In this case below, Asare blocks the far-side man marker and starts in an offside position. This gives Lustig the opportunity to run from a central position to the second zone. When the cross is delivered, Lustig is all on his own at the second post and gives the assist for the third Gent goal.
Gent showed this season in domestic and European competitions that under Thorup, they are a true force. The game ended in a 3-2 win for the Belgians and this result then kicked off a great series of performances during the group phase of the Europa League. Consequently, they topped a group with Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg.
For Saint-Etienne, it was a totally different season, as they didn’t get further than the group stages. Midway through the season, Prinant got replaced by Puel but this wouldn’t affect their Ligue 1 results drastically as they still ended the season just three points above relegation. But Puel did lead Saint-Etienne to the Coupe de France final against PSG, ending the season with a positive note.