After a shock 2-1 defeat against CFR Cluj in the first game, Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio welcomed Julien Stéphan and his Rennes side at Stadio Olimpico during the game week two of Europe League 2019/20. The Ligue 1 side was held for a 1-1 draw against Celtic during the matchday one. Group E is one of the trickiest groups of the competition and since both these teams are direct rivals to compete for qualification into the knockouts, this game was a significant opportunity for both the teams to get an upper hand during the early stages of the campaign.
Even though both the teams have set high ambitions for this season, their poor start in the respective league campaigns shows nothing but the opposite. While the Italian team currently sits at the seventh position in Serie A with just three wins in eight games, the Ligue 1 side find themselves on 12th after as many wins, but in 10 games. Having said that, it is a well-known fact that the league form does not have a significant impact on European competition games.
In this tactical analysis, we will see how Stéphan outclassed Inzaghi in this game purely in terms of tactics and was nearly rewarded with a win but two wonderfully crafted goals from Lazio’s best players denied it. We will also do an analysis of the issues with Lazio’s tactics in the first half and how Inzaghi rectified them in the other half.
Lazio was set up in their usual 3-5-2 system that defensively transitioned into a 5-3-2. It was not a surprise to see Thomas Strakosha starting between the sticks. Inzaghi chose to retain the three-man defensive combination of Francesco Acerbi, Denis Vavro, and Bastos from their previous game against Cluj. The first-choice wing-back pairing of Manuel Lazzari and captain Senad Lulić started on the right and left flanks respectively. The 44-year old coach shuffled his midfield by resting the first-choice trio of Lucas Leiva, Luis Alberto, and Sergej Milinković-Savić and replacing them with Danilo Cataldi, Marco Parolo, and Valon Berisha. Ciro Immobile, who is having a dream start of the season with nine goals and three assists in Serie A already, started for the first time in the Europa League alongside Felipe Caicedo to form the front two.
Although Julien Stéphan has used three different formations in the season so far, he set his Rennes side in the most used 5-3-2 system. In possession, they pushed forward to transition the five-man defensive line into a three-man defensive line. Jérémy Morel, Joris Gnagnon, and Damien Da Silva formed the usual back three behind the first-choice goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Hamari Traoré, who has started every single game of the season so far, was deployed on the right. A surprise inclusion was Souleyman Doumbia, who was playing for the first time this season. He replaced Faitout Maouassa as the left wing-back. Benjamin Bourigeaud was rested for this game and he was replaced by Jonas Martin, who played as the lone defensive midfielder alongside the reliable central midfield pairing of Eduardo Camavinga and Clément Grenier to form the three-man midfield. Rennes’ highest goal scorer M’Baye Niang started alongside Flavien Tait as the two forwards.
Rennes’ brilliant tactical set up in the first half – Congesting central spaces and overloading wide areas
Stéphan is known to smartly alter his side’s tactics depending on the opposition and he did the same in this game. Rennes were set up in a 5-3-2 formation on paper, which transitioned into a 3-4-1-2 on the ball. The wide centre-backs split on either side with both the full-backs pushing forward to join the second line alongside the defensive midfielder, who screened the backline to form the defensive diamond with the centre-backs. While one of the two central midfielders stayed deep to complete the four-man second line, the other midfielder pushed forward in between the opposition lines to act as the playmaker behind the two strikers.
Stéphan’s side built the attacks from the back with Mendy passing the ball to one of the centre-backs in a half-space. The defender would then look to quickly move the ball into the outer space where the ball-near wing-back or central midfielder (in case the wing-back has pushed further forward) would be positioned. As soon as the ball is moved to a flank, all the ball-side players, along with the forwards, would then start making lateral movements towards the ball to create overloading triangles and diamonds. Such kind of an attacking shape allowed Rennes to play with short touches to allow combinations with a high pace. This kind of movement forced Lazio to commit men in the wide areas that consequently created space in the centre for Rennes to make vertical progressions.
The figure above shows a six versus five triangle overloads by Rennes on the left that was caused by the lateral movements of the Rennes players after the ball was passed to Niang on the left flank in the middle third. Five Lazio players, including the central midfielders, have been drawn towards the outer space thereby leaving ample space in the centre, where Grenier has positioned himself. Niang was able to hold off Vavro with his physical strength and eventually manoeuvre the ball towards Grenier who wasted a potential opportunity after swiftly moving into the final third.
This was a common attacking pattern that was employed by Stéphan’s team to attack the home side and Grenier was a key component in this tactic. He constantly made intelligent off the ball movements to find space from where he can progress the ball. Overall, he attempted 28 attacking third passes, out of which 22 were successful. It was higher than every other player on the pitch.
One of the reasons why Rennes was able to pull this off regularly was due to an issue with Lazio’s high pressing tactic during the first half. Lazio’s wing-backs did not push forward to pin the Rennes’ wing-backs during the away side’s first phase of the buildup. This allowed the Rennes wing-backs to push forward which instead pinned the Lazio’s full-backs into their half. Consequently, it created space on the flanks in the middle third which Rennes exposed constantly.
As you can see in the above figure, Doumbia has positioned himself near the half-way line which does not allow Lazzari to press the man in possession and therefore, create a space in the middle third. Grenier, who was last seen exposing the central space, is now positioned into space in a wide area.
Rennes were not only superior to Lazio in the attacking sense, they dominated the home side in the defensive side of things as well. The away side was sturdy and solid in the back which limited an attacking team like Lazio to only three shots in the first half with no significant threat on goal.
Off the ball, Rennes were set up in a medium block of 5-3-2 which was horizontally and vertically compact. During the first phase of Lazio buildup, Stéphan instructed his side to focus on maintaining a compact defensive shape in the centre rather than pressing Lazio high in their third. This is evident from the fact that Rennes’ average PPDA in the first half was 56.1, which means they allowed Lazio to make 56.1 passes before making a defensive action. It indicates that Rennes was not set up to press the home side aggressively. While this statistic might not look impressive, it was effective because most of the passes that Lazio made were in their half.
The figure above shows the centrally congested shape of Rennes during the Lazio buildup that virtually blocks any chance for the home side to progress the ball from the centre. While the horizontal compactness keeps the Lazio wing-backs free, the vertical compactness denies any space for the home side to play between the lines. Hence, the only viable option for making vertical ball progression is through half-spaces and wings. Observe that none of the Rennes players is interested in pressing Lazio in the opposition half. Also, the wing-backs are not marked.
Rennes allowed the Lazio wing-backs to be free in the wide areas with a purpose. Once the home side progressed the ball to one of their free wing-backs, the Rennes players would shift laterally towards the ball keeping the compactness of the horizontal shape intact in turn creating overloads in the outer space to deny any combination play from Lazio. This numerical and positional superiority not only allowed Rennes to regain possession but also start a quick counter-attack using short passing combination plays. The two forwards, in this case, would stay high up the field to carry the counter-attack.
Observe in the figure how the horizontal movement of the Rennes players has resulted in nine of their players in the right wide/ half-space. Due to this movement, Lazzari is kept completely free on the other side which persuades the Lazio man in possession to switch the play. However, Rennes’ defence is drilled to combat this kind of move from the opposition because to which they can quickly shift their shape on the other side to close any available space.
Camavinga attempted 10 tackles in the game, out of which seven were on the flanks and three were in the right half-space. Moreover, Grenier and Niang, who are central players, attempted nine out of their 10 combined take-ons on the flanks/half-space. These stats clearly explain the tactical theory that Stéphan adopted for this game.
By congesting the central space and overloading the wide spaces, Rennes had won the tactical battle in the first half and controlled the game pretty well. They also looked the more dangerous side than the opposition going into the attacking third. However, poor execution in the final third meant that the half ended with no goals in it.
Lazio lacking the X-factor in first half
Lazio was set up in 3-5-2 formation on paper which shifted to a 3-1-4-2 during the buildup. Similar to Rennes’ buildup, Lazio formed a diamond in the first phase with the three centre-backs and the defensive midfielder. The two full-backs pushed forward and the two central midfielders along with the two forwards (not in the figure) stayed in the central areas, as shown in the following figure.
Since Rennes were not pressing the home side in their half, Lazio’s buildup formation transitioned into a 2-2-6 or a 3-1-6 in the opposition half, with a constant wide line in the attacking third to stretch the field horizontally. Inzaghi’s side was flexible in terms of who provided the width. It could be the ball-sided wing-back or even a wide centre-back pushing forward on the flanks with the wing-back tucking inside. The following figure shows that Bastos, who is a centre-back, is making a run on the flanks which has caused Lulić to drift inside into the half-space.
High wing-backs meant that Lazio’s plan of attack was from the wide areas. 91% of Lazio’s attack came from the flanks. However, Stéphan’s defensive tactics meant that most of their attacks were ineffective, limiting the home side to only four shots in the first 52 minutes. It was clear that Lazio missed the creative spark and the x-factor in the midfield to shackle the Rennes defence.
Off the ball, Inzaghi set his team up in a zonal high pressing system instead of a man-oriented one. As you can see in the figure below, the Lazio forwards and central midfielders are narrow to deny any passing option in the centre for the Rennes goalkeeper.
We have already mentioned in the previous section how such a pressing tactic played into Rennes’ hands since the away side was looking to progress from the flanks and their wing-backs were completely free during the buildup. Moreover, the pressing intensity of Lazio wasn’t at their usual high as the PPDA metric for this game was 15.6 in the first half, while their average PPDA in Serie A so far has been 11.86.
In the defensive phase of the game, Lazio was set up in a medium block 5-3-2, similar to Rennes, as shown in the figure below.
Stéphan’s tactical change and Lazio substitutions making the difference in the second half
Stéphan made a crucial tactical tweak in the second half that completely opened up the game for the first time. Right from the first minute of the second half, Rennes started to engage in a forward press with high intensity. The second half PPDA of Rennes was only 6.1, which is a completely contrasting figure to the first half.
The figure shows the high press from the away side. While Lazio is building from the back, Rennes players have pushed forward and cut all the short passing options for the man in possession forcing him to go long so that Rennes can gain possession as quickly and as higher up the field as possible.
Such an aggressive approach from Stéphan’s side following a passive first half was a clear indication that the French manager was looking for a goal. And he was nearly rewarded in the 47th minute when Rennes’ high press won them the ball which eventually led to a Camavinga attempt that was a whisker away from the goal. Nevertheless, a brilliant free-kick delivery on the 55th minute from Grenier found Morel at the far post who buried with a powerful header and gave a deserved lead to the visitors.
The high press from Rennes also meant that they pushed their defensive line from medium to high line. Although they still maintained the vertical and horizontal compactness, gaps started to appear beyond the Rennes backline in wide areas and also between the lines on occasions. Inzaghi sensed an opportunity here and immediately introduced Alberto and Milinković-Savić at the 52nd minute.
The introduction of Lazio’s best and the most creative players created an instant impact as the home side started to come into the game for the first time. The duo started causing problems for Rennes’ defence from both the half-spaces. The quality of passing in the final third from Lazio was suddenly improved which allowed them to start exploiting the gaps in the Rennes defence. Alberto constantly dropped deep to carry the ball out from the middle third effectively and look for a final third pass. Milinković-Savić, on the other end, was positioned higher than the Spaniard into the right half-space looking to string in dangerous passes either beyond Doumbia in the wide channel for Lazzari or in the box for the strikers. The Serbian also looked to get inside the box whenever an opportunity raised.
Alberto’s ball inside the box was finished with one touch by the Serbian to equalize in the 63rd minute. Milinković-Savić also produced a pinpoint cross inside the box from the right half-space towards Immobile in the 75th minute. The 30-year Italian striker’s world-class finish with a vintage header gave the lead to the home side and eventually proved to be the winning goal.
Inzaghi also improved the front pressing of his team by instructing the full-backs to pin down the Rennes’ wing-backs and committed more players in the opposition half during the buildup with greater intensity. The reduction of PPDA from 15.6 in the first half to 8.9 in the second half is evidence of that. The following figure shows the front pressing of Lazio in the second half.
Although a late surge from Rennes did create several chances for the away side, they couldn’t get the equalizer they were looking for.
Overall, the game was two completely different halves of football. Stéphan’s tactics in the first half allowed his side to control the game and shut down Lazio’s attack. Moreover, Inzaghi’s team attempted only 38 final third passes in the first half out of their total 98 final third passes.
The second half became an end-to-end contest after Rennes adopted a more offensive approach. Having said that, the substitutes Alberto and Milinković-Savić created two moments in the game that won it for their team. These moments had a massive impact since it gave Lazio two goals while their xG was merely 0.42. Hence, Rennes would find themselves extremely unlucky not to get anything out of this game, not only because they were tactically better than the home side, but also since their xG was 0.94, exactly double than Lazio.