The 2018/19 season had finished with disappointment as Bordeaux saw themselves at 14th position at the conclusion of the Ligue 1 season. It was their worst finish in 14 years. Not only that, but the club saw two managers getting sacked within the same season. The fans had started to fear a potential draw towards the relegation scrap under the new American owners.
On 8 March 2019, Paulo Sousa was unveiled as the third manager of the season for Les Girondins. The experienced manager was handed the responsibility to primarily restore the calm within the club amidst the surrounding mess. The appointment was also seen as the start of a process to re-establish Bordeaux as one of the top sides in Ligue 1. In spite of just three wins out of his 17 games in charge (2018/19 season), the club retained the services of the former Fiorentina manager for the 2019/20 season. This move highlighted the owner’s trust in the Portuguese man.
The new season was filled with optimism as Les Girondins saw themselves sitting in the fourth position after the first 14 games. The fans had started to dream about a possible return of European football to Matmut Atlantique after 10 years. However, as the season advanced, the results started to deteriorate and so was the optimism. After winning only three out of the next 14 games, Bordeaux saw themselves finish on 12th position, two positions higher than last season’s finish, after an abrupt end to the 19/20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In general, the progress is evident since Bordeaux were 12 points adrift from the top four this season compared to the last season’s gap of 25 points. Having said that, it can be argued that they have over-achieved this season since they have scored 40 goals while their xG was 31. With that said, it is clear that there is a significant amount of work still left to be done in order to close the gap with the top four.
In this tactical analysis, we will see the tactical philosophy that Sousa has implemented in this Bordeaux team. We will also do an analysis of the shortcomings of his tactics that have been the reason for Bordeaux’s lack of goals and a slump in form after the first half of the season.
Systems & forward press
Sousa has predominantly used 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 systems on paper with Bordeaux this season, apart from a couple of games, where he used 5-4-1 and 3-4-3, which were nothing but the variants of the 3-4-2-1. Out of the first 20 games in Ligue 1, the Portuguese used the 3-4-2-1 and its 3-4-3 variant on 17 occasions. Since then, he has employed the 4-2-3-1 formation in seven out of the last eight games. It shows Sousa’s gradual shift towards the four-man defensive system. It is important to keep in mind that even though the formation changes according to the opposition or the available players for a match-day, the philosophy and tactics remain the same for every game.
One thing to notice about Sousa’s formations is that they are flexible on and off the ball. Moreover, they vary at times during a game based on certain situations. On the ball, Bordeaux generally likes to build up using either 4-2-3-1 or sometimes using 3-4-3 which at times may look like 3-2-4-1 or an asymmetrical 3-3-3-1. Off the ball, they switch into a fluid 4-4-2 system.
Sousa likes his Bordeaux side to press from the front in order to prevent the opposition to swiftly play out from the back and regain possession in the opposition half. The high press system of Bordeaux seems to be a combination of man-oriented and space-oriented.
We can see in the above image that the two forwards have been assigned to mark the two centre-backs. We can then see four midfielders (this is a diamond but can also be flat). The wide midfielders are occupying the space between the opposition full-back and central midfielders on both sides. Another midfielder is man-marking the opposition pivot in the centre. While the full-backs are pressing the opposition wingers.
The buildup starts with the goalkeeper who distributes the ball to one of the centre-backs. This is followed by a patient and possession-based play in the own half to draw the opposition out of their defensive line before attempting a long diagonal ball in the nearest channel. The following figure shows the initial 4-2-3-1 shape of the buildup.
One thing to notice in the figure is that Bordeaux likes to use a four-man defensive line in the first phase of the buildup. Observe how the full-backs (yellow) have stayed relatively deeper to provide support to the centre-backs and the two pivots that are staying just ahead of the backline. The front four work together to create gaps in the backline for an attacker to run behind the defensive line. They stay closer to or on the opposition’s defensive line which assists them to make perfectly timed runs.
Interestingly, Bordeaux uses the same buildup system even when they are set up in a three-man defensive formation. In this case, instead of both the wide-backs, only the ball-near wide-back stays deeper. The other wide-back pushes forward to not only form the three-man attacking midfield line but also provide width on that side. The two pivots, two central midfielders, and the striker organize themselves similarly to the above setup. This structure is shown in the figure below. The full-backs are highlighted in yellow.
The above two figures show that Bordeaux always buildup using 4-2-3-1 in the first phase regardless of the formation. This is one of the characteristics that prove our earlier statement that Sousa’s team can be flexible tactically but the philosophy remains constant.
Bordeaux is also flexible when it comes to progressing the ball in the final third. They do tend to use a passage of short passing play to vertically progress the ball. However, their most common approach is to go directly with a long ball in the opposition channels by exposing their defensive line. In this section, we will see how they use the two approaches to attack.
Let us first analyze their direct play approach. The structure of the back six (four defenders and two pivots) plays a key role by constantly rotating the possession among themselves. It forces the opposition lines to draw forward to press which in turn creates space behind the last line of pressure. The responsibility to put the long ball is upon either a centre-back, or a full-back, or sometimes a pivot. The remaining three players within the structure assists in maintaining ball possession and numerical advantage to prevent possession losses in their own half. Although the basic philosophy of attack remains the same, Bordeaux is tactically flexible and tweaks their approach based on the opposition, as we will see now.
The above figure is an example of the right-sided full-back trying to look for a central midfielder who is making a run in the right half-space. Observe how the wide attacker (bottom-most player) has dropped deep to draw the opposition full-back out of his position to create space in the right channel for the running midfielder to occupy. Unfortunately, this attack did not materialize into productive output. However, it shows one of the strategies that Bordeaux use against teams that do not sit in a high block. Since these teams would have a low or medium block, the spaces behind the defensive line are small and hence, relatively difficult to find. Therefore, by drawing one of the defenders out of his position, that space can be exposed. This is exactly what Sousa’s team is trying to do in this particular case.
Another approach of direct play is shown in the figure above where a centre-back (mostly Laurent Koscielny because of his ball-playing ability) plays a long ball to an attacker (red) moments after this image was taken. One more thing to observe in this image is the current formation of Bordeaux. They are set up in 4-2-4 with all the four attackers occupying the defensive line. The two wide attackers are providing width to stretch the wide defenders that can create space in the channels. This would allow the two attackers to attack that space (observe how the attackers have placed themselves between the centre-backs and the full-backs in the channels). This is another tactic that Bordeaux uses and it is an effective one especially when the opposition’s defensive line stays high.
When Bordeaux plays direct, the wide-defenders mostly refrain from pushing forward. However, when Les Girondins use short passing play or counter-attack for vertical ball progressions, the full-backs push ahead to transition from a four-man defensive line to a three-man defence. In this case, the striker and the attacking midfielders form a triangle in the centre. Also, the two pivots push forward for support and stay vertically central to the attacking midfielders, while the full-backs provide width on both flanks. This structure is shown in the following figure.
This section again shows that although Bordeaux has set principles in their attacking play, it is flexible when it comes to using tactics in implementing the principles.
Differing outputs in both halves
In the previous section, we established that possession circulation among the back six in the defensive and middle thirds is an essential part of Bordeaux’s buildup play. The defensive and middle third areas form the first 60% of the field from the team’s goal. The following passing map from a game against Dijon showcases the point. In the map, a circle indicates a player and a line thickness that joins two points indicate the number of passes exchanged between the two players throughout the game. Hence, the thicker the line, the more passes exchanged between the two players. Moreover, the size of a point (player) corresponds to the number of touches.
Observe the high thickness of the passing lines between the four defenders and two pivots. Also, note that 63% of possession has been in the middle third of the pitch which is a significantly high number. Bordeaux showcases a similar kind of passing map for most of the games this season.
Now that we have analyzed the passing pattern of Bordeaux in deeper areas, let us have a look at the statistics that support the analysis. According to WhoScored, Bordeaux ranks highest in Ligue 1 when it comes to actions taken in the defensive and middle third combined (78%). Consequently, they perform only 22% of their actions in the attacking third, which is the lowest in the league. Moreover, a dataset from FBRef also stipulates that Bordeaux makes the third-highest number of touches in the defensive and middle thirds combined, only behind Nice and Paris Saint-Germain. These stats complement the passing map showed above. In consequence, they make the lowest number of touches in the opposition half in the league.
Such contrasting data in two halves of the field specify that Bordeaux is a good passing team when it comes to progressing the ball from the defensive third to the middle third. It is a team that spends a lot of time in the deeper areas than the attacking areas. In football, a team can only win if it scores goals, and goals are created based on what a team does in the attacking third of the field, not what it does in the defensive and middle thirds. It is nice to have good statistics in the deeper areas, but it is more important to have good stats in the attacking third, and that is where Bordeaux’s struggles lie. The team’s output drastically takes a nosedive when they are in the final third. Sousa’s team lacks solutions to score goals most of the time when they enter the final third.
According to FBRef, Les Girondins rank 20th in PPA (Passes into penalty area) amongst all the teams in the Ligue 1 this season. Moreover, they rank 19th in key passes. In addition, they have taken only 11.1 shots per game, which is 18th in Ligue 1. Even Toulouse, who finished last, have taken more shots per game than Sousa’s side. Let us analyze the tactical shortcomings that make Bordeaux so ineffective in the last third.
One of the reasons for their low attacking output is the lack of fluidity in the attacking third. A lot of times in a game, Bordeaux attackers generally stay static to their positions and runs but are reluctant to leave their space in order to provide a passing option for the man in possession. This creates a big gap between the man in possession and the other attackers. Rather than trying to work with spaces in a positional play, it puts the onus on the man in possession to somehow progress the ball in the final third individually. Part of this is due to the fact that the players are trained to play directly more than working the ball into the box with combination play.
The above image is an in-game instance of this scenario. The wide-attacker received the ball from the full-back prior to this image was taken. The body shape of the right central midfielder and the right attacker shows no signs of making a run towards the ball for support. Hence, it became very easy for the opponents to pin Bordeaux on the flanks and regain possession. The only option left with the attacker was to dribble past the full-back to provide the killer ball. Eventually, Bordeaux’s attack folded without any shot, and Dijon started the counter-attack.
Another reason for their failure in the final third is the team’s propensity to position their attacking play through the central areas of the pitch. The following figure highlights the reluctance of Sousa’s side to attack from the wings.
As you can see, the attacker in possession (Nicolas de Préville) has space ahead of him while facing the goal. Also, there are runners on both of his sides. On the right, François Kamano is making an over-lapping run. With his speed, he could have easily been in the position to receive the ball in zone 18 and put in a cross for the striker (Jimmy Briand). However, the Frenchman chose to drift inside and tried to do it all by himself. Again, the attack ended with no shot and allowed the opposition to play in transition.
The above figure once again exemplifies their urge to go central in the final third. Hwang Ui-jo had a clear space to run in the channels but right before this image was taken, he stopped his run. This eventually drifted the ball inside and it was easy for Nice to stop Bordeaux’s attack.
A WhoScored statistic proves the point we mentioned above. The stat says that Les Girondins have put the lowest number of crosses per game (15) in the Ligue 1 this season. Moreover, they attack from the centre 28% of the time, only behind PSG.
It is a no brainer that most of the teams defend in a compact shape and it is naturally difficult for any team to break through a compact defence unless a team like PSG that possesses too much quality in their team. The likes of Ángel Di María, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, and co. possess individual skills to expose the compact defensive shape. Bordeaux, however, does not have the quality that can allow them to play from the centre with such effectiveness.
On the ball, Bordeaux generally defends in a medium-high block. When they lose possession higher up the field, they look to counter-press the opposition only when it is possible. This means that if a Bordeaux player is near to the ball immediately after his team has lost possession, he will engage in a counter-press in an attempt to regain the ball. However, if the opposition player who has just won the ball has time and space to manoeuvre the ball, then Sousa’s team will transition into a fluid 4-4-2 system.
When Les Girondins are set up in 4-2-3-1, the two wide attacking midfielders will transition into the wingers and join the two pivots to form the midfield line of four. In this case, the number 10 will push forward to become the second striker (as shown in the figure below). In the case of their 3-4-2-1 formation, the transition is a lot more fluid. The ball-far full-back pushes back to form the four-man defensive line along with the three centre-backs. Also, the ball-far attacking midfielder will transition into a winger. Lastly, the ball-side full-back also transitions into a winger to make the midfield line of four along with the other winger and the two pivots. One of the remaining attacking midfielders joins to the striker in the last line.
The above figure shows a compact 4-4-2 structure that is defending in the low block. Observe how vertically compact this structure is that it does not allow opposition (Brest in this case) to play between the lines. Generally speaking, Sousa’s team is slow in transitioning into this kind of compact structure. In this instance, they were able to do so because of the patient buildup from Brest after winning possession in the middle of the park that gave enough time to the Bordeaux players to organize themselves in the compact structure.
According to Wyscout, Les Girondins have conceded a total of eight goals from counter-attacks this season. This is more than any other Ligue 1 side and almost double the league average of 4.5. This makes it clear that it is the counter-attacks that trouble the Bordeaux defence the most.
There are primarily two reasons why Sousa’s team is vulnerable to opposition counter-attacks more often. One: possession loss in their own third; Two: loss of vertical compactness between the defensive and midfield lines.
Bordeaux have lost possession of the ball 17.12 times per 90 within their own third of the pitch and 39.76 times per 90 in the middle third of the pitch in Ligue 1 this season. Only four teams have lost possession of the ball within their own third of the pitch more than Les Girondins. Also, Sousa’s team ranks second when it comes to possession loss in the middle third. These stats show that Bordeaux loses ball possession in the deeper areas more than the majority of the Ligue 1 teams. When a team loses ball possession in close proximity to its own goal, it is only natural for the opposition to create dangerous goal-scoring opportunities in counter-attacks.
As shown in the figure above, the central midfielder Toma Bašić is trying to make a one-time pass to Otávio after receiving an awkward ball from one of his central defenders. In the process, he loses the ball due to the pressure of the opposition midfield line that starts the counter-attack. Also observe in the figure that the left-back Youssouf Sabaly, in this case, is leaving his marker to make a run in the space ahead of him assuming that the ball will come to him eventually. However, Otávio is not able to handle the miss pass from Bašić that allows Brest to expose the left channel which Sabaly vacated earlier. The following figure shows the counter-attack from Brest. Brest came very close to scoring on this one.
Because Bordeaux uses long balls for making vertical ball progressions, the gap between the back-six and the front-four is relatively large. Hence, a technical error like a miss pass and a possession turnover proves to be costly more often than not. This is because the opposition wins the ball higher up the pitch which naturally gives them an advantage in attack.
Let us now analyze Bordeaux’s vulnerability in the opposition counter-attacks due to their inability to maintain vertical compactness. One issue with their defensive structure is the reluctance of the defensive line to push forward during possession. While the other two lines stay in the attacking third, the defensive line does not provide support by transitioning into a high block. Consequently, it loses the vertical compactness of the team’s overall shape which can then be exposed by the opposition to play in between the lines in transition.
The above figure illustrates this weakness. The image was taken just after Dijon’s defender (red circle) had won possession in the half-space in their defensive third. One pass eliminates the midfield line of Bordeaux. And look at the space the man in possession and more so the winger has. Had the defensive line stayed near the halfway line to close the vertical gap, they might have been able to close down the man in possession or created an offside trap for the winger. This eventually cost Bordeaux the goal. In fact, both the goals that Sousa’s men conceded in this game were the consequence of the defensive line staying back.
One of the reasons why Sousa does not allow his defensive line to push ahead is because of the fact that the central defenders do not possess the pace to retreat in case they lose the duel on a counter or if an attacker is able to break the offside trap. Former Arsenal defender Koscielny (33), Mexer (30), and Pablo (28) are not the quickest when it comes to pace.
Bordeaux’s standout feature during this season has been their set-piece plays. They have been extremely dangerous in corners and indirect/ direct free-kicks throughout the season. According to WhoScored, the six-time Ligue 1 champions have scored 12 goals this season in set-pieces, which is 30% of their total goals scored and highest in Ligue 1. Set-piece goals consolidate Bordeaux’s reduced output in scoring open play goals.
One of the things that make Sousa’s team so good in set-pieces is the delivery. Nicolas de Préville has created the most of amount of goals in set-pieces so far for Bordeaux. He is dangerous with his direct free-kick from near the 18-yard box. His corner deliveries have been dangerous too. In Bašić, they have got a set-piece specialist whose delivery and ball swing are outstanding. This is evident from the fact that Hwang, who is not the tallest of players, have been finding headers from the Croatian’s deliveries more often recently. de Préville is right-footed while Bašić is left-footed. Hence, when both are on the field, Bordeaux has got two of the best set-piece delivers on both the sides of the fields.
As you can see, one of the Bordeaux players is marking the goal-keeper while the others have crowded the six-yard box. This is one of the common themes of Les Girondins in corners. A set-piece delivery at the near post or in the middle of the six-yard box makes it really difficult for any goal-keeper to have an influence on the delivery.
It is fair to say that Paulo Sousa has steadied the ship that was sinking during the last season. After all the off the field issues with the ownership and manager changes, the 49-year old Portuguese has brought in calmness in the club. He has been given the time and resources in the transfer market to implant his own style into the side. With that said, it is time to get the club on track on the field as well.
According to WhoScored, Bordeaux ranks fourth in total possession (53%) and passing accuracy (82.9%) in Ligue 1 this season. By looking at just this stat alone, one might expect Bordeaux to be in or near the top four. However, that’s not the case. As a matter of fact, Bordeaux finished 12 points behind the fourth-placed team. The key causes are the team’s lack of productivity in the final third to create open play goal-scoring chances, and its inability to handle the opposition counter-attacks. With its excellent output in set-pieces, if Sousa’s team can remediate the limitations on both the ends of the field, the six-time Ligue 1 champions can start challenging once again.