Ligue 1 hasn’t shown too many surprises this season. Topping the table in Ligue 1, as normal, are Champions League contenders Paris Saint Germain. One surprise is Stade Reims under David Guion sitting in the fifth spot in the French top flight.
Their biggest asset is without a doubt their defence. At the moment of writing, across the European top 5 leagues, only Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals this season in their respective domestic competition. Combining a compact block and sharp counterattacks, Guion’s side can be described as disciplined and a hard-working team.
Beating all the teams above them in the French competition it can’t be down to luck anymore. We can say that Reims are a well-drilled team. So let’s take a look in this tactical analysis at some of the secrets behind their defensive shape.
Guion does it different
Reims prefer to defend in a 4-4-2 formation. When defending they fall back into a medium block. The key in this situation is to keep a compact block and not allowing the opposition any space through the middle.
Once the opponent plays a vertical pass to a player between the lines into the Reims’ compact block, the defender closest to the receiving player has to aggressively pressurise the receiving player. In the case below, it is the CB who has to aggressively step out and pressurise the ball receiver. The players surrounding the receiving player have to perform a negative press and press the ball receiver from all angles possible.
So when Reims’ midfielders pressures negatively they will only focus on the ball receiver. The main focus is putting pressure on the ball receiver without closing any passing lines to other possible passing options for the opposition.
As a consequence, if the opponent does find a passing option, this player will have time and space on the ball. To counter this advantage for the opposition, the Reims defenders drop off and try to manage the space in behind.
Below we can see another example. In this case, the right-back (RB) Thomas Foket steps out onto the winger. This creates space behind Foket. So when the opposing fullback overlaps, Reims’ right-winger (RW) Anastasios Donis has to track back and follow the opposing left-back. This is because Reims’ strategy is to man-mark the opposition in these situations.
In the above image, we clearly see how Reims cope with overlaps. In the below situation we can see the opposition underlapping by a central player.
Below we see the opposition attempting an underlap, the centre back follows the underlapping player to the side. While the defensive midfielder (CVM) covers for him until the centre back (CB) releases the pressure. Many coaches will swear by the principle that a centre back is not allowed to leave the centre of his defensive in a defensive situation. Guion is clearly not one of these coaches.
Using a pressing trigger
When defending in the medium block, the opponents centre-backs get all the time they want on the ball. Reims have a bunch of pressing triggers but the most common one is when the full-back receives the ball in the medium block phase.
As we can see below, once the opposite full-back receives the ball the left midfielder steps out press him. At the same time, the number nine closes a possible back pass. Whilst the number 10 man marks the oppositions number six. Lastly, Reims’ full-back will follow through on the opposite winger. All of these actions are performed with the needed aggression to recover the ball.
When playing against a back three, the same pressing trigger will occur. The only difference here is that Reims’ outside midfielder now pressurizes the outside opposite centre-back whilst providing a cover shadow on the wing-back with a curved run. Notice how the attacking midfielder (CAM) still man-marks opposition number 6. And Reims striker (ST) closing a pass back option. The two centre midfielders (CM) react by man-marking their direct opponents (mostly reacting what happens in their visual field in front of them). This creates pockets of space in the centre of the field. And opens up an easy option to a false nine.
An obvious constraint of this pressing trigger is when the opposition switches the play. When this happens, Reims have to make sure that their block has shifted to ball side, otherwise this leaves gaps for the opponent to play through. When performing the pressing trigger the first pressing player, the winger, has to make sure that the team is in support. A problem that occurs often against creative teams.
Preventing the counter-attack
So when we look at the defensive block of Reims, we see an organised and well-drilled compact block. But when attacking Reims obviously can’t keep their defensive shape. Once they lose the ball they have to regain their shape.
When attacking you can see Reims already thinking about defence. In most attacking situations they will only attack with a maximum of five players. In the situation below you can see only four players in front of the ball. The rest remain under the ball already thinking how they can stop the counterattack if they lose the ball.
As a consequence, they will win the ball more easily high up the field or fall back more easily in their block.
If they can’t win the ball back quickly enough they will need to run back the whole of the field. The image below shows this situation. This is nothing abnormal in a football game for any team. Notice how Tristan Dingomé, the attacking midfielder of Reims, fills in at right-back during a transition moment. This just shows that everybody understands their team responsibility in the defensive area.
Pressing high (at times)
So when trying to prevent a counterattack, Reims are forced to initiate a high press. Other than that Reims will not often try to press the opposition high up the field. But at times they will press high, if for example they know that the opponent has problems with playing from the back. Although this isn’t their greatest strength.
The trigger to press high is when the keeper has to take a goal kick. The first player to press, after a short pass from the opposing goalkeeper to the centre-back, would be the striker. By using a curved run, he will cut off the passing options and from this position, he would fully pressurize the ball carrying centre-back.
The other ball near players (red) would man-mark a free player. On the ball far side (yellow) the Reims defenders would respect the principle to stay compact without possession and close passing options. The ball far defenders would take up a position in between the opposition.
Mostly a high press wouldn’t be successful with the team’s lines falling out of each other, creating big spaces for the opposition. When employing a medium block, there is less space between the lines.
Guion’s men were promoted to Ligue 1 at the end of the 2017/18 season. While only conceding 24 goals that season, Reims promised to be a great defensive addition to the highest level in France. The following season they showed that this expectation was fulfilled by finishing in the eighth position.
This analysis shows that this season Reims are only getting stronger and at the moment they stand in the fifth position, fighting to get their name into the Europa League places. When we look at their defensive tactics, and we keep in mind that they sacrifice their offensive play to be successful in the defensive department, we can obviously see why they are punching above their weight. Guion has proven the critics wrong: ‘defending can be an art’.