A peculiar tactical phenomenon has been witnessed in France in recent months. In a microcosm of global trends that have shaped the game over the course of the last decade or so, Ligue 1’s top sides have all – without exception – begun to ditch their preferred formations in favour of a 4-2-3-1.
Marseille, whose title and Coupe de la Ligue successes last season were founded on a pragmatic 4-3-3 shape, were the first team to make the switch. For the crucial Champions League group game at Spartak Moscow in November, Mathieu Valbuena was moved infield from the right flank and allowed to adopt the central playmaking role that he covets. Didier Deschamps wanted to capitalise on the fact that Valbuena “is very accurate with his shooting” and the France international proved as much in the 18th minute when he put OM ahead with a precise, curling effort into the top-right corner. Marseille went on to win 3-0, in what was their most coherent performance of the season to date, and their 4-2-3-1 continues to emerge for high-pressure encounters, such as Sunday’s 2-1 defeat of Paris Saint-Germain.
Another team synonymous with the 4-3-3 in recent years has been Lyon. Towards the end of the first half in their 4-1 win at Saint-Etienne last month, however, Yoann Gourcuff was allowed to advance a little further forwards and occupy the role of the classic number 10 that was his at Bordeaux. With Jérémy Toulalan and Kim Källström retreating into deep, central positions, it meant Lyon were playing a 4-2-3-1 and Claude Puel reflected that it gave the team “a certain balance”.
The switch brought the best out of Lisandro López, moved to the left flank in support of central striker Bafétimbi Gomis, in much the same way that André-Pierre Gignac’s best form for Marseille has coincided with the times when he has played from the left in support of Brandão. Occasionally isolated when used as lone strikers, both López and Gignac appear to relish seeing more of the ball and both men are particularly adept at cutting inside and shooting at goal with their stronger right feet.
PSG coach Antoine Kombouaré, ordinarily a disciple of the 4-4-2, began sending his side out in a 4-2-3-1 formation during the Europa League group stage. Mathieu Bodmer, who describes himself as “an old-fashioned number 10”, was handed the playmaking position and he has reprised the role in subsequent matches.
More recently Lille, who started the season playing 4-3-3, have experimented with the formation that has emerged as the system of choice for the top international sides over the course of the last two World Cups. Rudi Garcia has re-jigged his midfield in the last two games to accommodate for the absence of the suspended Florent Balmont but, with no true central playmakers at his disposal, the Lille coach has been forced to jam round pegs into square holes. The quality of Lille’s play, frequently dazzling this season, has dropped, and Garcia admitted “we adapted very badly to the system” in the 2-1 win at home to Valenciennes on March 13.
Of the top five sides in the division, four have switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation at some point since the start of the season and only Rennes have consistently lined up in that shape from day one. Rennes, currently third, have the league’s best defensive record (24 goals conceded in 28 games) and it may be this defensive compactness that their rivals are seeking to ape.
Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti has previously lamented Ligue 1’s “culture of defence” but Sochaux have proved this season that 4-2-3-1 need not be the only way. Francis Gillot typically arranges his side in a bold 4-1-3-2 shape, with Kévin Anin the sole defensive presence in midfield behind three attacking midfielders – Ryad Boudebouz, Nicolas Maurice-Bellay and the magnificent Marvin Martin. Brown Ideye and Modibo Maïga lead the line together and it is perhaps unsurprising, given the creative wealth supplying them, that both men are already in double figures for the season.
Sochaux have achieved some stunning results, notably a 3-1 defeat of PSG in late August and a 5-1 annihilation of Rennes in January, and are the league’s fifth highest scorers. In a league with a current goals-per-game average of only 2.34 (compared to 2.76 in England and 2.98 in Germany), and with even free-scoring Lille starting to fret about the watertightness of their formation, it can only be hoped that Sochaux’s bold experiment serves as an inspiration rather than as an exception to the rule. National coach Laurent Blanc, who seems determined to cram as many attacking players into his starting XI as physically possible, would surely approve.