Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco may have stockpiled all the money in Ligue 1, but the playing fields of the French top flight have been awash with diamonds this season.
Over the past few months, a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond – known as a milieu en losange in France – has become the must-have tactical system for the league’s leading teams, with Lille, Monaco and Lyon successively enjoying improved fortunes after adopting the tactic and Marseille potentially poised to follow suit.
Lille were the pioneers, with coach René Girard installing the system within weeks of his arrival from Montpellier during the summer. Having initially declared an intention to persist with the 4-3-3 formation favoured by his predecessor, Rudi Garcia, he jettisoned the tactic after only 45 minutes of the club’s first friendly match, a 3-2 win over Dijon in July.
The system he introduced was designed to get the best out of Marvin Martin, who operates in the number 10 role ahead of a three-man midfield. Once seen as France’s answer to Xavi, he endured a disappointing debut season after signing from Sochaux but has spoken positively of the “freedom” afforded him in the new system. It is a set-up with which the 26-year-old is familiar, having come to prominence at Sochaux by supplying the bullets for Brown Ideye and Modibo Maiga as the club from eastern France recorded a surprise fifth-place finish under Francis Gillot in 2011.
Lille have also discovered a new-found solidity under Girard. With only 12 goals conceded in 21 games, they boast the league’s best defensive record (having had only the sixth-best defence last season), and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama went 1,062 minutes without conceding a goal between September and December as an unexpected title challenge took shape.
Girard’s squad seems particularly suited to the system, with attacking full-backs in Franck Béria and Pape Souaré, indefatigable central midfielders in Rio Mavuba, Florent Balmont, and Idrissa Gueye, and hard-working, unorthodox forwards like Salomon Kalou and Nolan Roux, both of whom are expected to press the opposition full-backs when Lille lose possession.”The 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond is a system that suits us pretty well because it allows you to play with two strikers,” says Girard. “We have players capable of being tactically disciplined whilst also playing good passes and bringing movement.”
Monaco began to play with a midfield diamond in late November, after a run of two wins from six league games during which Claudio Ranieri alternated between a conventional 4-4-2 shape and a 4-2-3-1. Despite losing record signing Radamel Falcao to injury, they subsequently won five games in succession without conceding a single goal.
The two front-line berths have enabled Ranieri to find a place in the team for Emmanuel Rivière, who upstaged Falcao by scoring six times in his first six appearances of the season. It has also liberated James Rodríguez, the Colombian playmaker signed from Porto last summer, who flitted in and out of the team in the season’s early weeks but who is now an ever-present in the number 10 role. Blessed with exceptional technique, a delicately calibrated left foot and an eye for a killer pass, he is level with Zlatan Ibrahimović at the top of the Ligue 1 assists chart (nine each) and fifth in L’Équipe‘s player ranking with an average rating of 6.13. Monaco’s full-backs have benefited from the extra security provided by the reinforced midfield, too – left-back Layvin Kurzawa has scored three goals in his last five games.
Pre-diamond, Monaco conceded on average 0.8 goals per game, but that figure has fallen to 0.4 in the eight matches since the new system was introduced. Inspired, perhaps, by the success that Lille and Monaco had enjoyed, Lyon decided to join the party, and the results have been similarly encouraging. Rémi Garde’s men picked up only 12 points from a possible 30 in their first 10 league games, but they have taken 19 from 33 since turning to the diamond configuration at the end of October, losing only to Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain and climbing to within touching distance of the European places.
As with Rodríguez and, to a slightly lesser extent, Martin, Yoann Gourcuff has been rejuvenated by the new approach. An habitué of the number 10 role from his Bordeaux days, the injury-plagued midfielder has found promising form in recent weeks, scoring three goals in his last six appearances. Importantly, the system enables Garde to field Gourcuff alongside Clément Grenier, whose emergence last season appeared to threaten his elder team-mate’s future at Stade Gérland. Elsewhere, holding midfielder Maxime Gonalons’ experience from last season, when an injury blight obliged him to fill in at centre-back, makes him an ideal candidate to drop back between the central defenders à la Sergio Busquets, while left-back Henri Bedimo has greedily exploited the extra licence to roam that he now has, laying on five assists since the end of October.
“Collectively, we’re better at keeping the ball and we’re playing in the gaps between the lines,” explains Gourcuff. “In this system, there are fewer duels. We can change positions and unsettle our opponents, with the full-backs much higher up in particular and midfielders who can create an overflow.”
Marseille are the latest team to have undertaken a pilgrimage to the altar of the midfield diamond, having adopted the system in their recent 2-1 win at Evian, where Florian Thauvin operated as the playmaker behind Saber Khalifa and André-Pierre Gignac. After a dismal run of form that saw Elie Baup sacked as coach, it is not inconceivable that his successor, former sporting director José Anigo, regards the compact 4-4-2 formation as a means of expeditiously plugging the holes in his side’s increasingly porous defence. As former France midfielder Eric Carrière told Les cahiers du football recently: “When teams manage to utilise a tactical system well, it gives other coaches ideas.”
For the time being, league leaders PSG are yet to succumb to the allure of the midfield diamond. And yet, with Thiago Motta anchoring a three-man midfield, centre-forward Ibrahimović dropping deep to orchestrate the play, and Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi darting infield from nominal roles as wide forwards, there is an argument to be made that their habitual formation – commonly described as a 4-3-3 – is already quite similar. Laurent Blanc is certainly familiar with the system, having relied upon it when he led Bordeaux to the title in 2009.
There are, of course, manifold reasons for the upsurge in results experienced by Lille, Monaco and Lyon, and the popularity of the system may yet prove a tactical flash in the pan, but regardless of what happens over the next four months, the diamond is already firmly embedded in the story of the 2013-14 campaign.