When Nicolas Pépé left Lille in the summer to join Arsenal, it seemed like Lille’s biggest headache would be replacing his goals and influence in the final third. In the 2018/19 season, he had been a handful for opponents, leading Lille to second from 17th the previous season as the main man. With 22 goals, 11 assists, 16 big chances created and the type of play that brought the best out of Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikoné, Pépé’s influence on the Lille attack was clear for all to see. Young forward Rafael Leão, who had played in a central role in front of the three, was also sold. Even though Leão did not score much, his excellent link-up play and movement opened up spaces for Pépé, Ikoné and Bamba to exploit to devastating effect. They were a well-oiled front four that was so fluid that opponents were sometimes left confused in trying to thwart them. Beyond the fluidity and how exciting they were, they were also very effective.
Young American Timothy Weah was one of those chosen by the club to step in to fill the void previously occupied by Pépé’s influence, while Nigerian international Victor Osimhen was brought in to replace Leão. Osimhen, a more prolific and proven goalscorer than Leão, was brought in to replace a large chunk of Pépé’s goals with Weah expected to combine with the two Jonathans to replace Pépé’s overall influence in attack through combination play, movement and more. Unfortunately, Weah injured his hamstring pretty early in the season and could not play any significant role for the club. Osimhen, for his part, began delivering with respect to goals right from his debut. Yusuf Yazici, a skilful and creative attacking midfielder who can also operate from the right side of attack, was also signed. There was Luiz Araujo too, who had been a benchwarmer the previous season. What Christophe Galtier probably didn’t anticipate was how badly Bamba and Ikoné would fare post-Pépé and how complicated things would get with the formation. It wasn’t going to just be a remove-and-replace/insert type of thing. It took him quite a while to realise it, but he eventually did, moving to a 4-2-2-2. Central to that were two players; new signing Renato Sanches and the widely overlooked Loïc Rémy. In truth, Rémy turned out to be the best surprise of their season.
Lille’s biggest headache was finding a new formation that worked for the 19/20 squad. Many football teams and formations are set up to optimise the team’s best/most influential player. Galtier’s 4-2-3-1 was perfect when he had Pépé because it maximised his influence. Pépé, operating as an inside forward, could drift inwards with right back Zeki Çelik overlapping to provide width, while combining effectively with Pépé and getting the ball to him in positions where he was lethal. The constant movements of the other three also opened up pockets of space that Pépé could drift into to wreak havoc.
All the essential cogs in the system worked because of Pépé. He occupied a zone in attack that made Lille dangerous and they attacked relentlessly through that right side. Now, with Pépé gone, the entire system turned out to be ineffective. Lille were missing the man that made the system work effectively, the nucleus. Çelik’s overlapping was not as useful, as he couldn’t combine with Pépé or find him in key positions to stretch defences and open up spaces for him to drift into; the movement of Bamba and Ikoné felt ineffectual because there was no Pépé to combine with them effectively and take advantage of the spaces they opened up.
The season saw Galtier tinker a lot, because he had to. He moved Ikoné, Araujo and Yazici around, trying to find the best way to play to link them with Osimhen who had hit the ground running. What was obvious, though, was that Lille were lacking something. Balance, perhaps. Osimhen had become the x-factor player for the team, but more as an exception to the tactical set-up, with instinctive, poacher-like goals, not because of the system in place. It seemed as though Osimhen was delivering by sheer willpower rather than a functioning formation, as he snatched at half-chances and somehow found a way to shoot on goal no matter how hopeless the circumstance was – he’s known to be a very direct player, one of his more important attributes. In the first seven games of the season, Lille won just three games, failing to win any away game. Yazici, Ikoné, Weah and Thiago Maia had all played in the hole behind the striker; Yazici, Ikoné, Araujo, Bamba, Weah had all played wide. It was understandable that Galtier was moving his pieces while trying to find the perfect combinations early. Rémy and Osimhen were also sharing minutes in the centre forward role.
The signs of the formation Galtier should have settled for were on show in Lille’s sixth game of the season away to the previous year’s CL semi finalists Ajax. It was a 4-4-2 that sometimes looked like a 4-2-3-1, with Ikoné playing off Osimhen while Bamba and Renato Sanches provided width. Despite seeing less possession, Lille largely controlled the game and created more clear cut chances than Ajax. If their finishing had been better that day, they would have won. It was a game in which they looked really impressive and showed shades of the Lille many had come to know under Galtier. Instead, they lost 3-0 and Galtier probably got spooked, reverting to the familiar 4-2-3-1 for their next trip against Rennes which ended 1-1.
Following this result, he tried the 4-4-2 again at home to Strasbourg, starting Rémy and Osimhen together for the first time with Yazici and Ikoné playing as wide midfielders. Both players scored, with Osimhen assisting for Rémy’s goal. The 4-2-3-1 was back for the next game away, a tough game in Nice at the Allianz Riviera. Once again, Lille’s Jekyll and Hyde issues were on show as they failed to win and only produced glimpses of quality rather than a solid all-round performance.
Two games later, Galtier tried something else in the home game against Nîmes. It was a 4-2-2-2 with Rémy and Osimhen starting together once again and the two Jonathans tucked in behind them with a licence to roam. Once again, the two strikers scored and Lille looked lively in attack. Even though the game ended 2-2, the result flattered Nîmes who had been carved open again and again. Poor finishing once more cost Lille.
It took a defeat to Toulouse in their next game for Galtier to completely ditch the 4-2-3-1 for yet another new formation. This time, he went with a surprise 3-4-3 formation in their crucial Champions’ League game at Stade Pierre Mauroy against Valencia. The early signs were that Galtier had stumbled on perfection. The midfield duo of Benjamin André – signed from Rennes – and Boubakary Soumaré dominated Valencia’s midfield, Çelik came alive in his advanced starting position and Yazici had a brilliant game.
Once Valencia took the lead, Galtier threw on Rémy and Ikoné for Yazici and Araujo, with Lille taking an unusual shape. Rémy and Osimhen played off each other with Ikoné moving around in a free role as Lille desperately searched for a goal. It eventually paid off as Ikoné grabbed a sublime equaliser at the death. This had been Lille’s third CL game and their third different starting formations in the competition – 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 3-4-3 – not to mention further tweaks mid-game.
The constant tinkering definitely didn’t help the squad settle. Galtier ditched the 3-4-3 not long after as the outcomes of games did not improve. They won only one game using the formation and a 4-1 drubbing in the away leg against Valencia was the last straw. Something was still evidently missing and things could not continue that way. Galtier once again went back to the familiar 4-2-3-1 but could only get a goalless draw at home to Metz. Next up was a game in Paris against PSG. Lille used their fifth starting formation of the season, going with a 5-3-2. The front two was made up of Araujo and Ikoné as Osimhen was suspended and Galtier elected to leave Rémy on the bench. The fixture was pretty much over before half-time.
The win-or-burst CL home game against Ajax was Lille’s 19th game of the season. They lined up with a 4-2-3-1, created the better chances and lost. In those 19 games, they had won only five times. None of those wins occurred away from the Stade Pierre Mauroy. Soon, Galtier permanently moved Renato Sanches into a more advanced role out wide. His dribbling, explosiveness and directness made it a seamless transition. This immediately gave Lille the balance they had been searching for. It was like having two players in one, as Renato Sanches added an extra body in midfield when Lille conceded possession while giving them a strong ball-carrying, direct option out wide when in possession. A combination of his core central midfield attributes and the qualities suited to his role in attack started to really impact Lille positively. They began winning back-to-back games, away matches and putting a good run together, with a 5-1 defeat to Monaco the only serious setback.
Despite the positives, something was still missing up front. Osimhen was still like a one-man army on the frontlines and Galtier soon realised that his star striker needed someone alongside him. It was in rather unexpected circumstances that it finally hit the French tactician. Losing to fourth tier SAS Épinal in the Coupe de France, in a game in which he played 4-4-2 with Ikoné playing off Rémy, Galtier threw on Osimhen for Ikoné and Renato Sanches for Araujo out wide. They went on to lose, but it became clear to him that he had finally stumbled upon the solution that he had been after. In the next seven games,
Galtier used the same formation, which largely morphed into a 4-2-2-2, with Osimhen and Rémy combining together. It reaped instant rewards. Lille won six out of seven games, with either Rémy or Osimhen scoring in six of those seven matches. Their only defeat was at home to red-hot Marseille in a game that could have easily swung the other way. They also kept five clean sheets in these seven fixtures. Their wins included very impressive victories over Rennes, Lyon and Strasbourg who were all in the chase for continental competition qualification. Based on the momentum that Lille had found, they could probably have snuck into CL positions if the pandemic hadn’t halted football activities.
So what was it about this setup that made Lille more formidable and propelled them to a late charge that almost led to a second consecutive Champions’ League qualification? And why was Rémy the unexpected answer to the questions the season posed? The answer was actually quite simple. With Pépé gone and Lille’s primary threat no longer on the right side but in the centre further forward in Osimhen, they lost their balance. In order to adequately supply Osimhen, they needed one of the two in their double pivot to constantly move a bit further to support the attack and add an extra body.
Basically, it was not enough to have the three behind Osimhen because no one in the team could directly replace Pépé’s entire influence, which made the 4-2-3-1 viable. By adding one body through the middle to make the attack work, Lille sacrificed defensively and constantly paid for it. All too often, Benjamin André had too much to do to protect the defence, especially since full-backs Çelik and Domagoj Bradarić were expected to overlap when Lille were on the ball. The foundation of that imbalance was sorted when Renato Sanches got moved to a wide role as he provided more dynamism in attack like a winger while supporting the midfield like a wide-drifting central midfielder.
But this did not fix the problem of Osimhen, Lille’s greatest threat, being a bit too isolated down the middle and having to do a job meant for two men. The others always seemed so far away, and Ikoné and Bamba were often guilty of playing hero-ball, ignoring Osimhen’s relentless runs and not trying to combine with him or supply him when he was close by. The synergy in attack that had made Lille so lethal in 2018/19 was gone. Rémy’s introduction into the starting XI alongside Osimhen completely revived Lille’s offense.
Together, they pressed and hassled opponents, confusing defenders with their movement, combining well, drooping deeper and attacking pockets of space at will. If dealing with Osimhen was a handful for defenders, Rémy’s presence multiplied that. The two strikers also caused enough disruption to open things up for the likes of Renato Sanches, Bamba and Ikoné to exploit behind them (Yazici’s ACL injury in December took him out of the equation). Lille no longer had to sacrifice balance or leave their strongest attacking threat isolated in order to maintain balance. Problem solved.
When the season started, not many would have imagined a Rémy in his 30s giving Lille the solution that they were in dire need of. He had played a bit-part role in 2018/19 mostly off the bench and it was widely understood that his experience around the younger players was a key reason why he was at Lille. What he gave was more than that. He ended the truncated campaign with 14 goals in 30 games, in minutes adding up to just over 17 full ninety-minute games; a ridiculously impressive return.
Galtier’s six-month long search for perfection ended right in front of his face. The tactical reality of Lille’s 2019/20 season explains why Galtier has been fuming over the French striker’s departure to Benevento, upon the expiry of his contract with Lille last month. With Osimhen set to leave as well, almost certainly to Napoli, Christophe Galtier is back to square one. He has to once again find a perfect way to make whatever squad he has by the end of the window work. This time, six months might be too long to wait and tinker in order to find a Rémy-type solution.