Neel Shelat explores one of the season’s surprise packages in Ligue 1
Ligue 1 has been dominated in recent years by Paris Saint-Germain, and before that Lyon, while the chasing pack have kept up with varying degrees of success: Lille and Monaco have won one title apiece in the last decade, while Marseille played sublime football at times last season, and Rennes continue to produce or improve excellent youngsters. This season, however, FC Lorient have surprised everyone with their approach and its efficacy. But how have they achieved this?
The Ligue 1 table shows Lorient all the way up in second after eleven rounds of fixtures. It’s a very promising start, but we obviously know that results in such a sample size can be skewed, and it is worth looking at the side’s expected goals. The underlying numbers are slightly less encouraging: Lorient’s xGD is slightly negative and suggests they deserve to be around the mid-table. Nonetheless, this is a noteworthy improvement from the 2021/22 season, when Les Merlus narrowly avoided relegation.
They did so while playing what can be described as a defensive brand of football under Christophe Pélissier, as his Coach ID radar, produced by Analytics FC, shows. The dominant feature here, the low block, shows how much his football was geared to sitting deep and only circulating possession deep against weaker teams; otherwise, Pélissier sought to get it forwards and wide as quickly as possible.
Over the summer, he was replaced by Régis Le Bris, the man who had been in charge of Lorient’s B team since 2015. This is his first coaching job at a senior team, and as the league table suggests, he has quite clearly done a great job so far. But, how has he set his side up to play? Once again, we turn to the Coach ID radar.
Interestingly, Lorient’s defence-oriented approach does not seem to have changed, although there appears to be greater clarity in terms of their style of play which seems to focus on keeping possession in deeper areas before springing forward.
If we dig a bit deeper into some data, we see similar signs. Lorient have the lowest field tilt and deepest defensive line in Ligue 1 this season. Those are the hallmarks of a defence-oriented team that plays a direct brand of football, but things start looking a little puzzling when we move on to some event data.
Lorient have the third-lowest possession average in Ligue 1, and have the most touches of any side in their defensive third but the fewest of any in the attacking third. Naturally, therefore, they have played the lowest number of progressive passes among Ligue 1 teams, but have also attempted the third-lowest number of long balls.
So Lorient do not like to keep possession but they also do not play a big amount of long balls, so what exactly do they do?
Their Twitter account helps out with an answer.
A low-possession side playing liquid football? That is intriguing. Certainly, then, it is worth taking a closer look at how Lorient have been going about their business this season.
From the data we have looked at, it is clear that Lorient defend quite deep, but we have some more stats and visualisations to analyse that a little more and assess how successful they have been so far.
Obviously, they are not a high pressing team and have the highest PPDA average in the league. A look at their defensive actions heatmap backs this up; they almost exclusively defend in their own half of the pitch, and only do so with real intensity in and around their penalty area.
Generally, Lorient have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but out of possession, they move into a 4-4-2 low block with the wingers dropping back and the attacking midfielder joining the striker up front. This is a pretty standard pattern among sides that use a 4-2-3-1 formation on paper because the 4-4-2 is a far more defensively compact shape, especially for a side defending in a low block.
Thanks to this solid defensive shape, Lorient are able to cope fairly well with the pressure they invite upon themselves. Their xGA tally of 16.6 is significantly lower than their xTA, which is a league-high 20.3 this season. What this means is that Lorient often allow their opponents to get into dangerous situations, but are able to prevent them from creating quality chances at the same rate.
That is not to say that Lorient are one of the league’s better defensive sides, though. In fact, they have conceded the third-highest xG tally in the league, and the shots they have faced have had an npxG/shot average of 0.11, which is on the higher side. However, it is important to consider the fact that they employ an extremely deep defensive style, and in that context, they are performing better defensively than fellow low block users such as Auxerre, Troyes, Clermont Foot, or Nantes.
Crucially, though, Lorient’s low block does not only serve a defensive purpose – it also impacts how they attack. This is what truly sets them apart from the other sides we mentioned above.
Having won back possession, Lorient look to transition quickly and get the ball as far forward as possible. The difference, however, is that a stereotypical direct side would attempt to do so by punting the ball long into space for their forwards to chase, whereas Lorient look to play forwards, passing the ball into feet.
A great example was their goal against Ajaccio earlier this season. Notice how the centre-back identifies the forward pass to the midfielder the very moment he receives the ball, and thereafter, an almost exclusive one-touch passing move gets Lorient in behind the opposition defence.
In order to play such snappy forward passes, the defenders obviously need to have feasible passing options available as soon as possession is turned over, and this is where Lorient’s compact defensive shape comes into play. All of their players are well inside their own half so there usually always is a free man waiting to be found after a turnover who is relatively close to the ball, so the probability of him being found with a pass is high.
In order to play such a pass-heavy, but direct, style of football that is initiated so deep inside their own half, it is imperative for Lorient to have two types of players: technically sound central midfielders who can quickly shift the ball forward, and rapid and dynamic forwards to run in behind, especially wingers who excel at ball-carrying.
The likes of Laurent Abergel and Adil Aouchiche are good examples of members of Lorient’s squad who fall under the first category, but the indisputable star of the show is Enzo Le Fée. If you think back to the first goal we showed you at the start of this piece, the player who played the first-time reverse pass for the pre-assist must have caught your eye, and Lo Fée is certainly a special talent.
One could almost claim that everything Lorient do in an attacking sense goes through him. On paper, he has usually been deployed on the left of the midfield duo this season, but in practice, he has the freedom to roam all around the midfield and do his thing. His heatmap shows that he has been utilising that freedom to good effect.
His beneficiaries have often been the aforementioned dynamic forwards, such as Ibrahima Koné, Stéphane Diarra and most notably, Dango Ouattara. The Burkinabè winger is enjoying a great season as he already has four goals and as many assists in the league, so he is quite clearly one of Lorient’s key players.
Les Merlus’ full-backs do not usually get far forward, so it is up to the wingers to hold the width in attack. Yet, the wingers are also expected to get on the end of moves inside the box, so their heatmaps start moving infield as they go further up the pitch. Ouattara’s heatmap is a great example of this pattern.
Additionally, he is great with the ball at his feet too. Ouattara has attempted and completed more take-ons than any of his teammates and has also completed the second-most progressive carries in the squad, behind Le Fée.
Another star attacker for Lorient is striker Terem Moffi, who is the league’s joint top-scorer this season having found the back of the net eight times in ten games, seven of which were from open play.
Besides getting on the end of these slick team moves and finishing them clinically, the Nigerian international also often drops deep to receive those forward passes into feet. His heatmap is a testament to that.
Here is an example of Moffi being involved in the initial stages of an attacking move.
In other cases, the 23-year-old striker’s backward movements pull the opposition centre-backs out of position and create space in behind, which either he or any of his fellow attackers can exploit thanks to their pace.
Of course, Lorient’s direct forward passing after turnovers can only work when they face attack-minded opposition, but there are many sides in Ligue who, like them, are happy to cede possession. Some of the above clips showed how Lorient deal with that, but here is a better example:
Quite clearly, what they do is attempt to engineer such transition situations by playing short passes at the back to reel in the opponents’ forwards, before springing forward quickly and getting between the opposition lines.
You will have also noticed a lot of one-touch passing and third-man runs in these clips, and those are indeed hallmarks of Lorient’s final third play. Of course, this is not unique to Lorient and there are many sides that do this. But often among other teams, these moves stem from rehearsed or pre-discussed situations, and that is not the case for Le Bris’ side.
Undoubtedly, Lorient’s players must work on their passing and movement in training, but they have no automatisms or premeditated moves that can be seen in matches. The secret behind their silky team moves is simply the fact that Le Bris affords a lot of freedom to his players, trusts them to make the right decisions on the pitch and does not always provide a rigid solution to potential problems they might face, but rather enables the team to come up with answers after considering everyone’s input.
Another advantage he has is that he has worked with many of the first-team players previously during his time in charge of the B team, so they know him well and understand what he expects of them. Additionally, many of the key players in Lorient’s squad have been at the club for a number of years now, so they know each others’ games inside out and can easily click on the pitch.
That is essentially all there is to Lorient’s eye-catching brand of football – socio-affective connections among the players and the coach in conjugation with a clear and direct style of football.
Discussion and Conclusion
It does not take an expert to tell you that Lorient are doing incredibly well this season, and they are also playing some lovely football along the way. In his first senior coaching role, Le Bris is doing an amazing job of implementing a style of play that is suited to the players he has in his squad, and also getting the best out of their individual traits. Lorient look like a side transformed from the one that narrowly survived relegation last season after just ten matches, and while they are probably overachieving beyond sustainability at present, they could certainly be in with a shout for one of the final European spots in Ligue 1 come the end of the season.
On a broader level, Lorient serve as a reminder to not rigidly sort, divide and then assess teams based on defined styles of play. Looking at some superficial data, Lorient may seem a boring direct side, but as we have explored, they are anything but that. Each team has different contexts and constraints that inform the way they play and differing methods of execution for similar styles of play, so it is always important to consider these things before reaching any conclusions.
Stats courtesy Soccerment, MarkStats, StatsBomb via Fbref, Opta via The Analyst and Vizz App
Header image copyright Imago/BaptisteAutissier/Panoramic