Olympique Marseille – Stade Rennais: André Villas-Boas Turns The Tactical Tables (1-1)

It was a game of two halves between two similar teams on this season’s beginning. Rennes scored a somewhat lucky goal in the first half despite a tactical domination, then Marseille changed their system to get back into the game in the second half. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Simon Piotr.

Respectively 7th and 9th in the Ligue 1 table before the game, Marseille and Rennes have had a similar level of performance, yet with different dynamics. Marseille had a shaky start to life under André Villas-Boas,, but then the team seemed to be progressing collectively, despite the recent suspension of Payet.

Without their playmaker, Marseille lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Strootman and Rongier in a double pivot, 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. Sanson as a number ten, Sarr on the right wing, while Germain (a central striker) was on the left and Pipa Benedetto upfront. 

As for Rennes, they started the season with three wins in three games, yet recently the mediocre series of results put the team in a mid-table position. Against Marseille, manager Julien Stéphan chose to go back to his successful 5-3-2 system after some unfortunate results when he went for a 4-4-2 formation. Therefore, the line-up was Gelin-Silva-Morel in the back three, Bourigeaud-Martin-Camavinga in midfield along two wing-backs and two strikers. 

A shared possession but Rennes dominated tactically 

Rennes are not a team with a very clear style of play. Although we know Stéphan likes fast attacking, his work is more famous for his ability to create specific game plans according to the opposition, with a high level of efficiency against the biggest teams, rather than for a very rooted style that is on display every weekend. 

At the beginning of the game, Marseille had a little more ball possession than the visitors,yet it was Rennes dominating the territorial battle. 

Marseille experienced trouble in getting past Rennes’ medium-to-high block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. A high block refers to a team that regularly leaves their own half out of possession, to disrupt their opponents far into the attacking half. A medium-high block is well… in between these two variants. Indeed, Stéphan went for a pressing approach, identifying some clear weaknesses Marseille had. Stade Rennais would use man-oriented pressing on the side of the ball, and the 5-3-2 structure would fit Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 shape with a natural pressing pattern. The fullbacks would step on fullbacks, Strikers on centerbacks, midfielders on midfielders, and center-backs on the narrow forwards.

Rennes’ 5-3-2 / 3-5-2 pressing shape, when the ball was on the side, half of the team was man-oriented whereas the other half was maintaining the balance of the system. The pattern could be even more aggressive sometimes with Cavaminga cover shadowing When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. Rongier instead of covering from behind.

This organization quickly exposed Marseille’s technical and tactical difficulties during the buildup. After four minutes of play, a series of mediocre passes under pressure made them lose the ball high, resulting in Rennes’ first chance of the game with a shot from Niang.  

If Marseille were somehow able to get past the first wave of pressure or switching play, Rennes would quickly track back and reorganize their structure deeper, in a medium-low 5-3-2 shape. Their game plan off the ball gave them a certain level of safety.

On the ball, Rennes would not necessarily play long, but they would be very vertical. Very often the center-backs Silva or Morel could play directly to the forwards, something that was allowed by Marseille’s lack of compactness, which created space between the lines. Thanks to the technical quality of players like Bourigeaud or the sixteen-year-old Camavinga, they would not lose the ball in sensitive areas either, giving the team the time and the structure to attack well. Stéphan’s side would also play vertically using wing progression. This how the first goal was scored after eighteen minutes playing. The center-back Silva recovered a long ball, unchallenged, he played a quick one-two combination with Camavinga, he was then able to rush all the way down the right wing and his powerful low grounded cross was worked in beautifully by M’Baye Niang. 

No Payet, No Party 

Trailing, Marseille had even more ball possession, but it was very difficult for them to progress the ball and create danger. Without Lopez (a possession control midfielder in the style of Arthur Melo) or Payet, the creative force, Marseille were too poor on the ball. A midfielder like Sanson can cover ground, but his first touch and passing abilities are very limited; too limited to lead his team’s play. 

Despite a thought-out and asymmetrical structure, displaying a wide winger and inverted fullback on the right, and a wide fullback and inner forward on the left, Marseille did not penetrate much.

Of course Rennes would not facilitate their task, after taking the advantage on the scoreline, they sat one step lower and stopped pressing high. 

Marseille asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 structure, Germain was more like a second striker, Sanson like a number 8, and Sarr very wide.

Illustrative for Marseille’s lack of penetration: their striker Benedetto had only four ball touches in the first half, none of those inside the box. As a negative consequence, they would mainly have shot attempts from the outside of the box and they had not shot on target during the first 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, Rennes were still the more dangerous team, especially on transitions, and they had very interesting situations going forward, despite a lack of precision in the shots they took.

A tactical change and the equalization for Marseille

Returning from the dressing room, Villas-Boas substituted Amavi for Radonjic, and three players had to change their position on the field within the same 4-2-3-1 shape. Sarr went from right winger to right back, Sakai from right back to left back, Germain from left forward to right forward, Radonjic was left winger.

Marseille’s ‘new’ 4-2-3-1 formation. 

The system remained the same, but whatever the reason,  Marseille were much more intense and aggressive in the second half.. As a result, they played higher, and equalized through a corner kick, with Caleta-Car smashing a header in the back of the net, first goal in his Marseille career. 

After the equalizer, Marseille kept the momentum, the physical intensity from the hosts replaced the tactical domination for the visitors. Benedetto was not getting much more involved in his team’s play with 26 ball touches in the second.

Marseille were dominant and the volume of shots and offensive situations increased, but the quality was still very low, as too many shots were taken from the outside of the box for example. 

On the other hand, Rennes had less attempts, but bigger chances, especially after their three substitutions  which brought fresh legs into play. The end of the game was hectic, with transitions and opportunities for both sides. 

Rennes could have won the game on a huge double chance in minute 85, but an impressive double save from Mandanda kept Marseille afloat. 

Eventually both teams had an impressively even expected goals rate, while neither team really dominated the match, so all in all, maybe the 1-1 final result was pretty fair.


This game was typically a draw that suits no one’s needs. Both teams needed a win to restart a positive dynamic and be in a comfortable position on the table. However, they should be able to work and build new things based on this game. Indeed, the tactical finesse Stéphan implements in his team is always interesting, and despite the content, a draw in Marseille is not a bad result.
As for Villas-Boas, the interventionism he showed leading to a good reaction from his team is positive, even though he probably needs to find a better offensive formula when Payet goes missing. 

Plots will be added to the article as soon as possible. 

Tactical and video analysis on Youtube. [ View all posts ]


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