Stade de Reims – AS Saint-Étienne: Reims Struggle To Match Saint-Étienne’s Aggressive Approach (0-2)
Saint-Étienne dominated this game almost from start to finish, using healthy combination play to regularly bypass Reims’ aggressive defense. While Reims did create some chances, they had trouble imposing themselves for most of the game.
Tactical analysis and match report by Siddharth Ramsundar.
This game between two top-half Ligue 1 sides presented a clash of two highly distinctive sides. Reims entered the game with one of the stingiest defenses in the league, both in terms of goals and chances conceded. Manager David Guion’s well-organized defense had allowed Reims to punch above their weight for most of the season. Overall, this conservative defense-first approach left them limited at best in attack.
In comparison, Saint-Étienne entered the game with one of the strongest attacks in Ligue 1 from a chance creation standpoint. Embroiled in a tight race for the remaining Champions League spots, Jean-Louis Gasset’s side needed a win away from home.
Match prediction, standings and implications going into the weekend.
On paper, Reims lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with central midfielder Tristan Dingomé often pushing up next to the striker to form a 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 shape for a lot of the game. Saint-Étienne opted for a 4-2-3-1 shape that would reorganize into a 4-3-3 in possession.
Reims change approach early
The opening minutes saw both sides stick to their default game plans, so to speak. Saint-Étienne played an attacking game, while Rennes’ 4-2-3-1 formations turned into a deep 4-4-2 shape off the ball. Reims’ setup failed to stem Saint-Étienne’s ball progression, however, and by the ten minute mark the home side decided to start closing down Saint-Étienne’s players in buildup play.
Reims tried pressing with a spare man at the back, but consistently gave up space between the lines.
Reims’ temporary change in approach gave them more of a foothold in the game until the twenty-five minute mark, as they forced Saint-Étienne into clearing the ball more often. In possession, however, Reims struggled to manage any kind of meaningful buildup, and often tried finding runners in behind with long balls at the defense. They often had to lump the ball forward.
After being pressed in buildup, Reims often sought their attackers with vertical long balls.
Reims’ approach may have worked better, but the team’s defense and midfield lacked situational awareness on the ball. They clearly were not capable of building out of the back against the press. This manifested in dangerous spells where they failed to clear the ball out of their half, and in two bad turnovers. The second turnover – an unenforced error and brutally misplaced pass – led to the goal.
Saint-Étienne exploit Reims’ press
Reims struggled for the rest of the half, illustrating why Guion set them up in a deep block in the first place. Down a goal, the home side tried to win the ball back even higher and found themselves chasing shadows for a lot of the half.
The reality is that Reims’ press, as it was coached heading into the game, was subpar. Saint-Étienne’s players found space between the lines with ease, breaking the press with passes through either bad double teams or poorly coordinated attempts to close down. The away side drew plenty of fouls and boxed Reims into their own half.
Saint-Étienne were also remarkably composed when dealing with the press. They cleared the ball whenever the opposition came close to winning it back, and only gave up the ball in their own half once. Oftentimes they put together breathtaking sequences on the ball, regularly bypassing the opposition’s high press.
Reims gamble harder in second half
The second half opened with Reims’ best spell of the game. They pressed high and managed to put in three dangerous crosses from the left. One cross found an offside player, another barely missed the striker and the third was headed over.
Saint-Étienne’s right-hand side of defense was a culprit in all of Reims’ successful attacking moves, as midfielder Xavier Chavalerin created problems for the opposition center-backs with his longer deliveries. Reims committed a lot more players into the box too and could have scored in the minutes after halftime.
Still, the constant in this half was that Reims was pressing high without the true organization to pull it off. For every successful turnover they generated, they would concede another line breaking combination or pass. Their press was inconsistent and leaky at best, and left their defenders isolated. The second goal came slightly against the run of play from a Saint-Étienne transition, and effectively killed off the game.
The rest of the game continued as seen in the first half. Reims tried pressing and consistently gave up possession and territory in the process. Saint-Étienne continued to thrill in attack and dominated aside from their leaky right side of defense (which was also the culprit for two disallowed goals later in the game). Reims created a couple chances, but still struggled to move forward with consistency.
This was the classic case of a defensive, smaller side being forced into playing progressively against better opposition. Except in this case, the defensive side adopted a more attacking approach entirely of their own accord.
In hindsight, Reims’ attacking play ten minutes into the start of the game looks like a risky move that cost them the game. The first goal they conceded was entirely self-inflicted and forced them into playing a chasing game they were poorly equipped for. Their defense could not really hold a high line successfully. The team only learned to avoid dangerous situations in buildup after giving the ball away for a goal.
Upon closer examination Saint-Étienne might have won regardless of approach. Reims’ deep block was not working too well to start the game, and they were put under too much pressure to justify sitting back. On this evidence, a more defensive approach might have been destined to fail, as the clear gap in player quality dictated the flow of the game above all.
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