Lille conspired to give away a three goal lead, to a vastly outclassed Sochaux, and at 78 minutes into the game were coasting with the finale improbable and bizarre.

Lille (4-3-3): Elana – Bonnart, Baša, Chedjou, Digne – Balmont, Gueye, Martin – Rodelin, Kalou, Payet
Sochaux (4-2-3-1): Pouplin – Sauget, Kanté, Carlão, Roussillon – Lopy, Doubai – Boudebouz, Nogueira, Bakambu – Sio

Lille played their usual 4-3-3 with the front players Rodelin-Kalou-Payet interchanging positions and switching roles. Gueye anchoring the midfield with Balmont and Martin the inside-midfielders (Balmont often bursting through the lines and joining the front three, and Martin playing a little deeper controlling the tempo from the central areas). Both fullbacks pushed up high, meaning that Lille were attacking with six or seven players at times – the wide-forwards in the front three coming inside and overloading Sochaux’s central defenders with the width coming from the fullbacks.

Lille's forwards (green) all central, fullbacks (pink) provide width, support from inside-midfielders (blue)

Lille’s forwards (green) all central, fullbacks (pink) provide width, support from inside-midfielders (blue)

Sochaux were defending deep with two banks of four, their 4-2-3-1 becoming a 4-4-1-1, but they were getting outnumbered in the central areas (and unable to effectively cover the flanks) by the movement of Lille’s forwards and the surges of Balmont from midfield. Nogueira, Sochaux’s ‘number 10’, did nothing to interfere with Lille’s buildup play leaving his man, the anchor Gueye, always available if needed by his team-mates:

Theoretically when a 4-2-3-1 meets a 4-3-3, the two midfielders on each team (Balmont-Martin for Lille and Lopy-Doubai for Sochaux) face off, with the 4-3-3’s defensive midfielder (Gueye) being picked up by the 4-2-3-1’s attacking midfielder (Nogueira), but with Nogueira neglecting this duty Sochaux were akin to a 4-4-2 in midfield, and Lille were able to rotate the ball from side-to-side through Gueye and their forward players always had an out-ball.

In The Italian Job, by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti, José Mourinho explained why his Chelsea 4-3-3 was so successful against the predominant English 4-4-2: “If I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makélelé behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makélelé, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.

With Gueye un-harassed in his ‘Makélelé’ role, Lille were free to start attacks, rotate the ball from flank to flank, and the man in possession always had passing options. Additionally, with the left-back Digne pushing so far up, and Sochaux’s fullbacks having to play narrow to stop Lille overrunning the defence through the centre, Boudebouz on the right-wing was playing almost as an auxiliary fullback having to track the advanced runs of Digne, or he was coming inside to try to stop Sochaux being overrun in the central areas.

Lille attack with three forwards (green), both fullbacks (pink), and the midfield (blue) supports

Lille attack with three forwards (green), both fullbacks (pink), and the midfield (blue) supports

Some statistics give an idea of just how dominant Lille were in the game. They had 61% possession, 23 shots to Sochaux’s 6, enjoyed an 88% pass completion, and put in 33 crosses. Their midfield was especially strong: Gueye 101 passes, 94% completed; Martin 105 passes, 87% completed; Balmont 103 passes, 92% completed.

Without possession Lille were equally impressive, the front three, supported by the midfield, closing down Sochaux’s defenders and forcing them to launch the ball long in hopeful punts upfield.

With no options left Sochaux are forced to play long balls out of defence

With no options left Sochaux are forced to play long balls out of defence

This was an extremely organised ‘guiding’ pressure, leaving the man on the ball with no options. Note the image above and the player matchups – there’s no other option but to play the ball long. For large parts of the game Sochaux couldn’t get out of their half – the front three of Lille, plus the midfield, and the fullbacks closed the Sochaux play down before it could start.

Lille's pressing leaving no options for the man on the ball

Lille’s pressing leaving no options for the man on the ball

Second half

With Boudebouz substituted for Privat (Nogueira switching to right-midfield) Sochaux were now playing a very standard looking 4-4-2 and their problems didn’t dissipate for the reasons listed above – they could count themselves lucky to be only 0-3 down when another change was made.

In the 55th minute Sochaux took off Sio (who had probably been Sochaux’s best player: his energy up front giving Sochaux a slight reprieve from the Lille pressure) and brought on Mathieu Peybernes, a centre-back/defensive midfielder by trade, to sit in front of the back four as the team shape became a 4-1-4-1.

This gave Sochaux two things: they had another defensive body in the central areas to stem the Lille attacks, and it meant they could start to play their way out of defence.

By this time Lille were beginning to sit back and not pressure Sochaux in those high areas, but they were still by far the better side for the remainder of the game and created further chances, until Sochaux equalised out of nowhere.

We committed a series of fouls and played pretty awfully in the last twenty minutes.” – Rudi Garcia (Lille coach) after the game

In the 79th minute, in a rare foray forward, Sochaux won a free-kick which was lofted forward by Nogueira. Kanté got just ahead of Bonnart, and as he gained half a yard on his marker, a Sochaux player fell in front of the Lille man meaning Kanté was unmarked as the ball reached the far post. Instead of killing the game, unbelievably Lille now went looking for a fourth goal, and in the 84th minute a loss of possession in midfield resulted in a free-kick 31 yards out. Nogueira struck it straight down the middle and Elana badly misjudged the strike – he actually appeared to jump out of its way. Four minutes later Baša pulled down Privat on the edge of the box when there was no need (Bakambu was covering) and after another Nogueira free-kick which Elana was slow to react to it was 3-3.

A surreal end to a game that Lille had completely dominated. This wasn’t so much a heroic fightback from Sochaux, as a series of needless free-kicks and goalkeeping errors giving opportunities to a side that had been comprehensively outplayed.