Despite sitting in third place, Lens made the decision to sack Philippe Montanier after their 4-1 loss at home to Caen. Montanier was able to grind out results despite terrible performances, but as those results disappeared after the winter break, he didn’t last long. He has been replaced by reserves coach Franck Haise.
Haise kept the same 3-4-1-2 formation that was used against Caen but made five changes to the line-up: in came Florian Sotoca, Tony Mauricio, Charles Boli, Yannick Cahuzac and Cheick Traoré.
Mehmed Bazdarevic set up Paris FC in a 4-3-3 formation, with Jérémy Ménez playing as a false nine, dropping off the frontline while Julien Lopez made runs into the space he left.
It may simply be the new manager bounce, as Lens players put in extra effort to impress Haise, but they played at a far greater intensity than they have recently. They constantly went chasing after the ball when defending and broke forward quickly when attacking.
This was aided by Haise’s set-up. The 3-4-1-2 shape lined up perfectly against Paris’ 4-3-3, making it easy for Lens to press man-to-man. Lens used a man-orientated pressing scheme that allowed them to get close to all the short passing options and stop Paris from playing out from the back, forcing them into hitting it long.
If Paris’ full-backs stayed deep, they were often able to receive the ball in space as Lens’ wing-backs were reluctant to follow them too high up the pitch and risk leaving the centre-backs without cover against Paris’ front three. Once Paris had picked a side though, that flank’s wing-back would push up to close him down while the one on the opposite flank tucked in to provide defensive cover and the players through the centre stuck tight to their men to deny the pass back inside.
Despite being a more naturally attacking player, Boli impressed defensively. He would guide Ibrahim Cissé inside onto his left foot, leading him into a well-covered area with two defensive midfielders and three centre-backs.
Paris didn’t help themselves though. Although Lens dealt well with the issues the Paris full-backs posed, this was only used rarely. For the most part, the full-backs stayed too high up the pitch to easily receive the ball. This made it easy for Lens’ wing-backs, as they didn’t have to choose between moving up to deny the full-backs space or staying back to cover their centre-backs – the full-backs were positioned high enough to allow them to do both at the same time.
As the centre-backs and midfielders were being closely marked and the full-backs were too high up the pitch to pass to, Vincent Demarconnay mostly just hit the ball long. With a back five and two midfielders in front of them, this never bothered Lens, who could deal easily with these long balls.
Haise appeared to have planned for this, saying after the game: “We knew they are a team who attack very high and push their full-backs forward. We also had to be able to hold them to a more direct game and did it very well.”
While Paris’ attacking was rendered ineffective, Lens faired much better. As Paris pushed their full-backs high up the pitch, Lens could easily counter, leaving Simone Banza, Sotoca and Mauricio in attack. Banza was able to hold up the long balls well and pass them to his teammates nearby, while Sotoca would come short looking for the ball, dragging a Paris centre-back out of the backline, and Mauricio would make a run into the gap.
Lens’ wing-backs also positioned themselves better than Paris’ full-backs. As Paris’ frontline occupied themselves with Lens’ centre-backs, Boli and Traoré positioned themselves deep enough so that they could receive the ball in space. Paris’ full-backs clearly didn’t want to give them space, but if they moved forward to close them down, Paris’ centre-backs were left without protection, and Lens would simply hit it long to take advantage of this.
Both of Lens’ goals came from direct attacks and Cissé’s failure to track back on the right. For the first, Ménez mishit the ball up into the air and Lens won it back in Paris’ half, broke forward quickly and crossed to Sotoca at the far post. For the second, they switched play with a free-kick out to the right, then crossed into the box, with Banza’s flick wrong-footing Samuel Yohou, enabling Sotoca to grab a second.
To protect their lead, Lens flattened their frontline when defending. This meant that Banza and Sotoca were now positioned slightly wider, putting them in a better position to defend against the Paris full-backs. This meant that Boli and Traoré were under less pressure to keep track of them, allowing them to stay back and focus on providing cover to the centre-backs.
Whether Lens’ players will maintain this level of effort is questionable, but it was a very positive start for Haise’s tenure as they chase promotion.
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