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Lens is the main opening of the season and the French Atalanta. PSG’s first defeat is their job

The trainer is obsessed with yoga.

Lens have 40 points after 17 games and are 2nd in Ligue 1, only 4 points behind Paris Saint-Germain.

Powerful fact: in the history of the championships of France there was only one team that, after 17 rounds, was in 2nd place with more points. This is Nimes in the 1959/60 season – 41, if you change 2 points for a victory in that era to 3. Then Nimes finished 2nd, not catching up with the great Reims with Raymond Copa and Juste Fontaine. Now the surprise team is trying to overthrow the new hegemon.

It’s already working out. Lens defeated PSG 3-1 on January 1, extending an incredible streak: the team has not yet lost points at their native Bollaert-Delelys, 9 wins in 9 matches. After Arsenal lost 0-0 to Newcastle at the Emirates, Lens were the only team in the top leagues to score 100% at home.

Just imagine: the fans of the modest Lance have been going to the stadium for 5 months and see only victories. Well, this is taking into account the pause at the World Cup. 4 months is also a fairy tale.

It’s time to learn more about Lance – this team deserves it.

“Lance” is called the French “Atalanta”. Why?

At the beginning of 2022, we talked about how Atalanta changed football, inspiring several middle-class players from different (sometimes even non-top) leagues. Recipe: personal pressure, the coach’s figure is more important than any player, 3-4-3 formation, perfect fitness, specific tactical features (for example, rotation of the attacking trio to adapt to the opponent and advance the central defenders into the attack).

Lance never claimed a continuity, and one could argue that the primary trait (personal pressure) never seemed to be a defining characteristic. The team used personal to adapt to specific opponents, more often even combined personal and zonal pressure (for example, the attacking three played on the opponent’s three of the opponent’s CB, or, conversely, the Lance defenders personally took care of the attackers).

But the secondary signs – the 3-4-3 scheme, physical training, the rotation of the attackers, the nomination of the extreme CBs – have been important details of the Lance portrait for the third season. Therefore, the comparison is debatable, but without unnecessary manipulations it is convenient for the announcement of Lance to those who have not yet watched their matches

How is Lance playing? The main value is reliable defense, there are attempts to play positional football

“Lance” defends well and tries to develop a positional attack.

With the first thesis, everything is simple: Lens concedes the least in Ligue 1 (11 goals), in the top 5 leagues, only Barcelona, ​​Juventus and Newcastle have fewer in terms of 90 minutes. Important: Expected Missed Rate is 18.4 xGA. Also a good result (2nd in France), for the resources of “Lance” even excellent, but a strong contrast with the actual missed. A combo of luck with poor conversion and a powerful performance from goalkeeper Brice Samba, who conceded 5 goals less than expected on shots on target (2nd in France and 4th in the top 5 leagues).

Lens have an amazing combination of three central defenders: the giant Kevin Danso (190 cm) plays in the very center, Facundo Medina (184 cm) and Jonathan Gradi (180 cm) play on the sides. Funny horsemanship statistics: Danso won 43 air duels, in total in the air 78.6% of victories is simply an exorbitant figure. Medina and Gradi each took 15 duels, one wins at the top 44.1% of the time, the other 45.5%. Very bad for centre-backs.

But it’s a mutually beneficial alliance, with Danso single-handedly making up for Gradi and Medina’s weakness on the second floor, and the stocky couple clouding Danso’s occasional sluggishness. Medina and Gradi aggressively pull out, help to extinguish the threat on the flanks, and are useful against sharp and light attackers. And below are powerful in the joints just like Danso in the air.

This trio is aided by a team structure, Lance usually meets the opponent in the middle block with 5-2-3, as pressure moves to 5-4-1 (players on the sides of the attack sit at fullbacks). Physical preparation and understanding of positional play make Lance difficult to open.

In an interview, Gradi praised the defensive skills of the attacking partners: “Our forwards constantly help the defense – both when defending the half-flanks, and even when descending into the center of the field, almost into the support zone. We are improving our ball game, but the coach keeps repeating that our foundation is a solid defense.”

With the second thesis about a positional attack, everything is more complicated.

Lens have made significant progress in terms of possession, in the 2020/21 season it was 51.1%, in the 2021/22 season it was 50.7%. Now it is one of the leaders of Ligue 1 in terms of territorial dominance, but the effectiveness of their positional attacks is not yet admirable.

Lance has a good set of players to develop positional football. The first stage is promising: all three Lens CBs are in the top 10 players in Ligue 1 in snatching with the ball (Medina – 2nd, Gradi – 7th, Danso – 10th), Medina is also one of the best in promoting pass.

Before someone else’s free kick, the most important roles are played by Florian Sotoka and Seko Fofana. Sotoka (according to the scheme – one of the three offensive players) has transformed from a classic post to a player between the lines, now he is the thought leader of Lance on the ball, great at finding free space.

Fofana (according to the scheme – the central midfielder) nightmares the opponent’s defense with constant strikes and dribbling. It is stylistically more chaotic, adding surprise to a sometimes calm possession. It is important for him to be on the left flank, from there he likes to move under attack.

By the way, pay attention to the fullness of the penalty area – it is valuable for creating a threat from the flanks.

Sotoka shifts a lot to the right flank, where Lance has the main link: Sotoka and right lateral Przemysław Frankowski. They play the ball, help each other to cross/cross without pressure, Frankowski does a lot of rushing work and even moves to the box for shots while Sotoka pulls a defender behind him.

The fundamental pattern of Lance is this: the winger (Gradi/Medina) makes an advance pass between the lines where Fofana or one of the players of the attacking trio offers himself, and the other opens for a return discount (Sotoka/Costa), and then ideally a pass behind the backs of the defenders, where the attacker runs out (Openda). If the aggravating pass to Openda doesn’t work, you can always transfer the ball to Frankovsky’s flank.

While “Lance” at times lacks the speed of the ball from the bottom – without this, a high-quality positional attack is impossible at a technical level. As soon as the game accelerates, “Lance” immediately creates a threat. A good indicator of intellectual readiness.

It is embarrassing that on the left flank of the lateral Daver Machado there is a wild bias towards defense. He is poorly involved in the attack, although the efficiency is sometimes prohibitive: he has already scored, and assisted, and earned a penalty. But at a distance, the left flank feeds only on Fofan’s inclusions and situational displacements of one of the attacking trio there. So for now, Lance’s positional attack lives between the central axis and the right edge. This may be a deliberate sacrifice for the sake of reliable protection. There are no questions for Machado.

We fix: there is nothing outstanding in the positions of Lance, the very fact of moving towards positional football is more important. There is definitely development. So “Lance” becomes more variable, it is easier for him to act against buses from the bottom of the table.

All this was organized by Frank Es. Very honest trainer who loves yoga

Lance is definitely a coaching team. With Frank Es, she climbed to Ligue 1 and has been successfully holding here for the third season.

This is the first serious coaching project of the 51-year-old Es, although in 2023 he will celebrate 20 years in the profession. In 2003-2006 he worked in the amateur Mayen, in 2006-2012 he coached the youth teams of Rennes (there, for example, he taught 13-year-old Wesley Said, who now scores for Lance), again tried the main in the amateur Change ”, In 2013-2017 he worked in the structure of Lorient (first as the main in the reserve team, then as an assistant in the main one), in 2017-2020 he headed the Lance reserve and at the end of February 2020 he received his debut big chance in professional football after being fired Philip Montagnier. Lens were then in contention for promotion from Ligue 2 but lost form, winning only once in seven games.

Then we were lucky: with Es, Lens won two matches in a row, returned to the top 2 of Ligue 2, the championship was stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the intermediate results after 28 rounds became final. This is how the team moved up to Ligue 1.

Es was interested in coaching as a player, he played about 300 matches in the French second division. Laval coach Denis Troch, who worked with Aes in the mid-1990s, recalled that Franck asked him about the structure of training and the organization of a group of players around him.

Almost everyone who worked with Es emphasizes his honesty, calmness, spontaneity, good nature, and simplicity. “I have not met a single person who would have a negative attitude towards Frank,” said Patrick Leroux, who worked at Mayenne while Es coached there.

Djibril Diani, who played for Es in Lance’s reserves, explained the connection between Es’s personality and his coaching ideas: “Because of Frank’s honesty and good nature, the players trust him. I want to fight for such a coach. Frank likes to give players specific tasks, sometimes changing their usual positions and roles, and without the truth in the eye, even if it is sad, there can be no progress. Through frank communication, he understands what needs to be changed, how best to use the player.”

Many Lance players in interviews explain the success of the club by the excellent atmosphere in the team, hard teamwork, Esa’s constant motivational impulses – these are all well-known clichés, but in football, where you need to fight for each other, fight for the coach, where you need to run to the strong-willed, Lance has no equal at least in Ligue 1.

And Es is also a fan of yoga and made it a mandatory part of every workout: “We devote an hour to yoga, this is part of the recovery procedures, the necessary work on breathing. We have instructors, and in this regard I am an egoist, I do not make concessions. While I’m at Lance, there will be yoga at Lance.”

For the coaching team, Lance has a lot of individually brilliant players. We highlight everyone

“Lance” is extraordinary in terms of personalities in the composition. Perhaps some players – such as Seko Fofana due to a unique playing style or Florian Sotok due to a fabulous career path – stand out even more than a coach. This is an objectively unusual case. It can be compared with the also successful Freiburg from the Bundesliga, where Christian Streich is definitely the first association with the club.

Briefly – about all the notable figures of Lance. Many of them, without the Lance system and Frank Es, would hardly have ended up in a team from the 2nd place in Ligue 1, but they could well individually shine in the middle of the championship.

• Goalkeeper Brice Samba has a unique feature – he catches the ball tightly with one hand. Sound specific? Here’s how he does it . Foppishly risky, but as epic as possible. He even broke a pass against PSG once.

• Facundo Medina is a dangerous provocateur. These live at the bottom of the iceberg, where everyone on the surface is mad because of Diego Costa. If this Argentinian had played against the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-finals, the Dutch would definitely have finished 120 minutes with at least one red card.

• Jonathan Grady is a lad with no academic football background who only entered pro football at 21. Started at right back but his slowness was intimidating even by Ligue 2 standards. Now he shines as a charismatic winger CB. Maybe without a heavy gaming evolution, he would not have been able to pull the ball so cool on jerks.

• Salis Abdul-Samed is a scorching defensive midfielder who not only picks up balls, putting opponents on the lawn, but also plays a great dispatcher. A rare type, suitable for the first number team, for which it is also important to be able to defend positionally. In 2019, he was on trial at Lens, but the club chose Cheik Ducouré, in the summer of 2022 he became the most expensive sale in history, leaving for Crystal Palace for 22.6 million euros. You understand who Lance bought as a replacement from Clermont.

• Shoko Fofana came up with a terrifying mix of Arjen Robben-style shifting shots and Tottenham Hotspur’s Moussa Dembele ramming dribbling in the mid-2010s. After the victory over PSG, he was not shy: “I know that in terms of playing qualities I correspond to the level of the Champions League.”

• Przemysław Frankowski gives an unrealistic amount of action: crosses, crosses, shots, jerks. Not always qualitatively, but there are so many quantities that it is useful in every match.

• We have already talked about 32-year-old Florian Sotok . He broke his crosses in amateur football, worked in a shoe store, won the Universiade in Kazan, signed his first professional contract at 24, was forced to close the right-back position in training, went down to the amateur level again, and rose again.

And the most delightful thing is that his gaming evolution is not much inferior to a rich biography. He stopped being a free-kick striker, went into the space between the opponent’s defense and midfield to give aggravating passes behind the backs, and learned to shift either to the flanks or even to the depth.

• 22-year-old Loic Openda is a master of back opening. He’s so good at it that with just one skill he can grow to a near-top club. In the summer of 2022, he became the main purchase of Lens in history (9.8 million euros from Brugge). He is the team’s top scorer with 8 goals.

At the same time, a dissonance was noticed: “Lance” seems to be thinking about territorial dominance, but counterattacking football is much more convenient for the main forward.

• David Costa deserves to be named up front. He gradually develops, deftly looking for space between the lines, fits into the hybridity of Lance (playing in an attacking trio, he can easily retreat to the center of midfield in positional defense), for an attacking player he is great at looking for joints and returning balls – in short, like Sotok, only more focused on openings in the support zone, not on the flanks, and is 168 cm tall, not 187.

A strong sports director has already left Lance. Aes’ influence only grows

In the fall of 2022, Lens went through important changes: sports coordinator (that is, sports director and general director at the same time) Florent Ghisolfi left for Nice, and instead of a full-fledged replacement, the club simply expanded Frank Es’ coaching duties to the position of general director. The club extended his contract until 2027 (it was until 2025) and made Ghisolfi’s assistant Gregory Thiel technical director.

Thiel also agreed with Nice – Ghisolfi insisted that the new club sign his assistant as well. In the advanced stages, Thiel suddenly had doubts and eventually decided to stay at Lens.

According to L’Equipe, Es will oversee Lance’s youth center more, while Thiel will be in charge of transfers. At the same time, the role of Es in the evaluation of incoming and outgoing transactions will increase (it was big before).

In France, they are worried that Es will run out of steam due to a long list of tasks – it is better to concentrate on coaching. But Frank is inspired and the club has full confidence in him.

Ghisolfi is definitely a serious loss. One reason: with him, Lens signed Cheik Doucure, Loïc Bade, Jonathan Kloss and Christopher Wu for free, and earned 53.1 million euros from their transfers.

Florent had an inventive approach to sports management – we will show by the example of the transfer of Przemysław Frankowski from the Chicago Fire. The player said that one of the arguments in the negotiations was the large Polish diaspora in northern France: “I was pleasantly surprised to learn how many Poles support Lance. I am very happy when personal Polish fans support me at matches.”

So Lance lost a strong specialist, but Es and Thiel have played an important role in the selection of newcomers before – Ghisolfi himself admitted this.

Lance also has a reliable owner – in 2016, a French investor of Lebanese-Armenian origin, Joseph Ugurlyan, came to the club and got rid of debts. Fans respect Ugurlyan for an affordable pricing policy: the 38,000-seat stadium is 97.8% full on average, the best result in Ligue 1. And Ugurlyan, after transfer success, invests money in the club – in the summer of 2022, Lens spent 32 million euros, 6 th indicator in France.

And most importantly, right now there is a friendly squad filled with bright players, led by a pleasant coach, who are ready to develop further. Lance has historical landmarks: the last time the team took 2nd place in the 2001/02 season, the last time they qualified for the Champions League, and the last (and only) French championship was in the 1997/98 season.