Journeyman – 21 – Lille – A pause for thought

This is one episode of a wider series. To instead start at episode one, please click here.

Looking back, over my shoulder, I can see, that look in your eye.

Given that we are now in 2025, more than five years into the journey, and things are going relatively well in Lille, I thought I’d pause for a minute and take an episode to look at how far we’ve come, analyse my tactical approach in a wee bit more detail (since I’ve been asked about it), alongside a sort of ‘where are they now?’ type look at my teams and notable players of the last five years, before going much further.

Before we kick that off, however, I had said it was January and I needed a goalkeeper and a first-choice right back. Did we go to market and capture the right candidates?

Of course we did! (hopefully).

We signed the first-choice Sweden goalkeeper for £13million, Pontus Dahlberg. Yes, that’s a lot of money, and yes, he looks like the lovechild of Stephen Merchant and Darren Boyd, but his quality is unrivalled in terms of what was available. At only 25 years old, the 35 time capped Swede was Watford’s number one choice in the Premier League for the past six years! Once he displaces the veteran Rui Patrício, I reckon Dahlberg will be our first choice keeper for years to come.

Pontus frightens the opposition strikers into missing chances.
Pontus Dahlberg, 25, Watford, £13million.

What about at right-back? This one is an expensive risk, but a calculated one.

In not only the most expensive transfer of my managerial career so far, but also Lille’s new record signing, I brought in 21 year old Dutch international Youri Regeer for a whopping £19.7million. Having been capped 13 times already by Holland, effectively muscling Inter Milan’s Denzel Dumfries out of the national team picture, this full back (who is equally capable in the centre of midfield) looks like the total package. Physically powerful, as well as determined, hardworking and very technical, I think we have won a watch here in identifying the ex-Ajax youngster performing well at Genk, and bringing him over the Belgian/French border. (I am aware that Genk is away over at the other side of Belgium and not near France at all, but it sounded nice when I wrote it down, haha)

Youri in his (even) younger days.
Youri Regeer, 21, Genk, £19.7million.

Headed out of the club were two good players, just no longer required. With offers of a good value being put on the table (especially for Gabriel), I couldn’t refuse, especially when we now have adequate cover in both positions, and neither player was first choice at Lille.

Almamy Touré, 28, sold to Torino, £4.5million. 38 appearances, 1 goal and a loan spell out at Sampdoria in 3.5 years. Decent.
Gabriel, 27, sold to Guangzhou Evergrande, £24million. 167 appearances and 7 goals in just short of 7 years as a regular. Good value.
Being financially responsible has stuck with me since the “deathly skint” days back in the Swedish second tier with Varbergs. More on that, later.
The 23-man first team Lille squad, towards the end of the January 2025 transfer window.

Next let’s take a look at our overall status and performance in our career so far, before dipping into the tactical approach.

The only disappointments here are that managing four clubs in as many years has led to the footballing world believing that I don’t have player loyalty (tell that to the boys who moved to France from Norway, or from Bordeaux to Lille with me!) and the fact that the media inexplicably label my tactical style as “route one.” More on that later, too.

*position at time of departure. One promotion and one cup win to my name so far, both in Norway.
A 4-3-3, 2-5-1-2 or 3-4-3, depending on how you look at it. (writer’s note – we get it, it’s fluid. Despite the word “structured” being written on it in bold white letters)

So let’s look at the tactic. I covered some of this in episode 15, but here’s a bit more analysis on it now. As echoed by popular tacticians of the day like Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, formations are a fairly fluid concept, as in the three phases of play (defending, transition and attacking) a number of players can vacate their starting positions and at different times have completely different roles and responsibilities, depending on the situation.

That being said, on paper, my favoured setup is a fairly narrow 4-3-3. It has been tweaked over the years, but only in small ways, like currently where I don’t have a natural Target Man so have opted for two Advanced Forwards, and changing my DM from an Anchorman to a DLP as I have someone equi-capable offensively as defensively in the form of Thiago Maia for that job.

The key hallmarks are playing out of defence, defending narrowly but widening as we attack, regularly looking for that angled ball over the top to set the strikers off beyond the last defender and always looking to outnumber the opponent in any given moment, anywhere on the pitch. The two Segundo Volantes have to be all-round footballers with a high level of fitness, and the number 10 has to be able to defend from the front and be the team’s most technical visionary.

The image above is almost a snapshot from the ‘transition’ phase of the tactic. The next would be what I would consider the general expected movement in a defending phase.

When defending. Black arrows are expected movement, pink dotted lines are players who must work closely together in this phase.

In the simplest sense, a narrow crowd of players looking to outnumber, press and drown out the opponents. Both centre backs hold a fairly deep line due to their ‘cover’ duty (despite a ‘standard’ line overall) to prevent those nasty balls over the top, while the wingbacks mainly hold their position, narrowing slightly to make the pitch smaller. Furthermore, the DM drops a little deeper to provide defensive cover in front of the back four. Further up the pitch, our number 10 drops into a midfield three with the two Segundo Volantes, compressing the middle of the park and looking for short passing opportunities to break when we win back possession. The two strikers may drop slightly deeper as the team does as a whole, but will mainly stay focused on looking for gaps to run into should we launch a counter attack. We regoup when we lose the ball, however, not over-committing to an immediate press, instead looking to ensure any gaps in our defensive third are covered, and we have a solid base to patiently work from, when we win the ball back again.

When attacking. Black arrows are expected movement, pink dotted lines are players who must work closely together in this phase. As is noted, the DM is pivotal in two groups in this phase, both the “CBs group” and the “midfield four group,” comprising of the two Segundo Volantes and the Wing Backs pushing forward.

The attacking phase is where my team are at their most dynamic. The GK will distribute low and short to a defensive player. The centre backs may calmly pass between themselves and the DM with patience as the middle of the park becomes a zone occupied by both of my wingbacks and the two Segundo Volantes. If the short pass is on to build through the middle then push out to the maurading wing backs for a cross or cut inside, then great, but if not, one of those defensive three should have the vision and technical ability to lift a long ball right over the top, towards the two strikers and the roaming playmaker in behind them at 10. We counter immediately when we win back possession.

Hopefully as the black arrows and pink dotted lines suggest, most players either have a different direction or distance to travel in both key phases, as well as different partners to work closely with on the pitch at these times. This mostly affects the DM, AMC and the WBs, but is a hallmark of this fluid tactical concept.

That all sounded great in my head, so I hope it translated well into the blog format. If not, please @ aajlockhart on Twitter and help me do it better! I’d love to hear your views on both the strategy and the explanation.

The story so far.

Ah! The section you’ve all been waiting for. Last but definitely not least, let’s have a quick look at the teams, and some of the players that have featured in the series so far. One day in the distant future when the journey is over, I’ll do a retrospective episode covering the whole story, but for now, let’s have a quick peek.

Varbergs BoIS – Swedish Superettan (second tier)

The Varbergs BoIS are a team I’ll always be thankful to, for giving me my start in management. We had our ups (leaving the team in a strong position, having a laugh with our creepy assistant manager Freddy Danielsson who has since retired and vanished) and our downs (oh my God the debt). It was ultimately time to move on when we had made a solid profit in every conceivable way and there was still zero chance of any funds being made available to sign any more players, even on loan. When I left the club in a strong position, I am delighted to say that the next manager continued on that good work, got them promoted, but then immediately relegated again. They have sat mid table in the Swedish second tier with an “insecure” financial tag on them, since.

The main players to call out here were:

Astrit Seljmani, now 27. Scored 18 across his first two seasons with me before leaving for Nancy in France. Has scored 3 goals in 24 league games in the five years since, and is still at Nancy. Hasn’t scored a single league goal in four years. A shame, really, Seljmani looked bright at the time and still should have something to offer.

Albert Ejupi, now 32. Captained my Varbergs side from that crucial DM role for the whole time I managed the team. Followed me to Lillestrøm, and although didn’t captain the side, clocked up 43 appearances in a couple of years and earned a move to follow me again to Bordeaux. Unfortunately I moved on to Lille before he could even arrive in France when the window opened. As soon as he did, Bielsa sat him in the ‘Bordeaux 2’ team. Ejupi has clocked up 12 appearances and 1 goal in the 24/25 season so far. Available for £40k but definitely not Lille quality anymore, do I owe it to him to bring him north, regardless? He’s the only player who could follow me from club to club since the very beginning, as he has done so far.

Lucas Gafarot, now 30. Former La Masia graduate Gafarot caused quite a stir when he first arrived as my first choice left-back from Barcelona, although he did break an ankle early in his Varbergs career. Went on to only feature 39 times in total for the BoIS in four years and is currently playing for Ängelholms in the Swedish third tier, and to be honest, looks absolutely dreadful.

Lillestrøm – Norwegian Eliteserien (top tier)

Lillestrøm was where I felt I really made a mark on world football. I took over the side in absolute dire straits in the relegation zone of the Norwegian top tier, and try as I might, I could not drag them out of trouble. After we were relegated, there was a real possibility of me losing my job, but the board stuck with me and gave me another year. Thank God they did. We smashed the Norwegian second tier, bouncing back promoted, as well as beating top tier champions Rosenborg 3-2 to lift the Norwegian Cup, qualifying Lillestrøm for the very early stages of qualification for the following year’s Europa League. It has been my only substantial piece of silverware achieved so far. Despite the team’s promotion, I left to pursue other opportunities at the end of my contract. The Canaries have since remained a top flight side, haven’t added to their trophy cabinet, but did just finish 3rd, to their incredible credit.

The main players to call out here were:

Viktor Gyökeres, now 26. Undoubtedly the star of the story so far. Viktor spawned a social media sensation with #InViktorWeTrust after he joined me for just £850,000 after a short yet impressive loan spell. 30 goals in 33 starts the following season fired Lillestrøm to the Swedish tier two title, before I took him to Bordeaux with me for just £1.2m. Currently he is still in the Bordeaux first team, valued at £4.4m, and has bagged a modest 11 goals in 47 league games. Do we owe it to the storyline to trust in Viktor again, or has that chapter closed? Regardless, his performances in 2022 carried an absolutely pivotal spell in my managerial career, and I can’t thank him enough for it.

Lasse Nordås, now 22. The affectionally-dubbed “Will Poulter as a child,” due to his profile picture in game (have a look at my earlier episodes) started off as a lanky teenage left winger. The same 2022 season that sparked Viktor into life also tranformed Lasse’s career. He reimagined himself as a mentally-strong target man (he’s 6′ 1″ and good in the air) who can also dribble. Nordås was another player I took to Bordeaux. Currently (like Gyökeres) he is also in Bielsa’s first team, but tends to play more from the bench than starting. He has made 34 league appearances and scored 2 goals for Bordeaux so far. At only 22, he still has a long way to go. Perhaps a candidate to move on with us again?

Perry Ng, now 28. Ng was always the joker at Lillestrøm. Despite the laughs, however, Perry was a hard-working and determined right-back who was always good for an assist or two. His only drawback was that he collected yellow cards like Panini stickers. Another star of that 2022 campaign, he is the third of the three players I took to Bordeaux with me when I moved on. As soon as I left for Lille, my replacement loaned Ng out to Hull City almost immediately. He is still at Hull until the end of the current campaign where has received five yellows in 11 starts. A warrior.

Bordeaux – French Ligue Un (top tier)

Making the step up to French football wasn’t easy, and there were spells in the early days where it looked like I was beyond my level. I was only with Bordeaux for one year, but managed a 6th place finish, narrowly missing out on Europe, with a small, but hardworking group of players. Some of whom (no surprise here) have carried on with me to Lille. A team that I enjoyed managing, and do believe have the capacity to get better. I wish them all the best under my replacement Marcelo Bielsa, but worry that they do not have the club infrastructure required to truly compete at a Champions League level at this time. They are currently 13th, and although they may improve, they haven’t built on what I started last season. Admittedly I have signed four of their staff and five of their players since then.

The main players to call out here were:

Haris Belkebla, now 30. It would have been easy to call out one of Belkebla’s midfield partners Otávio, who has joined me in Lille, but I need to give Haris his due. A player I plucked from Gent for just £1.3m after a failed season in Belgium after many successful ones with Brest here in France, Belkebla was a sensation. Perhaps a little injury prone (hence choosing to purchase Otávio instead for Lille) but his performances were excellent. 5 goals, 5 assists and 4 MOTM awards from 24 appearances from a deep lying midfield role really secured his place in my memory. Unfortunately for the Algerian, he has been asked to pull on his boots for Bordeaux for just 104 competitive minutes since I left, now 290 days ago. A shame for the combative midfielder who deserves to play.

Kevin N’Doram, now 28. After many, many years with Monaco. I spent (at that time) a personal record amount of £2.1million on the French defensive midfielder. He slotted straight into my 3-man midfield alongside Belkebla and Otávio, and peformed solidly. Great success ratios for passes, dribbles and tackles, N’Doram even popped up with the odd important goal. If I hadn’t been gifted with inheriting two arguably better players in his position at Lille (Maia and Vera), I would have looked to bring Kevin with me. Another unfortunate Bielsa victim, as although no longer transfer-listed (he was for a month or so), he has only started one game for Bordeaux so far this season.

Efe Koulouris, now 28. The Greek international was my star man at Bordaux. Playing off Artem Dovbyk or Viktor Gyökeres as the perfect second striker, Efe scored an incredible 38 goals across two seasons in Bordeaux. It was that form that earned him his move to Lille to follow me. Although rotational cover for me now, I had to spend the £8.5million required to bring him with me. A wonderful goal scorer, team player and tireless athlete, Koulouris is a credit to Greek and French football, and arguably the most consistenly strong-performing player on the pitch I’ve managed so far.

So now you know a little more about my experiences at the last three clubs, everything about who I’ve just signed in January 2025 for Lille, and hopefully a slight bit more about the tactical approach that I adopt.

I know this was an odd episode, but given the five year milestone, and the breaking of a new year (in real life), it felt right.

As a reward for any or all of the time you’ve invested in reading my writing for the site so far, here’s a potential new favourite of the blog, Léa Seydoux. She has appeared once or twice already, and she’s French!

For anyone who thinks its sexist, it’s not. Here’s a picture of my wife’s favourite French person, Olivier Giroud. You know, for balance.

P.S. I still haven’t got a dog yet…in case you’re wondering.

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag.

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