Having secured two impressive seventh-placed finishes in the last two seasons since their promotion to Ligue 1, Franck Haise’s side is now fighting for a European qualification

Continuing to defy the odds and currently sitting second in Ligue 1, it's incredible to reflect that RC Lens were still in Ligue 2 just two-and-a-half years ago.

Proving a massive force to be reckoned with and a nightmare to play against, the tactically astute Franck Haise deserves immense credit for maximizing his team's strengths to ensure they constantly punch above their weight.

Having secured two impressive seventh-placed finishes in the last two seasons since their promotion to Ligue 1, only narrowingly missing European qualification on both occasions, Haise's high-flying side appears destined to not miss out this time around.

Playing with confidence, clarity and conviction, Haise's ability to keep adapting and improving on the firm foundations he's built over the years, despite losing a host of key players, has served as a testament to his managerial prowess.

Indeed, having lost the likes of Arnaud Kalimuendo, Jonathan Clauss, Cheick Doucoure, Ignatius Ganago and Christopher Wooh in the summer, many thought they'd suffer a slight decrease in performance. But this certainly hasn't been the case, for not only have they brought in some shrewd additions such as Lois Openda, Salis Adbul Samed, Adam Buksa, Brice Samba, Jean Onana, Jimmy Cabot and Alexis Claude-Maurice, but Haise's yet again harnessed the power of the collective to ensure they've been as good as ever.

"Obviously, when we have 33 (now 36) points at this time of the season, we can say that a European place is accessible," recently explained Haise.

"We will do everything to improve our total points. Last year, we had five more. If we take five more, we should be in Europe. But the group is very focused on our performances every weekend, we don't go on projections. There is a lot of ambition in the group but we know that we get through the work.

"They know that every match is difficult. There is no runaway. We know very well that we are not PSG or the big teams with large squads. We are Lens and we try to do Lens. It's not always easy, but we try. I can only take my hat off to them. Everyone would like us to win by scoring lots of goals, but the reality is different and above all, I'm very happy with the answers we've given. The players provide answers that are of quality."

So well drilled and organized in all phases of the game, their defensive efforts offer a great place to start, though, for they've been brilliant in this compartment. Having only conceded 10 goals so far this campaign, which places them second behind Paris Saint-Germain for the best defensive record in the league, they've been a tough nut to crack for all challengers from their base 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation.

Disciplined and right in tune with the roles and responsibilities placed on them, the players know exactly what to do depending on the situation. Recognizing when to drop deeper as a unit, shift across, press high, track runners, hand over marking assignments and awake to pressing triggers, there's been much to admire about their cohesion and ability to stifle opponents while remaining compact.

To focus on their centrally compact high pressing, and they've done so in a coordinated and calculated fashion to make life as difficult as possible for opponents to build up smoothly. Wanting to usher their adversaries towards the touchline, once the ball is played wide, this serves as a trigger to ramp up the intensity.

Locking in on their targets assertively from their usual man-oriented structure, using the touchline as an extra defender, and using their cover shadows shrewdly to block passing lanes behind them, Lens excel at giving opponents minimal time and space to execute their actions.

Well coordinated man marking pressing. Also, note how Sotoca uses his cover shadow to block the infield passing lane
Strategic man marking press to stifle their opponents

As a result, they force many turnovers so they can instantly attack again and ensure their targets can only perform low percentage clearances upfield that typically end up with Lens regaining possession.

Responding briskly to pressing cues such as a sideways, aerial, backwards or underhit pass, plus when an opponent is receiving with their back to goal or in an open body posture, Lens are ready to pounce.

How the central defenders, midfielders and high-stepping wingbacks aggressively harry their respective opponents with their back to goal has certainly also been a key feature, for they aim to get touchtight to reduce any chance their tracker has of turning or gaining separation.

Another key tenet of their defensive armory is their intense counter-pressing once they lose possession. Eager to swarm the ball holder and potential outlets in the vicinity, their aim is to recover possession high up so they can attack again vs. somewhat disorganized backlines that were preparing for a transition of their own.

Intense counter-pressing to regain the ball high before scoring

Although they can be exposed if the opposition bypass their wave of counterpressure, having three central defenders gives them an extra layer of security to handle fast breakaways so they're not severely shorthanded or stretched out.

Boasting many strong, athletic and powerful players that can hold their own in duels both in the air and on the ground helps them regain possession, deal with danger from crosses and set-pieces, win vital second balls and manage 1v1 scenarios.

Working wonderfully as a unit to nullify opponents when defending deep, in a mid-block or pressing high while fulfilling their duties individually, Haise's defined system has been an integral component towards their success.

By the numbers defensively, the below Wyscout figures punctuate what an outstanding unit they’ve been in this compartment.

  • 2nd for goals conceded - 10
  • 2nd for shots against p90 - 8.27
  • 6th for PPDA - 9.40
  • 6th for challenge intensity - 5.70

Meanwhile, on the attacking end, Lens are no slouches either, for they boast a handy array of weapons to hurt opponents from their nominal 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 animation that has many permutations.

Typically preferring to build out from the back, they do a great job of making the pitch big to place opposition pressing units under duress to create disconnects. With the outside central defenders splitting wide, which then allows the wingbacks to push high, this gives them a firm platform to start with.

So adept at adapting their midfield setup, they then mix things by either having a double pivot in place, just one holding midfielder ahead of the center-halves, which allows the other central midfielder to push on, or instructing one of them to drop into the deep half spaces to help them progress smoothly.

The attacking midfielders and striker are then forever causing issues with their buzzing movement between the lines, plus from how they drop deep into true central midfield zones, the half-spaces, surge in behind or support wide attacks.

3-2-4-1 shape implemented well as the attacking mids exploit room between the lines

With a nice blend of forwards and central and offensive midfielders led by star man Seko Fofana, who's ably supported by the likes of Openda, David da Costa, Florian Sotoca, Samed, Wesley Said, Lukasz Poreba and Claude-Maurice, they've done an exceptional job of ensuring Lens control matches and can accelerate passages quickly once their opponents are destabilized.

Although they usually pass out with an initial three chain, it's interesting to note how they'll sometimes build in a four when one of the center-backs will venture into an auxiliary fullback zone, that still allows the wingbacks to push high while enabling the mids to perform their usual functions.

Altering their shape to build with a back four

Masters at generating numerical and positional superiorities all over the pitch and at positioning themselves at differing heights and depths, opponents have found them a menace to persistently shut down.

Forming a 4v3 and using a third-man combination to beat the press
The two attacking midfielders expertly find space between the lines as the striker pins two defenders
Forming a 3v2 out wide to break into the final third
Forming a 4v3 to breathe life into the wide attack

Moreover, how they add some extra variety when one of the attacking midfielders checks deep behind the onrushing wingbacks to get on the ball with more time and space and with a whole view of the field has aided their desire to dominate possession.

Their astute rotations have been another highlight to keep defenders on their toes and give them additional unpredictability. Whether it be the deeper midfielders switching with the wingbacks or their attacking mids, the attacking mids interchanging with the striker or really any combination of the above, Haise's done a superb job of getting his players to undertake these so seamlessly.

Frankowski and Sotoca switch to free up the former while forming a 3v2
Smooth rotation between Said and Machado allows the latter to underlap smartly

Consequently, Les Sang et Or have done fantastically well to create space for each other and cause conundrums for their foes in regards to who should be marking who in what zone. Some other mechanics that bear fruit arise from their crafty opposite movements, where one attacker will drop and a teammate will surge in behind and how they form triangles and diamonds to facilitate third man combinations or overload opponents.

Sotoca dropping deep to draw out his marker, which creates room for Said to run in behind

The impact of the wingbacks (usually Deiver Machado and Przemyslaw Frankowski) warrants special mention, for not only do they stretch rearguards horizontally and vertically, but they also mix things up by interacting cleverly with their colleagues, as mentioned earlier, so they can embark on damaging underlaps into the box, and from how they attack the box with wicked blindside runs so they can enjoy a dynamic advantage over more stationary opponents to enhance their chances of latching onto crosses and through balls.

Awesome blindside run into the box by wingback Frankowski
Quality pass to oblige the blindside run into the box
Nicely timed run in behind by Machado after Lens expertly occupy defenders

The penetrative, late-arriving runs into the box from Fofana are also a fine weapon in their arsenal, for his powerful, well-timed surges give them an extra number and allow him to ghost in undetected to be a real scoring threat.

Fofana positioned smartly at the edge of the box as the defense collapses deep to deal with the other threats

Being a team that uses crosses and cutbacks as an important source of chance creation, they importantly populate the box with many options so the man on the ball has a range of outlets in different locations within the area to convert deliveries.

Populating the box well leads to Samed enjoying space to score following his late arriving run
Great occupation of the box so the ball holder has many options
Measured cross to the back post the catalyst for a goal

Able to wreak havoc through many avenues with their multifaceted approach and Haise's masterfully implemented tactics, that allows them to be a nuisance when counter-attacking or when building up methodically through the thirds, it's little wonder they're so tough to keep quiet for their challengers.

Their offensive statistics duly depict their worth in this phase, with it intriguing to note how their tailored approach shines through in the numbers, plus how they’ve underperformed their XG, which bodes well for the future.

  • 1st for through ball accuracy - 44.60%
  • 1st for progressive passing accuracy - 82%
  • 2nd for expected goals - 30.62
  • 2nd for key passes p90 - 4.98
  • 2nd for progressive runs p90 - 19.47
  • 2nd for through balls p90 - 8.65
  • 2nd for crossing accuracy - 36.5%
  • 2nd for passing accuracy - 87.70%
  • Equal 2nd for average possession - 57.30%
  • 3rd for shots p90 - 13.12
  • 3rd for most fouls suffered p90 - 12
  • 4th for passes p90 - 478.36
  • 5th for deep completions p90 - 8.83
  • 5th for crosses p90 - 15.67
  • 6th for touches inside the box p90 - 19.72
  • 6th for passes into the final third p90 - 52.06
  • 7th for goals scored - 26

Extracting the maximum from his squad and right on course for Champions League qualification at this stage, it'll be captivating to see if Haise's side can keep up their sensational form.

Having only lost once in the league this season, won all eight of their home games inside the fervent, fortress-like Stade Felix Bollaert and firing on all cylinders, it's been nothing short of incredible how they've handled the adversity of yet again losing some of their finest to keep producing the goods.

Led by their irrepressible captain in Fofana, the brilliantly run and coached Lens, who play with tremendous spirit and a never say die attitude, appear destined to secure a coveted European qualification spot for the first time in 15 years - which would be a truly special achievement given the trying circumstances they're regularly faced with.

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