‘Garcia has struck on a winning formula’ – Revealing tactics behind Lyon’s ruthless front three
Last month, in the lead up to a clash with Paris Saint-Germain at Le Parc des Princes, Ligue1.com published an article in which they declared that Les Gones boss ‘Rudi Garcia has struck on a winning formula in attack.’ Lyon went on to win that away clash with PSG 1-0, cementing themselves as firm contenders to the prize that Les Parisiens have won in seven of the last eight seasons – the Ligue 1 title.
At the midway point of the season, Garcia’s side is one point clear of a PSG side now under the tutelage of former Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, atop France’s top-flight.
Lyon’s ruthless attacking trio of Memphis Depay, Karl Toko Ekambi and Tinotenda Kadewere, all of whom have started at least 14 of Les Gones’ 19 league games so far this term, have played no small role in helping their side to achieve that feat.
At present, Depay (16), Toko Ekambi (12) and Kadewere (11) have got a combined total of 39 goals and assists between them for the 2020/21 league campaign, while Lyon have scored a total of 39 goals, which makes them the second-highest-scoring team in Ligue 1. They’ve also generated Ligue 1’s highest xG (44.11), much of which has come from Depay (9.6), Toko Ekambi (7.95) and Kadewere (6.6). Additionally, Depay has the highest xA (6.48) in Ligue 1.t
In this tactical analysis piece, in the form of a scout report, we’ll take an in-depth look at this prolific and ruthless front three to determine why and how they’ve been so effective this term. This tactical analysis will look at each member of the attacking trio’s individual role within Garcia’s tactics, how they interact with each other and how they fit into Garcia’s overall picture at the Groupama Stadium.
Firstly, Lyon typically play with a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 shape. In terms of base positions, Toko Ekambi occupies the left-wing, Kadewere occupies the right-wing and Depay occupies the centre-forward position. However, the players’ specific roles in those positions see them move around differently within games and their respective heatmaps will help us to explain this.
Starting with club captain Depay, we can see the 176cm (5’9”) Netherlands international’s heatmap for the 2020/21 Ligue 1 campaign above. As mentioned, Depay typically plays as a centre-forward but as the heatmap shows, he doesn’t spend the majority of his time in the position of a typical centre-forward, at the very head of the formation.
Depay enjoys a lot of freedom in his role within Garcia’s tactics. He drops off a lot into a position you might associate more with a ‘number 10’ than a ‘number 9’ and effectively operates as a false 9.
Additionally, we can see that 26-year-old Depay doesn’t just operate centrally, he moves out into wider positions as well. We can see plenty of colour in both half-spaces, as well as wider on the left-wing, indicating that he drifts into these positions quite often. It makes sense that Garcia would encourage this, given that Depay has played the vast majority of his games as a winger (specifically, a left-winger) during his professional career.
When he moves into these positions with Lyon, one of the wide men, Kadewere on the right or, more often, Toko Ekambi on the left, will swap positions with him and move centrally.
As for Kadewere, his heatmap can be seen in this next image above. Naturally, as a right-winger in this system, he clearly spends plenty of his time out wide right but we can also see that almost as much colour is present in the right half-space and in what you might call a right striker position.
This is because Kadewere is not a traditional winger. He is right-footed, can take the ball down the line and if he does, will send a cross in with his right foot – though you’re more likely to see him carry the ball into the box and play a low cross, rather than a floated ball from out wide – however, like Depay is a natural winger, 25-year-old Kadewere is a natural centre-forward, having played centrally the majority of the time during his professional career.
As a result, the 183cm (6’0”) Zimbabwe international is not used as a traditional winger by Garcia in this system, but more of an inside forward. This sees him come narrow, rather than stay out wide, when Lyon play the ball into the final third, with Kadewere often looking to exploit the central space that Depay vacates when he drops into deeper/wider positions or arrive into the box to provide an option for a crosser on either wing.
Lastly, we have Toko Ekambi’s heatmap in this next image. Like Kadewere, the 185cm (6’1”) Cameroon international has played as a centre-forward most of the time throughout his career, though he’s also played a lot at left-wing, as he has the vast majority of the time this term with Lyon.
As another player comfortable with playing centrally, he works well with Depay, the false 9, and pushes up into central positions when he drops deep at times, however, you see Kadewere do that a lot more than Toko Ekambi. Toko Ekambi mainly comes centrally when he swaps positions with Depay, which sees the Dutchman play on the left-wing.
As a result of Toko Ekambi exploiting the central space slightly less than Kadewere, you’ll see him remain wide with his team on the ball inside of the final third more often.
However, like the right-sided attacker, the 28-year-old Cameroonian does also play as an inside forward. He likes to cut onto his stronger right foot, likes to exploit the central space when possible and similar to Kadewere, he will offer an option for crossers on either wing inside of the box.
One difference between him and Kadewere is that you might describe Toko Ekambi as a player who likes to link up with the midfield and get involved with the build-up more. As the heatmap shows, he does spend some time in deeper central areas and this is a result of his comfort with being a link man between midfield and attack or full-backs and the central midfielders. On the opposite side, Kadewere does this less often, preferring to get central and find space at the very head of the attack.
The front three’s role in Lyon’s build-up play
Next, we’ll look at how the front three behaves when Lyon are building out from the back.
The image above shows us an example of Lyon building out from the back in their 3-0 win over Nantes last month. At this point, the ball is with right-back Léo Dubois.
Take note of the positioning of the front three, in particular, here. Contrary to what we discussed, Depay can be seen in a traditional centre-forward position at this stage in the attack, but what’s more interesting is the positions of Kadewere and Toko Ekambi and how they relate to each other and the position of the ball.
With the ball in possession of the near-full-back, Kadewere drops slightly deeper than the rest of the midfield line and opens up his body towards the ball-carrier, making himself an option should Dubois look to use him.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side, Toko Ekambi orientates himself towards the opposition’s goal, ready to run in behind Nantes’ defensive line and join Depay up top, with the Dutchman having drifted more towards the right-hand side of the pitch.
As this passage of play continues, Lyon shift the ball over to the left-back, Maxwel Cornet, and we can see that now, their 4-1-4-1 shape looks almost like a mirror of the previous image, as Toko Ekambi is the one dropping deep, opening up his body to the left-back and Kadewere is now facing the goal, primed to run in behind the defensive line into a centre-forward position.
These are the respective movements their wide men make during the build-up, with the ball-near winger making himself a short passing option, dragging the near-side full-back with him, which, in turn, drags the rest of the opposition defence towards that wing, creating space for the ball-far wide man to threaten in behind.
The role of Depay
Depay and his role, literally and figuratively, is central to Lyon’s attacking tactics. In this section, we’ll provide some analysis of how Depay’s freedom of movement influences the game.
Firstly, continuing with the theme of Lyon’s build-up, we can see that at a certain point, with the ball having just progressed past the half-way line, Depay abandons his centre-forward position and deems it time to drop off and become the creator.
This makes him very difficult to mark, as we see here, especially when he drops as deep as this.
It’s important to note that if it’s not Toko Ekambi, left central midfielder Houssem Aouar will, at times, join Kadewere in probing into the vacant space when Depay drops off, as seen here, where Toko Ekambi is on the left-wing, Kadewere is making a diagonal run from right to centre and Aouar has pushed into the left half-space, effectively swapping positions with Depay, as Toko Ekambi often does.
This highlights a key aspect of Garcia’s tactics – the fluid nature of Lyon’s attack. As this passage of play moves on, Depay threads a through ball to Kadewere as he moves into the centre to try and run in behind the defensive line.
Depay frequently drops off like this, hence why his heatmap looked like that of a ‘number 10.’ With Lyon’s wide men coming inside, this forms something of a front two a lot of the time between Kadewere and Toko Ekambi, with Depay as the ‘number 10’. The image above shows us another example of Depay having dropped deep, but on this occasion to help his side to spring a counter-attack.
Lyon have been dangerous on the counter this term and all three members of their forward line have played a crucial role in achieving that. Depay always looks for space just inside of the opposition half following a turnover in Lyon’s favour, to help the deeper players to get him the ball so that he can either carry it upfield via his top-level dribbling ability or utilise his passing quality once again, as we saw in the previous image, to thread a ball through to either Kadewere or Toko Ekambi, who will be bursting upfield to get in behind the opposition’s last line on the counter, as seen here.
At that point, provided Depay plays an accurate, well-weighted ball, which is generally a safe bet, it’s down to the pace, power and dribbling quality of either one of the attacking duo to get the ball to a shooting position. Both Kadewere and Toko Ekambi possess plenty of ability in all of those areas, which makes them very useful for Les Gones on the counter-attack, explaining the club’s quality in this area.
Lyon have played the third-highest number of through passes per 90 of any Ligue 1 side so far this season (10.51) and Depay has played the most of the three attackers (1.85). When we consider his role in dropping deep both during the build-up of attacks to break down a deeper defence and on the counter-attack versus a higher line, this isn’t a massive surprise.
Lastly, we can see an example of one occasion where Depay and Toko Ekambi have swapped positions in this image above. The Dutchman is in possession on the left-wing here, while Toko Ekambi is in between two opposition defenders. Meanwhile, as we discussed is a trait of both his and Toko Ekambi’s, Kadewere can be seen arriving late into the box to make himself an option for Depay from the cross.
Considering that Depay is known as a winger, both Kadewere and Toko Ekambi are known as centre-forwards and they offer more of an aerial threat than Depay, it’s understandable why Garcia makes use of the Dutchman’s crossing like this by encouraging him and Toko Ekambi to swap positions.
As a result of this, despite centre-forward being his base position, Depay has played more crosses per 90 (2.65) than either Toko Ekambi (2.09) or Kadewere (1.87) this season.
The role of Toko Ekambi
Next up, we’ll take a closer look at the subtleties of Toko Ekambi’s role within Garcia’s tactics. This section will specifically look at the importance of the 28-year-old’s link-up play to this system.
Above, we can see an example of Toko Ekambi occupying the left half-space, which is a position he frequently gets himself into when his side is in possession inside of the final third. Here, thanks to his strength, ball control and dribbling quality, he’s comfortable receiving passes in tight spaces with his back to goal, attracting pressure with the aim of evading challenges and playing a pass that helps his team to exploit space that’s been created elsewhere.
Alternatively, if he doesn’t attract pressure, Toko Ekambi is comfortable with shooting from just outside of the box and from this position, he can cut in and forge a favourable shooting angle on his stronger right foot.
On this particular occasion, however, Stade de Reims players do press him upon receiving the ball and as we can see, his plan worked a treat, as he created space for his teammate running in behind the defensive line – Moussa Dembélé, who has started just six games this term, on this occasion – managed to evade challenges via his dribbling and threads the ball through to Dembélé.
This highlights the intelligence of how Garcia uses Toko Ekambi within this system to maximise the player’s strengths and make him as much of a threat as possible. Due to how he thrives in tight spaces and is capable of threatening from here via long shots if given space, he can be difficult to defend against.
Additionally, here, we can see an example of Toko Ekambi linking up in a deeper, central position from this same game versus Reims. As mentioned, Toko Ekambi likes to link up with the midfield and pull off short passes, utilising his ability to hold onto the ball and his playmaking quality.
Here, we can see that he has drifted from the left-wing into this left central midfield position, where he can find a teammate in space just behind the forward line. While Kadewere will not be found in these positions so deep, Toko Ekambi likes to drop deep, get into tighter areas and display his technical quality like this.
The role of Kadewere
Kadewere’s well-roundedness may be his greatest asset. He’s pacey, a tricky dribbler, intelligent in terms of his movement and where he takes shots from and the greatest aerial threat of this front three. In this section, we’ll specifically take a look at the importance of Kadewere’s movement and link-up play within Garcia’s tactics.
Firstly, here we can see Kadewere on the ball in the right half-space, having just shifted into this position, rather than in behind the defensive line, with Depay having not dropped deep. He was passed the ball while moving from the right-wing and as he takes the ball here, he quickly lays it off to an opposition player and turns to make a run in behind.
One important thing to note, however, about this movement from the right-wing to the central position, which we’ve explained he always makes, is the movement of the right-back, Dubois.
As Kadewere shifts inside, his movement can attract the attention of the left-back, as it does on this occasion, which creates space out wide for an overlapping run from Dubois. His movement from the wing to the centre clears the path for another Lyon man to push up into that wide right position, to provide the width inside the final third, which Dubois has done this season.
So, we can see that one way in which Kadewere’s role as an inside forward impacts the rest of the team, is that it allows Dubois to operate as an offensive full-back and provide the width in the attack. This has led to the right-back making more crosses (65) than any other Lyon player in the league this season, for the team that has played the second-most crosses of any Ligue 1 side, highlighting how he and the inside forward Kadewere work together and the importance of this understanding and teamwork.
Another important aspect of Kadewere’s role within Garcia’s tactics at Lyon is how he can operate as more of a traditional centre-forward, acting as the focal point of an attack and letting others play off of him when he comes into the centre of the pitch after Depay drops off.
We can see an example of one such occasion in the image above. Just before this image, Depay was very deep, where I’ve made a marking just inside of the centre-circle. After the Dutchman dropped into this position, Kadewere moved into the centre, where we see him here.
After receiving the ball with his side just building into the opposition half, Depay found right central midfielder Lucas Paquetá, who then quickly played the ball up to Kadewere in the centre-forward position.
As the Zimbabwean received the pass, Depay had run from his deep position to a much more advanced position, placing himself right beside Kadewere, but facing towards the goal, with Kadewere playing with his back towards goal. As a result, Kadewere could pull off a neat flick-on to play Depay in behind the backline and set him through on goal to meet the opposition ‘keeper 1v1.
This is just one example of how Kadewere can influence the game, act as a focal point, bring others into play and, ultimately, create chances via his movement, positioning and link-up play.
The role of Lyon’s front three in defence
Lastly, we’ll provide some analysis of Lyon’s defensive tactics during the opposition’s build-up, with a specific focus on the front three. Lyon press with relatively high intensity compared to the league. Their PPDA of 12.01 is the sixth-lowest in France’s top-flight, so their pressing intensity isn’t the most notable aspect of their game but they do press with more intensity than most teams in the league.
The image above shows us an example of Lyon sitting in a mid-block while their opponents, Rennes, build out from the back. Just before this image was taken, Rennes’ left centre-back, Nayef Aguerd, was on the ball and as he’s played the ball into left central midfielder Steven Nzonzi, Lyon’s right central midfielder Paquetá has sprung into action, closing him down.
However, looking at the positioning of the front three, bearing in mind that Aguerd had just been on the ball, some aspects of their defensive instructions are apparent.
Firstly, it’s clear that Lyon aren’t pressing Rennes’ backline very aggressively at this moment and that’s regular for them. They don’t usually tend to press the backline with much intensity, apart from when a backward pass is played, at which point Depay will apply more pressure. However, in general, they wait until either a pass is played into central midfield, like this, which triggers pressure from Lyon’s central midfielders, or the ball progresses up to the central third of the pitch.
The lack of pressure on Rennes’ backline leaves Depay in the middle of the pitch, not expending a great deal of energy off the ball. Instead, the Dutchman positions himself intelligently to cut off passes from the man on the ball across the field into the central midfielder/striker on the opposite side of the pitch. Depay’s role at this point is essentially to force Rennes to either play the ball along the backline, keep the ball on the left side of the pitch or go long.
He succeeds, along with his teammates, in forcing Rennes to stay on the left, which allows his team’s press to heat up via Paquetá. Meanwhile, Kadewere, as the ball-near winger, stays wide, maintaining access to the full-back, should Aguerd or Nzonzi try to play through him, and ball-far winger Toko Ekambi comes more central, remaining tight to Aouar to keep a compact shape.
Moments later, Rennes played the ball along the backline, which sees Lyon reorganise and shift to the other side of the pitch. We can see Depay has an important role here in being aware of his surroundings and directing traffic to an extent, instructing Aouar to get tight on Rennes’ right central midfielder Eduardo Camavinga.
As Lyon settle on the opposite side, the scene is similar to how it was before, but on this occasion, with the central midfield passing options for Rennes marked more tightly by Lyon players, Depay watches over his shoulder and gets closer to Aguerd, should right centre-back Gerzino Nyamsi opt to play the ball back to him, while he keeps the ground passing lane to left-back Adrien Truffert covered as well.
Like Kadewere previously, Toko Ekambi is now positioned wide and close to the full-back, while Kadewere is more central, maintaining a compact shape by keeping a close distance between himself and Paquetá.
Lyon don’t counter-press heavily, with most of the team prioritising getting into shape instead, however, the front three will if they’re already positioned high when the turnover occurs and if a good opportunity to win the ball back presents itself.
Kadewere, in particular, is very useful for Lyon in these situations. He’s extremely active off the ball, good at applying pressure and has proven capable of winning the ball back high up the pitch in dangerous positions this term.
In the image above, he, along with his teammates, forced PSG captain Presnel Kimpembe to misplace a pass, handing Toko Ekambi a chance to slide a ball through to the Zimbabwean. This pressure didn’t only result in a successful pressure for Lyon, but it gave Kadewere a goalscoring chance which he took, putting Lyon 1-0 up against PSG, a lead that they held onto.
So, it’s clear that this element of Garcia’s tactics has some strong benefits, especially with Kadewere representing a very useful tactical tool for his side off the ball.
To conclude this tactical analysis piece looking at Lyon’s front three, it’s clear that the combination of these players’ traits, specifically their versatility, and their respective roles within Lyon’s tactics, make for a fluid front three that work well together and fit well with the rest of Lyon’s squad.
They’ve been crucial to Lyon’s successful attacking play this season, while all three men also have an important role defensively, as we’ve seen. With Depay’s future uncertain and eyes sure to be on both Kadewere and Toko Ekambi due to their impressive seasons, it’s unclear for how long this front three will remain together but Lyon fans should certainly enjoy it while it lasts.