UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical analysis
Another interesting game in the UEFA Champions League 2019/20, where all teams are in Lisbon and no one would want to leave after just one game. Between the clash of Manchester City and Lyon, Rudi Garcia and Pep Guardiola were trying hard to get into the semi-final.
The game at Estádio José Alvalade was an exciting battle, and the result must be extremely painful to City fans. Guardiola was criticized for overthinking once again, but is it really the situation?
Manchester City were playing indifferently tonight, it was more like a back three with Aymeric Laporte, Fernandinho and Eric García playing as the central defenders. Rodrigo Hernández, İlkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne playing at the midfield. David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden were all benched.
Lyon started in a very predictable and usual 3-5-2 formation in Portugal. Unsurprisingly, Moussa Dembélé did not start as Memphis Depay was available, who partnered Karl Toko Ekambi as the forwards.
Positional play analysis
The defensive scheme of Lyon was predictable, in the continental competitions, as Garcia would not risk exposing the backline by playing in a back four. Instead, the default shape was a back five, asymmetrically leaning on the ball-side. The below image was an example from the Juventus game, where Lyon were using the same approach. One of the features of this shape was the flexibility to lock the wide areas, as the ball-side wing-back pair out extremely early to the opposition wing-back or full-back, it was a 4-4-2 permanently.
However, the shifting process was often imperfect, as the remaining four at the back were stretched. This potentially created a lot of separations and isolations, especially the centre-backs were defending in a man-oriented manner. Leaving the defensive considerations, the main strategy of City was to exploit these gaps and issues to create the opportunities.
The tactics somehow worked quite well on the left flank, probably because the right-footed left wing-back – João Cancelo was a special weapon. The wrong-footed player offered the diagonality to open the through-ball passing lanes towards Raheem Sterling, who preferred to make runs behind the defence. The below scenario was one of many examples, Cancelo recognized the run of Sterling. City capitalised on the chaos during the shift, Bruno Guimarães did not follow the runner tightly, and allowed Sterling to receive the ball in the penalty box.
Apart from the diagonality of Cancelo, another factor that led to this approach was the personnel at Lyon’s defence. Comparatively, Jason Denayer was far less aggressive and strong than Marçal, it was easier to exploit the dynamics during the shift on this flank. It seems the defensive line of Lyon was set way lower than the Juventus games, perhaps 4-6 yards deeper. This limited spaces available behind the backline for Sterling to exploit, perhaps this has saved the day, as the English international was forced to face the sideline, unable to cross and meet the central targets.
To further exploit the structure and setups of Lyon, Gündoğan utilized his runs and movements to manipulate the marker – Maxence Caqueret. The right midfielder of Lyon was often tasked to man-mark the runners, comparatively, Houssem Aouar on the other flank was a different type of player, seldom offering the same service.
A very important task was on the central defenders of City, as they have to carry the ball forward to join the attack. The back three should have offered the flexibility to do this, for other reasons, this did not work well. However, when Laporte adapted to the rhythm, his comfortability on the ball was a great asset to break into the left flank, creating opportunities as explained in the above example.
Since the strikers of Lyon were not too committed in the defensive side usually, City always possessed a 4 v 3 numerical advantage on the left (Laporte, Cancelo, Sterling and Gündoğan vs Léo Dubois, Denayer and Caqueret). This suggests a free player should be available to develop the attack.
An ideal example was shown below, which was another common pinning strategy of Guardiola – placing the key player between the centre-back and wing-back, occupying both. This would double-up to create a temporary 2 v 1 against the wing-back, with Cancelo below. Despite this was a 3 v 3, City still utilized the free man to progress.
To construct the attack with more spaces, Gündoğan reduced the frequency of forward runs to keep Caqueret higher. This could open larger spaces in this region, freeing Laporte to connect with Cancelo, or join in with De Bruyne.
However, there were some issues for the change of game plan. In this system, the centre-backs were responsible to initiate an attack. It took the defenders around 25 mins to settle the tactics, before of the half-hour mark, the Citizens failed to register any shots.
This was why García started the game, as he was also good on-the-ball , so could execute the instructions. A very important condition to be achieved was to manipulate the second line, if the pass were played too early, Lyon midfielders could easily adjust their positions and catch the receivers.
The defenders must be brave to bring the ball forward and be able to read the game. García did extremely well in this example, resulted in one of the best chances of City in the first half. Before praising De Bruyne’s incredible pass, the Spanish defender had done a lot. He carried the ball forward, took three to four touches, and only released his pass after two Lyon midfielders – Guimarães and Caqueret moved closer. This guaranteed De Bruyne was receiving the ball without instant pressure and with spaces. Also, Denayer was never aggressive to deal with these situations.
However, not everyone could execute this tactic well. As a negative example here, Rodri played the pass too early to Walker, although there was no real pressure from the forwards.
It was an accurate ground pass to Walker, but it took less than a second for Aouar to close the right wing-back. The timing and circumstance to pass were suboptimal from Rodri.
The structure of City was asymmetrical, so it hindered the development of the right flank. Usually, Fernandinho played the long passes and the attack of City ended, as the faster the ball goes, the faster it comes back. Why was the same scenario kept happening?
Part of the issue was the starting positions of Sterling and Jesus. They were staying on the opposite flank, and the Brazilian striker almost never makes the diagonal runs to exploit spaces available during the shift. Here, despite Walker and De Bruyne created huge spaces, the front players were not interested in getting into those areas to create the dynamics of offering options.
Without supportive runs, another issue appeared. As a right-footed player, Walker was receiving the ball with Maxwel Cornet instantly pressing his receiving foot. The only viable central option was De Bruyne, only if he dropped, as Rodri was less mobile to support. This was impossible to progress unless Walker took on Cornet and drove to the byline, but the right wing-back almost never got the time to adjust his body to do so.
Mahrez in, was everything normal?
Many say the introduction of Mahrez has changed the game, it was true, but it was not totally because of the shift of formation (3-5-2 to 4-3-3). The Algerian winger was a lot better in the final third, and also offered the quality to take on defenders or receiving long passes. The use of Mahrez also balanced the attack, pinning Lyon deeper. Around 55 minutes, another forward of Lyon – Toko Ekambi, had to drop as the wide midfielder, with Garcia hoping to restrict the impact of Cancelo by the numerical balance.
Instead, most chances of City in the second half were coming from transitions instead of positional plays. Despite reverting to a usual 4-3-3, some issues remained, and the build-up was not that good.
To offer protection to the back four, Gündoğan and Rodri now stayed deeper, not even trying to get behind of the Lyon second line. This has totally lost manipulation of the second line, the attacks lost the dynamics they had when even three layers were available (3-2-5). When the centre-backs were carrying the ball forward, they would never pick the pivots as they were marked so early. City were still trying some long balls or cross-field balls to simply things, but duelling and physicality was never the strength of this team. Laporte played diagonally to Mahrez here, and nothing was achieved.
This was how the second goal was conceded. Yes, it was an error from Laporte, but the underlying issue was the lack of dynamism. Gündoğan and Rodri were staying too deep again, leaving Sterling as the only viable option for Laporte.
Despite the passing lanes seeming to be opened, this was liked a pressing trap when Caqueret recognized the intention and intercepted the ball. This shape also lost control of Aouar in the transitions, whenever he got the ball, Lyon were great, and a counter-attack opportunity occurred. We will dive deeper into this part later.
Apart from the structural issues in the positional plays, in general, the performance of City was below par. After four seasons under Pep, City should be quick, flexible, and rotating in tight spaces. However, those threatening combinations were unseen in Portugal and City failed to break the block effectively.
As an example, Rodri had the ball and two teammates were supporting the midfielder below, Jesus was occupying two players and Mahrez had a 1 v 1. There were many combinations plays to progress but Rodri did not even try to find these two players. Instead, he dribbled inward and tried to play the cross-field pass, being intercepted.
Off-the-ball and control
The reason Pep and his team chose a back three was also because of preventing the counter-attacks of Lyon. Garcia’s team played with two strikers, and both were unselfish runners, especially, Toko Ekambi, who made a lot of forward runs. Merely leaving the centre-backs to deal with the duo was risky, and the backline of City was unstable this campaign. Playing Fernandinho on Depay’s side would be a mismatch physically in the 1 v 1s. If asking the pivot to help the centre-backs, then, Aouar would be totally free, which was also dangerous.
Playing in a back three allowed City to control the transitions better. In the first half, Lyon were almost silent in the transitions, did not create any opportunity from the counter-attacks. Fernandinho did a tremendous job to control Aouar, either by fouling him or pressing him instantly.
The example was demonstrated below. When playing against two strikers, without the +1 superiority could be dangerous, if not Fernandinho covering Depay below, the Dutchman striker could be driving towards the goal.
Subbing in Mahrez and taking Fernandinho out of the backline had improved the offensive performance of the team, but City also paid the price when defending. Apart from the second goal, in fact, the signal had warned a few minutes before, when Lyon broke the press, unbalanced the City defence and left Walker 1 v 1 against Cornet on the far side. If not for Walker’s alert to clear the danger from the long pass, City might have considered earlier.
Also, abandoning the back three also left Aouar uncontrollable in most cases, including the below case and how City have conceded the second goal.
What caused City to lose the game was the pressing, a long-lasted issue from this campaign. Since the post-lockdown, Guardiola always tried to press without pushing the backline high, failed at Stamford Bridge when using a 4-3-3 press against Chelsea. In this game, it was too difficult to press Lyon with the front three plus pivots, the opposition centre-backs were unreachable when they stretched the backline.
Even Jesus could mark Guimarães, the numerical deficit in the midfield was not nullified since the Lyon striker, as Depay could drop to support. Here, Rodri and Gündoğan were dragged away by the midfielders, respectively. De Bruyne was not defending enough today, the carrier in his zone always received less pressure and have the time to play the ball, including this example.
This was a very similar issue in the first conceded goal, attributed to a collapsed press. Here, De Bruyne approached Marcelo without using the curved-run to cover Marçal, leaving the wide centre-back free to play the out-ball. Meanwhile, the pivots were immobile to travel large horizontal distances to cover the defence.
Whenever losing a game like this, Guardiola is overthinking, everyone forgets City have tried a back three in late 2019, I still remember Pep received a lot of praises because of it. If City go to the game with a very “usual” 4-3-3 formation, the exposed backline is very likely to concede in the transitions, similar to the second half, who should be guilty?
Based on the pre-game analysis and long-lasted issue of the team, Pep has chosen to adapt and control, the decisions are not out of nonsense, on the contrary, they all make sense if you watched Lyon this season. Another year of disappointment when looking at the result, but these situations are becoming a mental issue for City to surpass. The responsibility is on all parties, and City have to break into the semi-final in the future.