UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Lyon vs Juventus – tactical preview
As Lyon prepares to host Juventus in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, the club is enjoying a fine run of form, collecting nine wins, four draws and two losses since the middle of December. A poor start to the season saw the French side stumble in Ligue 1 and barely secure a Champions League knockout spot thanks to the heroics of Memphis Depay, but the side is starting to gather results and climb towards the top of the league.
Meanwhile, Juventus, while suffering a couple of difficult away losses, is starting to regain health. The timing couldn’t be better with the Champions League and Serie A title races heating up. As we’ve come to expect this time of year, Cristiano Ronaldo is also heating up, tying the Serie A record for most consecutive matches with a goal (11).
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look at the common tactic that can help Lyon and Juventus break down the opponent and create goal-scoring opportunities. An analysis of why Lyon should get numbers behind the ball and counter includes an account of the vulnerable areas of the Juventus defence. Finally, we’ll close with a closer look at the role of Paulo Dybala.
Over the weekend, Rudi Garcia experimented with a 1-3-4-3 against Metz. If you believe the rumours, the change of formation was used as a means of preparing the side for the Juventus match. Unless Garcia used the formation as a decoy, expect Anthony Lopes in goal with a back three consisting of Fernando Marçal, Marcelo and Jason Denayer. The right-wing will likely be more defensive with Léo Dubois while the left is more attack-oriented featuring Maxwel Cornet. In the middle, you should see Houssem Aouar paired with the more defensive-minded Lucas Tousart. On the forward line, watch for Villarreal transfer Karl Toko Ekambi to start on the right, leading goal-scorer Moussa Dembele in the middle and youngster Martin Terrier on the left. Another option is to start recent transfer Bruno Guimarães in the middle, moving Aouar to left-midfield and Cornet to left-forward. That would offer a more defensive centre of the pitch with more reliable attacking production on the left.
Maurizio Sarri is dealing with several significant injuries. Fortunately for him, this is a fairly deep squad. If Gonzalo Higuaín is unable to start, expect a 1-4-3-3 with Wojciech Szczęsny in goal, Alex Sandro at left-back, Danilo at left-back and the pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt in the middle. Moving to the midfield, the big question mark is Miralem Pjanić. If he’s unable to play, expect Rodrigo Bentancur to operate as the deepest midfielder flanked by Aaron Ramsey and Blaise Matuidi. Up top, Dybala would operate in a false nine role with Ronaldo to his left and Juan Cuadrado to his right. If Higuaín is able to start, Cuadrado could move to right-back, Higuaín and Ronaldo playing forward and Dybala playing as a trequartista. The final injury storyline worth mentioning is the health of Giorgio Chiellini. The skipper started last weekend against SPAL and played 55 minutes. Though he’s unlikely to start, he figures to reclaim a starting role in the near future.
Both teams should invite the high press
In a matchup featuring two teams that are among the league leaders in possession percentage and own pass completion percentages north of 87%, attacking actions in this match will likely be pretty evenly split. Like all possession-based teams, these two engage the opponent in an aggressive counter-press and prefer pressing high up the pitch. However, is either team build for the high press? Perhaps the better question is this…should either team incorporate a high press in this match?
While Lyon has decent build-outs, it’s certainly prone to mistakes. Against higher quality opposition, those mistakes often result in shots, if not goals. For a strong side like Juventus, especially given its embrace of Sarri-ball, the high press seems like a natural tactic. That said, when Juventus engage in a high press, it’s asking Ronaldo, Dybala and Higuaín to funnel play and be that first line of pressure. As you’ve likely guessed, that generally doesn’t work out too well. With the first line broken, the midfielders then push higher to offer support. If they’re unable to break up the play, there’s a massive gap between the midfield and backline, one which the elite teams of the UEFA Champions League would do well to exploit.
Looking first at Juventus’ high press, in a recent match against Napoli, Gli Azzurri opted to take a short goal kick, a tactic they employed often and with great success in this match. With the initial touch of the ball, the three Juventus forwards dashed into the box but were easily bypassed as the ball reached the right-wing.
With the ball played right, Juventus countered by moving its defensive shape into its left-half of the field. That imbalance without adequate pressure on the ball Elseid Hysaj dribbled centrally and switch play to his fellow outside-back, Mario Rui. Unbalanced, Juventus initiated a hard recovery run to regain its shape.
With the Juventus midfield struggling to get behind the ball, the defence had to overcommit to its right. That freed up another switch of play through Arkadiusz Milik.
With the switch of play, Juventus was again chasing while Napoli attacked the box from its left side of the pitch. By the time the cross was sent, numbers in the box were equal. If Lyon does attempt to play out of the back, much like Napoli did in this 2-1 win, it can bypass the weak press of the forwards and disconnect the midfield from the backline. Juventus’ recovery runs are not consistently of a high quality and the backline has had to put out many fires this season. Though Lyon will have to minimize mistakes, there’s a real opportunity to find the holes in this Juventus high press.
Let’s turn to Lyon. Since the talent at Juventus is on par with that of PSG, analysis of Lyon’s matchups against the league title holders offers some insight. While Lyon averages a healthy number of high recoveries per game (10.48), the two league matches against PSG have resulted in four high recoveries apiece. One of the issues, which you will see below, is that Lyon’s high press is more expansive than its middle and low blocks. In the high press, the marking tactics look like man-marking, but without a full commitment. It’s common to see the more advanced Lyon players lose track of their marks or leave an outside-back completely unmarked, offering the opponents a means of escape. Additionally, against higher-quality individuals, much like they will see against Juventus, the Lyon players tend to be less aggressive in 1v1 defending situations, affording the opposition time and space to pass out of pressure rather than forcing a duel.
Switching now to Lyon’s high press, the game against PSG was an absolute defensive nightmare. As you can see in this image, PSG has maximized the space between the lines while disconnecting the Lyon midfield from the backline. With the check in the midfield, an opportunity to play directly to Icardi arose. As the pass was sent, the two wide midfielders tucked into the central gap between the Lyon lines to offer support for a set or to win the second ball. Meanwhile, on the right-wing, Thomas Meunier made his move forward.
Icardi took a poor first touch that took him wide, but he managed to poke the ball free to Meunier who took a few dribbles before playing in Kylian Mbappé for the second PSG goal.
Against Nice, the Lyon lines were in shambles as the team attempted to press high up the pitch. The copious space between the lines and extensive width gave Nice the courage to find a situation of numerical equality and challenge the Lyon defence.
Kasper Dolberg made a nice run into the right-half space, allowing him to receive the pass and play in Hichem Boudaoui. With no coverage and the significant distance between the centre-backs, Marçal was caught in an awkward position and committed the last man back foul, earning a red card in this 2-1 loss.
Though Juventus will likely miss the services of Pjanic, it has all the quality needed to draw in the Lyon defence and play behind them. As you’ve seen with Lyon, poor starting points create undesirable situations for the defence. The French side has struggled against the bigger sides in Ligue 1 while also allowing an average of 1.52 xG to Champions League opponents. Juventus can disorganize this side to create more space for the three forwards to receive high up the pitch and get after this backline.
Lyon needs to sit back and counter
I know, I know. I just said Lyon should try to build out of the back in this match. In open possessions, I do think playing in its own half offers the best solution for disconnecting the Juventus lines. Sustained possessions in the attacking half will only open up opportunities for Juventus to counterattack, which Lyon needs to avoid at all costs. When Lyon is out of possession, it’s in the side’s best interest to avoid the high press. The bigger French sides and Champions League opponents have picked Lyon apart in this area, so will Juventus. While I think you’ll see Lyon look to be proactive at home, pressing high up the pitch and trying to claim its share of possession, long possessions will ultimately fail against the eight players Juventus will get behind the ball.
If Lyon looks to target counterattacks, it will find the more defensive-minded Juventus players push higher up the field to create space for the regista, typically Pjanic though I’m predicting Betancour in this game. As Juventus nears the opposition box, they attack it aggressively, widening the gap between the mids and defence. Targeting that massive gap between the midfield and backline is the goldmine Lyon is looking for. This is a Juventus side that likes to get its midfielders forward as the team assaults the opposition’s box. While it can be difficult to defend against that attack, there’s an opportunity for Lyon to use Juventus’ aggressive attack against them.
Lyon is averaging only 1.28 xG in Ligue 1, which is rather poor for a top side. For comparison, Juventus average 1.89 xG in Serie A, a league with a better rating on the FIFA coefficient charts. While this isn’t the Juventus defence of 2015, it’s still a quality group that’s growing in understanding. Lyon will find it both difficult and dangerous to attack Juventus with open possessions in the Juventus half of the field. Targeting the space vacated by the midfielders offers the clearest route to high-quality scoring opportunities.
In a UEFA Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen, Cuadrado quickly advanced from a deeper position to join the attack. The Juventus midfield anticipated a move into the box, so it pushed up higher. However, a turnover from Cuadrado allowed a pacey Leverkusen side to counterattack.
The ball was quickly played forward. Pjanic missed on his sliding interception attempt and the break was on. You see Danilo sprinting back while Leverkusen gets three additional players running behind the Juventus midfield.
Daniele Rugani stepped up to apply pressure, but he was unable to even delay the Leverkusen attack so his midfield could recover. Though this particular play didn’t amount to anything, it does highlight the over-aggressiveness of the Juventus midfielders as they anticipate play entering the opposition box. If Lyon sits back and counterattacking into the space behind the Juventus holding midfielder, it will have high-quality opportunities to goal.
Juventus should target Dybala between the lines
If Higuaín is able to play, and that’s a big if, Dybala would naturally slide into a trequartista role, operating in the centre and right-half spaces. However, if Higuaín is unable to play, expect Dybala to fill in as the false nine. Ronaldo would likely try to occupy two defenders and the Lyon left-back will have to worry about the pace of Cuadrado. That leaves Dybala with one defender in the central channel.
Now, Dybala is not the back-to-goal type of player. He excels when he’s able to receive on the half-turn, facing forward and looking to create for his teammates with his exceptional passing ability. This Lyon side does tend to become disjointed against teams that possess really well. As Juventus move Lyon from side-to-side, watch for Dybala to drop deeper into the midfield. As he drops into the pockets between the lines, expect Juventus to target him with line breaking passes. This Lyon defence really struggled against PSG as Thomas Tuchel used his forwards to stretch the Lyon defence, opening space between the lines for players to receive, pin the defence, and play through them.
Returning to the match against PSG, we saw the capital side stretch the field through a central target, widening the gap between the lines. During sustained, open possessions, PSG looked to target players between the lines, which effectively disjointed the Lyon backline, forcing some players forward to deal with the threat, others backward to track runners and often leaving one defender drifting wide in anticipation of a pass into the wide-open wings. In the image above, Mauro Icardi was nearly onside when Ángel Di María received between the lines, pinned the defence, and played Icardi in. His exquisite chip was disallowed, but PSG consistently found a way to attack through the central channel.
In one final example, PSG’s ability to break the Lyon lines by splitting the midfielders created another opportunity, this time with PSG taking advantage of Lyon’s extreme narrowness. A pass to Ángel Di María allowed him to split in Meunier, who’s poor, unopposed cross was collected by Lopes. With ample space and numbers in the box, he should have done better. Expect Juventus to target the space between the lines in an attempt to find higher quality routes to goal.
Lyon has been poor at home this season, winning only three league games. That trend doesn’t reverse against Juventus. I think Garcia will have his side come out to play, even if it’s to their detriment. Sarri’s veteran group will likely play more conservatively, capitalizing on Lyon’s mistakes. I’m predicting a two-goal margin, likely 2-0, in favour of the Italian side with Ronaldo and Dybala scoring the goals.