Lyon midfield hold the key for Champions League clash against Barcelona
Olympique Lyonnais hosts five-time UEFA Champions League winners FC Barcelona in the first leg of the knockout stages. Having witnessed some enticing battles between European giants last week, this promises to be another closely contested tie. Both teams will be looking to make a quick start to hold an advantage moving into the second leg.
Barcelona are favourites going into the tie but Lyon will not roll over. Les Gones have raised their game when it counts, producing some incredible performances to beat Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain already this season. Bruno Génésio will be looking to guide his young team towards a quarter-final place but faces an uphill task of taking down Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona side. Former Lyon favourite Samuel Umtiti makes his first return to the Lyon Olympic Stadium.
My colleague and friend Domagoj Kostanjšak will be covering this preview from Barcelona’s perspective while this article will give you the strengths and qualities Lyon can bring to the tie. In this preview, we will analyse three points:
- Lyon’s formation and how they could line up
- The strengths Lyon will bring to the table
- Lyon’s potential shortcomings
Lyon: Expected formation
Génésio usually lines up in a 4-4-1-1 formation against more formidable sides. There is an added emphasis on using his wingers and full-backs as their main attacking outlet. Against Manchester City earlier in the campaign he resorted to a 3-5-2 formation which yielded success. Using the pace of former Manchester United winger Memphis Depay is a particular asset.
Bertrand Traore and Maxwell Cornet on the counter-attack is a fundamental part of the offensive plan supplemented by the industry and creativity of Nabil Fekir in the number 10 position. Out of possession, we can expect a high press starting with Moussa Dembélé. The pace of Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore combined with the direct style of the full-backs was a key factor in the win against Manchester City in the group stages.
The biggest news of the tie though is Nabil Fekir’s absence after he misses out through suspension. The French international will be a big miss for Lyon and may struggle without his creativity and drive. Jason Denayer and Tanguy Ndombele are also doubts to feature.
Lyon have kept eight clean sheets this season but none have come in the Champions League. However, their overall performance has been exceptional in preserving leads. Léo Dubois has been an excellent acquisition for Lyon this season and has surpassed Kenny Tete and Raphael as the starting right-back this season.
His stand out performance came against Paris Saint-Germain in a disciplined and well executed 2-1 win having a hand in Lyon’s first goal. Both full-backs will be important to Lyon’s success at both ends of the pitch with their pace, crossing and interchanging play with Lyon’s attackers vital at creating overloads.
But what do Lyon bring to the table?
Lyon are as dangerous as any top European team in the Champions League when it comes to their fearsome foursome. Génésio has instilled an attacking philosophy that has seen the transformation of Memphis Depay into a clinical and intelligent centre-forward and Nabil Fekir into one of the most sought after number 10s in world football.
Houssem Aouar in Ligue 1 since the start of 2019 – passes completed and attempted:
63/71 • vs Stade de Reims
49/54 • vs Toulouse
52/58 • vs AS Saint-Étienne
62/73 • vs Amiens SC
45/50 • vs Paris Saint-Germain
61/63 • vs OGC Nice
65/70 • vs EA Guingamp
89.7% accuracy. pic.twitter.com/02y4dXrSas
— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) February 16, 2019
Part of Lyon’s build up involves the full-backs taking up higher positions creating an overload with the wingers and strikers. Ferland Mendy and Léo Dubois are both given the license to attack, outnumbering the opposition defender with a combination of Depay, Traore and Fekir. The movement of the wingers should drag one of the centre-backs or full-back out of position allowing the Lyon full-back or number 10 to exploit the space created.
In the above images, Martin Terrier and Ferland Mendy combine well to make use of the unoccupied territory behind the Guingamp defensive line. Even though Guingamp attempt to double up on the Lyon attackers, Mendy’s pace and quick reactions give Maxwell Cornet a chance to score. Cornet is in a half yard of space and the effective timing of his run gives him the opportunity.
This was also evident against Paris Saint-Germain when Nabil Fekir created space for Léo Dubois. With his intelligent movement, he caused the PSG defenders to be focused on the Lyon captain giving Dubois a crossing chance.
Lyon’s goal started off with the midfield double pivot pressing hard and winning it early in midfield. Aouar wins the tackle and initiates a counter-attack putting Lyon on the offensive. As they transition from midfield to attack through Nabil Fekir and Léo Dubois, Fekir looks to drift infield and drag Marquinhos, Presnel Kimpembe and Thiago Silva out of position.
Juan Bernat is caught ball-watching and leaves Dubois free on the right wing. Fekir plays it out wide to Dubois who delivers a cross for Moussa Dembélé to overpower Alphonse Areola and score.
Bruno Génésio’s success has come off the back of a well-coordinated pressing style starting from the striker. Offensively, Lyon create overloads in the wide areas using the full-backs, wingers and attacking midfielder to converge on the opposition full-back or centre-back. The other full-back moves inwards to solidify the central position, creating a four-man midfield.
This strengthens their position especially on the counter-attack and begins the counter-pressing phase. If they lose possession playing out from the back, the midfielders quickly swarm the opposition player in pairs or threes as they try to block off any open passing lanes.
This match against Saint-Étienne will give us a glimpse of Lyon’s counter-pressing ability. Ferland Mendy loses possession after a long ball pass from Anthony Lopes, Kévin Monnet-Paquet closes down Mendy forcing him into a mistake but as soon as the ball lands at Remy Cabella’s feet, Mendy and Houssem Aouar attempt to close him down. The next phase sees Mendy, Aouar and Maxwell Cornet all close in on Monnet-Paquet. Ndombele tracks back to occupy the empty space to close off a passing option.
With Tanguy Ndombele a possible doubt for the tie, Lucas Tousart could slot in alongside Houssem Aouar and will be the two most important players for Lyon in the tie. Their build-up play and pressing will be vital in stopping Barcelona’s influential midfield. Ndombele’s ability to drive with the ball and accurately pass into the wide players is second to none. Keeping Julian Draxler and Marquinhos at bay is one thing but occupying Sergio Busquets, Vidal and Ivan Rakitić is an uphill battle. The match will be won and lost in midfield, and the team able to dominate from this position will come through with the advantage.
Potential areas Barcelona can exploit
However, for all of Lyon’s strengths, they have areas of weakness. With the full-backs taking higher positions, Ernesto Valverde’s side can use their speedy wingers to play in behind. Ousmane Dembélé and Lionel Messi’s pace and intelligence can cause the Lyon defenders a lot of issues pushing them back into position to ensure they don’t give away too much space.
Barcelona’s success comes from diagonal runs from their wingers and central midfielders who drift out wide and make unorthodox runs into the box. Ivan Rakitić, Dembélé and Messi are major beneficiaries of this style of play. Their intelligent movement and impeccable timing have seen a number of teams disorientated by their runs.
As Barcelona pass the ball around the back, Rakitić is seen hovering around the right channel in between the triangle formed by the two Sevilla defenders and midfielder. Roque Mesa is aware of Rakitić’s movement but even after alerting his defenders, the Croatian is already through and is now one on one with the goalkeeper.
Barcelona will be patient in their build-up, probing the ball around their back four, waiting for an opportunity to find an opening. As they lull the opposition into a false sense of security, they will then hit them when they are at their most vulnerable.
Pressing Lyon in midfield can be another way through this stubborn French team. While Aouar and Ndombele are proficient at receiving the ball in midfield and driving through into the opposition half, they can be found wanting if they are found sitting on the ball for too long. Against PSG, Aouar gave away the ball in midfield and PSG countered with lightning speed and scored with Lyon’s players out of position.
Barcelona’s wingers are even more proficient on the counter-attack and should punish Lyon for any lapse in concentration just as they punished Valladolid in the example above. Arturo Vidal steals the ball after pressing in midfield and sets Lionel Messi, Ivan Rakitić, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho in a 4v2 situation.
Barcelona’s recent form has flattered to deceive with a mixed set of results in their last few matches. These include a 6-1 thumping of Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semi-final and subsequent draws against Valencia, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao before a 1-0 win over Valladolid.
Lyon have made it a habit of being perennial giant killers having beaten the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain this season. They could shock the world again by keeping Barcelona occupied. I will back Les Gones and tip them to take a 2-1 victory to the Nou Camp with a glimmer of hope of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
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