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UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview

After a five-month delay, both Manchester City and Lyon finished off their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties. Victories over Real Madrid and Juventus, respectively, place the two clubs on a collision course at the Estádio José Alvalade, home of Sporting Portugal.

Many expected Manchester City to emerge from their Round of 16 clash against Real Madrid, staking claim to one of the tournament favourites tags in the process. It’s Lyon’s upset against Juventus that shocked the football world. The French side, who had only played one competitive match since March, held onto the early lead to win their tie on the away goals rule.

This tactical analysis breaks down the expected tactics of each team. With Manchester City expected to have more of the ball, we examine how City can break down Lyon’s low block. For the French side, the tactical fit of Lyon’s two-forward approach is a tactical fit that should pay dividends. Finally, the long layovers have negatively impacted many players’ form. Given the significant number of mistakes leading to goals, this tactical analysis will investigate where those mistakes are most likely to occur.

Predicted Lineups

Manchester City’s predicted lineup (4-3-3) – Ederson; Kyle Walker, Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte, João Cancelo; Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva; Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling

Look for Pep Guardiola to field a more attack-heavy lineup in this match. Rather than the double pivot of Rodri and Gündoğan that we saw against Real Madrid, expect another playmaking midfielder to join the mix. My guess is that Bernardo returns to the starting XI next to De Bruyne. Across the backline, no changes are expected, though Benjamin Mendy is available after missing the clash against Madrid due to suspension. Fernandinho is the likely starter at centre-back, but Lyon’s direct attacking style could cause issues for him. Finally, Phil Foden played well in the previous match, but Mahrez is the attacking upgrade the side needs.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Lyon’s predicted lineup (3-5-2) – Anthony Lopes; Jason Denayer, Marcelo, Marçal; Léo Dubois, Maxence Caqueret, Bruno Guimarães, Houssem Aouar, Maxwel Cornet; Moussa Dembélé, Memphis Depay

Rudi Garcia will counter with his battle-tested 3-5-2. Much like the match against Juventus, this formation will really look like a 5-3-2. When City has possession, and they’ll have most of it, Dubois and Cornet will drop into the backline to ensure Lyon has the central presence to deny Manchester City’s entry into the central channel. The one expected lineup change from the Juventus match is the return of Dembélé to the starting XI, who will supplant Karl Toko Ekambi up top.

Manchester City must break the low and middle blocks

Passes per defensive actions (PPDA) is a nice indicator of a side’s pressing philosophy. Europe’s elite pressing clubs often fall between 6 and 7 PPDA, showing their aggressive counterpressing in transitional moments. Numbers in excess of 10 point toward a side that gets numbers behind the ball to deny easy progression. In Lyon’s first match against Juventus, the French side recorded a 16.52 PPDA, then followed that up with a 13.32 PPDA in the second leg. A midfield line of confrontation was the most commonly employed tactic. When Juventus progressed into the final third, Lyon would drop eight or nine people to defend, leaving at least one high target.

Manchester City can expect similar defensive tactics from Lyon. If anything, they might sit a little bit deeper with a 5-3-1-1 defensive structure. That will allow Lyon to shore up the centre of the pitch and contest the deep regions of the wings without sacrificing centrally. As always, City’s wide overloads will carry a threat, but the ability to penetrate Zones 14 and 17 will depend on their ability to beat Lyon’s low block.

In Manchester City’s match against Leicester City, the Foxes used a 5-3-2 in the low block to frustrate City’s attack. Within that low block, Leicester pressure City very aggressively, leaving them with little time to pick out targets in the box. On the rare occasion that City was able to break through the press, it was a central overload and Sergio Agüero’s ability to play on the back shoulder of his defender that produced scoring opportunities.

In the image below, Walker threads a pass to Agüero, who’s playing in Jonny Evan’s shadow. With the defence stepping forward to pressure Walker, Gündoğan slips behind the Leicester midfield. Agüero’s pass is a brilliant one, setting up the German with a first time shot.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Later in that match, it was Mahrez receiving in the space between the lines that set up Jesus. Notice that the Leicester defence is oblivious to the run of Jesus. With the threat of Mahrez at the top of the box, he’s deemed the higher priority, which creates space for Jesus to run into. That misstep resulted in the game-winning goal.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Manchester City will spend the majority of the match attempting to break the Lyon low block, but, if they can play out from the back effectively, enticing Lyon to engage higher up the pitch, the middle block offers another outlet for attack.

The image below comes for the Coupe de France final against PSG. Late in the match, Neymar received the ball on the left-wing. Given his incredible dribbling ability, Lyon sent a cover defender, but that left Ángel Di María unmarked as Lyon’s shift was slow to slide right. Neymar’s pass to Di María sends him behind the Lyon defence. The result of the play was a late tackle and red card for Rafael.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

When facing the middle block, getting behind the Lyon wingers can disrupt the backline. The end goal here is disconnecting the three centre-backs, either horizontally or vertically. The previous image showed Denayer forced to defend in the wings to defend against Neymar, creating space for Di María’s. That example of horizontal disconnect will typically become available for City in the middle third, either after a successful build-out, counterattack or recycling of play.

If Guardiola opts for a single pivot, look for De Bruyne and Bernardo to combine with the wingers to stretch the width of the pitch, then pull Denayer and Marçal into the midfield. That will open up access to the half space for the wider of the two players. As one drops, look for the coordinated run in behind the defence.

In Lyon’s match against Juve, we saw this exact situation play out. Adrien Rabiot took up a starting point just in front of the Lyon backline. His presence, combined with the reasonable probability that he would soon receive a pass, cued Denayer to move higher up the pitch. Though the middle is well-covered, a runner into that gap would either allow City to get behind the defence or chip away at Lyon’s control of the central channel. Even a run without a pass would pull both cover defenders into the half space, opening up space for Federico Bernardeschi to receive centrally.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

A similar situation occurred against PSG, this time with the pass coming from the central channel. The simple through ball nearly resulted in a PSG goal as they showed willing runners can break the Lyon backline.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Lyon’s centre-backs do have a tendency to press to aggressively into the midfield and wings. If City can manipulate the French side’s backline, especially moving the centre-backs either high into the midfield or out wide into the wings, City’s midfield playmakers can pick this side apart.

The tactical fit of Lyon’s two-forward approach

As dominant as Manchester City is in possession, Lyon will surely concede the attacking initiative, preferring to impose through the defensive initiative. Much like the previous round against Juve, Lyon will look to counter through the two forwards, Depay and Dembélé. At times, City has struggled with the direct approach, so the two forward approach makes sense. Occupying Fernandinho and Laporte will allow Lyon to work around the presence of Walker and Rodri. Look for the two forwards to stay connected, occupying adjacent vertical channels with a narrow approach.

Underneath them, the midfielders will follow suit, occupying two vertical channels, three at most. Lyon will want to control the centre of the pitch to slow the City attack, so a strong central presence will force the Cityzens to play through the wings.

If the tie against Juventus taught us anything, it’s the Lyon will look to create 2v2s with Depay and Dembélé, then look to release them into the half spaces. By starting narrow, they offer the high target necessary for Lyon to play out of the opponent’s high pressure. Additionally, with the two centre-backs forced to play so narrowly, Lyon can then play their two pacey forwards into the wings, setting them in a foot race against the opposition’s centre-backs. Playing into the larger confines of the half spaces and wings limits the keeper’s ability to come out and claim possession, as well as leaving the forwards enough room to collect the ball and run at their mark.

In the last match against Juventus, Depay and Ekambi made an effort to stay connected, typically playing in adjacent vertical channels. That allowed Aouar and Caqueret to push into the spaces between the lines while the wingers provided width. Time and space in possession allowed Marçal to pick out the split pass to Aouar. Though his body orientation slowed his progression, Lyon’s narrow attacking shape will seek out these scenarios to break lines and create numerical superiorities higher up the pitch.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Lyon’s principle of narrowness in attack is the real key tactical component City must manage. As highlighted in the image below, the closely connected forwards, supported by the left-centre and right-centre midfielders, will allow Lyon to target the two forwards and offer them the set. The scenario below was set up by an errant Gonzalo Higuaín pass. Ekambi was first to the ball and set to Aouar before the midfielder allowed the streaking Depay to take over.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Matthijs de Ligt defended the situation well, forcing a poor pass from Depay, but this is exactly the scenario Lyon will want to engineer against City. As open field 1v1 with space in behind the defence will put the onus on Depay and Dembélé to engage on the dribble.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

One of the issues Lyon must work around is the positioning of Walker. If he plays as a third centre-back, those 1v1s won’t necessarily be available. Should Walker start in line with Rodri to deny space to Aouar and Caqueret, Lyon will have their 2v2 high up the pitch, but entry will be extremely difficult. If Guardiola sticks with the double pivot, Walker’s deeper position and the two holding mids will make access to the high targets incredibly difficult, especially if the City counterpress and high press are as effective as they were against Real Madrid.

If City takes away the middle of the pitch, Lyon must force Laporte and Fernandinho to defend without cover in the wings. In the match against Leicester, a simple chip over the midfield set Laporte in a footrace with Harvey Barnes.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

The young Englishman outpaced his opponent and poked the ball by him. Barnes’ route to goal left him with one option, a negative pass to Vardy. Had he forced Fernandinho to leave Vardy, we might have written about Leicester City’s upset rather than a narrow 1-0 Manchester City win.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Late in the match, Barnes achieved a similar outcome against Fernandinho, so, if Walker is out of position, Lyon can target either wing with a reasonable chance of success.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

The key for Lyon is to gauge how Pep intends to use his backline and holding mid. If City does use a single pivot, favouring a more attacking approach against Lyon’s low block, the French side must identify Walker’s role within his side’s tactics. If he plays with the two centre-backs to give City a +1 at the back, the space will be in front of the City backline. Should Walker move into the midfield, playing direct into the half spaces and wings will get Depay and Dembélé into 1v1 situations against Fernandinho and Laporte.

What type of errors will lead to scoring opportunities?

Errors take many different forms, such as the two VAR given penalty kicks in the second leg of Lyon vs Juventus, poor tackles (like Dani Carvajal’s sliding tackle on Raheem Sterling in the first leg) and disastrous turnovers, much like Varane’s two missteps in the second leg and Gündoğan’s first leg giveaway. All of those examples are errors from Manchester City’s and Lyon’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 matchups. At this level, it’s often errors that create the best scoring opportunities, so each manager will surely have an idea of his opponent’s likeliest source of miscues.

As mentioned earlier, Lyon will defend in a 5-3-2 when Manchester City has possession. Garcia’s side will occasionally engage higher up the pitch, but they’ve shown themselves to be rather adept at assessing risk. When they press high up the pitch or counterpress in the attacking third, the objectives will be recoveries with a high chance of success or to get their shape behind the ball. As City progress, look for a midfield line of confrontation with the priority of keeping eight players behind the ball.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Once that midfield line of confrontation is set, Lyon’s best chance of forcing a City mistake is forcing the centre-back to distribute while under pressure from the two forwards. Against Leicester, we saw the two forward system complicate the City centre-backs’ ability to distribute from a half-field open possession. In the image below, City is baited into a difficult pass and losses possession.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

A through ball saw Vardy outrun Fernandinho, nearly putting the home side ahead in the eighth minute.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Since Lyon is better served with a midfield line of confrontation to keep the pitch vertically compact, it’s highly unlikely they’ll force a City mistake in the build-up and score from it. A more conservative approach, much like their second leg performance against Juventus, is most likely to produce the mistake. Allowing the City attackers to move higher up the pitch, then cutting out short and intermediate passing lanes, as well as denying space to run behind, offers Lyon the best chance of success to produce an error that leads to a goal-scoring opportunity.

City’s goals will most likely come when they beat the Lyon low block, but they’ll certainly have opportunities to punish Lyon’s mistakes too. Since Lyon utilises a narrow attacking shape, there will be few of those opportunities.

Lyon’s attacking third rest defence against Juventus had the two forwards in the box, the three midfielders usually occupying consecutive vertical channels, the wingers providing width across four vertical channels and two of the three centre-backs pushing as high as their forward marks will allow. That left Marcelo at the back to cover the centre-backs.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

When Lyon lost the ball, it was common to see the nearest players counterpress while everyone else reclaimed their defensive shape. With no high targets available, Juventus was forced into a slow attacking tempo.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

However, when Lyon fed the ball to the wingers, the centre mids and far-sided winger made an effort to get into the box and contest the cross. As the image below illustrates, five Lyon players are preparing to make runs into the box.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

When possession is lost, PSG burst forward with numeric equality. Manchester City doesn’t necessarily have the pace to run behind this Lyon backline, but they do have the midfield quality to carry the ball forward and pin their opponent.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

PSG slowed the attack as they entered the attacking third. Lyon does show a clear commitment to defensive recoveries, so City will have to take their space quickly.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Manchester City vs Lyon – tactical preview tactics

Though Lyon is likely to rely on counterattacks, they do have a tendency to overcommit their runners into the box to contest crosses. Recoveries are a strength, but there’s still plenty of room for City to take advantage of those rare Lyon over pursuits. If City has the lead midway through the second half, look for an insurance goal off of this type of sequence.


Ignoring the hindsight of Bayern Munich vs Barcelona, this is the true David vs Goliath matchup of the round. City is the obvious favourite to advance, but my analysis of the matchup shows that Lyon’s tactics should keep the match close. That 5-3-2 in the low block, with Depay’s pace up top, gives Lyon a chance to keep the field compact and play opportunistically in attack.

Guardiola’s side will enjoy most of the possession and will lean on the playmaking abilities of De Bruyne, the wide forwards and Bernardo (maybe the other Silva). While the double pivot is always an option, two creatives in the midfield, especially the hard-working Bernardo, will give City the attack impetus to control the match from the onset and allow for the double pivot to close out the match.

Lyon will make a game of it, but a 3-1 Manchester City win is in the cards, though Bayern Munich’s historic demolition of Barcelona will surely linger on the Cityzen’s minds, adding extra motivation for a statement win.